I was born in 1981, and so I missed much of the first wave of America’s Satanic panic. It percolated throughout the ‘80s, and reached its absurd apogee in the seven-year McMartin preschool trial, in which a series of increasingly lurid and ridiculous accusations of ritualized sexual abuse in a southern California day care were aired before a credulous media and terrified public. The whole thing eventually collapsed in a farrago of confabulation, perjury, mental illness, and legal recrimination.
But, though all of the accusations were disproven, disavowed, or eventually recanted, the cultural currency of the moral panic remained potent. As a conspiracy-and-occult obsessed teenager in the 1990s, my friends and I binged on early online conspiracy forums, watched the half-parodic British TV series Disinfo TV, and even acquired a copy of Thanks For The Memories ... The Truth Has Set Me Free! The Memoirs of Bob Hope's and Henry Kissinger's Mind-Controlled Slave, which is, well, the memoirs of Bob Hope’s and Henry Kissinger’s Mind-Controlled Slave, a woman who went by the pseudonym Brice Taylor.
We took these stories — in the memorable formulation of Trump-supporting tech billionaire Peter Thiel — seriously but not literally. We recognized them as a sort of highly exaggerated, non-factual expression of a deeper truth: that beneath all the elaborate structures and bureaucracies of politics and business, there really was — there really is — a wellspring of sadism and cruelty, a culture of exploitation and abuse, a territory in which perversion and coercion are open secrets among powerful friends; an undercurrent, in general, of actual evil. We sensed that it must be true. We were not, it turns out, entirely wrong.
Last Friday, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta resigned his position in the Trump cabinet in the midst of intense, renewed scrutiny over his role as a former prosecutor in crafting a sweetheart, highly secretive plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein, the ostensibly wealthy sex criminal known for his powerful connections in politics, industry, and higher education, his giant mansions, his mysterious private island (complete with a bizarre, temple-like structure), and his private airplane, nicknamed by the press the “Lolita Express.”
No matter the political culture of the U.S., conspiracy theories have always been a constant.
In a press conference the day before he stepped down, Acosta waived off the notion that he’d shown undue favoritism. He said that he’d been guided by the principle that, no matter what, Epstein must go to jail, and his soft deal the most expedient and surefire way to accomplish that. (He did not mention that Epstein was permitted to leave jail for 12 hours a day, six days a week in order to laze about a luxurious private office, pretending to be a financier.) And Acosta was not alone in treating Epstein with undue deference. In an almost unprecedented move, the office of Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus Vance, went to court to argue on Epstein’s behalf in order to reduce the severity of his mandatory sex offender registration, and the NYPD let him skate entirely on a requirement that he regularly check in with police.
No matter the political culture of the U.S., conspiracy theories have always been a constant. Before he was brought down by his odious theory that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary didn’t happen, Alex Jones was better known among communities of true believers for screaming about FEMA camps and unmarked helicopters. The Bush Era, of course, brought us “9/11 was an inside job.” Obama did Jade Helm. Glenn Beck diagrammed chalkboards to show how George Soros planned to bring down America through a minor green energy organization. They are a persistent feature of American life, from the Salem Witch trials to the Red Scares of the twentieth century.
But the Trump era has been a notable conspiracy-theory renaissance, producing its own version of Satanic Ritual Abuse, first with the sprawling, campaign-year “Pizzagate,” conspiracy, in which various, mostly Democratic malefactors were believed to conduct pedophilic rituals in the basement of a DC-area pizza joint, and now in the sprawling QAnon conspiracy, the contours of which are so vast and amorphous as to be effectively indescribable, but is, at its core, a story about an immense gang of secret pedophiles ruling the world.
QAnon is patently ridiculous. It is also not patently ridiculous. It is, I think, a sort of collective concretization of a sensed but heretofore unprovable possibility: that there is some truth to it, that some of the actual, real-life, on-TV, in-the-boardrooms, on-the-campaigns people — the highest echelons of American society and influence — are, in fact, well, some kind of gang of secret pedophiles ruling the world.
A conspiracy theory is an attempt to force a story on a set of disparate, though often distantly related facts and observations. But the real world is not a narrative, not a clever mystery to be unraveled by amateur detectives. Every baroque edifice of conspiracy rests upon a foundational belief that there is a singular truth that diligent investigation will reveal, even if the shape of that truth branches and swirls in an infinite fractal. What this mindset cannot accept is that there may be many simple truths for many disturbing facts, but no single, manifest, capital-T Truth, no secret cabal, and no guiding hand.
The Epstein case is a perfect illustration of this temptation, where for all the lurid attractions of some tale of a powerful underground stream, there is likely, at last, little more than the clanking old machinery of money and influence and power: uncoordinated favor-trading, greased palms, half-shared codes of silence among friends of convenience.
Every baroque edifice of conspiracy rests upon a foundational belief that there is a singular truth.
What if, after all, Jeffrey Epstein is just a pimp? What if his rich and powerful friends are just his clients? What if justice just routinely turns away because justice always turns away from the rich and powerful? If, after all, our authorities cannot figure out how to punish a bunch of young, callow nobodies for assaulting women and girls, can we expect that those same authorities will go out of their way to punish their own peers? Their bosses? Think of the ruined careers. The awkward silences at gala dinners.
Conspiracy flows into the vacuum left by these abdications of responsibility. Even if Epstein is punished now, for how many decades has he engaged in these proven and alleged crimes of sadism and abuse? Even if a few of his co-conspirators are finally named, perhaps even prosecuted, for how long have they, too, been free? And how many others will not be named, will not be prosecuted? The normal mind — the basically decent person — recoils from the thought that the ruling class could be this monstrous. It beggars the imagination, and so, in order for it to be true, it must have a dark beginning, a middle, and some triumph of good in the end. Perhaps Epstein will be convicted again. Perhaps he’ll go back to jail. Except it’s not a story, and it won’t just end.
“This curious belief in a conspiracy is the almost inevitable consequence of the optimistic belief that truth, and therefore goodness, must prevail if only truth is given a fair chance,” wrote the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. “The simple truth,” he continued, “is that truth is hard to come by, and that once found it may easily be lost again.” Moments of real reckoning are vanishingly rare. Far more common are small victories followed by larger disappointments.