How the Epstein Case Explains the Rise of Conspiracy Theorists

Nightmarish allegations against the well-connected financier show why so many Americans let their imagination run wild when it comes to elite corruption.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman points to a photograph of Jeffrey Epstein. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

The more we learn about the allegations against the reclusive billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, the more he seems like a figment of the online fever swamps. The wealthy financier arrested last week for underage sex trafficking is accused of operating an international sex ring that could implicate high-powered men across business, politics, and Hollywood. Every nightmarish detail of his story—from the creepily decorated mansion to the flights on “the Lolita Express” to the stays on “Orgy Island”—sounds like it was conjured by conspiracy theorists.

Just this morning, President Donald Trump told reporters that Alex Acosta was stepping down as Secretary of Labor amid mounting outrage over the sweetheart deal he gave Epstein years ago as a federal prosecutor. The resignation will surely draw more attention to what Epstein got away with over the years—and who helped him.

It should not come as a surprise that some of America’s most outspoken conspiracists have spent the days since Epstein’s arrest taking victory laps.

“I definitely see it as a moment of vindication,” David Seaman, a chief proponent of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory, told me. “I think this is a turning point.”

“This is just the beginning,” said Liz Crokin, a prominent QAnon devotee, in a video posted to YouTube. “The storm is officially here.”

“I think I’ve been unnecessarily maligned,” said Mike Cernovich, a right-wing social-media personality who has claimed that every A-list actor in Hollywood is a pedophile. “This shows I’m doing real things, man.” (Cernovich was, in fact, among those who successfully sued to unseal court documents related to Epstein.)

Of course, the notion that the Epstein case somehow validates every outlandish assertion uttered by the tinfoil-hat brigade is absurd. But squint at the recent headlines and you’ll see a story—about abuse of power, and elite impunity, and moral rot in the ruling class—that helps explain why a certain breed of conspiracy theorist has gained so much traction in this political moment.

Fears of systematic, underground child abuse have run through popular conspiracy theories for centuries. One of the oldest anti-Semitic canards held that Jews were murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake matzo. More recently, in the 1980s, America was gripped by the “Satanic panic,” as parents became convinced that their day-care centers were filled with Satanists ritualistically abusing their children. The 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut—which depicts a fictional secret society conducting a cultlike sexual ceremony—spawned fevered speculation about the real-world predation that the director Stanley Kubrick was supposedly trying to expose.

Anna Merlan, the author of Republic of Lies, says allegations of pedophilia are central to some of the most widely circulated conspiracy theories on the internet today. She attributes this in part to the simple horror of the crime. “If someone is abusing children, there is no worse thing to be,” Merlan said. Conspiracists tend to weave their narratives in ways that conveniently implicate their political enemies while sparing their allies.

But, Merlan added, “conspiracy theories aren’t based on nothing”—and with every new #MeToo allegation, convictions deepen among the true believers. “Any sort of sexual-abuse scandal that involves powerful people is taken as proof of their basic thesis,” she said. “It’s sort of a sad reality that the world is so full of rape and sexual abuse and predation of women and children that it’s possible to do this.”

For those quasi-professional conspiracy-mongers pushing some version of the “underground pedophile ring” story, the charges against Epstein could prove especially helpful. Seaman, for example, has been reupping requests for Patreon donations in recent days. When I asked him how the fundraising was going, he sounded optimistic. “The Patreon has languished for some time because people were starting to not believe me,” he explained. “They were not seeing any forward movement.” Now? “A lot of people have been Googling us.”

He’s not alone. Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida who has studied the history of conspiracy theories, told me the current prevalence of paranoid thinking across the political spectrum makes this period unusual. Typically, he said, the party that’s out of power is more prone to conspiracy theories. But in the Trump era, everyone—right, left, and center—seems to suspect corrupt machinations at the highest levels of society. And, really, can they be blamed?

As Matthew Walther recently wrote at The Week, the Epstein story doesn’t fit neatly into any of the dominant partisan-media narratives. The bad guys belong to both parties. Trump is linked to Epstein, but so is former President Bill Clinton. The case has less to do with any political tribe and more to do with class and status. The story, as it’s been alleged, is one of rich, powerful men careening through the world with complete impunity, treating the young and the vulnerable as props, and protecting one another from accountability.

You don’t have to believe in lizard people or baby-eating politicians to understand why so many are looking at our leaders and letting their imagination run wild.