If it surprised you when Sen. Orrin Hatch said he didn’t care that prosecutors had determined that the president was implicated in a crime; if it startled you to see Rudy Giuliani—who tackled threats to society like turnstile jumpers and squeegee men—so sweatily downplay Donald Trump’s illegal conduct in an interview with Chris Wallace; if you noticed Jerome Corsi doubling down on birtherism, Trump acting like Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was NBD, Alan Dershowitz insisting that Michael Flynn lying to the FBI is “not a crime,” Rep. Steve King endorsing white supremacists, Arnold Kopelson saying “we all did that” to a woman who claimed Les Moonves accosted her and masturbated in front of her, and Minnesota state Sen. Scott Newman dismissing Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault of Christine Blasey Ford with “even if true, teenagers!,” then congratulations: You’ve made it to the end of 2018 without becoming irreversibly jaded.
Frankly, I thought I was. I didn’t think much could stun me. But then the Miami Herald published Julie Brown’s exposé of how prosecutors cozily negotiated with Jeffrey Epstein’s defense team to minimize his punishment for raping and trafficking underage girls—and presiding over a sex ring of sorts that he allegedly shared with powerful friends—and my depleted capacity for shock was refreshed. The case is exceptional, and though it’s about a decade old, you might not have heard about it. We were better, we casual American consumers of news, at not quite absorbing things like this back when the story first broke. In a way, the fact that we still had a functional gossip industry (including Gawker, which reported on Epstein) made ignoring stories like these easier; one could lump horrifying networks that trafficked and abused underage girls into the unreliable and thrilling category of “scandal.” Gossip used to serve that digestive function in media, I think—it whispered true things but also sanitized them by mixing up the frivolous with the criminal.
But the Epstein case has resurfaced at a moment characterized as much by open corruption as it is by queasy moral reckonings. Trump and #MeToo, Paul Manafort’s ostrich jacket, and children in cages—those are jarring juxtapositions. They’ve ushered in a kind of context collapse whose effects it will likely take decades to fully understand. But here’s one: though things might seem dirtier than ever, many once-sheltered Americans are also finally equipped to look—with some clarity, and with appropriate horror—at awful situations that passed mostly unremarked in more “decorous” (if equally decadent) times. Like Jeffrey Epstein.
What America glances away from is as important as what it sees. The #MeToo movement confronted unsavory behaviors and patterns that the public spent decades strenuously joking about and normalizing until they were functionally invisible. It was hard work to not see it all—the abuse, the harassment, the professional sabotage—but most of us managed it. For the most part, we let boys be boys and raised eyebrows at women we suspected of getting ahead on casting couches.
The recent unsealing of those secrets—the magnitude of the sexual abuse, the sheer scale of the damage powerful people have inflicted on their victims with malice and calculation—has had plenty of effects, and plenty of those are positive. Les Moonves is out. Harvey Weinstein is gone. It is a good thing that people who have languished in wounded humiliation, unheard and unavenged, have gotten to finally say what happened to them. It is good, too, that they have not, at this particular moment in history, been instantly ostracized, intimidated, and disbelieved. (There are exceptions.) It is progress, of a kind, that bad men are no longer being universally excused on the grounds that they’re geniuses. (It is progress, too, that many people are finally recognizing that some of these men are simply not geniuses at all.)
Other effects of this great national unbottling have been less positive—senators claiming they don’t care if the president committed felonies, men dismissing the sexual assault of teenage girls as collateral damage of normal, healthy male adolescence. A backlash to #MeToo’s insistence that there be accountability for men as well as women was to be expected, but I was still surprised at the form it took. Some men started needlessly defending sexual assault. They started denying that crimes committed by men—particularly white, rich ones—deserved any punishment at all. They weren’t even crimes! As Doreen St. Félix put it, this is “the patriarchy testing how far its politics of resentment can go. And there is no limit.”
Male malfeasance obviously isn’t new. Neither is old-boy solidarity. What is new is that Omertà has become overt. It’s like the fellas have forgotten how to code-switch and conceal. These days, whole groups of men are downplaying monstrous conduct to the public in just the way they might laughingly do among themselves. It’s startling, this plague of so what–ing malefactors bellowing “boys will be boys” in an effort to downplay the severity of everything from sexual assault to murder, education scams, bank fraud, theft, lying, money laundering, and kidnapping (to name a few). But it’s not just the conduct that’s shocking; it’s the lazy lack of discretion, the tendency to excuse obvious criminality without any sign of embarrassment. It used to be that you had to at least keep your criminal side secret—or at least profess to condemn anti-social conduct. Those days are gone.
Again, it was possible to look away from Jeffrey Epstein in 2008. There was in theory a case that Epstein had “done his time”—even if he pleaded to a mere two counts of “prostitution” (when the case involved a 14-year-old who could not consent) and served a few months in a cushy prison that he left every day for some 12 hours, since he had “work release.” He got plenty of people to play along with the idea that trafficking underage girls and “sharing” them with his friends made him interesting and a bit of a scamp. You could squint at the case and figure that there must have been some legal basis for this, some sensible explanation for why Epstein’s “houseman” served more time (18 months) for stealing his “little black book” than Epstein did for raping girls. What did we know? That one of Epstein’s apparent accomplices wasn’t prosecuted seemed like it might be OK—he’d referred to her as his “sex slave” and said he “bought” her from her family in Yugoslavia. Perhaps she’d been through enough? Maybe everything shook out as it should?
But now, the full horror of the Epstein case—and the networks he relied on—has been revealed and recontextualized, and it’s stunning. It feels like the end of a thriller about heinous bureaucratic corruption, the realization that Trump’s Labor secretary, Alexander Acosta—then a U.S. attorney—sealed a 53-page federal indictment that could have landed Epstein in prison for decades; that he cut the victims out of the negotiations and cozily negotiated with Epstein’s defense team, letting them set terms; that he later tried to justify these decisions by saying that Epstein’s defense team was an “army” whose “assault” disturbed some of his prosecutors. (That same defense team was scraping the Myspace pages of Epstein’s teenage victims to paint them as liars). And when you realize that years later, the Manhattan D.A. not only accepted Epstein’s defense lawyer’s account of what he’d done—”there are no real victims here“—but requested in January 2011 that his status as sex offender be downgraded from the most-dangerous Level 3 to Level 1. That’s right: The prosecutors were arguing that he wasn’t much of a threat to the public. “I have never seen the prosecutor’s office do anything like this,” said the Manhattan Supreme Court justice presiding over the case in 2011. “I have done many [cases] much less troubling than this one where [prosecutors] would never make a downward argument like this.”
Horrifying, too, to realize that there are at least 80 victims—at least one of whom has died from a drug overdose—and that Epstein doesn’t care. “He has never shown a glimmer of understanding that a high-school girl could be damaged by a powerful 50-year-old’s demands, or that some of the girls were already emotionally damaged,” Philip Weiss has written. “Throughout his ordeal, Epstein maintained the air that there was nothing sordid about his actions. His wealth seems to have endowed him with utter shamelessness, the emperor’s new clothes with an erection.”
It’s a good analogy: Epstein turns out to have been one among many naked emperors hanging out together in clubs or on islands, and they’ve spent so long complimenting each other’s outfits that they fully expected the rest of us to concur when they stepped outside. For a long minute we obliged—not by praising them, but by looking away. Not anymore. If Epstein is a decent measure of how public tolerance of and alertness to this kind of thing has changed in 10 years, it’s partly because the damage he’s done has finally become sayable and clear.
It’s obvious—as network after network of enablers gets exposed—that something awful has been happening among male in-groups, particularly powerful ones. That’s not exactly surprising; American homophobia makes male-male friendship much more complicated than it has to be, and that difficulty only increases in group situations. Typically, the boys’ clubs have solved that problem by orienting intimacy around private law breaking. Whether it’s hazing, or toxic homosociality, or even just a heist movie or The Hangover, America’s formula for male bonding revolves around the antisocial violation of pro-social codes. The formula requires that men who gather together find a way to degrade society at large—where that society is construed as female, or at least feminized—in order to obtain one another’s approval. Boys’ club intimacy has historically required that there be a standard for them to violate, a stultifying feminine consensus against which they could manfully rebel.
The violations have long had to remain private—or at least semiprivate—for this whole thing to work. That’s why Kavanaugh and his buds called themselves “Renate Alumni” in his yearbook: to humiliate and brag about the woman in a semipublic context she’d never see that made them feel brave and cool. The private airplane on which Epstein ferried rich men and trafficked underage girls was dubbed the Lolita Express by the press. Open secrets are still, at least in a technical sense, secrets—they just have a veneer of jokey stealth.
Gender equality definitely isn’t where it should be, but the feminized world the boys’ club needs in order to be meaningful no longer really obtains. In pop culture and in the public sphere, lots of women are about as foul-mouthed as men, and as ambitious. Plenty of men are nurturing or neurotic or gentle or kind. Men, women, and others have discovered that they can have friendships and professional relationships with each other that don’t depend on the fact of gender difference; the culture has changed enough that the question driving, say, When Harry Met Sally (could a man and a woman be friends?) feels a little antiquated and beside the point. The structuring dichotomy that America relied on is, however slowly, dissolving.
So is the secrecy. Remember: Acosta’s key intervention in the Epstein case was that he kept the plea agreement (which he worked out with plenty of input from Epstein’s lawyers) secret from the victims themselves—in whose interests he was supposedly acting. Julie Brown reported that the police investigating Epstein found then–Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer strangely evasive about the case, as was Assistant State Attorney Lanna Belohlavek. They seemed to be dodging calls from the investigators. “Early on, it became clear that things had changed, from Krischer saying, ‘we’ll put this guy away for life,’ to ‘these are all the reasons why we aren’t going to prosecute this,’ ” former Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter said. That’s the network operating as it should: keeping the seedy underbelly protected so no consequences can arrive.
Trump arguably helped spoil the thrilling secrecy of the taboo-busting club by saying all the antisocial stuff out loud. He never quite fit, really—too weird, too desperate for approval. His solution was to make the world his boys’ club: Rather than stick to winks and elbow nudges, he would minimize everything the cool bad boys did, and not just privately—he’d up the ante and do it in front of the world. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin a killer, Trump stood up for his would-be buddy. “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” When Flynn was discovered to have been an unregistered foreign agent, Trump called him a “good guy.” And here’s what he said about Jeffrey Epstein to New York magazine back in 2002: “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it—Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” He almost said the thing out loud, except back then, nobody cared. He made all the private agreements the boys had with each other—and the taboos they broke with each other—explicit. And then he became president.
Now, when Trump defends Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or Mohammed bin Salman or Putin himself on the grounds that they personally deny what they’re accused of, when Virginia’s Republican candidate for Senate Corey Stewart defends the Confederacy, when Roger Stone doubles down on the lie that Ted Cruz’s father killed Kennedy, and when Alex Jones’ own legal defense is that no one would believe what Alex Jones says, it’s clear that their strategy isn’t limited to laughing off attacks on women. It’s about pooh-poohing malfeasance of all kinds.
It’s true, of course, that just because the toxic mechanics of male in-groups are now out in the open doesn’t mean those mechanics are going away. But they are now harder to deny. We can’t pretend this is not a problem anymore, or that these ugly alliances don’t exist. And Epstein is an extremely instructive example of one of these exposed male networks: Hire enough lawyers that the U.S. attorney in charge of your case wants to impress, and you’ll likely come out of your sex trafficking enterprise serenely convinced you did nothing wrong.
There may be no remedy for rich and powerful men who have been praised and praised by their cohort until their capacity for genuine understanding, or empathy, or integrity, collapses. That this happens is clear: Dershowitz, who has since been accused of having sex with two of Epstein’s victims himself (he denies it), has called Epstein “brilliant.” Back in the early aughts, Gerald Edelman commended Epstein’s “ability to pick up on quantitative relations” and psychologist Stephen Kosslyn said, “He is amazing. Like a honeybee—he talks to all these different people and cross-pollinates.”
But when you read Epstein’s own words, you start to see that some of that legendary “cross-pollination” was also an exercise in personal projection. He once wrote a letter to a scientist friend—summarized in this 2002 profile of him from New York magazine—that’s ostensibly about termite society, but what it really describes, with uncanny insight, are the sticky, subrational alliances of the puerile ultra-rich. “The behavior of termites, together with ants and bees, is a precursor to trust,” Epstein wrote, “because they have an extraordinary ability to form relationships and sophisticated social structures based on mutual altruism even though individually they are fundamentally dumb.”
You may nod at this, thinking of the soft and crumbly tunnels the Trumps and Epsteins and Cohens and Giulianis and Stones have gnawed for mutual comfort into the societies others have built. Boys’ club behavior requires accepting in advance that anything goes; that is, indeed, a “precursor to trust.” Epstein’s interest in that carte blanche arrangement turns out not to be scholarly but entirely profit-driven. “If we can figure out how termites come together,” Epstein writes, “then we may be able to better understand the underlying principles of market behavior—and make big money.” Here, in plain daylight, in Epstein’s own words, is the dynamic that shaped the secret underground networks that have weakened a society’s foundations. Termites do come together, and it’s not pleasant to see the walls crumbling. But as gruesome as these societies have turned out to be, we’re lucky their inner workings are finally out in the open.