“If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!”

So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water.

Matthew 8:31-32

The decision of Kristi Noem, Republican Governor of South Dakota, to encourage 7,500 ticket holders to join Donald Trump’s pre-Independence Day rally with no social distancing and no face masks contrasts starkly with the chaotic news of the spread of the virus and new deaths coming from the United States: including Dr Fauci’s prediction of 180,000 deaths by October.

It illustrates how physically dangerous the presidential election will be for Americans, because clearly Mr Trump cannot resist the temptation to appeal physically to the herd mentality.

Perhaps he and Bolsanaro in Brazil would argue that, as we predicted on 2 March 2020, they are pursuing herd immunity as the only way to address the virus - and the devil take the hindmost.

The jury is surely out on that question, as Boris clearly recognises in his plea for people to act responsibly.

The sight of half a million people on the beach at Bournemouth ten days ago showed that we also can demonstrate herd madness. And yet, so many individuals have referred to the need for caution, and that we’re not yet through the danger point.

Throughout history this contrast between crowd dynamics and individual action has marked human evolution. The world’s great religions have embraced both, with their huge congregations and mass gatherings generating crowd charisma, while monasteries and individual prayer also play a major part in faith.

Perhaps it is no surprise that when Jesus cast out the demons from two possessed men in the region of the Gadarenes, they begged to be sent into a large herd of pigs, which promptly committed mass suicide. Let’s hope that Trump doesn’t bring about similar disasters with his electioneering in the midst of the virus.

I recall many years ago attending a rock concert in Canada, at which ‘The Who’ were performing. At the time there was a really unpleasant part of their act which involved smashing their instruments on stage in order to whip up mass hysteria. And so it did, as the whole crowd lost itself in the cacophony of frenzy.

I found the whole process deeply disturbing, and walked out of the concert through the madness.

Why do we do it? Each individual must be aware of the danger of crowd hysteria, the way it intoxicates our sense of reason. We’ve seen it in huge quantities in the 20th century - in both world wars, in protest movements, in great sporting occasions. Sometimes it’s an enjoyment, sometimes it’s terrifying - but it always involves some ceding of the self-control which is our great gift as humans.

This pandemic should teach us to look carefully at how we engage with each other, because it opens up so many new dimensions. Whether it’s the recent weekly appreciation for a health service which has worked so hard to get us through the first phase, or whether it’s the technology which has allowed so many businesses to keep working and people to keep in touch when in the past all would be lost - these new insights should teach us that it’s not just crowds which can bring us together.

The key to human relationships is that unconditional love in whose image we are formed, and we all, whether secular or religious in our viewpoint, carry within us the DNA which encourages us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

A popular favourite among wedding sermons is to speak of the three types of love: άγάπε (agap-ay), φίλίος (fee-lios) and έρος (eer-os) - and how all three should be present in the bond which draws the partners together. Over the years, the different strands may wax and wane independently: but the bond is always present.

But mass hysteria in crowds is not driven by love, it’s driven by an emotional intoxication: that’s why it can be deeply disturbing. It’s also incredibly malleable by manipulating leaders.

The virus may be one step ahead of the politician’s game, for it too seeks a way of manipulating the madness of crowds. It would be another harsh irony for Mr Trump if so many of his followers who flock together without face masks were to fall foul of the infection before the November election. Perhaps it may be teaching us a lesson: that demons can still possess large herds, two thousand years after the Gadarenes swine.

Gavin Oldham OBE

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