Jeffrey Epstein and When to Take Conspiracies Seriously

Sometimes conspiracy theories point toward something worth investigating. A few point toward the truth.


Comments: 221

  1. Of course conspiracy theories will continue to exist. Ross has written a thoughtful Op-Ed on what good journalism should do. Investigate, Investigate, Investigate! It will take time and maybe the full story will never be written about. Clearly there seems an implausible sequence of events to a fascinating story that has ties to many powerful wealthy men not to investigate and let the public know what is the truth.

  2. Sometimes conditions simply invite conspiracy speculation, as in the case of Epstein's suicide. I'm willing to believe that it was simple incompetence (there's so much of that around) but it's not hard to imagine that the conditions that allowed his suicide were deliberately engineered. It would however, probably take more competence to effect than is available.

  3. As usual, Ross writes a good and thoughtful essay. But we see patterns where there are none. And we see things that aren't there. As for the UFOs, we used to see angels; shortly after flying machines were invented we started seeing flying machines. It would take a lot of belief to assume that William Blake, who saw angels on Primrose Hill, and the guy you work with who has seen alien flying machines, are both correct.

  4. The suicide claim itself is a conspiracy theory. I don't accept this theory. Extraordinary claims made without extraordinary evidence will be summarily dismissed. Epstein could take down numerous extremely rich and powerful men, he needed to be silenced. I resist the urge to stitch together a series of cherry picked and unverifiable factoids into a made for TV narrative. I doubt that outside of a dozen people will ever know what really happened. We will NEVER see the extraordinary evidence. Period.

  5. @oldBassGuy - Yes. But Barr is talking a good game for now, right? That’s going nowhere.

  6. @oldBassGuy Is never seeing the evidence one of the seminal conspiracy theories?

  7. Thank you, Mr. Douthat, for an interesting look at conspiracy theories and how they play out. I doubt that we have heard the last of Epstein, but because of the money and power surrounding the man, we may never know the details of this one. Perhaps the story will come out after all of us are gone.

  8. We'll see how this all unwinds because there are lots of big hitters with reason to be very concerned. What may have seemed like privileged debauchery may end up taking down some very notable people. Hopefully there will be many points of investigation because it will be just too easy to sidetrack a single "official inquiry".

  9. Conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories cannot arise without the idea of the conspiracy, and the idea of the conspiracy cannot arise unless there is the possibility that at least some human beings are capable of operating without the knowledge of other people, so conspiracy theories will always exist unless we can design society so that nobody operates without knowledge of other people. But if we design society so that conspiracies are impossible, and therefore conspiracy theories cannot exist, societies which aim to be as transparent in their operations as possible, we enter the realm of the totalitarian society which everyone seems to agree for one reason or another is an undesirable society, which means everybody for one reason or another likes a society not too transparent, and therefore one in which conspiracies can arise, and therefore everybody likes their conspiracy theories of one design or another. What if conspiracies were made impossible? What if conspiracy theories simply died by total transparency of society? What would we think of other people and what would people actually do if conspiracy was impossible? Could we stand such a thing? Plenty of reasons are given for rejecting totalitarian, panopticon society, but even if such a society were designed in optimal, just fashion, could we progress, develop under total surveillance, or is it that we humans are compromised in genuine progress, development by being constantly conspiring, "hidden" creatures?

  10. The adage, "always tell the truth" imparted in the early stages of life, kind of gets muddled when we do bad things as adults. And if you find yourself in a guilty state, a conspiracy theory (or lie, or innuendo) works well in deflecting blame. Put someone else on defense, so they have to debunk the lie.

  11. The problem is that deciding which conspiracy theory is true is simply in the eyes of the beholder. To Douthat, the conspiracy to defraud the US by Trumpy and family is a 'conspiracy theory'. This, despite much evidence that there was much interchange between Trumpy and the Kremlin. The Mueller report doesn't dismiss this but states that they were unable to establish it as a fact, provable in a court of law.

  12. @Cynical, did you really read the article? I did and my reading comprehension is quite good. He laid out the theory of that conspiracy but dismissed it. I don't always agree with Douthat but this was a good commentary.

  13. @Cynical However, there's a lot more evidence that Hillary Clinton a.) bankrolled Russian disinformation to affect the election, b.) destroyed subpoenaed emails, c.) cleaned servers and phones, and d.) had people within the FBI who were willing to tip the scales of justice to protect her.

  14. @Southern Man If this is so, the Justice Dept and all 18 intelligence agencies must be informed immediately! The remainder of the country must be informed too. And so should the entire media enterprise. Obviously, the Trumpy fans are privy to a 'lot more evidence' than anyone else. Never mind that Trumpy was investigated by the Republicans: House, Senate, DOJ, Republican-Muller etc.

  15. Just because some people are conspiracy theorists does not mean they are always wrong. As Ross points out, there have been many coverups by our Government and many Industries, like Tobacco and Pharma that have hidden much truth about their products from us. We may have a much better understanding of what happened to Epstein if someone other than Barr is in charge of the investigation. Barr is too willing to cover for Trump. I hope the SDNY rises to the occasion and digs thoroughly, as they did with the Trump Foundation. I have more faith in their investigation, than Barr's.

  16. @Jean SDNY is part of Barr's "Justice Department". I don't have faith in anything that is controlled by the GOP.

  17. @Jay Lagemann I know that, but the SDNY has shown themselves to act Independently with the investigations regarding the Trump Foundation. I have faith that they will do so as well with the Epstein investigation

  18. Conspiracy theories are generally untrue because people make them up---out of whole cloth. They make arguments that suffer from lack of credible evidence. They may have a variety of motivations but whatever they are, it does not impart truth to the endeavor.

  19. We rightly view most conspiratorial theories as the product of paranoia. However governments, including of course our own, for decades have concocted false explanations of policies and programs in the interest of private donors and supporters. No one calls Dwight Eisenhower paranoid for fingering the Military Industrial Complex. Doubts about policies of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 are justified, whether they involve conspiracies or simply incompetence and ignorance. Nixon and Reagan and Bush 43 inaugurated policies domestically and especially in foreign policy which were based on either self-deception or intentional deception of the American people. If as a result we are mistrustful of what our governments tell us we are being not paranoid but prudent.

  20. @n1789. And every so often some pundit wonders why more Americans don’t vote. This country has been damaging its own credibility with voters for most of its existence and has had the nerve to tout democracy and judge other countries just as long.

  21. @n1789 Weapons of Mass Destruction.

  22. @Chip, and that is exactly why we need to vote!

  23. Well written. In my opinion history can be divided into three general areas. 1-The truth 2-Ficton 3-All other Examples of the truth are documentation that Columbus landed in America, that Amundsen discovered the South Pole etc. etc. Examples of fiction are the world is flat, native Americans did not come before Europeans, etc. etc. Everything else is other. Included here are conspiracies theories which almost always turn out to be false or that cannot be proved. Examples here are that Japanese captured Amelia E, Lincoln's killer is still on the loose etc. etc.

  24. @Paul Columbus never landed in America.

  25. @Paul How about Sandy Hook or the Holocaust didn't happen theories.

  26. Almost every conspiracy is two fold. There is the conspiracy to commit an act: a break-in at the Watergate, the murder of a president, the trafficking of young women, you name it. Anytime you have more than one person involved in an act they are co-conspirators. Then there is the conspiracy to cover it up. Linguistics are coming up short here, we need a better way to differentiate between the two. I've worked in detention centers, Epstein was not murdered.

  27. @Johnny I can accept that Epstein was not murdered. I do wonder about who was responsible for deciding that he would not be carefully monitored after the apparent attempt at suicide. Was it just incompetence or did someone or some people think that Epstein deserved to die? Is it possible that there was some influence, perhaps money or perhaps something else, that made those in charge, and there are many levels of being in charge, fail to take precautions against another attempt at suicide? I think Ross is absolutely correct that conspiracy theories deflect attention from real questions.

  28. @Johnny says, "I've worked in detention centers, Epstein was not murdered." Perhaps, but it is common knowledge that many jailers know how to drive susceptible prisoners crazy or to suicide through psychological abuse, sense deprivation, sleep deprivation, noise, etc.

  29. @Johnny Maybe he was provided with an opportunity...

  30. Am I the only one who noticed there is no 'P' in Epstein on that crawler?

  31. @Steve Mills. He wasn’t a boy either.

  32. I missed that but saw 'bad boy financier'. Bad boy? Holy cow.

  33. Well, it is Fox News, so no surprise.

  34. There is irony to be found in the conspiracy theories swirling around Epstein's death. Both camps, left and right, have identifies a bogeyman directing the conspiratorial murder: The right, the Clintons; for the left, Trump. The mainstream press applies equivalent scorn to both views, but when trial norms are applied and the "evidence" is filtered through the perspectives of motive and opportunity, the cases to be made are not equal. The Clintons are not running for office in 2020 and certainly have less motive to silence a possible source of incriminating evidence. It has been proven already in the cases of the affairs Trump had conspired to keep silent before the 2016 election that he is willing to take extraordinary and illegal measures and lie repeatedly about the same. The Clintons are not in seats of power to affect the current workings of the government and they did not appoint Acosta to a prestigious cabinet position. There is definitely more of a record of Trump interacting with Epstein and some that seems to suggest Trump knew of Epstein's criminal activity. That Trump would retweet the Clinton conspiracy fits his well-known pattern of calling others the very thing that describes his own actions.

  35. Perfect.

  36. @Lawrence Zajac "The Left" hasn't identified the President as being responsible for Jeffery Epstein's death. It is documented he and the man had some level of friendship- but no one and nothing I have read has gone to the idiocy of officially blaming Donald Trump for his death: Which politician has done that? Whereas we have the ultimate political leader of the free world tweeting how the Clintons had him murdered.

  37. @Kindred Spirit How many times did Donald Trump fly on Epstein's jet? Wasn't it 24? Oh wait, that was Bill Clinton.

  38. This distrust in the US government came from somewhere. I think it started during the Vietnam War when TV media really went to people's homes. Who can forget President Johnson and General Westmoreland telling the American public, "we are winning the war in Vietnam!" Meanwhile we find out years later with the Pentagon Papers that the US believed in the mid 1960s the war the unwinnable. So this distrust didn't just come out of nowhere.

  39. @Not 99pct Fortunately, relative to the events you are describing (the Viet Nam War), we had a different perspective on the mainstream media at the time which allowed us to trust Walter Cronkite when he reported back to us that the military effort was a ruse and that the war was un-winnable. Now, for many reasons, we have cause to question both government proclamations and an increasingly biased media.

  40. @two cents Try TYT net work online, they do not run away from the facts. They are not beholden to big corporations or to corrupt politicians. They rely on the facts in fact and do everything in their power not to be biased. Really refreshing and life saving.

  41. @Not 99pct The most important original government cover up was the attempt to bury the truth, whatever can be proven of it, of the Kennedy assassination. The accused assassin was a double agent for Naval Intelligence and the CIA, who worked with Cuban exile soldiers of fortune, and who informed on leftists for the FBI. There are tons of material proving he had accomplices and was not the lone gunman. The government at the time seemed to have constructed an official story, full of contradictions and logical atrocities, in order to placate public unrest. 56 years later, the truth is quietly understood that the Warren Commission lied and omitted evidence, yet it is now safely dismissed as Conspiracy Theory to doubt its conclusions.

  42. You might consider the conspiracy theory to be similar to the hypothesis in scientific inquiry: an idea to examined and tested. The pity is that too often the conspiracy theory is not examined and tested. Even the limited amount of the examination we do see will no doubt be cut even further, as the tribe of journalists continues to diminish. And sure, conspiracists may be paranoid. But even if it got its start on a button or tote-bag, the old saying still stands: Even paranoids have real enemies.

  43. @Jonathan Exactly so. Thank you. One must remember, however that be it conspiracy theory or hypothesis, (To semi-quote an old Catholic saying about priests and nuns) Many are thought, but few are chosen. The other thing is that once in a great while the most implausible hypothesis or conspiracy theory turns out to be the right one.

  44. @Jonathan ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’ One of the better 70’s bumper stickers, along with ‘Humpty Dumpty was pushed!’

  45. My favorite conspiracy theory is the one that Pres45 put a hit out on Epstein because they were buddies and Pres45 didn't want Epstein dishing on him. But seriously, this column is one of the best I've read in a while. All good points about how difficult it is to sort through all the fiction to get to the truth. And no reporter or law enforcement officer wants to waste their time chasing falsehoods. Which is why it is so important that the victims come forward. That is really the only way the truth can rise above all the falsehoods. The biggest impediment to victims coming forward is that they have to be willing to become victims again. And who wants that? Our current "system" of investigating these types of complaints treats the victims as potential criminals, or at the least, as delusional. We must have a better system to vet complaints without subjecting the victim to more pain and anguish so the victim count doesn't get the amounts seen with the US Gymnasts or Catholic priests or ... (unfortunately, too many examples could be put into this list). Perhaps regional SVUs could be set up at the state levels that could be called in to investigate such complaints. They would be trained to investigate without treating the complainant as a potential criminal. And there would be a more centralized database of these complaints to make it easier to see how many complaints are being made. Improvements are needed. We just need someone with the will to take on the task.

  46. Or they are false because they are the narrative voice that comes from the place where the conscience used to be, replacing what is rational with what is logically possible. When a people cannot trust their conscience they look to others to see what they are thinking (like cheating on a test in school) and prefer the morality of the herd than that of the conscience. We live in a crowd of vying conspiracy theories, not in a democracy of individual consciences.

  47. Which ought to remind us: whether you do or do not subscribe to this conspiracy theory or that, it is essential that journalism thrive unimpeded in America. We must speak out against those who characterize their critics as purveyors of "fake news" while at the same time we must remain diligent in our own pursuit of the truth, which means keeping an open mind at all times.

  48. What data & evidence proves that most conspiracy theories are false? Douthat makes this assertion in an op-Ed, yes, but he assets this as fact when he has no proof or evidence. Conspiracy theories are totally logical & plausible in The Epstein case. Too many powerful people would have incentive to see him dead. Be careful about dismissing them so readily.

  49. We don't need conspiracy theories to investigate irregularities. In the case of Mr. Epstein's death, the underlying assumption is that someone or several someone's actually feared his possible revelations & wanted him silenced. Three things undercut that: 1) Epstein had a credibility problem, 2) his circle of acquaintances has been well known & documented for decades, and 3) the proclivities of celebrities & politicians no longer have the shock value they might once have and very little possibility of derailing careers or deals.

  50. @knitfrenzy Really? Do you think so? It’s pretty likely that if evidence surfaces against any of Epstein’s “friends” of the sexual abuse of children, their lives would be derailed pretty fast. Did you miss this little scandal with the Catholic Church? Epstein had a credibility problem? Hardly. Read the Miami Herald investigation. Not to mention, look at what was found, and God knows how much of it has disappeared, in raids on his homes. As for the story being around for a long time, what better indictment could you find? He was protected by a Justice Department that made a sweetheart deal, now criticized by a federal judge, for him to spend a few nights sleeping in a jail cell as punishment for sex trafficking, and the lead prosecutor, who made the deal (in secret meetings, no less), astonishingly ended up in the president’s cabinet. Oh, and then there’s the matter of a law firm, of which the attorney general of the United States is a former member, that represented Epstein in Florida and got him that plea bargain. It seems to me downright strange to think that nobody powerful had a strong investment in Epstein quickly disappearing from the face of the earth. Even non-conspiracists pretty much agree on that. What would lead you to promote the notion is dumbfounding

  51. It’s easy for those like Marianne Williamson to criticize the treatment of depression when she has no responsibility for the outcomes of those treated. She may rethink her harmonic convergence spiritual approach when (after spending 8 years becoming Board Certified in Psychiatry) one of her patients commits suicide or winds up with a hefty prison sentence because she wanted to “keep the edge on” rather than prescribe an antidepressant.

  52. As I understand it, all of the investigative power of the USA; CIA, FBI, Homeland Security and of course the Justice Department itself, is now in the hands of Trump's loyal servants? I suspect Epstein will be soon forgotten.

  53. What a mishmash of a piece. I kept reading, expecting it to go somewhere, but it never did.. OF COURSE many conspiracy theories are driven by real problems, but the conspiracy theories still do great harm. Alger Hiss WAS guilty of espionage yet Joe McCarthy ruined the careers of many innocents. Some doctors and drug companies DO harm patients in the pursuit of profit, but there is no cover-up of miracle cancer-cures made from rose hips. What's missing here is a broader understanding of the cause of dangerous conspiracy theories -- lack of trust in our official information sources -- and what to do about it.

  54. @Peter Blau It seems pretty obvious that Mr. Douthat explains exactly what causes dangerous conspiracies. He says it right in the beginning of the article. The government lies, and people know it, and the more the government tries to cover it up, the more people begin to doubt everything. The less sophisticated the person, the wilder the theory. But if you see a flying object in the sky at night (because the government is doing secret weapons testing) and they tell you that there's nothing there, that YOU are CRAZY, then that's called gaslighting. The more a person is gaslit, the more they are going to doubt every single thing that they're told is true. "The water in Flint is FINE, it's totally FINE. None of the children have lead poisoning!", but all of the children have led poisoning. Would you believe what your government tells you ever again? The solution, then, is clear: once the government starts telling the truth, the wild theories will subside. So it looks like, for now, the theories are here to stay.

  55. @Peter Blau Serious question: What should we do about the lack of trust in our official information sources? I am interested because I share the concern, but I have no idea of how to address it.

  56. @Betsy S more journalists less social media. If people understood the required standards of journalism and the ethics that are inherent in the profession they would trust more. You can acknowledge bias and leanings but fact gathering is a process. One problem is that process breaks down with speed. Since instant information is driving profits, we have a fundamental problem. All sources are not equal. The only way to combat it is to actively educate and that starts with the young.

  57. This column made me think that the whole Epstein saga exacerbates numerous divisions in the American public: conspiracy adherents on the left and right; the wealth gap; the #metoo movement; rationalism versus fear; media fairness; and so much more. The person best served by all this is none other than Putin. This is not to say that Putin had anything to do with it (or did he?), but that there is now an easy route to sow more division in America. That, after all, is his primary goal.

  58. And then there are truths which we just don't want to hear because it tells us truths about ourselves which we just don't want to know. Among the many reasons for Carl Jung's fame was his incisive exploration into humankind's "dark side" and our predilection for what he called "projection." If the sad saga of Epstein should trigger a broader, societal exploration into those phenomenon perhaps our collective psyche would be healed. I'm not counting on it.

  59. The general point is a good one and worth considering, but in his examples Douthat cannot help himself but to play ludicrous politics. In laying out his examples, he intentionally chooses to juxtapose...and liken...UFOlogy to Russian election interference. Sorry, Ross. Whatever is going on with various unexplained atmospheric phenomena, we KNOW that aliens have not been visiting Earth on a regular basis. It may turn out to be true that Russian interference was "far weaker and less consequential than the paranoid center believes," but we do not KNOW it yet. No less an authority that Robert Mueller called it "sweeping and pervasive." It may also turn out that the Russians completely and intentionally corrupted our political system and stole the election for their puppet, Donald Trump.

  60. @Emily May? What particularly galls my Trump supporter friends is the mention that even with Russian manipulation Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote. "Benghazi!, 10,000 deleted emails!" they shout. When I ask what was in those emails they cannot answer. I read the Mueller report and came to my own conclusion. My Trumpy friends not so much. They have Hannity and Limbaugh to tell them what to conclude.

  61. Let’s not forget that more often than not, the simplest rational explanation is the one closest to the truth.

  62. Moreover, the entirety of bourgeois capitalist society is essentially a conspiracy of the wealthy and powerful against the whole body of society. It's the master plot that's taken for granted upon which the various nefarious subplots are based, i.e. in the manner of base and superstructure.

  63. @Juan Daugherty I appreciate your nutshell version. Has a lot more punch.

  64. Ross, you left out arithmetic. Your cogent list of different reasons why people peddle conspiracy theories contains false equivalences. As you say, the "journalistic task" is to discover and publish facts, but also to apply limited resources to larger issues rather than smaller ones. Investigating the activities you cite of Russia, drug manufacturers, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, are the right journalistic tasks is not equivalent to investigating Epstein or Weinstein or UFOs, because the latter are minor problems. Journalists were not, as you suggest, subject to a "blindness" on the major issues--that's why we know the facts -- and you do a disservice by urging a more open mind to conspiracy theories.

  65. @JH It seems like the ability to distinguish between major and minor issues will vary from person to person and situation to situation; often it will be more than a little difficult to determine. I'd rather trust Ross' tendency to open mindedness, a willingness to allow for time will tell, a comfort with consideration of a theory, even a conspiracy theory, than embrace your notion that it is a disservice to do so.

  66. I'm also considering the longstanding gross understaffing and -funding of the Metropolitan Detention Center. In the Challenger and Deepwater disasters and the purging of voters in the 2000 Florida presidential election, *normalization of deviance* led to the passive default outcome of disaster, absent strong, disruptive, affirmative responses from managers. This scenario is the management equivalent of a defendant being required to prove innocence rather than guilt. If managers are unmotivated to interfere with a toxic status quo, the results are identical to their being motivated to create an evil outcome. Hence, passive management failure blurs into motivated, malign conspiracy.

  67. I think this is a dangerous piece. The way an outrageous conspiracy theory works is that reasonable people don’t buy it hook, line, and sinker, but they file away in the back of their minds the thought that there might be some element of truth to it. And then, say, when it’s time to vote, they think “I’d vote for that candidate, but wait, there was that stuff about her operating a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor - I’d better play it safe and vote for the other guy.” The important lesson for our time is that, with the internet, it is now far, far easier to spread these theories and lend them power. And any acceptance of them - even keeping an open mind that they might contain elements of truth - can have catastrophic consequences.

  68. @WDP I feel the same way about the mainstream conspiracy theories that originate in respectable sources and are duly repeated as true in the press. Examples are legion. For instance, Saddam Hussein had WMDs and was linked to Al Qaeda. Hundreds of thousands of people died because of that one and that is arguably an underestimate. You have to think critically about everything.

  69. In a society where politics, government, journalism and even personal communication are operated as businesses for profit, what is true matters less than what sells. Mr. Douthat suggests that conspiracy theories are sometimes attempts by the public to see through the veil behind which power hides, and sometimes the veil itself, created by the powerful as a shield. In fact they are always both. Because political, cultural & economic power have been consolidated, our desire for truth becomes a tool used by the powerful against us. Disproving conspiracy theories does not help us because we, as a society, are not having a debate; we’re simply parts of competing markets in which truth can be as effective a tool of manipulation as lies. For example, it may be true that the president is an incessant liar, but the information serves the same purpose as the lies themselves: to stage a partisan fight about the president and prevent productive debates about the distribution & exercise of power. None of this will change until we understand that some things—public information, democracy, culture, politics, etc—are meaningful only to the degree that they are protected from economic profit so that they may serve as ends in themselves.

  70. "...an admirable desire to reject bad or wicked theories can lead to a blindness about something important that these theories are trying to explain.:'' The classic mistake made by the human mind is to form a hypothesis and then try to prove it, instead of the reverse. As Jerome Groopman wrote in "How Doctors Think," it's one of the reasons doctors sometimes miss final diagnoses, so caught up in "proving themselves" right on an initial supposition that import ant symptoms or evidence gets discarded. But the essence of Ross's debunking of conspiracy theories in general seems to contain this caveat, where's there's smoke there's fire. In other words, the task of the investigator (or pundit) is to separate the informational wheat from the chaff to ferret out where the "smoke" is leading. Epstein's death made that task harder--or did it? With his death comes greater transparency because of fewer lawyers constesting every point, but no less of an effort by those swept up in his web to hide the real truth.

  71. I normally find a lot to challenge in Douthat's columns, but this one says very eloquently what I've been thinking myself. In a time when news has to be "edgy" and entertaining, the underlying truths often get lost. That Steele dossier got attention for its salacious and sordid allegations and people forget that the investigator was a respected source of information to international government agencies. Considering that a conspiracy is standard for Republican politicians. If Steele was passionately opposed to Trump, could it have been because of what he learned about the man and the way he operates? There are similarities between that case and the Epstein reporting. Yes, we find it hard to imagine what life is really like for the rich and powerful, but we sense that they have enormous power and ability to buy outcomes. That's true whether it's Epstein and his cronies or Putin and the Russian underground.

  72. This does not address the topic directly, but rather the approach and style of how the writer is exploring the topic. It seems to me a writers primary objective is to convey a message or idea to his general audience rather than demonstrate the size of his vocabulary. I am retired and have an MBA in finance and was a practicing CPA and executive at a bank. In reading an article in a "general newspaper" about a complex issue I should not have to pause and look up the definition of Hofstadterian to understand what the writer is talking about. It should be the writers job to communicate and not impress.

  73. @sbanicki there was a link to the original article in Harpers that is well worth reading.

  74. @sbanicki The paranoid style in American politics— it is a cliched reference whenever people talk about conspiracy theories. I am not a political scientist or historian and have never read it, but I knew what he meant. Also, I presumably had to look it up the first time I saw a reference to it and thereby learned something.

  75. Another example of Douthat's point is the theory (and I don't think it's all that conspirational) that Trump is being blackmailed by Putin. To me, it seems completely plausible that Trump used real estate to launder a bunch of money for Russian Oligarchs. Can anyone think he's to ethical to do such a thing? That provides a plausible explanation for why the Republicans took Russian sanctions out of their party platform, and also for why Trump spent all of his time in Helsinki kissing Putin in the keester. I'm sure folks could come up with other explanations. But calling for an impartial investigation into Trump's finances is completely reasonable. I agree with Mr. Douthat: some conspiracies are real. Just look at the Republican party.

  76. This left out the glaringly obvious case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi - "disappeared" in a place of protection (like Epstein) in order to be silenced because certain powerful people who didn't want him to keep talking - and no one has yet admitted doing the deed and we've never seen any proof-positive evidentiary photos (like Epstein whose autopsy results have been delayed, why?), and even such evidentiary indications as do exist (audiotapes) have been debated, denied, and declared inconclusive - why?

  77. @Aubrey Good point!

  78. Sure, that's fine, but the rules never change: you remain open to evidence and argument, and go wherever that leads. Here's an example: Profit drives our global economy; carbon is increasingly profitable as supplies dwindle; ergo, the conspiracy theory is that perhaps we shouldn't bow to the market in this suicidal case. That is something Douthat would never consider. Along with how maybe covering everyone in this country, citizen or not, would be both cheaper and morally correct. Yep. Lots and lots of hypotheses are just edited right out of the discussion. For irrational reasons.

  79. Watergate was a conspiracy theory. It was also true. Sometimes, a few times, there really is some level of conspiracy. I don't think Epstein got his level of assets and apparent income in the ways currently explained. He couldn't possibly sell a billion dollars of underage girls to elite men he knew. The numbers just don't add up. Yes, he probably did some of that. He couldn't possibly steal a billion dollars from one or two people whose money he managed. You can't steal that much from one place and it not be noticed. Yes, he probably stole some money, maybe a lot. He did inflate his self importance dropping names and donating to very public fancy causes. However, nothing in that shows signs of providing him big money, rather it cost him millions. Something else is in here that is worth a billion dollars or more. That is serious money. It is the kind of money that serious people with serious money will make a big effort to hide. I think that is where we'll find the conspiracy, hiding the money. And the solution? "Follow the money." No, I don't know the secret. However, there are only a very few billion dollar possibilities: money laundering for the rich and powerful, tax evasion for the rich and powerful. Both would use off shore banks and complex webs of money movement. He looks good for that to me. The Roswell conspiracy type seems to apply, in which those with a real secret to hide are shouting, "Look over there, a squirrel."

  80. @Mark Thomason its also more than likely that he wasn’t a billionaire at all and he wildly inflated his wealth.

  81. @Mark Thomason I think you are confusing conspiracy theories with conspiracy. Typically conspiracy theories are based on wild speculation and a need to believe in the outlandish. Example, the parkland students were paid actors. Whereas the watergate scandal was uncovered based on many months of investigative journalism that uncovered a “conspiracy” in the legal sense of the word to commit a crime. Exactly what is missing from the current moment is the ability to look at all the information and determine a logical fact based conclusion.

  82. @Mark Thomason - Many of the conspiracy theories claim he was either a CIA or Mossad agent. The claim is that they paid him large amounts for the videos he took, allowing them to gain control of powerful politicians and businessmen. I can't see them paying all that much though. Maybe 10 or 20 million, at most. I could see a fellow like Wexner paying Epstein a billion over a considerable period of time, particularly if some of it was money Epstein stole. But if you blackmail 100 ultra-rich guys, and they each give you $10 million, that's a billion right there.

  83. In the case of Epstein, we have a trail of financial transactions. Billionaires, and mysterious non-profit entities, do not normally give tens of millions of dollars to someone out of kindness. Epstein clearly had a powerful hold on some very wealthy people, and it is not much of a leap to suppose it was related to the videos he took on his island. The scenario of his supposed suicide is simply not credible. He's the most famous prisoner in the US, and they don't bother to watch him because the budget is low and the guards are tired? Many incredibly wealthy men had very good reasons to make sure he never spilled the beans, and they were facing total ruin.

  84. @Jonathan So, who those incredibly wealthy men are?

  85. @CraigA - I'm not going to libel anybody. Let the prosecutors trace the money and figure out who they are.

  86. Wow! Did this ever need to be said. Thank you Ross Douthat! It's one thing to hold fast to a pet conspiracy. I have no problem with anyone marching to whatever drumbeat floats their boat but their need to evangelize and gain converts to their cause is tiresome. I share Douthat's distrust of the official versions of the truth of many issues, but abhor the amplification most conspiracy theorists resort to in making their case. In order to maintain respectful of persons close to me who believe and need to convince me of those beliefs, I've listened to the arguments and the 'proofs' and have come away less than satisfied (to say the least). In the end I had to call a halt to any and all discussions on the topics in order to maintain civility. For the most part, conspiracies that cast a large net, like the 911 ones don't wash no matter how many things don't add up. How many people and agencies would have had to coordinate their efforts to make that work? You can't pay off or kill off that many, now matter how deep the state. Sometimes, as in the case of aliens and their presence here on earth, the official version is to pass off all sightings, no matter how credible, as a weather balloon or some such thing, and render those who believe looney tunes. So far that's worked a treat. I don't care one way or the other. I know what I know and believe what I believe no matter what anyone else says. I don't need a cause or a theory or proof and don't talk to me about yours.

  87. Here's a conspiracy theory: Trump is pedaling a conspiracy theory about Clinton and Epstien to discredit all conspiracy theories of the above. Our condemnation of Trump for engaging in this will only cause us to condemn all theories of which some will include him as the central character. No all theories of this case are conspiratorial and false. It is a typical Trump move and of course we are falling for it. After almost three years, in my mind, the man knows what he is doing. Don't ever under estimate his power of manipulation.

  88. Most of us are more concerned about what the market is doing today, whether Hong Kong will blow up, radioactivity in the white sea, and inverted yield curve on US bonds etc., what does Epstein have to do with anything, doesn’t affect our day-to-day lives not one bit, all the others do, can we please MoveOn .

  89. @There/There's The market means diddly to most of us who hope to live in a sane society, while predators and exploiters act with impunity. Move on? Only at out great peril. (And yes, I have my modest retirement money tied up in the market. Still low on list of concerns.)

  90. @There/There's No. No, no, no. The rape of 14-year-old girls matters. Whether that affects your or my grocery list is not the point. Children were hurt.

  91. @There/There's that type of self serving demissive denial is why the explosion, or rather of the continuation, of child sex trafficking in the United States is not as important as what you mentioned above. Maybe you are aware, more than likely you are not, that there are more people enslaved in human trafficking right now in the world then their was back in the 18th Century. These hideous acts are some of humanities worst sins and you don't need a conspiracy theory to prove this one.

  92. I think Douthat misinterprets the Mueller "hysteria." I fully blame Hillary Clinton, Democratic leadership, and the elite backers who empowered and enabled their folly. However, I also recognized that Russia successfully conspired to influence the election. You have to hold the two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. You're walking and chewing gum at the same time. Clinton was entirely responsible for her own defeat because she was unelectable in the first place. Democrats and the elite were delusional to think otherwise. However, Clinton was also a victim. Just because she would have lost overwhelmingly in any remotely normal election doesn't excuse foul play. She's a victim who was already doomed to defeat. It's fair to say Trump is a Russian asset now even if we don't exactly know how or when he became one. Trump would probably not be President if not for foreign intervention. He is therefore compromised by Russia. The Mueller report clarified this point and basically begged Congress to do something about it. That's where we are now. I wouldn't describe myself as hysterical for recognizing the obvious.

  93. @Andy It is your opinion that Clinton was unelectable. I and many I know considered her the most qualified candidate we ever had the option to vote for (since the late 70s-early 90s). She survived three decades of investigations and conspiracy theories cooked up by the right, and won the popular election. Saying she is unelectable is just repeating a belief - it doesn't have a whole lot of basis in fact.

  94. @Andy So 1 question Clinton was unelectable but Trump was electable? Explain that to me.

  95. @Barbara Agreed. Hillary’s “unelectability” is the years’ making of republicans’ relentless conspiracy attacks. She is in fact and indeed the most qualified!

  96. Look, the government has to schmooze us. If we knew what really went on, many of our leaders would be walked out of office and into jail cells tomorrow. Our leaders are astute enough to accept that crime, corruption, and graft are with us always. That will never change. But most of our leaders are wise enough not to poke the wasp's nest: The truth can't be told: The public cannot and will not accept the ways of the world, that power corrupts, almost always. And because we need social stability, our leaders do what has to be done: play the game. The end justifies the means. Besides, you get very handsomely rewarded for so doing. The world runs on a slant for a reason. Wise people let it roll, recognizing the terrible price that nonetheless must be paid. We aren't in Utopia. But it is intriguing to believe otherwise and try to square the circle.

  97. Of course, all conspiracy is based on an initial truth but then goes off the rails. It is not the other way around, where we see a conspiracy and then learn that it created a shred of truth. It has to start somewhere.

  98. The most telling, yet unglamorous, conspiracy theory to emerge from Epstein’s curious passing is not one of murder, but of labour standards. One guard was working forced overtime, another was on his fifth day of overtime, one was a part time employee and not fully qualified - omissions that undoubtedly led to the institutional failure of a prisoner suicide. How many times has this conspiracy of indentured servitude been repeated and compounded across industries and corporate structures throughout the world? Employers conspire to not employ or adequately train sufficient people and then work the remainder to the point of failure. I work in the railway sector where I know this to be poignantly true. Conspiracy theories are used to detract from conspiratorial truths, especially where the truth is an inexpedience to a moribund reality. Our entire existence is a conspiracy theory, based on the disparity of wealth in society and the diverging standards by which rich and poor are held. Epstein had his sweetheart deal as a result of this subjective weighting of justice years ago before Eric Garner was suffocated for selling loose cigarettes. Conspiracy facts should not be supplanted by theories, and conspiracies do occur. Mueller did not find a conspiracy per se between Trump and Russia. But, between his lines, he did find that Trump and his party emulated Russian political strategy, something that he and his associates sought to obfuscate and deny. There’s the conspiracy.

  99. @Marcus Brant You are so right about the work standards. This is becoming the new norm. We are reverting back to the old days before labor unions (now that they have all been busted). The same with the gun laws. Remember the old west? Innocents died left and right because irresponsible gun owners shot up the town (or was that just Hollywood?). There was a reason guns were banned in towns. My right to live should take precedence over your right to have a gun.

  100. @Marcus Brant Another part of the fact the staff were overworked is the macho attitude of jail guards. It would not be a surprise to hear that the guards thought he was too much of a coward to kill himself. They just saw him a rich guy who paid for sex for himself and his friends. The official story was that he was assaulted and not that he attempted suicide so he didn't need to be watched.

  101. @Marcus Brant OTOH, I believe it has been 21 years since an inmate committed suicide in the MCC. And the security cameras were malfunctioning? Guards are indeed overworked, but it's too much of a coincidence that the most notorious prisoner in the country ended up like this.

  102. One thing is already clear; Epstein was supported by a vast infrastructure well beyond private islands and New Mexico compounds. There had to be schedulers, caretakers, book keepers, lawyers and recruiters. Maybe Epstein was the hard working enterprising sort who built this lurid empire from the ground up but my money is that he had financial backers who knew the value of compromising records on the rich and powerful. Epstein was the front man.

  103. President Trump has a track record of projecting onto others his very own qualities (or deficiencies?) and actions. He always tries to deflect the public into believing that it is someone else is doing the very things that he is doing. He tries to be a magician doing slight of hand tricks - "look over there, there's nothing here". It makes me wonder who he is really hiding by pushing the "Hillary did it" story.

  104. If Donald Trump feared Epstein, it's easy to believe Vladimir Putin helped him out. Lots of Russians in Brighton Beach like Putin, and Trump, a lot, as I've discovered from hearing their conversations on the Q and B trains. Some conspiracy theories are just that, of course. Mine too, perhaps.

  105. @WRH I've noticed for some time that Trump's insults are usually self-referential. When he says somebody is stupid, he's reflecting his own stupidity. When he accuses African-American officials of mismanaging their cities, he's really reflecting his own mismanagement of the country. Raging about illegal immigrants reflects the fact that his own grandfather came to America illegally, to dodge military conscription in Germany.

  106. Maybe we should think about the money Epstein was able to make without any education, credentials, or government oversight. Maybe the really important conspiracy is how the extremely wealthy make their money. The lack of regulation, tax loopholes, offshore shell companies, and schemes that are perfectly legal because the real conspiracy is between the rich and the government.

  107. @Barbara Fox Do we only want people with education, credentials and government oversight to make lots of money?

  108. @Barbara Fox Epstein made his money by running a brothel. Powerful men associated with Epstein because they all "liked them on the young side." That explanation unlocks a real conspiracy: the conspiracy of silence by those who would be compromised by the truth.

  109. I don't know what the median age of the average commenter is, but I recall the seed of "conspiracy theories" first planted after the assassination of JFK and then the Warren Commission Report back in the '60s. So many questions still exist with insufficient or no answers at all. Whenever the government states certain "evidence and documents" must be locked away for 100 years because it either too toxic, damaging or dangerous for the American people to know, then how can anyone NOT take pause and wonder why? There were so many red flags that surrounded that entire horrific tragedy. And sadly, so few people seem to care any longer. I keep hearing "That's ancient history" from the grandkids and others who are younger than 50. While the time frame may have the appearance of "ancient history" what did take off because of that historical moment was the beginning of people questioning the government and not trusting the government completely. I don't think Jeffrey Epstein's life is worth the coverage it has been receiving. But IF his death was not by his own hand yet various officials continue to claim that it was, then welcome to the world of doubt, disbelief, and dubious actions by others. The questions are no longer about Epstein per se, but rather those around him and those who were responsible for his safety in prison. The saying was always, "it not's the act but the cover up that will get you in trouble." I think both elements may be applicable in this case.

  110. @Marge Keller I suggest you watch some of the documentaries that answer many of the questions around JFK's assassination and use scientific methods to demonstrate the fallacy of (at least many of) those conspiracy theories.

  111. @Barbara I have seen those Barbara and while I believe a lot of what was written and documented, there is still a huge void full of other questions. Thanks very much for your suggestion. I appreciate your thoughts.

  112. @Marge Keller Conspiracy theories long predate JFK. There's a novel, "Foucault's Pendulum", about some bored writers whose hobby is to collect all the conspiracy theories of the last 1000 years and bundle them into one big theory; Their project takes several hundred pages to describe, and it gets boring, but I guess that's the point.

  113. Van Helsing in "Dracula" informs us that, "the strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in them." One could say much the same of conspiracies, but with a twist that their strength is also paradoxically found in the fact that people DO believe in them. Straddling the line between actual fact and blatant fiction, they are embellishments of a possibility, or a confluence of circumstance that allow for the possibility of something real. Conspiracies are shadowed in secrecy. "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." Ben Franklin. The validity of any conspiracy regarding the late Mr. Epstein's demise can start with the future of the guards who were on duty, supposedly to keep watch over their charge. If any of them have a fatal "accident" or a sudden windfall in their bank account, those sort of things would suggest something more sinister afoot. On the other hand, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." No matter how much smoke we want to blow around thinking otherwise.

  114. Strongly implied but not clearly articulated is the fact that power, which is largely indistinguishable from wealth, corrupts. That’s simple human nature. Extreme wealth makes a man untouchable, and his demons proceed to manifest themselves across his sphere of influence. We fail - at the most basic level - to understand what we are: highly intelligent beings wholly driven by animal instincts. Wealth and power enable these unaccountable instincts to act with impunity, and in the aftermath we craft a narrative to help us feel better. Think, the Catholic Church’s doctrine of “original sin.” It’s not a conspiracy. It’s our condition.

  115. The problem with people who dismiss conspiracy theories is that their critique is based on the premise that it is not reasonable to doubt. It IS reasonable to doubt—in so many ways, and about so many things. The lunacy of conspiracy theories has more to do with their tendency toward replacing one kind of faith (taking the public record to be gospel truth) with another, equally dangerous one (replacing that “truth” with a tall tale better fitting one’s own fantasies), but the reasonableness of doubt ought to be beyond question. Great column from a columnist I rarely agree with.

  116. The first sensible column from Ross in, well, I can't recall... However, a few quibbles. By and large what are generously being called "conspiracy theories" are in fact pure fantasy. They are many steps away from a testable hypothesis, and none of them would pass that bar to become actual theories. And as regards pedophile rings, it seems our memories are short. I recall a deeply troubling example unearthed in Belgium back in the 90's, I think, that in classic Belgian fashion was covered up just as the evil core was beginning to be uncovered.

  117. @dl I think this column by Ross falls into the category of "even a broken clock offers something vaguely logical and devoid of inane right-wing talking points, whataboutism, and efforts to put lipstick on the pig that is the Trump presidency once in a while" (definitely not twice a day).

  118. Ross, These are the words I try to live by: The truth is all that matters. When you put this as your starting point then the question of do you believe in conspiracies or not becomes irrelevant. Instead, start with real, legitimate questions and follow them wherever they lead. Sometimes they lead to real conspiracies; most of the time, as you said, they don't. The problem with a lot of conspiracy theorists is that they often spin the conspiracy theory to fit their political ideology, sometimes, even when the evidence leads 180 degrees to the opposite direction. The questions about Trump's campaign/administration links to Russia? That can mean only one thing - there must be a Deep State conspiracy manufacturing lies to get rid of Trump! But it's more than silly; it's extremely dangerous. It's gone almost unnoticed how the leadership of the intelligence agencies has been decapitated and replaced with people more loyal to Trump than the Constitution. For QAnon and Trump it's the best of both worlds; they get what they want as far as the this change in leadership in intelligence AND they get to continue to complain about the Deep State. In their world, ice cream makes you lose weight.

  119. @Thucydides I never heard of the Deep State until Trump started ranting about it . As far as I can tell the "Deep State" is a normal modern government, complex and bureaucratic, as seen by a spoiled rich guy who thinks the way to get things done is to yell orders at somebody.

  120. @Thucydides And Bill Barr is an honest man who works for the American people.

  121. Or conspiracy theories are false because the creator has discovered they can make money by spreading them. A particularly effective conservative news organization spends a good deal of time asking questions that inspire only cynical answers. That organization (as well as others and countless bloggers) does not do much investigation to actually uncover the truth - their entire business model appears to be centered on keeping their fans pumped up on fear and outrage. From a neurobiological standpoint, our brains remember the negative more than the positive by exponential amounts (this is evolutionary survival - those that remembered a poisonous snake in that river stayed out of the water). So conspiracy theories drive more clicks, more views, more dollars.

  122. @Barbara lol And more votes.

  123. Douthat writes of the "particularly hysterical pitch with the pre-Mueller report collusion coverage" with regard to Russian hackers. Not sure if he's including coverage of the February 2018 indictments (13 Russians and three Russian entities) and the July 2018 indictments (12 Russians) as part of the "pre-Mueller report collusion coverage," and whether he'd consider these indictments or press coverage of them to be "hysterical." Those indictments substantially pre-date the Mueller report. One suspects that what might be hysterical for Douthat would be reasonable speculation for many others. And that, in the case of the Russian program to disrupt our elections, that speculation turned out to be based in fact.

  124. Calling something a conspiracy theory simply means that the actual story is yet to be uncovered. Every such theory is made up of at least some actual facts that just need to be unwound from the theory and investigated. Journalists need to ask questions, lots of them - so they can peel away the outlandish or just wrong theories and let the facts tell the story. With Epstein, it sounds like that is going to be very difficult to do, but there is definitely much left to be known. And odds are that that are grains of truth in all the theories out there. But personally I’m rooting for conspiracy theory that has Epstein and Trump together laundering money for the Russians, and some kind of operation (coordinated or loose) running out of Mar a Lago. It’s possible, right? Now go and investigate!

  125. What is and will be necessary to show that some (very few) conspiracy theories are true or at least provide a clue that leads to other clues and eventually finds the truth is that open minded, dedicated and dogged investigators use what is fundamentally the scientific method. Good science takes the perspective that any idea about the cause of some phenomenon is regarded as speculative and controlled research is done to achieve that the idea is not true. Science is done from a position of skepticism which requires that the null hypothesis be disproven. Our legal method of ascribing blame for crimes is based on the same basic premise: the prosecutor must prove to a judge and jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence is true. A defense attorney's job is to cast enough doubt about the prosecutor's explanation to convince a single jury member to not convict. In other words a similar high bar must be surmounted in both science and law to get at the truth. Conspiracy theorists present their ideas as what must be the truth, typically cherry picking the evidence and pooh poohing contrary evidence. In a time of science denial in several areas and easy way of rapidly spreading bogus theories, the slow process of gathering true evidence is at a distinct disadvantage

  126. @sleepdoc Actually you misunderstand a basic premise of the law, and arguing a court case. Its not that the evidence presented by the prosecutor is true, its that the evidence supports the prosecutors accusations, making that true, and that the crimes were committed by the defendant/s. The evidence is by its very nature deemed to be true evidence when its entered into the record as such. A bullet, a gun, fingerprints on same. An email, text,etc from the defendant to another party speaking about the crime, etc. Personal testimony is the weakest of "evidence" and is too often a gamble so its often only used as a means to construct a narrative. Getting entered evidence tossed, as not true, irrelevant, suspicious, unlawfully obtained, etc is a whole other ballgame. A prosecutors is not trying to prove their evidence is true. If they were, a vast majority of cases would never make the docket. Cases where evidence was planted would not succeed so frequently. You are also a bit too biased towards the Sciences playing fairly in their investigative machinations. Research is often very biased, biased toward a particular "persons" theories. So much so that huge amounts of time and money, and lab workers careers, have been wasted chasing various rats down various rabbit holes for a megalomaniacs "breakthru" ideas. Many an idea was deemed lunatic by the mainstream scientific culture, only to become the overriding fact, but not because of the scientific method, but in spite of it!.

  127. Conspiracy theories are like movies they might be a little wild but they're always and I mean ALWAYS coming from a factual basis or experience. The reason they are considered conspiracy is because the person listening is too afraid of what they are being told is the truth and it disrupts their little safe space in society. They might not always be 100% precisely accurate but they are always based off of some type of facts

  128. @Stacks So the Donald really did collude with the Russians.

  129. @Stacks Always? Nah.

  130. Another example of fuzzy thinking by Douthat. Three times in this essay he says "conspiracy theories are false because" and goes to the who and why of the origin of the conspiracy theory. The who and why have nothing to do with the the truth or falsity of a theory. The only gauge of truth is if the theory is supported by the facts. Douthat spends the rest of the essay trying to parse the non relationship between how a theory gets hatched and wether or not it is true.

  131. That we take such things too seriously and not seriously enough at the same time may be true but this only demonstrates why one should maintain an attitude of general skepticism toward everything.

  132. For someone as precise in language as Ross Douthat, I find the sentence "But also recognize that in the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his circle, the conspiracy was real" to be both troubling and furthering of conspiracy theories. Why? Because it doesn't tell us who was in his circle: Is it his inner circle of employees and hangers-on? Or, is it the "circle" that the conspiracy mongers claims includes everyone from Prince Andrew to an ex-president who may have arranged his murder. You can't just write something like and leave it hanging unless you're also promulgating the conspiracy.

  133. @Bob Trebilcock And don't forget the current president had just as much interaction with his old friend at the same time Bill Clinton did. The Clinton's were Trump's 'friends' at that time also. He invited them to his wedding #3. I wonder if Epstein also attended.

  134. I have listened to Rachel Maddow almost every weekday for years, since she was on Air America radio. I have found her to be well researched, thorough, fair, willing to ask difficult questions, and willing to correct her mistakes. Ross, I found your implication that somehow Rachel is expressing hysterical, radical, left-conspiracy views on the Russia meddling in our elections weakened an otherwise good editorial. Please note specific instances in the future where you think Rachael got something wrong before offering general slams backed by nothing.

  135. @jim Rachel is the best. She's a journalist first. She presents evidence, very often showing documents on screen, even acting out courtroom dialogue. Then she brings in guests to help her viewers better understand what's going on, including putting evidence in a broader (often, appropriately, in a political) context.

  136. @jim, if you read this article again you will see that Douthat isn't implying anything of the sort. I don't watch Maddow every night but I respect her. I also think this column is spot on.

  137. @jim And respond to Mueller and Cotes's and others warnings about insidious Russian influence in the American elections to come.

  138. Ergo UFOs do exist and it was Trump that had the DOJ kill Epstein (that’s why he deflected and blamed a Clinton)? You are now leaving the Twilight Zone. This piece simply says that conspiracy theories are normally based on the extrapolation of a plausible story, it does not tell us how to spot which core might be true ... except with hindsight.

  139. I wish I had a dime for every person who declared that conspiracy theories are always wrong. We know conspiracies do happen and we know that theories are real. Put the two together and somehow they magically vanish as always unfounded? The quickest way to make the public disbelieve a point is to label it a conspiracy theory. You can be on the path to revealing the absolute truth about nearly any subject, but the moment someone says it's just a conspiracy theory people tend to tune out. Imagine if every trial of some criminal enterprises were automatically labeled as conspiracy theories. Nobody would ever be convicted of any crime. If you're arrested for anything in many peoples minds it means you're automatically guilty for merely being arrested and it only takes one hack reporter to report false claims for thousands of commenters to demand the accused be sentenced to life in prison or worse. Rarely do we as members of the public at large want to wait until real proof of guilt is established. We want instant solutions to extremely complex problems which makes conspiracy theories so popular. One unpopular public figure will always be the first person we're ready to hang regardless of who might have actually committed whatever crime may have been committed.

  140. Those who yell "conspiracy theory" the most loudly are the ones that are afraid that it might be true, or know that it is true.

  141. The only conspiracy theory that I'm concerned about is the economy. With all the experts predicting that the mounting national debt and total debt is going to cause an economic catastrophe, why do we keep marching down this road? Is it a plan by the super-rich to crash the economy and triple their fortunes on the economic fallout? They stole 2 trillion dollars with the last recession, they made a fortune with the banking collapse in Texas in 1985, every generation they invent a new method to steal the money of the middle class and working class. They have to know this house of cards will fall, but ripped off another 2 trillion with the tax cut. Whole regions of the U.S. are now living in third world poverty. I think they will cause another war because they made trillions off the war in Iraq. It's a conspiracy that has been going on since the dawn of human history.

  142. Great column! An astute, thorough analysis of what confronts us. The best part: the remembrance of the great Richard Hofstadter, whose genius we sorely miss today.

  143. i thought the Hofstadter cite too cute and in context obscure in meaning. As for the rest of the article, no one is surprised that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To coin a phrase.

  144. Concerning the Russian efforts to interfere in US elective politics Douthat writes: "This effort is far weaker and less consequential than the paranoid center believes, it doesn’t involve fanciful “Trump has been a Russian asset since the ’80s” machinations … but it also isn’t something that Rachel Maddow just made up. The hysteria is overdrawn and paranoid; even so, the Russian conspiracy is real." There is every reason to believe that the Russians hacked the DNC and Podesta's computers and disseminated that stolen information via Wikileaks in a way calculated to have the greatest possible propaganda impact against Hillary and for Trump, not least by Bigfooting the Access Hollywood tape. And given the plain fact that a change of only 150,000 votes alters the outcome of the election, it is extremely plausible that but for Putin's covert attack, Trump would not have been elected. In essence, Vladimir Putin chose the president of the US. Douthat may not want to admit that fact. He is obviously doing his utmost—despite very very powerful evidence—to downplay the effectiveness of the Russian operation he acknowledges to exist. And that happens to be politically convenient for Douthat personally. Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB agent. He knows what he is doing. And Douthat is either willfully and consciously or unconsciously Putin's ally at this moment.

  145. Mr. Douthat makes a good point here, but the Republican blind spot regarding Russia is astounding: “Problematic is an understatement...” Remember that?! No one in government has yet been willing or able to calculate the actual impact of Russian interference, but every time an official speaks about it they describe it as a massive problem. The “cascade of elite failures” narrative is just as valid/invalid as the Russian interference stole the election narrative. Less than 80,000 votes turned the election. I fear we Democrats will over correct while the current administration, which was preferred by Russia (if you believe the Mueller report) will continue their efforts unfettered. The representative portion of our representative republic is drowning and even the most even-headed Republicans are soothing us by describing the water.

  146. No conspiracy will be found. Trump may blame the Clinton's, but there will be no investigation. The sigh of relief coming from the rich and powerful after Epstein's "suicide" was the loudest , most best, bi-partisan, sigh ever. Hugely loud. A lot of people are very happy. Time to move on.

  147. "Sometimes conspiracy theories point toward something [or somebody] worth investigating." The rule of thumb for identifying that "somebody" is to spot who is desperate to bring attention to others and is deflecting scrutiny away from himself.

  148. I find it very interesting how the left seems to be defending Epstein or at least minimizing his crimes and those associated with him. Thank you.

  149. @Southern Boy Where? Who on the "left"?

  150. @Southern Boy. What are you talking about? Please site examples.

  151. @Southern Boy This statement is a plain lie. No one is defending Epstein. Why would you submit such a false and slanderous comment?

  152. A level-headed and quite frightening analysis. Thanks to Ross for clarifying the larger issue of threatening known unknowns. And, if I may say the obvious, what a world we are inhabiting. Who would have imagined even twenty years ago that we could speak soberly and accurately about "rolling up" a self-protecting cabal of higher Catholic clergy who, in addition to succumbing to a desire for wealth (ill-gotten) and "position," were participants in a group sexual exploitation of children, young people, and even junior colleagues. My question: why does this cabal remain unrolled up? Does anyone really think that the Epstein group (what else to call them?) will be exposed and brought to justice? The rush to judgment by William Barr, and his untoward interference as an investigation begins, hints that fall guys are already being identified, more Lee Harvey Oswalds and Sirhan Sirhans.

  153. I think you missed on thing about the proliferation of conspiracy theories. People love a whodunit, and they love to believe that even though lies about it are everywhere, they will be the one to figure it out and everyone else will praise how smart they are. Come to think of it, this also explains a lot of Trump’s behavior - “I alone know.,” and look how nuts he gets when he’s not praised.

  154. Whatever Trump accuses others of doing you can be sure that that is exactly what he is guilty of doing.

  155. Great description of the beloved leader of the GOP "Or they are false because the people pushing them are cynical manipulators and attention-seekers trying to build a following who don’t care a whit about the truth."

  156. The truth is out there but sadly by debunking their very existence or even more importantly by devaluing, discrediting, and dismissing the victims of human trafficking and child sex abuse crimes, we as a society all become complacent in these acts and the perpetrators, regardless if they are located in the Vatican ,Wall Street on on our southern border, go unpunished. We need to rise up as country and acknowledge these hideous crimes as and help to bring these criminals down and free and heal these victims. It is the very least we can do.

  157. Conspiracy theories must always be suspect. That on rare occasions (Epstein's case?) it may 'prove right is beside the point, as even a broken clock is right twice a day. But these theories may be perverse as well, i.e. Alex Jones' awful lie-spreading about real mass shootings (Sandy Hook), all for the profit motive...and a chance to brain-wash the public.

  158. Thanks, Mr. Douthat. I appreciate the common sense you've applied in this piece, the examples you cited. Well done.

  159. Trump needs to update his campaign to reflect things that have happened under his first term. You see the message "I could shoot someone on Fifth Ave...." will need a revision. Especially if he backs background checks. Because he would not pass one. " So what to replace it with that could apply to me, in theory?" Two possibilites....1. "I could saw a reporter to pieces in a back room and lose not one vote". OR "I could make sure a federal prisoner who has a lot of dirt against me 'commits suicide' in prison and not lose a single vote". Either would be equally popular with the base.

  160. Some conspiracies are real, or have a kernel of truth to them. Which is why I no longer refer to thinking people putting two and two together as “cranks.” When you do that, you give unearned credence to the people in power who are peddling lies to remain in their comfortable positions.

  161. Conspiracy theories are never true. The factual cases cited by Douthat are not conspiracy theories. There are no UFOs out there. Jeffrey Epstein was able to hang himself because of negligence at the MCC. Goodnight and good luck.

  162. But aren’t you concerned that this negligence was allowed to unwind itself because people in positions of responsibility all the way up to the attorney general and President of the United States didn’t think it was worth their time to make sure there was no negligence?

  163. @Dennis Sullivan There have books and articles in the thousands about conspiracy theories that ended up being true. A simple google search of 'conspiracy theories that were true' can enlighten you

  164. Yes! So shocked to see this in the New York Times, but, hey, I'll take it! Marianne Williamson points out the ultimate "conspiracy" of our time, which, as Mr. Douthat states, is not necessarily premeditated, but nevertheless effective: that, by keeping Americans drugged up and numb to our crushing anxiety and depression, we lose our will to change the very flawed system we are a part of, that is, in fact, causing this depression in the first place. Would the French Revolution have happened if the poor had had access to Zoloft and Oxy? If they had been told, "It's your chemical imbalance that is causing you this anger"? If the people just barely scraping by are both afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their job/healthcare/home and also inoculated against their own feelings of despair (and, beneath it, rage), then they will continue to partake in our economy, buy things that seem to ease the pain, and, most importantly, keep on top of that prescription, lest they feel what is simmering just beneath. That Ms. Williamson could be painted as some kind of mental illness shaming monster is testimony to how much we have come to identify our depression with who we are ("I have a chemical imbalance!" "My brain in broken!"). It is not our minds that are messed up, but the inhuman system that is thriving around us, murdering the Earth, murdering each other. We are right to feel horrified by it all. She is not a conspiracy theorist, but a truth-teller. When will we listen?

  165. Thanks Ross, but I am all in on this one! We have the guy with a Rolodex that glows in the dark it's so radioactive. He has already "walked" on a crime due to the info he had on some Florida perverts, and by some bizarre circumstance, the most high-profile suspect in the past 20 years , and in a time when everything is on video, the cameras are somehow off. Toss in an unqualified guard, and gee whiz Jeff's in a bad way. As stated above, this is the Mother of Conspiracies and will be spawning a million-dollar industry.

  166. The Epstein death is not an example of an “implausible scenarios and impossible plots” - it is a logical conclusion. He is not the first to die while in custody and will not be the last.

  167. We are emotional beings before any of our reasoning skills are developed. All of these foolish conspiracy theories are based in emotional triggers heaped on people with underdeveloped critical thinking skills and world class self delusion. Investigate, investigate, investigate.....but for goodness sake use intelligence to reach conclusions.

  168. Along time ago in another life as a junior freelancer, I was told a tale about a CIA sponsored brainwashing workshop in a Montreal psychiatric institution, that had used LSD and other psychotropic agents to experiment on bending peoples’ minds. I met two people who claimed to have been one of the experimental subjects in Montreal. Both were clearly psychologically wobbly people. I queried the Christian Science Monitor for whom I was a stringer with their story. My query was not unexpectedly treated with derision. The story later turned out to be absolutely true, and I (and the CSM) missed breaking a huge story that may well have launched a prominent journalistic career for me. Douthat gets a fundamental distinction wrong in this column. There are conspiracy theories involving fabricated and concocted stories about situations that are not credible or believable. Then there are a different phenomenon, namely stories and situations that actually occur but are unbelievable until their truth is established. The only thing that conspiracy theories and actual situations share is that they are fantastic and not readily believable. From that point on, everything is different. We already know that the truth under the sun is sometimes unbelievable and fantastic. Reference to any place or period in history establishes this. The Epstein story was never a conspiracy theory, it was a set of allegations made by a number of people that seemed hard to believe, but there it was. Or is.

  169. @AO. Things are hard to believe until everyone sees that they aren't. The Holocaust was hard to believe until allies entered Nazi death camps and were confronted with the horrors there. Long before that, many among those same allies refused to believe that Adolf Hitler was anything more than a bombastic little man who had his nation's best interests at heart - the warnings that he might be otherwise, mere conspiracy theories. Decades later, who would have ever dreamed 19 young men would fly jet planes into skyscrapers? Surely the stuff of a screenwriter's imagination and yet there were warnings from intelligence analysts that were dismissed by a new administration. And on a personal level, my own speculations about an in-laws danger to others were dismissed as overdramatic speculation. "Oh, he would never do that." Until he did. Those of us who were proved right, would have much preferred to be wrong. I can't be the only one who wondered if Epstein would make it out of jail alive. The writing was on the wall.

  170. When the fox is guarding the hen house, there is reason to be skeptical. Where is the discussion about the conflicts that William the Coverup General has?

  171. The republican fixation on Marianne Williamson is unseemly. You're trying to elevator so as to say see, both sides have crazies, we've got Trump, and you've got Williamson. Except one is president and one is polling at less than 1%.

  172. When someone or some entity tosses out a conspiracy theory it is either to seek greater truth and transparency or to throw out baseless accusations for personal gain. The Kennedy assassination is ripe for conspiracy theorists because the facts - and at this point in history - facts that have been reduced to granular information and truths, point to something larger and more complex. And like the Kennedy assassination, the complexity of such theories are too vast and wide for many to want to believe that they might actually be accurate. On the flip side, you have Trump's "birther" conspiracy who's only purpose was to lower Obama and raise Trump. But just like the Kennedy assassination, the "birther" conspiracy got plenty of media coverage, enough to convince many that there is more to the story. But if you want a litmus test as to the validity of most any conspiracy theory, simply follow the money, power, or both. That can tell you a great deal about which side might be right. Who has the most to gain or lose? The truth usually lies there. In the case of Epstein, his death leaves many unanswered questions. Perhaps he was simply despondent and needed an easy way out. Perhaps he was threatened and chose to end it the way the character Carmine Rosta did in the movie Godfather II. Or perhaps someone "helped" Epstein commit suicide. Like I said, if you seek the truth, then follow the money and power brick road.

  173. @It Is Time! I hope that those who get access to the "truth" don't seal it up for 50 years to protect the guilty

  174. As any experienced law enforcement person worth his or her salt will tell you, one cannot begin with an outcome (conspiracy, in this case) and then investigate relative to that outcome. Herein lies the problem with those inclined to suspect a conspiracy. Rather, proper investigative techniques let the facts and the data you gather lead you to the outcome. If you are unable to learn sufficiently to conclude (i.e. lies, stonewalling, etc.) a specific outcome, that circumstance does not grant a license to speculate.

  175. @peterv And as any experienced law enforcement officer worth his or her salt will tell you, as long as everybody tells the same story and no one becomes a rat no one goes to jail.

  176. @peterv As any scientist worth their salt would tell you: You start your investigation with a hypothesis; then develop a null hypothesis; then collect data; and assess the proby of the null hypothesis. That is the actual scientific method.

  177. But it does give us a license to demand to know who told the lies who is stonewalling et Cetera et Cetera

  178. What this article seems to prove is that there is some truth behind each of these "conspiracies". The government was willing to let the UFO conspiracy grow to cover up its experiments. The Catholic Church has done a lot to redirect attention from predatory priests. Now the Republican Party is following the same playbook in its efforts to downplay the dangers of election fraud and Russian interference in elections here and in Europe. The medical establishment's playbook of "Don't worry, just pop another pill" certainly needs to be examined and reevaluated. I'm not sure how exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction are a formula for "Eastern medicine". It is pretty clear that Epstein found a way into to lives of the rich, powerful and famous as a high end pimp. What individuals he procured for, how, and for what rewards needs to be investigated and exposed. Sex trafficking is sex trafficking- even when the high and mighty are doing it.

  179. Conspiracy theories are akin to religion. They are an effort to explain something that doesn't seem possible without the intervention of some unknown power. Primitive man invented religion. Modern man invents conspiracy theories. E.g. How could one man have managed to assassinate JFK acting alone.

  180. Deflection and minimization are all too common from Donald Trump's bag of tricks. He will be successful in finding a scapegoat once again unless a Republican dares to call his bluff. Until then, he has immunity like a prelate.

  181. Conspiracy theories about because far-right conservatives create them in their Orwellian media network, the conspiracies are adopted by conservative, yet seemingly more legitimate outlets like Fox News, and then the GOP and the Trump administration repeats them as fact, because they've been reported by what they claim are legitimate outlets. And when that happens, the crazies believe them, and show up at pizza restaurants with assault weapons. This conspiracy network is a creation of the far-right. There is not comparable web of liars and lies among rational people. It serves the GOP to lie to the people, it serves Trump to lie to the people. And the result is increasing frequency of political murders.

  182. Wise counsel, Ross. I must say that in my rare, rare in-person encounters with billionaires and their pet projects, I have been consistently impressed with just how much collaboration, glitz, mobility, confidentiality and instant, loyal enthusiasm money can buy. I mean, Jeffrey Epstein literally had a private pedophile island with a pagan shrine, for mercy's sake. And I only become more "open minded" about the suspicious nature of his death when I realize he seemingly got what quasi-wealth he enjoyed not by financial acumen, but by having dirt (le mot just) on an impressive network of giga-powerful pals. I imagine that - for who knows how many of them - their tears of grief at their friend's sad demise are frequently interrupted by sighs of relief that Jeffrey can't testify.

  183. A thoughtful review by someone I usually disagree with.

  184. This column tries to make sense of things that don't, with a nod to craziness/paranoia. And overall that's a good thing. Sometimes there is skullduggery that's never completely explained, like the JFK assassination or Marilyn Monroe's death. Sometimes there's fear grounded in the true but today unthinkable--eg, letting black men with STIs go untreated to watch what happens as a formal medical study. The CIA really did transport drugs and give people LSD. There really were plots to poison Castro. Epstein's death is somewhere in this mix. A death that shouldn't be but is. Careless staff. Connections to the rich and powerful. Telling people they're nuts for suspecting something bigger--which some have done--serves no good purpose. It just promotes accusations of a coverup, which simply turns up the heat.

  185. @Talbot Marilyn Monroe was an unhappy woman who took too many sleeping pills and often used alcohol when taking them. A lot of people did that back in the 1950's and 60's, and there were a lot of overdoses due to people using the medication improperly, both accidentally and deliberately. Conspiracy theories about suicide victims are repulsive and often promulgated by people who apparently have nothing else of importance going on in their lives, and this obsession causes pain for the surviving friends and family. Ross Douthat's column doesn't help matters any, either. Twenty years ago, a friend of mine killed himself, and there was no doubt that it was a suicide. He was unhappy about a divorce and his stalled career and was struggling with drug addiction. While those of us who knew him were saddened and stunned by his self-inflicted death, we also did not question the suicide determination. Why some people have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that unhappy, depressed people sometimes kill themselves is a mystery.

  186. Yes, but. Women know that all these things are often not fake. Everything you describe is known in a deep, often unconscious, way by women, who often bear the brunt of it. Men spin it all, women know.

  187. One of Mr. Douthat’s best columns; thank you. It helps—immeasurably—to have a science and/or logic background when approaching things like conspiracy theories and the people espousing (or just spouting) them. Unfortunately, a wide swath of the electorate doesn’t, and at least one major political party has decided it’s easier to keep their base in line if we cut education so that they’ll not gain the critical-thinking skills necessary to see the inherent contradictions in what they say and do—or say, and don’t do. In many instances, it’s useful to start with the old saying, “Never ascribe to malice that which can easily be explained by incompetence.” That may be the case with Epstein’s untimely death, but given that our so-called “president” exudes both malice and incompetency on a daily basis, I’ll wait until the facts come out. Of course, it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy that the same people who would be capable of the crime are also in a position to keep the facts under wraps, too. Let’s hope that the “institutional incompetence” also makes hiding the facts impossible in the long run.

  188. @David Walker Thank you for expressing my thoughts. Mr. Douthat's column reads like an assignment in PHIL 201, meaning that it's unintelligible to those affected by its premise and accessible only to those with the capacity to parse it. My lament is how to counteract the power such theories have over public discourse and policy. I feel that my masters' level of education is impotent against the loud and mobilized emotional classes. It doesn't even help to be intelligent with so many factors influencing our societal fates. We lack a common morality -- from our adherences to organized religion or even political affiliations -- that used to keep us civil. We have no choice but to be skeptical, even cynical.

  189. Ross, you seem to be falling for an all to common scam. It goes like this: you keep making outlandish predictions that, while possibly true, are extremely unlikely Then you ignore the multitude of resulting false positives and draw attention only to the very few true positives. This proves nothing beyond the fact that low probability events happen on rare occasions.

  190. I remember in 2006 when a handful of conspiracists studying the housing and mortgage loan industry were predicting that it was a house of cards and would collapse, and those “nut job alarmists” were roundly mocked and ridiculed by the “experts” and the public stating that housing values would never go down on a massive scale and all those loans were AAA solid as a rock. As Mark Twain said it is the stuff that I think I know but am completely wrong about that scares me the most.

  191. Which is more rational: an incredulity toward the official suicide narrative, or an incredulity toward plausible cover up narratives? The Epstein case is both a reflection and an additional instance of the erosion of legitimacy in the US's former sites of trusted authority. Connie Bruck's article on Epstein in last month's The New Yorker, titled "Alan Dershowitz, Devil's Advocate," makes dismissing some cover-up narratives as mere conspiracy seem irrational.

  192. Although I agree with the premise that there is more to the Epstein story than we yet know, this column does a disservice to truth by positing false equivalents: throwing men like Robert Mueller, who has warned repeatedly about the interference of Russians in our democracy, in with those who came up with Pizzagate. In so doing, it continues the terrible blurring of fact and fiction that is making it impossible to have a working society. Like many conservatives, Douthat would prefer this to be a matter of degree, so both sides can be blamed. But the truth is that the Republican party leader is a man who cannot, or will not, separate what is true from what is false. And so those looking to be an apologist for him and his believers are falling in to the same trap.

  193. @ts likewise, throwing in everyone who thinks this isn't a simple suicide, but at the very least an assisted one, into the label of conspiracy theorists, as this article has done, is misleading and feels like an attempt to discredit those people.

  194. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Society is a joint stock company in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members”. Today we would read Emerson’s “manhood” as something like integrity or individuality, but his larger point is that conspiracy is the life’s blood of American life rather than the fringe concept we’ve turned it into. Everybody from corporations and advertisers to politicians and, yes, opinion columnists conspire to influence, sway and get us to purchase, literally or metaphorically, their wares and ideas, each time urging us to relinquish and sacrifice a bit more of our selves. Although the Clintons were no more responsible for Jeffrey Epstein’s death than Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination, Epstein’s wealth, status, connections and crimes were certainly, as you say, the product of a wide ranging conspiracy of many powerful people. The sudden and suspicious nature of his death only adds to the mystery of why he and Trump shared so many “business associates”, from Steve Bannon and the Saudi Crown Prince to Alan Dershowitz and countless others. When American politics are governed by the “paranoid style,” paranoia no longer seems an unreasonable response. Nor does conspiracy, especially when a ne’er-do-well nobody was permitted to do so many bad things, for so long, with the knowledge, aid and blessing of so many “well-connected” people, all of whom are currently in, if you will, a deep state of denial.

  195. Is there a greater conspiracy theory in the US than the religious majority, that encompasses 75% of the population, is persecuted?

  196. We should be repulsed by criminal playboys, as well as the celebrities we allowed to entertain us who then used this trust to cover up for these playboys, and we should keep this revulsion in mind when we go vote. Even if the enablers are otherwise loyal members of our own party, we must not be afraid to see them for what they are and vote accordingly.

  197. @Mark Lebow- Prepare to be repulsed. Wall-to wall coverage, books, movies, tell-all interviews, memes, and t-shirts are on their way.

  198. You, like (apparently) everyone else, has overlooked the fact that Acosta claimed that he was told that Epstein was connected with intelligence. This could mean that he was sharing his kompromat with one or more US intelligence agencies, and that he was protected in exchange. Sure, it's just a theory -- but Acosta's statement is a matter of record.

  199. The main driver of those who live within the castle walls and seek endless enrichment and those outside with pitchforks and torches is a desire for the unique access to a special truth and to the power which comes from that knowledge. Jeffrey Epstein knew what Jeffrey Epstein (and others) did as he enlisted an army of assistants and lawyers to keep him able to enjoy his depravity. Conspiracy theorists enjoy the secrets they purport to uncover as it elevates them in their own communities. Our president doffs his hat to them each time he intones "Fake News!". In the absence of evidence, we should allow conspiracy theories to enrich our entertainment (e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Parallax View, etc.) but keep a deep level of skepticism always at hand.

  200. @Douglas McNeill- The biggest problem in the USA is the dearth of pitchforks and torches. We are too busy amusing ourselves to death. Hong Kong-type action will never happen in this country.

  201. "The current elite anxiety about Russia’s hand in the West’s populist disturbances" Of course, good, solid, hard working Middle Americans are o.k. with dismissing any and all facts that are uncovered. Otherwise, the election of their hero and his ilk might come into question. Just curious - when did "elite" become code speak for liberal Democrats?

  202. Good analysis here, sort of sum-upable by the old canard "Don't be too quick to attribute to malice and conspiracy that which can be more easily explained by incompetence, greed, and stupidity". Still, though, there is the problem of attractiveness of conspiracy theories actually leading, at times, to attempts to create interlocking plottings; if people believe things are real, they are real in their consequences even if they did not start out as real, and some will create these circumstances in the next go round as they are perceived as possible. Belief in conspiracies, therefore, actually leads to conspiracies. They may be hard to keep together as they involve many interlocking parts, but over time just through the law of averages, some of them come through more or less whole. The trick is to determine, as various depredations come to light, which of them actually are the result of concerted, conscious effort, and which of them are just the result of "oops"--the word that probably explains more history than any other.

  203. "The current elite anxiety about Russia’s hand in the West’s populist disturbances, which reached a particularly hysterical pitch with the pre-Mueller report collusion coverage, is a classic example of how conspiracy theories find a purchase in the supposedly sensible center —" This is "elite" anxiety? Really you mean Democratic anxiety, right? Whenever you use GOP talking points, labels or buzz words you stop me cold. What's elite about wanting to discover the truth about a certified prevaricator's actions in manipulating our democratic elections?

  204. All those “elite” school teachers and pipe fitters who vote Democratic. Even when critiquing the right he can’t help but mischaracterize the center and left.

  205. Ross, good column. Consider the Charlie Rose conspiracy. People in the know at CBS (and surely PBS) had heard the whispers about his abusive sexual behavior for decades - and yet the public was never let in on it. We were collectively encouraged to see him as a fountain of civility and manners. Was that not a conspiracy to protect the profitability of his brand, and that of the networks he represented? "The Loudest Voice" just finished its run on Showtime. How is it that Roger Ailes' behavior went unreported on for so long, even after FOX had begun paying out massive damages to his victims? Should nondisclosure agreements be illegal? Maybe. When the rich and powerful have so many ways to quash the truth, you can't wonder when malevolent conspiracies are suspected once their belated wrongdoing is revealed. Money and power both corrupt - and likely always will. It is clearly not in the interests of society that the powerful or rich be spared the harsh public scrutiny that they have earned when they transgress. If transparency is the best disinfectant, then transparency must be emphasized over all other legal considerations.

  206. Another reason why people give time to even the most cockamamie conspiracy theories is that it makes them feel clued in, less naive or square. Conspiracy theories flatter the ego and create a false sense of power: Won't Get Fooled Again. Except, we are.

  207. Another reason for the growth of conspiracy theory is simple hubris. Yes, the enemies are omni-competent and super powerful, but they aren't too smart for me! They can manipulate media, elections, billions of dollars and hide earth shaking news, but I, sitting alone in front of a laptop in my basement, can ferret out the truth. And if you listen to me, you can be one of the "too smart to be fooled" geniuses as well!

  208. Remember HIllary Clinton and the "vast right-wing conspiracy"? Dismissed as kooky at the time, her characterization has turned out to be spot on.

  209. @David Platt Which she fed with bad behavior.

  210. @Sarah Really? What bad behavior? You do realize the irony of reading a column about conspiracies without recognizing the biggest one of all, that republicans have been spreading like manure for the last 20+ years. It went right over your head.

  211. The rule of thumb is this, formed over decades of empirical evidence: government lies to its people. Most of the time, if not always, for no good reason. 8:53 am Tue

  212. The right has and will continue to operate as a "loosely defined conspiracy." The primary reason for this is that they adhere to and live a hierarchical view of human relationships. Many on the right just want to make it to the middle of the hierarchy, roughly speaking, and would be available if asked to help in efforts that enhance the power of the right. So basically you have a nationwide group of like-minded people who can develop little pop-up conspiracies quickly without there even being a discernable, organized, cohesive group structure. And the way that the people who are available to the powerful can identify themselves is by the language that they use when discussing things like far-fetched anti-Clinton or anti-Obama rhetoric, such as the Benghazi narrative. All they have to do is NOT be critical of the more outrageous stuff that floats around or fail to register the least indignation over a loathsome nominee to some position, and they are signaling that they are "on board." Not all conspiracies even look like conspiracies because people have a special genius to act this way.

  213. I was stunned at age 18 to find that my hero, Eisenhower, had lied about the U2 spy planes. The succeeding 60 years have only reinforced my deep contempt for the integrity of public figures.

  214. Are you supposed to tell the truth about spy planes? C’mon. That’s not the same thing.

  215. @Steve Tillinghast- Yep. And don't get me started on Mickey Mantle .

  216. @David Weber- In 1962 we still believed some people told the truth. On November 23, 1963 we stopped believing and it has been downhill since.

  217. An actual conspiracy to murder a jailed prisoner is unlikely but a hands-off allowing that prisoner (who was probably suicidal) to commit suicide is plausible. It's like the Biblical Story of King David who has Bathsheba's husband Uriah the Hittite sent to the front lines where he was killed. If Epstein had information that was embarrassing to the "elite circle" that Barr was part of (that might have included other members of our Administration) then keeping Epstein in a cell by himself and not rigidly applying observation of the suicide-prone man would be a convenient way of getting rid of a source of shameful information.

  218. @shimr Yes and to use a more recent analogy than biblical tales, Frank Serpico being sent into conflict situations first while his comrades stand back for a few minutes as depicted in the movie, hoping their version of the enemy, an honest cop, who represents a peril to them finally gets it in the face.

  219. @shimr don't forget trump's party at Mar a Lago that Epstein attended & where they were filmed together making comments about the young women.