When the Greatest Generation returned from Europe and the leadership torch was passed to them, most Americans still revered the president, trusted Walter Cronkite, and (as Merle Haggard might say) respected the college dean.
Today—for lots of reasons—that’s no longer true. We have lost faith in nearly all societal institutions, a fact that is having grave consequences for our democracy.
If you’re looking for proof, look no further than the way that the news Jeffrey Epstein had hanged himself in prison played out—with the rush to conspiracy theories.
Once upon a time, the dueling #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount hashtags, not to mention talk about the Russians, would have been the territory of cranks and whack jobs—people who thought the moon landing was faked and Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination.
Now, the president himself is promoting this stuff. In Italy, John Schindler noted on Twitter today, everything is assumed to be a conspiracy. There’s a word for it: dietrologia, which translates to behind-ology, “and it infects everything. In part, because Italy actually has a lot of conspiracies.“
Having elected our own Berlusconi, who rose to political prominence as a Birther conspiracy theorist in his own right, America has gone down this same cul de sac. So it’s appalling, but unsurprising, to see the president promoting talk about how a predecessor really killed the prisoner who died on his watch. He didn’t create the whirlpool of paranoia, but he’s steering us directly toward it.
That said, I understand the widespread skepticism of the preliminary official story about how the pedophile prisoner who palled around with presidents and princes and kept living large even after he was convicted in Florida managed to kill himself in the high-security federal prison even after he’d been put on suicide watch for a while following a previous apparent attempt.
The big takeaway of this whole story (for me, at least), is that the dismissal of the suicide story was both rational and predictable.
Having spent decades being lied to (or misled) by government officials, the media, criminal justice officials—basically, all the players here—we are reflexively skeptical of the so-called experts who assure us, even before the autopsy results are in, that nothing fishy is going on.
Sure, this collapse in confidence is partly aided by disinformation (spread more easily on social media), as well as demagogic politicians on the right and the left who want to undermine institutions for political advantage. But the truth is that our institutions and elites—the best and brightest—by virtue of their cronyism, selfishness, and incompetence, invited our skepticism.
This erosion of trust began to crumble around Vietnam and Watergate. Since then, it has been a death by a thousand cuts, punctuated by some memorable moments: When CBS News’ Dan Rather presents forged documents about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, some people quit trusting the media. When Major League Baseball had a steroids scandal, and when even an institution like the Catholic Church became embroiled in a child sexual abuse scandal, once-trusted institutions lost their moral authority. When smartphone video evidence started contradicting what the police say happened at a traffic stop… I could go on.
But how does that pertain to the Epstein case? Although I’m not about to accuse President Trump or former President Bill Clinton of having Epstein rubbed out, it’s still a weird fact that both men (along with Britain’s Prince Andrew) spent considerable time with a sex trafficker.
Part of the problem with discovering how crazy the real world really is is that it makes other crazy things seem plausible. If our government would lie to us about A, why couldn’t they lie to us about B? (And when you consider the fact that Trump and Clinton are both proven liars, it’s more evidence that—for decades now—our elites have contributed to our distrust.)
On Monday, Attorney General William Barr said that there were “serious irregularities” found at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the New York jail that housed Epstein. This sounds pretty obvious, and yet, hasn’t Barr also destroyed his credibility by virtue of his handling of the Mueller investigation memo? Can we believe anything he has to say? The lack of credibility only fuels more conspiracy theories.
It’s a dangerous whirlpool we’re going down, where collapsing confidence breeds corrupt conspiracies that further collapse confidence. When many otherwise intelligent parents refuse to vaccinate their children, we’re seeing a glimpse of what happens when citizens do not—cannot—believe in anything. That, of course, another microcosm of the larger problem.
As a non-conspiracist, I have one theory of my own. All that time we're told Epstein spent with his lawyers, as much as 12 hours a day, wasn’t just to plan his defense and because he didn't want to be in his cell. It also was a way to convince prison authorities that he was fine, after all. Just as he got a cushy deal in Palm Beach, he wanted to get what he could from the MCC. As a non-conspiracist, here’s my decidedly un-sexy conspiracy theory: Money still buys you special treatment.