Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Epstein Meme Is Cause for Concern

 

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.

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There are 22 comments.

  1. Mate De Coolidge

    Awesome post, and is exactly what I have been noticing ever since Trump was elected. It seems with every hare brained scheme to get rid of the President, the Democrats expose yet another level of corruption.

    It’s almost like a bad 80’s TV show where every week the Democrats come up with some other plan to oust Trump, but are thwarted again. With the Mueller report it exposed the corruption in the FBI, and CIA. Now with this pathetic impeachment fiasco, it is exposing the corruption in the state department. For one thing, it exposes how utterly mediocre, and vindictive these unelected bureaucrats are. The point of a deep state is to keep these people hidden, so that we don’t know how pathetically undeserving they are for the power they wield.

    The media obviously has been exposed for a while. It is just now the lies are so demonstrably obvious I don’t even know why they even try to act even remotely unbias.

    Also, I don’t think the people have a high trust in the military in it’s entirety but for those who volunteer to serve. Their family, and friends who have served. Perhaps it they surveyed people about what they thought of the top brass, that level of trust would be lower.

    • #1
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:26 AM PST
    • 13 likes
  2. James Gawron Thatcher

    Oblo,

    I always ask myself, “What would Claw Claw do?”

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:34 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge

    Oblomov: 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 or public order or some hare-brained social engineering scheme, would inflict on us a centralized command-administrative dictatorship.

    Well done! It’s funny but as the corruption has been exposed more and more in our ruling class, the more I’ve been thrown back to local institutions and politics. As the generation ahead of me passed on, I realized how little our generation engaged in these local institutions. My relatives were forever going to some local charity event or engaging in these civic associations. But our generation turned our backs on these more and more-they seemed parochial and antiquated against the backdrop of 24 hr national news. But whereas I used to entirely consume the national news through the 24 hr stations, completely ignoring what was going on around me, now I don’t even turn them except for a one hour news program, which I turn off promptly if Russia is mentioned or the talking heads come on. I’m royally sick of all of them. I am hoping that your nightmare scenario doesn’t happen and that as people get turned off by the elite, they turn to their neighbors and neighborhoods and start to reinvigorate the local institutions that used to be so important in American life. They are still there-starving for members. Or perhaps it is time for some new ones.

    • #3
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:34 AM PST
    • 11 likes
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    I disagree that Trump is part of the problem in any way. Trump caused by the problem.

    Trump is because the people are desperate.

    • #4
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:35 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Oblomov: 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.

    I would say that unions at least have been coopted into the centralized authority but that doesn’t change the point.

    • #5
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:39 AM PST
    • Like
  6. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Mate De (View Comment):
    Also, I don’t think the people have a high trust in the military in it’s entirety but for those who volunteer to serve. Their family, and friends who have served. Perhaps it they surveyed people about what they thought of the top brass, that level of trust would be lower.

    I would guess this is the case with many of the institutions named. 

    • #6
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:43 AM PST
    • 1 like
  7. danok1 Member

    Kurt Schlichter came to a similar conclusion two weeks ago:

    Epstein was the elite’s poster boy, and facing forever in the stony lonesome, he had some potent incentive to spill the beans. And anyone who believes that the moral train wrecks who pose as our betters wouldn’t off him given the chance can text me anytime for some cheap tickets to the unicorn rodeo. The #EDKH meme is about rejecting the lies, the grifts, the presumption of those who believe themselves entitled to rule over us. Plus, it’s awesome.

    As always, read the whole thing.

    • #7
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:56 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  8. Percival Thatcher

    Any organization is going to have its compliment of foul balls, but the military will weed out a lot of theirs. Better than any other branch of the bureaucracy, anyway.

    • #8
    • November 20, 2019, at 9:10 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Roosevelt Guck Member

    I’m a big Oblomov fan but I don’t agree with this. If it’s true that we have lost trust in our institutions then wouldn’t that make it more difficult for a central authority to impose its will on the people? If we’re growing distrustful of our mediating institutions, why would that make people more vulnerable to a gigantic central authority’s despotism? Is it that there’s a power vacuum and leviathan steps in to fill it? I’m also not sure about this sentence:

    “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.”

    We went from doubting Epstein suicide to affirming Lunatic Mao’s philosophy of government.

    • #9
    • November 20, 2019, at 12:23 PM PST
    • Like
  10. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Roosevelt Guck (View Comment):

    I’m a big Oblomov fan but I don’t agree with this. If it’s true that we have lost trust in our institutions then wouldn’t that make it more difficult for a central authority to impose its will on the people? If we’re growing distrustful of our mediating institutions, why would that make people more vulnerable to a gigantic central authority’s despotism? Is it that there’s a power vacuum and leviathan steps in to fill it?

    When there is a void many look for something else to fill it. 

    • #10
    • November 20, 2019, at 12:37 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Guruforhire Member

    Oblomov: 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.

    Duh.

    I revoke my consent now what?

    • #11
    • November 20, 2019, at 2:49 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  12. Percival Thatcher

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Oblomov: 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.

    Duh.

    I revoke my consent now what?

    Resort to the boxes: ballot, jury, and ammo.

    • #12
    • November 20, 2019, at 3:12 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. EJHill Podcaster

    To quote Senator Kennedy of Louisiana…

     

    • #13
    • November 20, 2019, at 3:16 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  14. Guruforhire Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Oblomov: 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.

    Duh.

    I revoke my consent now what?

    Resort to the boxes: ballot, jury, and ammo.

    So there we go. Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and my consent isn’t actually required.

    • #14
    • November 20, 2019, at 3:28 PM PST
    • 1 like
  15. Percival Thatcher

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Oblomov: 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.

    Duh.

    I revoke my consent now what?

    Resort to the boxes: ballot, jury, and ammo.

    So there we go. Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and my consent isn’t actually required.

    Mind, we did originally ask nicely …

     

    • #15
    • November 20, 2019, at 4:59 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. Steve C. Member

    Oblomov: 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.

    Not really. It was a mob bosses rationalization for exercising unchecked power.

    It is a good line.

    My favorite, when Barzinni concludes the peace by noting that the Corleone family will be paid for providing influence and protection because, “After all, we are not communists.”

    • #16
    • November 20, 2019, at 7:40 PM PST
    • 1 like
  17. Cato Rand Coolidge

    I was struck this year by how much attention Veterans Day got as well. I remember when most people took no notice of it. As you say – the appreciation of those who’ve served in the armed forces is richly deserved but still, something has changed. I wonder though, how much of the change is due to the decline in our regard for other institutions and how much is simply due to the reminder we all got on 9/11 and in the ensuing wars that their service directly benefits each of us, and that it involves genuine and significant sacrifice.

    • #17
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:20 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Joseph Stanko Member

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    Oblomov: 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.

    Duh.

    I revoke my consent now what?

    Resort to the boxes: ballot, jury, and ammo.

    So there we go. Political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and my consent isn’t actually required.

    You can’t unilaterally revoke your consent, that’s not how it works.

    Look at how the Constitution was ratified, for example: by state conventions elected by the people of each state. There was no pretense that every single citizen had to unanimously approve it, nor that it wouldn’t apply to those who voted against. Majority rules.

    The fundamental idea of our founding is representative government. Our laws are legitimate because they were passed by a Congress elected by the people, on our behalf. Consent, in this sense, is collective.

    • #18
    • November 20, 2019, at 8:39 PM PST
    • Like
  19. James Lileks Contributor

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Oblo,

    I always ask myself, “What would Claw Claw do?”

    Bless you for that, because I instantly thought of Claudius as well – but in his later days, resigned.

    Let all the poisons in the mud hatch out.

    • #19
    • November 20, 2019, at 9:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  20. Hank Rhody, Missing, Inaction Contributor

    Roosevelt Guck (View Comment):

    “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.”

    We went from doubting Epstein suicide to affirming Lunatic Mao’s philosophy of government.

    It does feel as if there’s a skipped step or two in there.

    To address the main point, there’s a problem bigger than the populace believing Mao’s maxim. It’s when the guys with the guns do. Forget Epstein; remember the Clinton Emails? That sort of casual handling of classified data would get an ordinary person tossed behind bars. But okay, let’s stipulate that the Clintons have a way of weaseling out of things. What about Hunter Biden? Forget Trump, there was something fishy going on there. And I’m not willing to hand out get-out-of-jail-free cards to family members of opposition candidates.

    And the institutions. Do you remember being told James Comey was a straight shooter? I do. I’m sure the rank-and-file FBI members are decent people doing their best to preserve law and order, but that institution has been getting a pass for too long. The Supreme Court? Recall Judge Roberts ruling that not-a-tax is a tax to preserve the court’s legitimacy? Yeah, good work there buddy.

    If confidence in the institutions has dropped it might just be that the institutions don’t merit our confidence.

    • #20
    • November 21, 2019, at 5:22 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  21. The Reticulator Member

    In the family in which I grew up, trust in government to do the right thing probably fell from 5 percent to 3 percent during that interval. That is, maybe in the 1950s we’d trust it to do the right thing 5 percent of the time, and more recently 3 percent.

    Which is a really stupid attitude to have. Of course the government will sometimes do the right thing, if its feet are held to the fire. But one should never, ever “trust” it to do the right thing, not even 1 percent of the time. Assume it is guilty until proven innocent. Verify everything.

    • #21
    • November 21, 2019, at 6:22 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. Django Member

    There used to be a syndicated talk show host who frequently said, “Remember when the government didn’t lie to us? Neither do I.”

    • #22
    • November 22, 2019, at 1:26 PM PST
    • 4 likes