The Minions of P.T. Barnum

Listen on Spotify!

P.T. Barnum is famously reputed to have said “there’s a sucker born every minute.” I’d add a modern corollary that says “there’s a grifter born every minute to feed those suckers,” especially in today’s social media world.

A few days ago, in late March, the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore collapsed after it was struck by a cargo ship that lost power and steering at a very inopportune moment. CNN published an article about the collapse a couple days later, describing how many conspiracy theories popped up within mere minutes even in the wee hours of the morning, with plenty more following over the next few days.

It was clear that plenty of people were jumping on the crazy train. But why?

I think that most of the nonsense about the bridge was coming from conservatives anxious to find fault with the current Democrat administrations of the US and of Baltimore. Unfortunately, the conservatives are where most of the conspiracy thinking originates right now, and that has been true for a few years. But lest you think that I’m picking on Republicans, this works just as well in reverse; a simple review of history will show this to be true.

The reason for this current bloom in conspiracy thinking seems obvious to me: it’s people, especially Christians, who are feeling dangerously out of control and increasingly desperate to (a) regain control of politics and religion, and (b) find some narrative that explains why they’re not in control, after being (apparently) in control for several centuries. Conspiracy theories feed this need for control and narrative, by explaining that Bad Things in their world are caused by Evil Forces opposed to their pet theology and politics. So they readily latch onto whatever explanation restores some sense of understanding and control.

And when it comes to conspiracy thinking, it doesn’t matter how unlikely the explanation is – in some ways, the more unlikely the better. The crazier a conspiracy theory is, the more captivating, because it’s deeper and darker than the simpler one, thus proving a worse danger that deserves even more attention.

And of course there are plenty of charlatans and opportunists who are more than happy to profit on providing those explanations. And social media really enables such grifters like never before – all the way up to a former president and plenty of members of Congress.

The much harder thing to do in situations like this, instead of leaning into conspiratorial thinking, is to (a) be introspective about our own culpability in something, but more importantly (b) admit that sometimes life just sucks. Both are needed right now, especially for conservatives. Because (a) a lot of the conservative collapse is self-immolation. I know because I was one for over 40 years, until 2020. It’s personal. And (b) admitting the inevitability of pain is hardest for a conservative with an idealistic view of economy and religion to fix everything.

For those of us determined not to hop on the crazy train, it’s incredibly frustrating. I’m convinced all we can do is watch and resist the trends, but we have to start by admitting there’s literally nothing we can do for people who buy in to the conspiracies. The more we protest, the more facts we present to challenge the conspiracy, then the more we appear to be part of it, and only reinforce their paranoia. And that’s tough for those of us outside the insanity, since we clearly see the real danger of collapse of our systems and institutions from the actions of the gullible people, not from their pet conspiracies. And we don’t have the soporific of conspiracy to drug us into going along with it.

Since the conspiracists are not likely to go away any time soon, what do we do? I’m afraid the answer is admitting that we can’t fix this. It’s really truly likely to ultimately result in the very thing they are warning about: breakdown. But the true cause will be the conspiracy believers, not the things they’re worried about. Like I said: it’s self-immolation. The irony is stunning: the persecution against “Churchianity” is caused by their own ranting and raving and misbehaving, not by what they oppose and fear will cause the persecution. So I really do think it’s going to get much worse before it gets better, if it ever does.

Am I being defeatist here? I don’t think so. I hope I’m wrong – I really do. But this seems like a simple analysis of the trends. So I’m prepared to be right. And I have to trust in God and my faith to get me through it. I can’t trust the government to fix this – it’s proven itself incapable, especially because those gullible people are the ones electing the leaders. And I can’t trust organized institutional religion to fix this – Since 2016, it’s repeatedly proven to make it worse, not better. Instead, this is just between me and God, and living in deep community with other exiles, and being faithful as things get darker.

So ultimately, the best I can do is show people around me a different way of living in this world – being peaceful and gracious and loving and giving and serving even as things go to literal hell around me. Because that feels most Christlike. It’s not trying to be the savior riding in on a white horse with a sword from his mouth, coming to fix things. No. It’s serving like Mother Theresa in hell on earth, setting a different and very humble example, trusting God with the results. It’s being like Jesus loving and touching the unclean, and being willing to die for His convictions.

And I won’t stop speaking about the conspiracy theory craziness, but I’m going to do it from a position of gentility and grace and peace, inviting others off of the crazy train and into a walk with Christ in the dry and dusty but peaceful desert.

If you liked this article, then please follow us on Twitter logo and or join our email notification list.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top