My dictionary defines “conspiracy” as “an agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful or subversive act” and “conspire” as “(1) to plan together secretly to commit an illegal or wrongful act or accomplish a legal purpose through illegal action; (2) to join or act together; combine.”

There have been actual conspiracies throughout human history. These I call conspiracies of action. Three of the best known political ones are (1) the plot — successful — by several Roman senators to assassinate the dictator Julius Caesar (March 15, 44 BC); (2) the conspiracy of John Wilkes Booth and others to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln (which succeeded) along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward (both men survived) on April 14, 1865; (3) the failed July 20, 1944 attempt (the last of several) by German army officers to kill Adolf Hitler.

Then there are conspiracies of explanation.

In these, the existence of a conspiracy is invented or imagined to explain what’s wrong with the world. According to a conspiracy of explanation, a secret and sinister and almost omnipotent group is working behind the scenes and under the radar to do all or some of the following: control the world’s financial markets; create wars and economic depressions; shape (puppet) governments and their policies; inflict plagues and epidemics; destroy traditional social and moral values.

In modern times this group has been variously identified as the Bavarian Illuminati (“enlightened” mystical philosophers), the Freemasons, the “international Jew,” the Jesuits, a consortium of global bankers, extraterrestrials, a “deep state,” liberal-minded billionaire philanthropists (George Soros is often depicted as the head of this group), and — for QAnon — cannibalistic pedophiles, mostly Democrats.

Conspiracies of explanation do not necessarily become conspiracies of action. They exist mainly to explain. These explanations (often called “conspiracy theories”) serve to make those who believe them feel comforted and powerful, as if they have found the Answer, the Key, the Truth (all with initial capitals) as to what is “really” happening in and to the world. A complex and ambiguous and uncertain world full of unanswered questions is replaced by one in which all doubts and uncertainties are removed or assuaged by a simple and clear “truth.” In that world, there is always a single hitherto hidden but now clearly identified enemy.

Many conspiracies of explanation function as secular religions, illegitimately importing into political and social thinking appeals to faith and divine revelation and assurance of salvation usually reserved for religious thought.

Sometimes conspiracies of explanation can become conspiracies of action. Witness the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, for instance.

I suggest that there also exists a kind of “open” conspiracy in present-day America. It is not carried out in secret by a secretive group. It does not use illegal means (it passes laws), although its intended goals are indeed illegal and unconstitutional. Its intention is to subvert or weaken our pluralistic democracy, sow mistrust of our government and our elections, and concentrate power in the hands of “real” Americans. It is proclaimed and backed by Trumpists, conspiracy theorists and too many Republican officeholders (even in Congress). It cries “fake news” and “stolen election” and “danger to American values” (danger, that is, from the ungodly and the unwhite and the unstraight and the unwealthy).

Its lies can be exposed. Its power can be broken. Peacefully, legally, democratically and — I hope — quickly.

Larry Ruark is a Sun Chronicle columnist. His essays are published here the first Tuesday of each month. Reach him at larryruark37@gmail.com.

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