When the news broke on Saturday that Jeffrey Epstein had died, I posted a joke on Facebook: “Waiting for the right-wing scoop that Hillary, fearful that her child sex abuse ring in the pizza parlor would be exposed, personally paid a guard to let her into Epstein’s cell, where she used her teeth to rip the bed sheet into a noose. Russia, if you’re listening, why is she hiding her dental records?”
Sure enough, within an hour, a Trump-appointed federal housing official declared on Instagram that Epstein had been “Hillary’d!!” But she was soon trumped by her boss in the White House. Having nothing better to do, Trump surfed Twitter and found an unhinged video that accused both Clintons, Bill and Hillary, of murdering Epstein. The author of the video, a conservative commentator named Terrence K. Williams, featured this brilliant conclusion: “Word on the street is the Clintons did it. But I don’t know nothing.”
That was good enough for Trump. He retweeted it.
I knew my joke wouldn’t be fictional for long. Paranoia and fakery are staples of the Trump era, led by the loon at the top. As the legendary writer Philip Roth warned long ago, the American brand of crazy “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” Indeed, when Roth wrote that in 1961, I doubt he could have imagined even a fictional reality in which a president accused a predecessor of ordering a hit. Pre-2017, nor could we have.
Granted, conspiracy theorists on the left claim, also without evidence, that it was Trump who got Epstein whacked. But, as quaint as this may sound, it’s the job of a president to rise above idiocy and stand for sanity. Instead, we’re saddled with a fake president who yells murder and contradicts his own government (the Bureau of Prisons, an arm of the Justice Department, stated Saturday that Epstein died by apparent suicide). In the words of ex-Bush speechwriter and conservative commentator David Frum, we’re saddled with a fake president who’s “punching the retweet button like an addled retiree playing the slots through a fog of painkillers … this presidency shames and disgraces the office every minute of every hour of every day.”
And, as usual, Trump makes his loyalists look like fools. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, tweeted on Saturday that “the immediate rush to spread conspiracy theories about someone on the ‘other side’ of partisan divide having (Epstein) killed illustrates why our society is so vulnerable to foreign disinformation & influence efforts.” Shortly after Rubio posted his plea, Trump spread the Clinton conspiracy theory.
I suppose we should not be surprised by any of this — after all, this is a guy who flashed a thumbs-up grin while posing with a baby who was orphaned in a mass shooting inspired by his racist rhetoric. Nor should we have been surprised to find Kellyanne Conway on Sunday morning TV, insisting that Trump’s Clinton fixation is no big deal. (She told Fox News: “I think the president just wants everything to be investigated.”) We’ve long come to understand that Trump’s base takes on faith whatever he opts to amplify.
Indeed, a general sense of paranoia — a willingness to believe the worst, reflecting a general lack of faith in our institutions, all of it stoked by the relentless churn of social media — is now rampant throughout the political culture. As Politico co-founder John Harris rightly observes, “The signature of American politics in the Trump era is a conviction — shared initially by many people who backed Trump but now embraced with similar fervor by many who loathe him — that things are not what they seem.”
In truth (assuming there is still such a thing as nonpartisan truth), Epstein’s death affords journalists the opportunity to investigate and gather facts without resorting to crackpot conspiracy theories. Why was he removed from suicide watch? Were the protocols for removal followed or violated? Who made the decision? In his final day on earth, were his guards simply distracted by overwork or was there a more nefarious reason why they failed to check him every 30 minutes? How exactly, and by what method, did he apparently hang himself? Looking ahead, will his death halt all the probes that stem from his conduct? (No, they “remain ongoing.”) And how will his death affect his victims’ pursuit of justice?
Trump could actually perform a valuable public service by muzzling his paranoid instincts, refusing to further amplify the conspiracy mania, urging everyone to calm down and await the incremental release of verifiable facts, and generally comporting himself as a responsible human being in accordance with the high office he holds. But, as he declared the other day, “There’s never been a president like President Trump.” On that, at least, we can all agree.