Spygate. Pizzagate. Harvey Weinstein. Hillary Clinton’s emails. The Access Hollywood tape. The Steele dossier. Stormy Daniels. Every day seems to bring a new scandal or conspiracy theory, feeding our preoccupation with hidden forms of wrongdoing among the rich and powerful. The pace of scandals and shocking revelations is almost dizzying — making it hard to keep track of which ones are legitimate and which ones are fake.
Inevitably, there have been comparisons between recent events and previous presidential scandals, like Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky affair. But rather than focusing on individual scandals from earlier eras, it is more useful to think about periods when scandals were constantly in the news and when conspiracy theories were rife. Doing so helps us understand that our era of scandal is not driven by the occupant in the White House, but by a deeper problem: economic inequality.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the French public witnessed a seemingly unending flow of scandals. Like our current era, some of the allegations were true. The Dreyfus Affair, the most famous scandal of the era, revolved around a very real conspiracy within the French army to frame Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer, for espionage.
Others were about as true as Pizzagate — which is to say, not at all — while some involved a tangle of false allegations, true ones and ones whose truth we can only guess at. Take the Steinheil Affair. In 1899, French President Félix Faure died of a cardiac event he suffered during an amorous liaison with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. The circumstances of his death were largely hushed up at the time, though plenty of people in Parisian society knew about them.
The circumstances of Faure’s death became a public cause for concern 10 years later, when Steinheil was implicated in the murder of her husband and mother. That Faure had a mistress troubled very few — this was France, after all. But other details about their liaison that came out during the investigation cast the French government in a bad light. There was, for example, evidence of financial corruption. To cement their affair, Faure had directed the government to pay the then-enormous sum of 30,000 francs for a painting by Steinheil’s husband, a mediocre artist.
There were also concerns about the nature of the investigation itself, since the chief investigator into the double-murder turned out to be a friend of the Steinheil household — some said one of her admirers. Critics of the government raised the possibility that there was a determined effort to shield Steinheil, who had many powerful men among her stable of friends and ex-lovers, from scrutiny and indeed it is quite likely that this was an instance of investigative corruption. The far-right press used the case to suggest that she had unwittingly been the agent of Masons or Jews who poisoned Faure so that they could replace him with a president who was more sympathetic to the Dreyfusard cause. This baseless charge did real damage to a nation trying to recover from the vitriolic anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair.
Why did scandals and conspiracies proliferate at this precise moment in French history? The era saw a rising tide of nationalism and xenophobia, and many of the conspiracy theories targeted those perceived to be outsiders, as is the case today. At the same time, the number of newspapers exploded: in 1900, in Paris alone there were 79 dailies. Promises to reveal the secrets of political figures were a way to attract readers amid intense competition — again, not dissimilar from our current media environment.
The period was also one of profound inequalities in wealth, when the top 1 percent was raking in 20 times the average income of the rest of the population. Profound political inequalities existed, too: many struggled with the question of what it meant to live within a political system that claimed to represent all male citizens, but in which only a small number of elites actually held power. Political life and the realm of high officialdom was dominated by an interrelated and intermarried bourgeoisie — which journalist Robert de Jouvenel called “la république des camarades” (“the republic of buddies”) — who were often thought to be concerned primarily with advancing themselves, and not serving the needs of the people.
That should sound familiar to students of the contemporary United States, where there is a deep concern about how the billionaire donor class is warping politics. The right has George Soros as a boogeyman, while the left has the Koch brothers. In such environments, it is not surprising that many believe that important political decisions are made behind closed doors and with the interests of only a few in mind. Conspiracy theories and scandals promise that these secret deals will be revealed, and the real mechanisms of power unmasked.
But in France, such scandals brought the contrast between the wealthiest and powerful and the vast majority of the French population into public view. The Panama Affair of 1892-1893, for instance, centered on charges that prominent politicians took bribes from the French Panama Canal Co., which, when it went bankrupt in 1889, devastated the finances of 85,000 investors, many of whom were of modest means. There could be no clearer example of how politicians profited from their positions at the expense of ordinary folks. Likewise, Faure’s artistic patronage of Steinheil’s husband was essentially an instance of taxpayer-funded prostitution.
These scandals also revealed the degree to which elites understood that they could transgress with relative impunity. Steinheil was a perfect example of how the state set out to protect the reputation of a prominent society hostess because of her proximity to power. In the present day, Trump and Weinstein used their positions as star-makers first to gain access to women and then to buy the silence of those who alleged consensual or nonconsensual sexual relations with them.
But scandal and conspiracy were not just byproducts of these inequities: They became ways to contest them. During the Steinheil Affair, the fact that the police investigation had largely been concerned with shielding her from scrutiny, despite a mountain of evidence that she had lied about what she saw on the night of the crime, led to an outcry about the state’s preferential treatment of elites. Pizzagate similarly revolved around the claim that Democratic Party elites were engaging in child sex trafficking. These false allegations not only incited violence, but spoke to anxieties about the consequences of the concentration of an undue amount of power in the hands of a few.
Of course, Pizzagate was entirely made up, whereas Steinheil may well have been involved in the double murder. In this respect the two cases are very different from each other. But both speak to the belief that the rich and powerful live under a different set of rules than the rest of us, rules that explain why they are gobbling up more and more of society’s wealth.
We often attribute the fact that the news cycle seems to be dominated by scandals and conspiracy theories to a president with a lot more to hide than previous ones, including his tax returns, and who regularly traffics in conspiracy theories. Or we talk about the importance of social media, an environment where conspiracy theories flourish. But there are other forces at work, too, ones that make speculating about and peering into the lives of the powerful irresistible — and sometimes vitally important.