Conspiracy theorists look for evidence of concerted, deliberate, and often grandiose schemes of malevolent intent. The primary conviction of the conspiracy theorist is that those in power have done what they've done with the specific intent of causing harm to others for their own benefit. There are no coincidences or misfortunes, only cabals who operate in the shadows, successfully and secretly plotting the ruin of others, while remaining in power themselves, apparently for generations. Their plots are shrewdly calculated and wildly successful. They are the very model of competence.
Robert Heinlein's Jubal Hershaw said "Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence." I like this one so much I call in Heinlein's Razor. While there is no shortage of evil, destructive people in the world who do harm by intent, the vast majority of them are marginalized--small time brutes who harm the few within their reach. Psychopaths who do rise to positions of power tend to lay waste to everything and everyone around them; they bankrupt companies, destroy their own families, and in positions of political influence, lead their peoples to ruin. In short, they are not well adapted. Nearly all psychopaths end up murdered, executed, or imprisoned. They soil their own nests. They do not successfully work for their own benefit. Eventually even their followers turn on them. Stalin was poisoned, and Hitler's fall was inevitable before he ever took power; his best men tried to blow him up. The question is how many people the psychopath can take down with him.
Narcissists have a similar personality, but they at least usually have a vision, which may inspire others in the same direction. The destructiveness is harnessed to a purpose, rather than being cruelty for its own sake. Narcissists can rise to prominent positions, they are often charming in their own way, but their abuse of others usually catches up with them and costs them. They become targets. Nobody roots for them, and at the first sign of weakness the knives come out. The more prominent they become, the more enemies they make. If a narcissist is brilliant, others may put up with him, but few will ever like him. A narcissist must be competent in his position to survive. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton are examples of narcissists.
The vast majority of misfortune in the world is caused by people lower down the scale, those who have fixated ideas, some narcissitic tendencies, but enough of a human touch that their continued company is tolerable to others. They may not have the vision thing, but they usually have strong beliefs and a high opinion of their own abilities. The worst thing about incompetents is that they rarely know they are incompetent. As wrong as their decisions may be, they are genuinely convinced that if they stick to them, it will all work out for the best.
Incompetents can rise to power by being competent in another area whose expertise does not apply to their new position. Sometimes there is no real competence at all; the person is just good at looking the part (Ronald Reagan and George Bush come to mind here.) Most do have an area of competence, but one that has little relevance to the position. They have risen to their level of incompetence. Successful businessmen may assume powerful positions in government, unaware that the business of government is not like private enterprise--the point is not to maximize profit but to maximize benefit. Businesses exist to serve themselves, serving the customer only as a means to this end. Government exists to serve the citizens, and its own welfare is secondary to this. The newly appointed or elected businessman may attempt the same strategies in their new position that worked so well before, forgetting that what they did before was primarily aimed at enriching themselves. Old habits die hard. And of course, the people they trust are those like themselves, whom they have had dealings with before, but who are also out for their own interests. But worst of all, they carry with them whatever rationalizations they used to excuse their own self-seeking natures in their previous occupation. They earnestly believe that what they are doing is right, and are genuinely surprised and indignant when they are caught with their hand in the till. In part, it is this very ingenuousness which protects them. They do not behave like guilty men. And others who have made the same rationalizations will rally to their aid, rather than accept a challenge to the beliefs that allow them to live comfortably with themselves.
None of this, of course, is an excuse. We are every bit as guilty for the lies we tell ourselves as for the lies we tell others; more so, in fact, because these lies, once accepted, allow us to be glib when we repeat them to others. Morally, there seems to be little distinction, but there is an important distinction between the motivations of the incompetent and those of a true villain. The villain knows what he's doing. The incompetent doesn't. This means that they are two very different animals, and the approach that works best on one will have disastrous consequences when applied to the other.
A villain must be opposed by force. Force is his native tongue and the only language that he understands. For the villain, mercy is weakness, so to show him mercy is to invite disdain and cruel reprisals. You must literally take up arms against him. Terrorists do what they do because they believe that the world is ruled by villains; the terrorists who threaten us now believe that the world is run by the ultimate villain, Satan himself, and that everyone outside of their narrow belief system serve Satan and are therefore villains themselves.
The incompetent, and those who share his beliefs, will be surprised by uses of force against him and will consider them completely unjustified. Far from weakening him, the attacks will grant him a position of undue moral authority. That which does not kill him will make him stronger, but this is of no benefit to anyone; he is still incompetent, and his actions may still bring about disaster. The use of force against him will tarnish his opponents and strengthen his support. Attacks on a villain may serve as a call to action to others; attacks on an incompetent will rally people to his cause instead. Even due process of law and a just sentence may be perceived as too harsh, though this will be much harder for his supporters to argue. The only effective means of dealing with an incompetent is to prove his incompetence. Then his support will dry up.
Conspiracy theorists mistake incompetence for villainy. Although their criticisms of certain policies and practices may have merit, the shrillness of those criticisms renders the conspiracy theorist politically irrelevant. He is consigned to the fringe, a lunatic, because his attacks are ad hominem and his evidence post hoc. Conspiracy theorists leap from action to events which follow decades or even centuries later with the assumption that this was precisely what was planned, and that no other factors came into play. Anachronisms are common; the conspirators, even those of centuries long past, are believed to have known everything about the world that we do. Perfect knowledge and foreknowledge are then used to establish clear intent--all of our problems were deliberately caused. The conspiracy theorist attributes to his opponents a measure of diabolical intent, prescience, and power that rings patently false when ascribed to any human being or party of human beings, no matter how clever.
The motivation behind conspiracy theories is essentially religious. It seems that it is more comfortable to believe in an evil power running the world than that there is no one in control. The existence of the Devil would at least promise the possibility of God. If someone evil can cause all this harm, then maybe someone good can fix it all--conspiracy theorists also have a hankering for extreme views on human potential and a lot of woo-woo science. And if the man at the wheel is evil, the bus may be hell, but at least he won't crash it--that would kill him too.
But what if the man at the wheel doesn't know how to drive? What if he's roaring drunk, thinks he's in top form, and he's going to take you with him over the next cliff. If the Illuminati are running the world and raking in the cash, then at least there's the opportunity to escape the deluge by becoming rich or powerful, or by overthrowing them and taking control. Surely they have at least kept a place where they will be safe. But what if the people in charge really don't know know what's going on, what if they really don't even know how to serve their own best interests, and--even worse--you don't know any better than they do? If there are no illuminati, then all we really have are a lot of imperfect, fallible people to run the show, and our problems are the result of that.
There is no devil. The messiah is not coming. It's all up to you.
Scary thought, isn't it?