There is a simple reason President Donald Trump should not have been impeached by the House, and the Senate should acquit him: Epstein didn’t kill himself.
In writing this, I don’t mean I am convinced that the billionaire child sex-abuser was murdered by one of his many wealthy and powerful acquaintances to keep him quiet — although I wouldn’t rule that out. Rather, I mean it in the sense in which “Epstein didn’t kill himself” has become a pervasive cultural meme, as a general assertion of cynicism regarding the incompetence and moral degeneracy of our elites, which has produced a crisis of credibility for our leaders and institutions.
The story of Jeffrey Epstein would seem over the top for most thrillers: The bad guy is a billionaire with an underage harem, he hung out with the richest and most powerful people on the planet, he got a sweetheart deal when he was charged for his crimes, he then continued his predations, and then he conveniently killed himself when finally facing real justice — but the guards were sleeping and video evidence has disappeared?
A ridiculous plot, even for Hollywood. But it’s all true, and getting weirder as more details are released.
Sexual predators and their enablers are the most lurid examples of the corruption ordinary people see in our culture’s most powerful people. But of course, corruption isn’t limited to sex crime and its perpetrators. Plenty of grifters, hacks, cowards, and so on hold prominent positions in newsrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, and even churches.
Not even sports are safe from elites failing their basic duties, as seen in instances from Penn State’s child sex-abuse scandal to the NBA’s obsequiousness to communist China. As for government, even as the House pressed forward with impeachment, it was confirmed that the FBI acted as partisan bunglers in going after Trump, and the Pentagon has been lying for years about America’s chances of success in Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly, trust in almost every authority and institution has declined. The popularity of the “Epstein didn’t kill himself” meme is, as Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, due to what it implicitly communicates, which is: “I think our leadership class and our institutions are capable of every corruption and depravity.” The Epstein case represents the epitome of the eerie concupiscence and incompetence of our elites; it is the obscene capstone on a pyramid of decadence.
This was the spirit in which Ricky Gervais worked an “Epstein didn’t kill himself” joke into his Golden Globes monologue haranguing his audience of Hollywood big shots as a bunch of moral creeps unfit to lecture the rest of us about anything. He’s right. Our entertainment industry has been as riddled with pimps and toadies as we all suspected — assuming we are all particularly dour Calvinists meditating on the doctrine of total depravity on a gloomy November evening.
This is why Gervais’ monologue resonated, and recognizing the pervasiveness of this attitude is essential to understanding our culture and our politics, including the impeachment fight. The sense that corruption and incompetence are the norm, rather than confined to President Trump, is why so many voters are not taking impeachment seriously.
Maureen Dowd of The New York Times is one of the few liberals in elite media to understand this, recently writing, “[F]or many Americans, the events of the last week prove that Trump is right to be cynical about a rigged system and deep-state elites.” The events of the last week, the last year, the last decade, whatever — this has been a long time coming.
Donald Trump Holds a Mirror Up to Elites
Almost every condemnation of Trump can also be made against his political opponents, along with our nation’s elites and the institutions they control. True, the president is cruder and less refined in his communications, but being an obnoxious oaf is not much reason for impeachment. Meanwhile, the process has highlighted that Joe Biden’s son received large sums of money for no discernible reason besides his father being vice president. Let he who is without venality cast the first vote to impeach.
The many sins of our leadership class do not excuse the president’s bad character and misdeeds, but recalling them provides perspective. Those who want Trump gone argue he is a monstrous threat to democracy and the Constitution. To the rest of us, what he is accused of looks like nothing out of the ordinary, so the impeachment appears self-serving and partisan.
Perhaps, in the idealized headspace of someone like David French, Trump deserves impeachment. But by his measure, is there any president since Washington who doesn’t? George W. Bush was friendly and folksy, and Obama was cool, but both arguably abused the power of the presidency as much as or more than Trump. Before them was Bill Clinton, intern-diddler and passenger on Epstein’s “Lolita Express” private plane.
There is a spectacular absence of moral authority by which to condemn Trump, whether for the specifics of the impeachment charges or for his more general failings. This impeachment seems not to be about defending morality, democratic norms, or the Constitution so much as an ordinary power struggle, a suspicion Democrats confirmed by their gamesmanship in delaying sending the charges to the Senate.
Perhaps President Trump really is an extraordinary threat to the republic. And perhaps Epstein really did kill himself. What is certain is that our elites have murdered their own character and trustworthiness. If they had any humility or piety, they might ponder if Trump’s presidency has been a judgment upon them.