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The brave new world of political conspiracy-theory illustrations

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) presented Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a shocking visual during a House hearing on Tuesday: a flowchart showing a complex system of interactions between the administration of President Barack Obama, the Russians and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The graphic was meant to bolster Gohmert’s argument that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III faced too many conflicts of interest to fairly evaluate the legality of a sale of a Canadian company to Russia’s nuclear-energy agency in 2010 — the so-called Uranium One sale. At the heart of Gohmert’s argument, though, was that Rosenstein’s conflict amounted to having prosecuted a Russian nuclear energy official.

A grand conspiracy it was not.

On his Fox News show that evening, Sean Hannity gave the conspiracy-web visual a try.

Like Gohmert, Hannity seemed more dedicated to the number of boxes on the chart that he could fit on the screen than to actually demonstrating any conspiracy. Also like Gohmert, there are some questionable choices about how the connecting lines are drawn; why, for example, is Clinton not connected directly to her husband, the former president?

There’s a reason that both Hannity and Gohmert seized on these flowcharts to make their points. Americans have come to understand patterns of boxes and connecting arrows and lines as iconography meaning “conspiracy theory.” What Hannity and Gohmert are doing, in short, is implying a conspiracy by using the visual language associated with conspiracy theories.

Joseph Uscinski is an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and the co-author of “American Conspiracy Theories.” He spoke with The Washington Post by phone on Wednesday about the emergence of conspiracy-web visualizations in politics.

“The trend is that politicians are using it in a sort of brazen way, in a way that you wouldn’t expect,” Uscinski said. “Normally you don’t want to be labeled a ‘conspiracy theorist,’ so putting up one of these charts that is clearly designed to be called a conspiracy theory just seems strange. It’s one of those visual aids that you might prefer to avoid.”

So how’d we get to this point? Uscinski noted that conspiracy theories are common among members of the political party that’s out of power. Under Republican George W. Bush, there were theories about 9/11 and Halliburton. Under Democrat Obama, the theories were about his religion and his place of birth. It was in this era that Glenn Beck flourished on Fox News, sketching conspiracy theories on blackboards in chalk.

Under President Trump, the left has seized on rumors of Russian collusion. Uscinski noted, a website targeting Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that’s paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“The fact that they would sponsor a website with the word ‘conspiracy’ in it also tells you something: that they would have no problem engaging in conspiracy theorizing at this point,” Uscinski said.

But neither Gohmert nor Hannity is a member of the political opposition; quite the opposite. Trump, Uscinski said, changes the calculus.

Trump ran against the establishment from the first day of his candidacy. That he was opposed by the powerful elites who preferred an international approach to his “America First” rhetoric was positioned in conspiratorial terms: They wanted him to lose, the media was making up stories, the elites want open borders, etc.

“Trump put together a coalition of conspiracy-minded people,” Uscinski said, and the only way to hold that coalition together, he argued, was to keep feeding the conspiracies. So, even as president, Trump derides congressional investigations are “witch hunts” and the news is “fake.”

“Powerful people can’t use conspiracy theories very well. They’re tools of the weak to attack the powerful,” he said. “But what we’ve seen in this instance is because Trump has built his entire machine on conspiracy theories, that’s why we have dueling conspiracy theories. That’s why we have a narrative on the right and a narrative on the left.” Had rival Republican Jeb Bush won the presidency, Uscinski argues, Hannity would spend his time doing something else.

Mark Fenster, professor of law at the University of Florida and author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture,” agreed with that assessment. “The permission that having a conspiracy-theorist-in-chief offers suggests that this can be much more explicit than it previously was,” Fenster says.

It’s worth noting how the Gohmert-Hannity flowchart images differ from the Rohrabacher website. The latter explicitly embraces the yarn-and-photo aesthetic familiar to people from pop culture. The former seek legitimacy by emulating the complex illustrations that news outlets — including The Post — have used to show the web of relationships involved in the Russian-meddling story.

As Fenster notes, the investigation into Russian meddling itself helps foster a conspiratorial culture. “The potential existence of conspiracies themselves give more permission” to such diagrams, he said. “It’s hard not to see the Mueller investigation and every news story that leaks from it and the efforts by bloggers — even establishment bloggers and opinion writers — to try to explain why it is, for example, [that] the direct messages between Julian Assange and Donald Trump Jr. somehow illuminate something itself becomes conspiratorial.”

He added, “The cast of characters in the potential prosecution members of the Trump campaign is so vast and the connections between them so obscure that we’re all constructing charts for ourselves.”

The net effect, Uscinski argued, is that “the cost of being called a conspiracy theorist at this point is probably getting closer to zero.”

So, he figured, “I guess they might as well just let it rip.”