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Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, the great Plebeian soldier, statesman and defender of ancient republican virtues, in his later years is said to have closed all his public speeches with the words, “And furthermore I am of the opinion that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
I’m only kidding. Cato the Elder never said that. That was a Jeffrey Epstein meme I just made up.
Wait, I’ve got another one:
Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Everyone knows Jeffrey Epstein killed himself.
Michael Corleone: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
Jeffrey Epstein, it hardly needs mentioning, was the disgraced rich-as-Croesus financier, ephebophile, and owner of Manhattan’s largest private residence, whose personal jet manifests read like the Who’s Who of the country’s ruling liberal elite. His violent death in a Manhattan jail cell on August 10 while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges was ruled suicide by the New York medical examiner.
On October 30, Michael Baden, a medical pathologist hired by the Epstein estate, challenged that ruling, arguing that the evidence was more consistent with homicide. Three days later the internet exploded when, in a Fox News segment on the subject of adoption of military dogs, former Navy SEAL Mike Ritland blurted out the non-sequitur that launched a thousand memes. Ritland had struck a raw nerve.
Teasing out a meaningful cultural signal from Twitter memes is a perilous exercise, not to be attempted lightly. The internet’s attic is filled to the rafters with wingnut conspiracy theories, Tide pods, ice buckets, and other viral cultural noise. But there is a different ring to the way the Epstein-didn’t-kill-himself phenomenon resonates both in social media and in society at large. The meme is a symptom of something palpable to anyone paying attention in 2019 – that after decades of slow decline, trust in American institutions, especially its elite institutions of power and influence, has fallen off a cliff.
When Michael Corleone explained to Kay Adams that his father was “no different than any powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people, like a president or senator,” most audiences saw it for what it was – brilliant, absorbing Hollywood fiction. What was so thrilling about watching that scene in 1972 was the transgressive frisson of possibility that there might be something to the mobster’s understanding of the world—that presidents and senators really were not that much different than mob bosses, that power, violence, and corruption were fundamentally inseparable. That cynical outlook cut to the heart of American exceptionalism, which even Vietnam-era moviegoers still took for granted. Those same moviegoers would be genuinely shaken to learn less than two years later from the pages of the Washington Post that the President of the United States used foul language in the Oval Office when ordering pay-offs to the Watergate burglars.
Americans have been losing their innocence about the country’s institutions for as long as I can remember. According to Pew, overall trust in government “to do what is right just about always or most of the time” has been falling steadily from the mid-70% range during the Eisenhower, Kennedy and early Johnson administrations, to a mere 17% today. Gallup has been tracking Americans’ confidence in their national institutions for decades. Over the life of the survey, confidence in churches and organized religion, which peaked in 1975 with 68% of respondents expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence, has fallen to 38%. Confidence in public schools fell from 62% to 29% over the same period.
Other institutions have followed the same catastrophic decline from their historical highs: newspapers (from 51% in 1979 to 23%); television news (46% in 1993 to 18%); banks (60% in 1979 to 30%); the medical system (80% in 1975 to 36%). Confidence in Congress has fallen into the gutter – from 42% in 1973 to 11% today; ditto for the Supreme Court (56% in 1988 to 38%). Confidence in elite universities began to plummet more recently, especially among Republicans, a solid majority of whom now say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.
But the Epstein meme points to something more significant than a straight-line continuation of these long-term trends, something that public opinion polls may not yet pick up. It feels like the tectonic plates of our national psyche have shifted. That scene from The Godfather doesn’t quite work in 2019 – the thrill is gone. The Epstein meme is our collective shrug of world-weary cynicism and jaded acceptance that, of course, Mao Zedong had it exactly right when he observed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and not, as we used to think of it, from the consent of the governed.
The rise of Trump and Trumpish populism is one political consequence of the collapse of trust in elite institutions. But Trump has further accelerated that collapse both by trampling longstanding norms of presidential conduct and, even more important, provoking one hysterical overreaction after another to his administration from the elite institutions of power, each time laying bare their corruption for anyone willing to see it. From academia to the prestige media to the highest reaches of our national security apparatus, all are going to absurd lengths to see the president defenestrated.
The Epstein saga is an almost perfect symbol of the rot at the core of our ruling class, implicating figures from the upper strata of politics, business, media, and academia. In the short run, the public sentiment behind the Epstein meme phenomenon probably benefits Trump who, after three and a half years of siege warfare, remains the candidate of those who want to break the establishment’s furniture and take a blowtorch to its rotten foundations. But, in the long run, the crisis of trust in American institutions, both high and low, is potentially fatal to the republic.
Lacking any underlying ethnic glue, the United States is defined by its institutions. We have no core unifying principle beyond a collection of inherited norms and ideas about the nature of government and its relationship to the individual, ideas embodied in the public and private institutions of democratic life. This country used to be planted thick with institutional forests from coast to coast — unions, churches, bowling leagues, local papers, Rotary Clubs, the Elks, the PTA — that dispersed political power and formed a bulwark against the encroachment of centralized authority into the affairs of individuals and communities. The withering away of these mediating structures clears the way for those who, in the name of social justice, public order, or some hare-brained social engineering scheme, would inflict on us a centralized command-administrative dictatorship.
The polling data on institutional trust contains one notable exception: the military. Though it’s probably misplaced, confidence in the military remains sky-high, with 73% expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” and only 8% expressing “very little” or “none.” These high numbers have held remarkably steady over the years, down only slightly from the First Gulf War high of 85%. This is especially remarkable considering that the country has been at war almost continuously since 1991, with questionable results, given the expenditure of blood and treasure.
At the same time the Epstein meme was going viral, Americans were getting ready to celebrate Veterans Day. I don’t remember Veterans Day being celebrated much even a generation ago. Today we do it with gusto, filling the airwaves and social media with mawkish tributes. Both political parties compete to cloak themselves in the reflected luster of the uniform.
To be sure, all honor is due to our military veterans. But we should expect bad things when the only institution in our democratic republic anyone trusts is the military.Published in