Democrats Need to be The Party of “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself”

On Wednesday, Nation writer and social media bon vivant Jeet Heer tweeted out two unrelated posts that take on a new meaning if read together.

Here’s the shot:

Now, the chaser:

Heer believes Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy theories are luring people away from real politics, including, presumably, the pizazz-lacking impeachment hearings broadcast on television that day. He worries that the “Epstein didn’t kill himself” messages are dangerous and invokes Neil Postman’s classic media critique Amusing Ourselves to Death to chastise people for finding the impeachment hearings boring.

Heer’s advice is bad. The impeachment hearings are boring. And it’s good to admit how boring they are. But more importantly, he’s wrong to scold people for “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” Epstein’s death isn’t a “rabbithole that will lure many away from real politics.” It’s an opportunity to lure people into real politics (and a great source of memes).

It isn’t like the impeachment hearings are inherently better than Epstein conspiracies. Both are conspiracy theories in the sense that they hinge on theories about powerful forces conspiring with each other and believe official denials are cover-ups. The difference is that the Ukraine story is arcane and abstract, which makes it feel more important to politics junkies but inconsequential to everybody else.

Epstein conspiracies allege something visceral and horrifying: for decades, a cabal of international elites ran a global rape ring that violated hundreds of girls on private islands and in million-dollar mansions. And when they were in danger of being caught or punished, they brazenly murdered the ringleader.

Democrats are afraid of the story because it involves powerful party forces, from politicians to donors and institutions—or, as Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Christine memorably called them, “some of our faves”). But, as its a story about extreme abuse of extremely unevenly distributed power, it’s a story that could reflect ideas at the heart of this political moment.

Epstein has already become shorthand for expressing populist anger against elites. When Bill Gates complained about how Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth taxes would affect his fortune, a photo of him with Epstein started to circulate online.

When Lloyd Blankfein tried to joke about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage claims, a single picture of Blankfein standing with Ghislaine Maxwell is a sufficient reminder of the monstrous tribe the former Goldman Sachs CEO belongs to.

It’s a way to quickly communicate a message with considerable political force: concentration of wealth enables monstrous behavior. It reminds us that powerful people make decisions that hurt us in our real lives. They cut our jobs, foreclose on our houses and jack up the price of medicine to make money they’ll use to throw parties for Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein.

Democrats would be foolish to ignore a symbol with so much power.