Hands up, those of you who made a Fort Marcy Park joke last Saturday. Anyone? Surely there were a few. Fort Marcy Park was the Washington, D.C. woodland where White House attorney Vince Foster was found dead in 1993, and while his demise was repeatedly ruled a suicide, certain conservatives spent years afterwards hallucinating that the Clintons had him killed. Now, a quarter century later, both right and left are back in conspiracy mode. Mere hours after pedo-to-the-stars Jeffrey Epstein was reported to have killed himself, the hash tag #ClintonBodyCount began circulating on Twitter, followed closely by #TrumpBodyCount. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had been associates of Epstein’s; both, the thinking went, might have been desperate for him not to take the stand.
It is wrong, of course, to publicly speculate that Epstein was whacked, given that all available evidence points to gross negligence on the part of the jail. But can you really blame people? Twenty-five years ago, if you’d said that a roll call of America’s elites, everyone from a former president to the most famous lawyer in the country, would be implicated in a sex trafficking ring masterminded by an enigmatic Wall Street financier who was also a member of the Trilateral Commission, you would have been laughed into the darkest corner of the local subway platform (next to the guy holding the “Vatican Hides Pedophiles” sign, presumably). Today, you’d be reading AP copy. Validate an improbable conspiracy theory, and you grant license to all the related improbable conspiracy theories: Bill Clinton flew dozens of times on the Lolita Express; was it really beyond him to order a hit?
And if we know one thing about the Epstein story, it’s that everything about it is utterly improbable. Epstein stands credibly accused of assembling a veritable underage harem. One of his victims, Virginia Guiffre, has already implicated Prince Andrew, the third-born of Queen Elizabeth II, and a picture has since emerged showing the royal with his arm around the then-teenager’s waist. Guiffre says she was also ordered to have sex with, among others, a “foreign president,” a “well-known prime minister,” and a “large hotel chain owner.” Such an open secret was all this perversion that the current president of the United States made cheeky reference to it back in 2002. So invincible did Epstein think himself that he discussed underage sex openly, telling a New York Times reporter that laws against pedophilia were a “cultural aberration.”
That Epstein looked to other cultures to rationalize his behavior is nothing new—Oscar Wilde wrapped his similar predilections in lofty talk about the Greek ideal. What is different is that rather than being hunted and exposed by the powerful, as Wilde was, Epstein was protected by them for decades. Even after he was convicted of soliciting an underage prostitute in 2008, he was sentenced to only 18 months in prison, held in a private wing of the Palm Beach County stockade, and let out on generous “work release.”
Study the Epstein case long enough and you end up at Alex Jones’s favorite conclusion: they’re all sons of bitches. Everyone who was anyone seemed to be in on this, or at least acting at the behest of someone who was. The essence of the conspiratorial mindset is that powerful shadowy forces are, first, capable of and engaged in the most dastardly skullduggery imaginable, and, second, in cabal-like cooperation with each other across all levels of power. The Epstein case seems to affirm both planks. It makes our elites seem like aliens, of a different culture, a different moral code, a different species—how else could they have let slide what none of us ever would? Mary Colum’s remark to Ernest Hemingway, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money,” has rarely rang less true.
There’s been for some time now a sense of drift between most Americans and their elites, driven by factors like income inequality, geographic enclaving, and cultural differences. We are living in a populist moment, to be sure, an era when the usual purveyors of class warfare sound more apt than they otherwise would. In such a fraught environment, the Epstein revelation lands like a grenade. Not only are America’s gentry hitching rides on the Acela while mumbling about deplorables—so the feeling goes—they’re also running cover for a Caligula who’s preying on little Susie down the street. Suddenly the populist divide doesn’t just run between classes or races or regular toast versus avocado, but between ethical extremes, good and literal evil.
This is, of course, what most populists profess: the people as a group are wholesome, the elites as a group are venal, and the former has to be vaulted over the latter in order for society to be made whole again. Yet Epstein’s crimes are so wicked as to potentially set this moral chasm ablaze like never before. That’s why, though Trump may have associated with Epstein, he’s unlikely to be damaged by him: everything that’s happened only confirms what he’s been saying for years. In fact, you might view the Epstein fracas as a dialectic between two of his former associates, Trump’s throw-them-out populism versus Clinton’s benevolent stewardship of society by the smart set. And Trump won out.
Just as populisms aren’t driven entirely by economic causes, so too are revolutions often about more than bread. Consider the Russian Revolution, sparked at least in small part by the people’s perception of Rasputin as a sexual deviant. Consider, too, the French Revolution’s rage against the profligate “Madame Déficit” Marie Antoinette. In such cases, the moral tends to get intertwined with the economic; license is seen as enabling decadence while the people pray and starve. This can be a blind spot in traditional conservative thinking. We rightly detest (most) revolutions and the tremors they cause, but we sometimes fail to notice that the Jacobins have good reason to be angry and that the ruling classes they overthrow really are that loathsome.
America is nowhere near 1789 France, or armed revolution in general. But we are anxious, restive, hungry for justice. A republic likes ours depends on the harmonious coexistence of its people and its elites, a matter that our Founders spent a good deal of time worrying about. Now we have a hideous face f0r elite corruption, one that’s enabled fever in the national mind and dehumanized those around him. For those of us who prize stability and liberty in a polity, who think populism is always best in modest doses, the weeks ahead may be reason for worry.
Because it seems there’s only more to come. On Wednesday, another victim came forward, alleging that Epstein raped her when she was 14 after she turned down sex with him. That this carnal omega, this pathetic loser, this finger-sniffing pervert from every teen comedy lurking outside the pretty girl’s home longing for a piece of discarded lingerie was somehow elevated into a Teflon-coated Wall Street sun god is beyond comprehension. My friend Michael Davis calls Epstein and company the Hellfire Club, but just how much will they torch on their way down?
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.