A disreputable nonentity gathers around himself about a dozen women and a handful of men and bears them off to live communally in the Ontario wilderness. Over the next few years, he fathers children on all the women – horrifically abuses the children—dominates and emasculates the men – alternately terrorizes and love-bombs his little colony—and develops a nasty habit of performing drunken amateur surgery, up to and including amputation without benefit of anaesthesia. At least one woman dies from this savage treatment, while others are permanently maimed. Even so, this man’s followers both revere him as the incarnation of the prophet Moses, and worship him as a divine being. Those who escape his reign of terror are irresistibly drawn to return to his fold. When he is finally arrested and imprisoned, some of them remain loyal for many years.
An obscure foot soldier without money or higher education joins a small political party in a country brought to despair by a recent military defeat and a deep economic depression. Within fifteen years, armed with little more than a gift for impassioned oratory and a willingness to use violence, he becomes a dictator with supreme power over nearly 80 million people, many of whom literally worship him. But over the next twelve years, he impoverishes and destroys them, ravages his own and other nations, and is culpable for the murder of millions. His name becomes a synonym for evil, but nearly seven decades after his death, there are those who mourn him as a fallen hero.
The son of a craftsman from a provincial town gathers a cadre of enthusiasts and travels about an oppressed countryside preaching a potent combination of love and militancy. Either he or his coterie claims he is a messiah, indeed the messiah, about to set up a new and just kingdom on Earth under his own benign dictatorship. Instead, he is arrested, tortured, and executed; yet his followers, claiming that his martyrdom is part of a grand cosmic plan, morph into an array of global religions with billions of members and at least two millennia of staying power—so far. Moreover, a good many latter-day followers expect this same messiah to return in the near future, ushering in a thousand years of paradise on earth before the final—and, of course, successful—battle against the forces of evil.
These narratives involve three very different men: Roche Theriault, an unwashed psychopathic power-tripper, eventually imprisoned for his crimes; a murderous political dictator, Adolf Hitler, with an ocean of blood on his hands; and Jesus Christ, the icon of a world-class suite of religions, considered by many to have been literally the son of God, and by many others to have been at least a great moral teacher. In fact, many of us, and not just Christian believers, may be offended at even a hint of comparison between Hitler and Jesus: possibly blasphemous, and (at best) in appallingly poor taste.
And yet, it can be argued that the differences among these cases are largely ones of scale and of idiosyncratic narrative detail, whereas the similarities are striking, significant—and countlessly repeated in other narratives about people whom other people follow. Big men and messiahs show up everywhere in the present and the past: in political and secular movements, in sweeping great religious awakenings, in business and entertainment and academe, in ghost dances and crusades and revolutions, in weird little cults and social-justice cabals and feel-good New Age fads. The variety is astonishing. On the other hand, features of the same basic structure and the same leader-follower dynamic show up with wearisome regularity, and play out to a limited range of outcomes. Some fizzle or fragment, some implode, some routinize into institutions so respectable that their origins are obscured.
This series, presented at intervals, will be about leaders, and equally about followers. It will concern the disturbingly common human tendency to be swept up in the agendas of charismatic individuals, often against our own interests and even our own rational minds and moral scruples: in short, to follow a leader wherever he (or she) may go. I’ll begin by defining some necessary terms, and continue with a series of narratives illustrating particular themes. And eventually, when I think I’ve said quite enough, thank you, I will present some hypotheses about how these narratives relate to the bedrock of human nature, and our tangled progression from the deep past.