The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes say about our era

Jeffrey Epstein pleaded not guilty in federal court in New York Monday to sex trafficking charges following his arrest over the weekend. (Uma Sanghvi/AP)
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When guessing how our current age of wealth excess might come to an end, I highly doubt anyone predicted “scandal involving sex abuse of children.” But the Jeffrey Epstein scandal is something, I predict, that will come to be viewed in future years as one of the defining events that brings our age of excess to a close. It’s a scandal people will study in the next century, the way we learn about Marie Antoinette’s playacting at poverty on her faux farm when studying pre-Revolutionary France, or think immediately about Rasputin when discussing the end of the Russian monarchy.

It’s not because the Epstein scandal is grotesquely salacious, though it is certainly that. Nor is it that if offers up mystery upon mystery, though that factors as well. Nor is it just his connections and associations with power brokers in both political parties. It’s all of that, but there is more.

The major lie of the age of wealth inequality is that the moneyed are somehow better than the rest of us day-to-day working schlubs. The aristocracy of prewar Europe had their bloodlines. Our latter-day meritocratic aristocrats, we are told, possess the modern equivalent, which is extraordinary intelligence. The slothful working class are slaves to short-term pleasure. The rich, on the other hand, are disciplined. They wake up early, and they refuse to live beyond their means.

This is a lie. The Epstein scandal proves it.

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Epstein was depicted as a financial genius despite the fact that almost no one saw him laboring at his supposed trade. Instead, the louche Epstein appeared to enjoy endless time devoted to his chosen pursuit: preying on young women for sex, many of them under the age of legal consent. He did this while flying on his private jet or residing on one of his many properties, descriptions of which read like semi-forgotten sets from “Eyes Wide Shut.” According to the New York Times, his New York City townhouse, for instance, featured photos of celebrities and political power brokers, a chandelier with a true-to-life-size female doll hanging down from it, as well as a security camera system.

When the authorities — finally — came calling back in the mid-aughts, Epstein was apparently able to use his wealth and many, many powerful connections to get a sweetheart of a short jail sentence, with an apparent assist from the U.S. attorney for Miami, Alexander Acosta, now President Trump’s labor secretary. When most people get out of jail, they can barely get a job at a fast food joint. Not our man Epstein, whose life-destroying behavior was passed off with a wink and shrug from the very beginning. (“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,” Trump said in 2002.)

Not many thought this socially disqualifying. Celebrities were still turning up at Epstein-hosted parties even after he was released from jail. The NYPD seemingly waived requirements that Epstein, a convicted sex offender, report in on a regular basis — another kindness the department doesn’t extend to the nonwhite or non-wealthy. More than a few charities and nonprofits continued to line up at the trough for a chance at his money, the same way many were more than happy until recently to take reputation-washing money from the Sackler family, whose actions helped set off the opioid epidemic. The Hewitt School, an independent Manhattan K-12 girls school, took a $15,000 donation from Epstein less than five years ago. Yes, a girl’s school. One shudders.

Then there is the crime at the heart of the scandal. Americans like to believe that we protect our children, but thinking it doesn’t make it so. We live in a sexualized culture, one that relentlessly demeans women starting in their tween years. While no woman, young or old, is safe from this, it must be said that class distinctions apply here too. The young, the powerless and the poverty-struck are even more vulnerable to the powerful and wealthy. Epstein, a practiced predator, apparently knew this. He and his helpers seemed to specialize in targeting girls from working-class homes with absentee or overwhelmed parents. (Let’s pause for a moment to note one of his chief alleged procurers: Ghislaine Maxwell, Manhattan socialite and daughter of media baron/fraudster Robert Maxwell.) It’s hard not to suspect that if Epstein was preying on the daughters of the well-connected, he would have done more serious jail time when originally charged.

Our era is one of exploding and all but unpunished crime by the wealthy and connected. Millions of homeowners lost their homes to foreclosures due to rampant fraud among mortgage providers, but not one senior banking official spent even an hour in jail for the financial crisis. Women are treated not as equals but with contempt, potentially subjected to horrifying treatment in the workplace for the crime of wanting to earn a living and get ahead. The ongoing investigations into such characters as Trump, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen reveal few cared about cash laundering, tax fraud and shady financial scams that targeted working-class people.

All of this has come together in Jeffrey Epstein. The Epstein scandal blows holes through the foundational myths of our time, revealing them for the empty and sickening bromides used to justify obscene wealth and power and privilege that they really are.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The Jeffrey Epstein charges raise grave questions about Alexander Acosta

Alyssa Rosenberg: Jeffrey Epstein and his friends. All of it.

Helaine Olen: How Trump and the GOP plan to ruin the U.S. health-care system

Jennifer Rubin: Women see a familiar, ghastly pattern in the Trump White House

David Von Drehle: Jeffrey Epstein’s scandal of secrecy points to a creeping rot in the American justice system