Why Are We So Obsessed with the Jeffrey Epstein Story?
Jeffrey Epstein. Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images
Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Margaret Hartmann, and Ed Kilgore talk about why the public has been so captivated by Jeffrey Epstein’s downfall.
Ben: Since his arrest last weekend, Jeffrey Epstein has dominated headlines and captivated the reading public. A superrich alleged sexual predator evading justice for more than a decade, using leverage at the highest rungs of power, is inherently interesting. And we know Epstein has palled around with famous and influential friends over the years, from Bill Clinton to Prince Andrew. Still, Epstein himself is not exactly a household name in American culture, and I have to confess I’ve been a little surprised by just how much people are fascinated by this story. Why has it broken through to such an extent?
Margaret: I think it’s actual evidence of suspicions people have held for a long time. It’s a very vivid, fact-based example of how the rich and powerful use their influence to get away with horrible crimes and protect their own.
Ed: “Sex predator” and “friend of Donald Trump” are thoughts that do naturally converge. Seriously.
Margaret: Like the Harvey Weinstein scandal, I think this is a story that many media people have been following more closely than the general public
Ed: Who can resist a story that includes Trump hitching a ride on a plane called the Lolita Express?
Margaret: But it was like, “Well, he got away with just a bogus plea deal, what are you going to do?” Thankfully some, most notably Julie K. Brown, didn’t give up on it
Ed: Margaret’s right: The words “plea deal” have become synonymous with miscarriages of justice … right up there with “acquitted on a technicality.” And the fact that Trump’s Secretary of Labor (for at least seven more days) cut the deal provides a second level of Trump Nexus.
Ben: So does this story have special purchase because we live in an era when plutocrats control an increasing share of wealth, influence, political power, and all the rest?
Margaret: I mean, maybe QAnon laid the groundwork for the public to want to hear about this — jk.
Ben: Right, we haven’t yet touched on the conspiracy theories this may or may not overlap with.
Margaret: I think a large part of the appeal is the prospect of a wealthy person — who seems to have been mixed up in a lot of zany stuff — actually seeing justice.
Ed: I’m old enough to remember when there were like two or three billionaires in the world. Now it seems you can’t stir ’em with a stick. So you have presidential billionaries, sex predator billionaires, something for everybody.
Margaret: I also think it’s being received differently post-#MeToo.
Margaret: Not like the world was cool with a massive pedophile ring in 2008, as Alexander Acosta seems to have suggested yesterday. But I think society is generally more receptive to seeing victims as victims approaching their stories with more interest any sympathy.
Ed: And without question, there’s less tolerance of the, er, Lolita syndrome of older men preying on teenage girls.
The fact that the original Lolita was a best-selling novel and box-office smash shows we have made some progress in recent decades.
Ben: Well, it is a great book…
Ed: I’m sure it is, but I think people have a different attitude towards the whole topic than they did when it appeared. A lot less leering from men, eye-rolling from women.
Ben: What about the fact that Epstein actually, finally got caught? I sense there’s a general feeling that the superrich get away with pretty much whatever they want, whether it’s sex crimes or screwing over the U.S. economy. Is this a cathartic experience in that sense?
Margaret: He already basically got away with it, and is now recaught, and there are all these guys tied up in it, but it just didn’t matter at the time.
Ed: So depending on who you are and how you look at it, this can be a morally satisfying or enraging story.
Ben: I think it’s probably both.
Margaret: Epstein was still allowed back into elite society.
Ed: Since Epstein’s probably not going to write a tell-all book, I suspect the rumors and the conspiracy theories could go on for many years.
Margaret: It seems the prospect of photographic evidence is a big part of it, too. With Trump, we kept being promised a pee tape and it never materialized. Maybe this time something will!
Ed: Cry me a river, Alan. Yeah, there’s some schadenfreude in this.
Margaret: I don’t agree with the #resist crowd who are convinced this is finally going to bring Trump down.
Ben: There are people who think that??
Margaret: Haha, yeah, I think so.
We know the victims say he asked for dirt on famous people and filmed their sexual encounters. He allegedly had a camera hidden in a clock to spy on guests. There’s speculation that blackmail was at the heart of his mysterious business dealings. You people squashed my Peelief — I need something to hold on to.
Ed: You just put your finger on why this story bugged me initially. From one perspective, this looks like just another rabbit hole anti-Trump folk are diving into instead of focusing on beating him in 2020.
Ben: It’s not bugging you anymore, Ed?
Ed: Well, it’s obviously a bigger story than the Trump connection, hard as it is to ignore. As a political writer, I’m a hammer and this story looked like a nail. But it’s not just a Trump story, or even a Trump/Clinton story. Male sexual exploitation of women is one of the oldest story lines in the history of our sordid little species, so tales like this one are universally evocative. Damn, didn’t mean to go so dark there…
Ben: So, in the end, the level of interest is commensurate with the importance here.
Ed: Yeah, though it might not be the same if the story had broken in, say, November.
Margaret: I think a lot of people are coming for the tawdry details, to be honest, but hopefully also seeing that the underlying story is substantial.