Jeffrey Epstein — his perversions, and the perversions of justice swirling around his case — has lived for years on the margins of politics because of his association with two presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, among others in a long roster of people with respectable titles who spent time in his disreputable orbit.
Epstein’s death by what authorities called suicide in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning moved his case to the center of American politics.
One of the creepiest figures ever to vault to notoriety in modern culture is gone. But the convicted sex offender’s resonance as an emblem of the dark side of national character — a stimulant of suspicion, contempt, and paranoia, in addition to plain nausea — likely will last longer and with more intensity than if he had lived.
At a minimum, the Epstein death is now political even if one takes the details at face value: How was the person who at the moment was arguably the most prominent defendant awaiting trial in the world, who had already apparently attempted suicide a couple weeks earlier, able to take his life at a federal detention center? And who will be held accountable for the lapse?
More profoundly, the Epstein matter is now thoroughly political because many influential people are unable to take the details at face value. Indeed, they think it is simply naïve to do so.
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, that the official version of events is sustained by lies, that the institutions of American life are not on the level. Instead, by these lights, they are affected by personal or partisan interest at every turn.