Last week, conspiracy theories again were elevated into the national spotlight. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) unveiled an illustration detailing a complex alleged conspiracy. Gohmert, along with several other conspiracy-minded officials including President Trump, and conservative commentators have pursued what is called the “Uranium One” conspiracy theory. It alleges that Hillary Clinton gave a special favor to Russia — allowing its nuclear agency to purchase a company (Uranium One) with access to the United States’ uranium supply — in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
The record shows that the sale did take place, the Clinton-led Department of State was one of several agencies that signed off on the deal, and that the Clinton Foundation received millions in donations from people associated with Uranium One. The conspiracy theory hinges on whether the donations to the Clinton Foundation were in exchange for favorable treatment that would, or should, not have happened under a fairer process.
The Uranium One theory is interesting in that it has been able to percolate for some time and continue to grab headlines. As far as salient conspiracy theories go, this one is inside baseball. Some of its continued salience is due to its deployment by Trump and other Republicans, and by conservative mouthpieces. Most conspiracy theories that have legs address much more salient issues, i.e., the assassination of a president or the downing of a jet airliner, as opposed to the government approval of the sale of a uranium company seven years ago.
That said, the Uranium One theory allows Republicans, particularly Trump and his supporters, to answer the charges that Trump colluded with Russia to win the presidential election in 2016. It allows Trump to turn the tables on his accusers and suggest they were the ones conspiring with Russia all along, not him. Trump’s tweets attest to this: “Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn't want to follow!”
Some have wondered why Trump has continued to push conspiracy theories about Clinton and the election, even though the election was won long ago. The answer is that this and other conspiracy theories allow Trump to continually muddy the waters.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Uranium One conspiracy theory is the illustrations Gohmert used to detail the relationships among the villains supposedly involved. The chart provided by his office contained a dizzying 45 nodes, focusing on Gohmert’s political competitors, Hillary and Bill Clinton, Loretta Lynch, and Eric Holder, as well as the scandals that have occupied Republican talking points for the past five years: Benghazi, Hillary Clinton’s emails, the IRS targeting snafu, and the “Fast and Furious” operation.
Gohmert’s chart was greeted, rightly so, with condemnation. Scholars who have studied conspiracy theories suggest that the more actors and actions become involved in a conspiracy, the more likely it is to fail. People can’t keep their mouths shut in high-stakes scenarios, and the more actions the conspirators have to take, the more likely they are to screw up or get caught in the act. Watergate, for example, was foiled because a simple burglary went south.
Most interesting about the illustration is that the crew of conspirators seem to fail constantly; their supposed schemes involving Benghazi, the IRS, Fast and Furious, Uranium One, Clinton’s emails, and Fusion GPS have all been thoroughly exposed to the public over a course of years, yet the conspirators seem to keep operating no matter how many times they are unmasked. These seem to be the least competent villains ever to be implicated in a wide-ranging conspiracy.
These sorts of conspiracy theory illustrations are nothing new, and in fact date back some time. For example, here is a chart dating from 1912 from the Pujo Committee in Congress. The committee was investigating money trusts, and mapped out how it thought the trusts worked.
Conspiracy theory illustrations can be divided into a few types, and perhaps by doing so, we can learn a little more about Gohmert’s intent.
The various types of conspiracy theory chart
The personal attack
Some conspiracy theory illustrations are meant to make a singular point, such as, “Don’t vote for this person.” The example here provided by the DCCC is very simple and meant to convey a singular relationship to audiences: that the person they are attacking, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, is directly connected to the reviled Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The nature of the conspiracy is not specifically clear, and there is not much imagination put into one. But as this example shows, Democrats engage in conspiracy illustrations as well.
The spread of influence
Other illustrations are designed to show who influences whom. The point is to put a spotlight on a small group of actors and show that they alone are responsible for what seems like a wider, more spontaneous, and less orchestrated group. This example from conservative journalist Sharyl Attkisson suggests that what seems like a random collection of left-leaning organizations is really just a front for a lone person, Democratic operative David Brock.
From my book: The Smear. David Brock's collection of nonprofits, smear groups, super PACs, LLCs and websites. pic.twitter.com/V0FQYrTAhs— Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) November 19, 2017
The specific plot
After Gohmert’s chart was roundly criticized, conservative commentator Sean Hannity put forward his own simplified version, which pared down Gohmert’s 45 nodes into 10. Of course, this particular illustration loses some predictive power because of its simplicity. This style of conspiracy theory illustrations addresses a singular conspiracy theory — in this case, Uranium One — and tries to unmask the actors and their connections behind one specific plot.
The connections between everyone you don’t like
Some conspiracy theory illustrations are designed more to put everyone the accuser doesn’t like together into a cabal. Glenn Beck’s chalkboard was famous for doing this when he had his 5 pm program on the Fox News Channel. Over the course of his program, Beck tied together disparate groups, all groups he did not care for, radical Muslims, Democrats, the Occupy movement, communists, etc. … These sorts of illustrations are good at virtue signaling: They tell the viewer whom you oppose and why. As far as there being any actual connection between the groups mentioned, that is usually harder to establish.
The schizotypal illustration
The final type of conspiracy theory illustration ties together everyone and everything into some sort of far-reaching plot. The goal of the supposed plot, or its plausibility, is never really addressed by the accuser. The illustration is therefore a window into a schizotypal personality, where delusions, fantasy, and reality become less and less distinguishable from one another. A popular meme floating around Twitter for the past few years exemplifies this: Charlie, a character from the FX TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, stands in front of a board covered with pictures and yarn.
So where does Gohmert’s chart fit?
Where does Gohmert’s illustration fit in to these categories? His chart ties together several seemingly unrelated events and a wide range of unrelated actors into a single working organism. It’s far-fetched. It goes far beyond simply tarring your opponents, shining light on a singular conspiracy accusation, or bringing together groups one doesn’t care for. Gohmert’s 45 nodes of groups, people, and events suggest a schizotypal interpretation of the world, one filled with delusions. This leaves Gohmert’s chart somewhere between Glenn Beck’s chalkboard and Charlie’s.