How did Jeffrey Epstein’s story capture so much attention in 2019? The financier, who was found dead in his cell at a Manhattan jail on Saturday, was a monster, but unfortunately monsters—even child rapists—exist in society. In fact, Epstein’s story wasn’t all that new. While Julie K. Brown’s stunning Miami Herald series brought new information about Epstein’s crimes, the basic outlines were already public: He had already been convicted, and received a sweetheart deal, back in 2008.
Perhaps one reason is that the United States is still convulsed by anti-elite sentiment fostered by the 2008 financial crisis. The crash, largely driven by reckless and greedy moves in business and enabled by policy makers who received money from Wall Street, sometimes in the form of campaign donations and sometimes in the form of sinecures after leaving government, threw millions of Americans out of homes and jobs, while banks received huge bailouts of taxpayer money. Yet in the aftermath, accountability for banks never arrived. The only bank to face criminal charges in connection with the 2008 crash was a tiny, family-run firm in New York. It appeared to many Americans that there were two sets of rules: one for ordinary Americans, and another for the rich and well connected.
If Epstein’s initial plea deal was a particularly horrifying example of that dynamic, then his new arrest seemed like a final chance at justice. No matter what sort of elites you hated—Democratic, Republican, financial, academic, technological, coastal—they were all connected to Epstein. Not only that, but his connections offered the tantalizing possibility that his trial could bring down many others. Accordingly, his apparent suicide represents one final act of impunity, depriving his victims of a chance to hold him to account.
The 2008 financial crisis, with its combination of disastrous misbehavior from elites and lack of accountability, helped spur large-scale social movements, from the left (Occupy Wall Street) and the right (the Tea Party). While both of these movements lost outward momentum over the course of the Obama administration, their heirs made themselves heard during the 2016 campaign.
On the left, there was Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, which morphed from a de facto protest candidacy to a genuine threat to Hillary Clinton’s expected coronation. On the right, an overstuffed slate of small-government, pro-business Republicans heralded as the smartest in decades was toppled by Donald Trump, a political outsider whose campaign morphed from a joke into a juggernaut while discarding GOP dogma, instead offering skepticism of trade and support for social-insurance programs.
As it happened, Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, formed a perfect target for anti-elite anger. Over the course of decades, a combination of their own missteps and a vast right-wing media effort had created a long dossier with which to attack them. This included flimsy accusations (Whitewater, Travelgate, and so on) as well as some genuine scandals, most notably Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. After Bill Clinton left office, the Clintons became wealthy, earning vast sums of money from speaking engagements on Wall Street and elsewhere and jetting around the world with famous friends—including Jeffrey Epstein. Former Clinton officials found top jobs in banks that then had to be bailed out in 2008. Critics were convinced that the Clintons could get away with anything—even murder, some conspiracy theorists claimed.
Hillary Clinton’s newfound wealth and connections to Wall Street made her a perfect foil for Sanders’s leftist campaign, and once she had locked up the Democratic nomination, everything else made a good foil for Trump. The controversy over her use of a private email server, and especially its abortive reopening in the final days of the campaign, arguably cost Clinton the presidency. While FBI Director James Comey concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring ... a case,” Trump was able to tap into a sense that the Clintons were once again getting away with something for which ordinary people would have gone to jail.
For some of his supporters, Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was an answer to elite impunity. This was, in fact, preposterous. Despite a Queens-size chip on his shoulder, Trump was a wealthy real-estate executive, making him an improbable vessel for post-2008 anger. The Trump Organization had been an active participant in the real-estate bubble. Moreover, Trump had spent his entire career breaking laws, regulations, and contracts as he pleased, paying fines where he had to and bogging down creditors in litigation where he could.
Even if Trump had been a real populist, rather than an elite in populist clothing (made in China, presumably), he was never going to provide closure to anti-elite anger, since his political mode requires the constant stoking—and when necessary, the manufacturing—of grievances.
That brings us to Epstein. His initial guilty plea was entered on June 30, 2008, just a few months before the financial crash. Though he was famous in some circles, his story failed to make much of a dent at the time. By the time it resurfaced, however, the public had much more appetite for it.
Epstein was a nearly perfect villain. His sexual crimes, and the allegations against him, were especially repulsive, and his original plea deal showed the apparent existence of two justice systems: one for most of us, and another for billionaires who could hire lawyers such as Alan Dershowitz to get off easy.
Beyond that, Epstein was a good placeholder for nearly any group of elites one might despise. Do you hate Democrats and the Clintons? Bill Clinton was a friend of Epstein’s and flew several times on his plane. Do you hate Trump? The president palled around with Epstein and praised him in a New York magazine profile until a falling-out. Hate financial elites? Perfect: Epstein was a former banker who claimed to be a successful hedge-funder and wealth manager to the rich, though the reality remains unclear. Hate coastal elites? You can’t do much worse than a New York socialite with a private island and a Palm Beach pied-à-terre. Hate tech elites with mad-scientist social-engineering schemes? According to The New York Times, Epstein “confided to scientists and others about his scheme” to “seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch.” Hate academic elites? Epstein revealed how easily they could be bought by worming his way into the hearts and offices of Harvard University professors and a handful of Nobel Prize winners.
When Epstein was arrested in July, it was easy to imagine—as Epstein apparently had, in mural form—the endgame: He would spend the rest of his life in prison. There was already a welter of evidence, and of course he’d pleaded guilty to some crimes in his original slap-on-the-wrist deal. A raid on his Manhattan mansion turned up CDs labeled “Girl pics nude,” according to prosecutors.
Even so, that didn’t mean the expected trial would be an anticlimax. For one, it would offer his accusers the chance to confront him that they had been denied in the original plea deal. It would also mete out the tougher sentence that he’d managed to sidestep in his original deal.
And if the public was already convinced of Epstein’s guilt, there was still the hope that a trial might bring to light new details about inappropriate and illegal behavior by any number of the elite figures with whom Epstein rubbed elbows. Perhaps his delayed reckoning would also provide a delayed reckoning for them too. If one could just pull at the loose thread of Epstein, the whole rotten establishment might unravel.
Hence the anger at Epstein’s death. By apparently killing himself, Epstein seems to have taken the easy way out, though at a high price. His death is all the more astonishing because he had reportedly attempted to kill himself recently and been placed on suicide watch. It is almost easier to believe in the many conspiracy theories that have followed his death than to believe that the justice system could be this inept, even though there’s plenty of evidence it is.
Epstein’s final breath will not be the final word. Although he will not be convicted in court, new information from prosecutors continues to emerge, with hundreds of pages released on Friday. But his firsthand testimony and his victims’ chance to confront him are gone forever. If Epstein’s arrest looked like a chance to finally hold rotten elites to account, his death represents one final escape from accountability.