Aaron Burr’s place in American history is cemented firmly in two episodes. The first was in the presidential election of 1800 when Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied for number of electoral votes. After 36 ballots in the House of Representatives, Jefferson was finally chosen President, and Burr became the third vice-president of the United States.
The second episode – known to virtually every school child in America – occurred on July 11, 1804 when Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr was largely denounced as a murderer, and his political career was over.
Historians, however, also know Burr as a generator of conspiracy theories. After the duel, he headed West – in those days west meant the Ohio territory and the Mississippi River – and rumors began to fly that he was plotting against the United States. One conspiracy theory said he was going to proclaim himself the Emperor of Mexico; another that he was seeking to encourage the western states to secede from the Union; a third theory maintained he wanted to separate New Orleans from the United States and establish a new country.
There was just enough flimsy “evidence” to keep these theories afloat, and they were spread far and wide. Burr was eventually arrested and tried for treason, but acquitted because of weak evidence that he truly was conspiring against the United States.
In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin orchestrated a crusade against communist sympathizers, claiming they had infiltrated all levels of government, and were pervasive throughout the country. In particular he targeted socialists, intellectuals, artists, writers, and gays/lesbians as either communists, or engaged in un-American activities. His dragnet became wider and wider, and even powerful political leaders were swept up as traitors. Eventually, people realized his paranoid conspiracy ideas defied common sense, could not be substantiated with reliable evidence, and amounted to nothing more than a witch hunt. “McCarthyism” was condemned by the Senate.
Fast forward to 2020, and conspiracy theories are plentiful. They have always been around, but in the age of the internet and social media, the soil for planting and spreading them is rich indeed.
Why do people buy into conspiracy theories? This is a relevant question for a blog about coping with stress because the factors that compromise your ability to cope with stress are also those factors that make you vulnerable to indoctrination, propaganda, and conspiracies. Here’s a partial list of some of those factors:
Paranoia. Paranoid personalities are characterized by delusions of persecution, jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance. Paranoia can be a component of a chronic personality disorder, like narcissism. It can also be fostered by drug abuse, or a serious condition such as psychosis, in which the person loses touch with reality. Whatever the cause, if you’re paranoid, it’s easy to accept a theory that others are conspiring against you.
Authoritarian. The authoritarian personality believes in obedience to authority, especially confident and powerful leaders. Authoritarians are concrete and simplistic thinkers; the world is black or white, right or wrong. If something is right for them, it should be right for everyone else. Nuance, dissension, and compromise are not valued by the authoritarian. To solve a problem, you find a leader who claims simple solutions to the problem, and then you follow that person. If your leader claims a conspiracy, you readily accept it.
Need for predictability and control. You enjoy your comfort zone because you feel things are under your control. If that balance is disturbed, you are vulnerable to a conspiracy theory. The notion that the US is controlled by Whites is how many have been raised. If someone says Whites will soon no longer be the majority, and plots are underway to infiltrate the country with immigrants who will destroy your way of life – well, that’s disconcerting and takes you out of your comfort zone. Predictability and control are gone; life is uncertain. You are vulnerable to influence by would-be tyrants as you cry out, “Show me ways to get back to my comfort zone. Show me how to keep America White. Show me the conspirators!”
Psychological Insecurities. What are you afraid of? What are you avoiding? Abandonment? Inferiority? Low self-esteem? Dependency? Incompetence? Are you guided by your own set of standards, morality, humility, and acceptance, or do you relive unresolved emotional conflicts from a troubled childhood? If the former, you’re coping well; if the latter, you’re not, and your hidden insecurities will keep you constantly looking for ways to keep personal conflicts hidden and suppressed. In this case, the comfort of accepting conspiracy theories will give you one way to service those hidden fears.
Need for clarity. Conspiracy theories can bring sense out of a bewildering world. Reality is full of subtleties, and people who are concrete, black/white thinkers need information that is simple and definitive. Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t matter. Just find others who believe it and you’re on your way. You receive positive reinforcement when a conspiracy theory makes sense, and that reinforcement boosts your self-esteem.
Social isolation. Loneliness will make you vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Find a theory and others who believe it; if you believe it, you become part of their group. For instance, those with PTSD who are depressed or physically disabled, can surf the net and find similar sufferers, kindred spirits who might also subscribe to some conspiracy theory.
Justification for supporting someone or a cause. Suppose you strongly support someone who makes a poor decision that makes things worse. You’re crushed; your leader has failed you. “But wait,” you discover, “my guy didn’t fail. He was victimized by evildoers who conspired against him.” In this case, the conspiracy theory allows you to explain how your guy, through no fault of his own, was made to look bad.
Frequency and Celebrities. When you discover where you can get access to conspiracy theories, you will find that the arguments are made endlessly, again and again and again. In many cases, the arguments are also voiced by a celebrity. The key to keeping followers “in the fold” is constant repetition of the theory, and using well-known people to make the presentation.
Our list is far from complete, but long enough to make an important point about conspiracy theories. Have you noticed the common thread that runs through the above list? Every factor we describe represents a weakness – a flaw, a crack in one’s personality – that damages autonomy, independence, and conscience so much that the individual is willing to suspend rational thinking, and surrender judgment, reasoning, and empowerment to whatever quack happens to be around. That’s a pretty poor way to live
Be vigilant about your vulnerability to conspiracy theories. When you are unable to cope with life’s stressors, you could easily turn to them, even though they’re usually nonsense. But, if your personality dynamics make you susceptible, you will willingly believe the words of charlatans and accept their conspiracy theories as logical and correct. This is a decision completely incompatible with effective coping.