By Stephen Tuttle | Dec. 4, 2021
This will one day undoubtedly be referred to as the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories. There is hardly a subject you can mention that does not have one or more groups claiming some manner of conspiracy exists sure to threaten us all.
There are so many outlandish conspiracy theories, some of which we'll get to in a bit, that we often overlook the fact there are real conspiracies in addition to the theories. Real conspiracies — a covert plan by some group to do something illegal or harmful —have their own rich history, reality rather than theory.
When Julius Caesar heard rumors a conspiracy was afoot, it turned out to be more than just a theory; 60 members of the Roman senate, led by Marcus Brutus, secretly plotted the successful assassination of their leader.
A bit more recently, there were conspiracies aplenty during our Revolutionary War, and there had to be. A majority of residents in the colonies were loyal to the British or ambivalent so planning for the actual uprising was a clandestine affair. The Brits conducted their own conspiracies, including the one involving Benedict Arnold. Less than a century later, leaders of what became the Confederacy conspired to organize a secession that led to the bloodiest war in our history. In the modern era, Watergate and Iran-Contra were very real conspiracies.
Real conspiracies rarely have the drama, even explosiveness, of a conspiracy theory, the belief that some group is secretly responsible for some event or circumstance that has negatively affected some other group.
The best of these from antiquity takes us back to Rome in July 64 CE. The slums of the city were tightly packed, flimsy wooden structures, so when a fire started, it spread out of control quickly and burned for days. A third of the city was wiped out and hundreds died.
The rumors began that Emperor Nero and his cronies had conspired to intentionally burn the city so they could rebuild it the way they wanted. He was out of the town when the fire started, but it was said he sang in celebration when he heard Rome was burning.
In fact, there was no evidence Nero had any involvement in the fire nor did he celebrate the destruction. But, not to be outdone, he created his own conspiracy theory, blaming Christians for the fire. Grotesquely, he then crucified or burned at the stake many of those he falsely accused of being arsonists and conspirators.
Conspiracy theories tend to abound during periods of discontent, confusion, or misunderstanding. When something doesn't seem quite right, it's easy enough to conjure up a conspiratorial villain.
The very beginning of the 20th Century was such a time. The second industrial revolution was in full swing, and technical advancements, including the early efforts at automation, conflicted with the influx of people from rural America to cities. Conspiracy theories, especially concerning the significant influx of immigrants, were abundant. All of it was destructive and almost none true.
The Nazis took conspiracy theories to horrific depths. Looking for a scapegoat for their economic woes, they settled on Jews and others outside the mainstream. Their propaganda machine promulgated a litany of false conspiracy theories that led directly to the very real deaths of millions.
The 1950s gave us the conspiracy theories of Senator Joe McCarthy who saw communist plots everywhere, from Hollywood to the Department of Defense. The assassination of President Kennedy gave birth to dozens of theories, all involving nefarious conspiracies. Some blamed the mafia, some the CIA or Cuban exiles, or Cuba itself. Theories still abound because it seems inconceivable to most that an insignificant cipher like Lee Harvey Oswald could so dramatically change history on his own.
Now everything is a conspiracy. There is the Q-anon conspiracy theory that a cabal of Democrats and Hollywood leftists are dedicated to the kidnapping, sexual abuse, torture, and killing of children with some cannibalism thrown in for good measure.
Donald Trump is the king of conspiracy theories — it seems almost everybody is out to get him. There was the “deep state” conspiracy that apparently involved the State Department, Department of Justice, the intelligence community, the military, the Food and Drug Administration, and even the FBI. That has been replaced by the election fraud conspiracy theory that would necessarily have involved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people: Republican and Democrat officeholders, Venezuelans, Chinese hackers, vote-counting machine manufacturers ... it's a long and odd list.
Inevitably, some of the loudest conspiracy theorists are now turning on each other, creating conspiracy theories within their conspiracy theories. And that pillow guy, still pushing the election fraud theory, is claiming GOP attorneys general are conspiring against him.
The conspiracies are everywhere. At least that's the theory.