Jeffrey Epstein's downfall and the crumbling of America's elites

Society is tearing down the broken and rotten institutions and pushing bad actors previously shielded by their ivory towers into the spotlight.
Image: Crumbling of the elites
It's time to acknowledge the uncharted territory we’re entering. Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Steve Krakauer

UPDATE (August 10, 2019, 10 a.m.): Jeffrey Epstein was found dead of an apparent suicide on the morning of Saturday, August 10 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York.

It was December 2010, and Jeffrey Epstein was sitting down for dinner with some of his famous friends — personalities who spanned the TV dial from morning to late night. There was George Stephanopoulos, then the host of Good Morning America, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, and E! comedian and late-night host Chelsea Handler. It was 18 months after Epstein had been released from “prison” (in reality, he spent six days a week working in an office during his year-plus work-release stay in a Florida jail) for pleading guilty to a lesser charge of solicitation of prostitution with a minor.

Accused of far worse, Epstein pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of solicitation of prostitution with a minor. The dinner also took place less than a year after Epstein settled “at least a dozen civil lawsuits … filed by women who allege they were molested by Epstein when they were underage,” according to the Miami Herald. It was a mere five months after the registered sex offender finished his probation and was allowed to leave the state of Florida.

The downfall of Epstein is great news for his victims who were denied justice the first time around. But it’s also the latest example of a recent, broader phenomenon.

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All of this was reported in a 2011 piece in The Daily Beast by Alexandra Wolfe, which has taken on new resonance as Epstein has, finally, mercifully, been arrested again.

The downfall of Epstein is great news for his victims who were denied justice the first time around. But it’s also the latest example of a recent, broader phenomenon — the crumbling of the elites. This crumbling can be traced to a growing distrust with all forms of power. A 2017 poll by The Associated Press found an astoundingly high 82 percent of America say they think “wealthy people” have too much power and influence in Washington. At the same time, Americans’ trust in government is at historic lows, according to a Gallup poll this year. For Democrats and independents, the percentage of respondents who trust government was at 28 percent, the lowest percentage recorded (since 1997), with 59 percent of Republicans also expressing record-low frustration with those walking the halls of power.

But the governmental distrust is only part of the problem, as Epstein shows. During the past few years, we’ve seen the unraveling of the power structure that protected elites across industries. The #MeToo movement in particular gave this unraveling momentum, with the myriad allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein’s criminal treatment of women was more than an open secret for years, yet he was deeply connected. He held a $2 million fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in June 2016 and Bill Clinton called him a “really good friend.”

The #MeToo movement enveloped others who were previously looked upon fondly, from the popular former entertainer and potential 2020 nominee Al Franken, to billionaire casino mogul and former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee Steve Wynn, to celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Then there was the celebrity college cheating scandal, which has lifted the curtain obscuring the inherent unfairness of the college admission process. Another example took place as the 2016 election was playing out, with Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos being exposed as a fraud to investors, but more importantly, consumers. Holmes had spent years gracing the cover of magazines, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative and serving as a member of the Obama administration’s Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship. In the recent HBO documentary, “The Inventor,” journalist Roger Parloff described the “honorary horseshit” which Holmes used to shield her deceptions from so many for so long.

The movie also introduced an interesting experiment that relates to Epstein, Weinstein and others. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely explained a dice test he had conducted, which gave participants money based on an honor system. What Ariely found was that when participants were receiving money for themselves, they would lie less, and the lie detector would catch the lie more often. When the participants were giving the money to charity, they would lie more, but the lie detector would rarely catch the lie.

For a long time, our culture was willing to forgive the probable crimes of those who were simultaneously doing “good” in other areas or succeeding in their industries. Epstein gave hundreds of thousands to AIDS research. Weinstein created a media empire that amassed incredible power both with critics and at the box office. (He also gave plenty to charity.) Trump himself, who so far has yet to experience the repercussions of the #MeToo movement, was fond of boasting of the “millions” he’d given away — even when it wasn’t true. (The Epstein story has already had reverberations within Trump's administration, with the resignation of his Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who was responsible for Epstein's lenient plea deal.)

We are living in a time of radical transparency, especially on social media. This exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes is an apolitical groundswell.

But that benefit of the doubt is in shorter and shorter supply.

We are living in a time of radical transparency, especially on social media. There is overreach to be sure. But in significant ways, this exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes is an apolitical groundswell. It is tearing down the broken and rotten institutions and pushing bad actors previously shielded by their ivory towers into the spotlight. What happens when that spotlight dims, of course, is yet to be seen.

This is crucial. But we must acknowledge the uncharted territory we’re entering. We are left with important and uneasy questions about what’s built once the rubble of the elite is cleared — how we build a better, fairer culture, together as a country.