7 reasons people follow bad leaders & movements 

Who would follow Lord Voldemort? Or Sauron?

All those legions of evil henchmen in the movies and comic books and such have never seemed realistic to me. Where do they come from? And how do the baddies recruit all of these people to carry out their nefarious plots?

Why become a Deatheater? That seems so fake. Or a white supremacist? That seems so … Wait a minute. People do become those. And there was a whole nation that followed Hitler. There are ISIS fighters and terrorists this very day. People actually become convinced to carry out the plots of evil leaders and join in wholeheartedly with bad movements. As one-dimensional as TV shows make it, it really happens. By why?

I’ve been thinking and asking about this for a while and have concluded it’s not just one reason, but a mixture of reasons that gets people in league with evil.

1. Fear

Good old fear gets normal people to do bad things or even just to align with or allow bad things to happen.

Fear was the single biggest motivator for voters in the 2016 presidential election. Neither Trump nor Clinton were very well liked. In fact, they were the two least-liked candidates in American history. But their campaigns drew votes from fear of the opponent being elected. If he’s elected, these things will happen. If she’s elected, those things will happen. Both sides painted gloomy scenarios and the fear votes poured in. And even now, President Trump uses fear to promote policies and his opponents use fear to combat his policies. Both resort to worst-case scenarios, the proof being the over-blown language both use.

2. Contempt

Hitler used a number of different tactics to mobilize the German people into a devoted and almost successful war machine. But one of the tactics was scapegoating Germany’s past struggles on the Jewish people (and to a lesser degree on other groups as well). Germany and the rest of the world, his propaganda machine said, would be better off without these vermin.

In the Harry Potter books, this contempt is a unifying force for the followers of Lord Voldemort. Disgust for Muggles (non-magical people) is used to rally pure blood witches and wizards to what is otherwise an obviously evil sorcerer.

We see a similar disdain expressed without much push-back in the United States right now which causes me concern. This article blames rural white evangelicals for the problems of the United States in language that wouldn’t be tolerated for any other ethnic, religious, or economic group in the country.

These exercises in contempt paint cartoonish pictures of those they despise, making generalized comments about them that are partly true but rarely accurate about any but a few of them.

Stereotypes can kill. Literally.

3. Power

The root of anger is powerlessness. Anger isn’t its own emotion. It’s the presenting emotion a person feels when losing control.

When I get cut off on the road, when my kids disobey, when my sports team fails, when the economy changes against my favor, when my plans change — when all these and more happen, I’ve lost control and I get angry.

So, when someone or a movement comes along and tells me how I can regain control, I’m a ready listener.

This was another Nazi tactic. After the economic devastation Germany had undergone following World War I, the people longed for a hero. They wanted a savior to pull them up from their weak position and to make them strong again. Similarly, Lord Voldemort empowered magical people who’d had to hide their abilities from Muggles because of strict regulations, giving them full use of their abilities in a world they felt they ought to control, instead of hide away from.

4. Lies

It’s amazing how blatant lies can be believed and become foundational for life. And once we accept certain lies, we do our best to support them with confirmation, even if it’s not true either. We saw this confirmation bias in full effect with rampant fake news during this past election cycle.

But the subsequent attention on fake news stories recently has me smiling, because these falsities have always existed. It was Nero who promoted the fake news that Christians had burned Rome when he was the one to blame. Lying about it strengthened his power and moved his agenda forward: cleaning out and rebuilding the seat of the empire.

From small falsehoods and omissions to sprawling lies and intentionally deceptive schemes, leaders have been hoodwinking the masses for thousands of years and too often we’ve been willing to be deceived, because we like what is being offered.

I can’t count how many times I’ve willingly fallen for something I should have known better about but let myself be deceived because I “wanted it to be true.”

5. Promises

Similarly, false hopes create followers.But leaders don’t just paint false pictures about the past and the present, they offer glowing images of the future, saying, “Follow me into the promised land!”

Especially when the present isn’t all the great, we love the promise of a bright future.

“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was a compelling image in the 1960s, promising middle class American prosperity to everyone. But President Johnson couldn’t follow through on his Great Society vision.

J.K. Rowling offers keen insight into why nice people do bad things when she refers to Dumbledore standing against his old friend Grindelwald. The theme of Gindelwald’s movement was “For the Greater Good.” The promise of a greater good has always been a justification for lesser-seeming evils. The Star Wars movie Rogue One showed this to be a temptation not just of the empire, but of the rebellion as well.

6. Shame

In almost every case, there is shame at the root of the identities of those who follow bad leaders or sign up for bad movements.

White supremacists often come from backgrounds where they have been marginalized — many times because of being white, but not always. The shame can come from anywhere. But the leader or the movement embraces them as they are and restores a sense of pride and dignity to them that had been stripped from them by others.

Nations that have lost prominence are always vulnerable to fascism, with its promise of a renewed standing on the world’s stage through their patriotic zeal. Groups and movements and sports teams that have lost their place in the spotlight are susceptible to extreme leaders who give them a new reason to continue on and a hope for a return to the glory days.

7. Success

We all love a winner. And it’s easy to line up behind someone or some movement that is on the upswing and shows no sign of stopping.

A sports team that’s winning always gains fans. A stock that is rising always attracts buyers. A madman who wins wars always gains soldiers.

Jesus has a response to each of these, but none of them are the answers we want. Each of them rises out of following a crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. None of them makes sense apart from the willingness of Jesus to enter into death; the victory of Jesus over the powers of sin, death, and the devil; and the sure hope of a glorious future guaranteed by his ascension to the right hand of the Father.

To the shamed and broken, Jesus offers an alternative, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To the powerless and hurting, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

To the fearful, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

To those who are hungry for promised success, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

To those who in contempt look down on others, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

To those who naively listen to lies, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

To those who just want to be on the winning team, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To us all, Jesus offers a way that is upside-down: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

And to all who reject the way of tearing up families and friends and nations that comes from following leaders and movements that rip us apart, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”