It is hard to know, but most likely the conspiracy theory is one of the oldest parts of human society. In fact, the popularity of conspiracy theories is probably a good measure of social trust. Low-trust societies, like you find in the Middle East, tend to be shot through with conspiracy theories. High trust societies in Northwest Europe tend to have less of it, but even they are prone to bouts of conspiracy mongering. The Great Fear that swept through rural France is a good example.
In modern times, the conspiracy theory has been formalized. The assassination of John Kennedy is probably when this formalization process began. For example, a conspiracy theory needs a series of hard to accept coincidences. In the case of Kennedy, we have the amazing marksmanship of the shooter and then his unlikely assassination at the hands of a Jewish gangster, while he was in police custody. The Jack Ruby part is what made the whole thing perfect for the conspiracy theorists.
The first step in a conspiracy theory is that the obvious answer or the official answer must be eliminated as a lie or implausible. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the start of the conspiracy dynamic was the dismissal of Oswald as the lone actor. It is a variation on the old Sherlock Holmes line. Once you eliminate the parsimonious explanation, then the more complex and convoluted explanations become more plausible. That opens the door to endless speculation.
We see this with the QAnon cult on-line. All of it starts with the assumption that the obvious answer is wrong. For example, it is plainly obvious that Bill Barr is covering up the FBI spying scandal. He’s had years to do what should have taken a few months. Instead of accepting that rather obvious and plausible explanation, the QAnon people reject it and instead weave wildly complex theories about how half of Washington is about to be charged with crimes.
Another aspect of the formal conspiracy theory is the liberal use of the associative property to connect unrelated events. Person A knows Person B and Person B once had lunch at the same place as Person C. If any of these three people can be tied to the event in question, then it is assumed the other two are connected. The weakest associations are enough to assume a conspiracy. The associative property is an essential element of the modern conspiracy theory.
In the case of Kennedy, for example, organized crime is a popular player, because Jack Ruby was a minor criminal. His tenuous association with organized crime opens the door for linking any number of underworld characters with the assassination. It also opens the door for all sorts of theories about the Kennedy administration’s connections to organized crime. The associative property then ties communism, organized crime and the Cuba situation to the assassination.
Probably the most overlooked aspect of the formal conspiracy theory is the personalizing of complex events. The conspiracy theorist assumes there is a small group of people behind the events in question. These super-intelligent, shadowy figures pull the strings from the shadows. Even when a government agency is at the core of the conspiracy, it is really a core of individuals within that core that is secretly manipulating the organization.
This turns up with the spying scandal. The reality is, the Washington-based intel community is horribly corrupt. The spying and subsequent cover-up is a product of a culture of corruption in these institutions. For the conspiracy theorist, that does not work, so they focus on a few “shot callers.” Of course, it was not just mere partisan zeal that led them to spy on Trump people. They are part of some shadowy organization that is secretly doing all sorts of bad things.
Probably the most important part of the modern conspiracy theory is that it must flatter the person obsessed with it. For the conspiracy buff, the thrill is in feeling that they have figured it all out. Those super-intelligent people working in the shadows were not smart enough to outwit the conspiracy hunter. Everyone else falls for the official story, but the conspiracy theorist knows the real truth. Paradoxically, the conspiracy theory makes the world a much simpler and safer place for them.
The best example right now is the Left’s obsession with white supremacy. They cannot accept that their vision of Utopia is not very popular. That’s the first step in a conspiracy theory, the rejection of the most plausible reason. That allows them to spin wild tales of secret Nazis and spectral supremacists. Rather than confront reality, which is frightening and disconcerting, they have created a series of conspiracy theories to explain why the world is not as they imagine it.
This is why conspiracy theories are a useful metric to gauge social trust. When order begins to break down, people naturally look for reasons. That opens the door to speculation and then conspiracy theories. This, in turn, erodes social trust, which is the foundation upon which every ruling class rests. As that foundation falters, the ruling class looks for reasons. Since blaming themselves is always off the table, they naturally begin to speculate, which opens the door to conspiracy theories.
America is now ruled by conspiracy theorists. That is clear in the debate surrounding the first Trump-Biden debate show. The Left is obsessing over white supremacists and the old Gavin McInnes fan club, the Proud Boys. They have any number of conspiracies involving those things, but now they are cooking up conspiracies as to why Trump did not properly denounce them. It must mean something! For the people in charge, it is conspiracy theories all the way down.
None of this is to say there are no conspiracies. The FBI spying scandal, for example, is a good example of a conspiracy. It was corrupt and self-important mediocrities playing at spymaster. In a functioning society, they would be in jail now and that would be the end of it. In a conspiratorial state, they remain free as one side conspires to defeat the white supremacy conspiracy, while the other conspires to cover it all up. The QAnon people strap on their aluminum foil hats to sort it all out.
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