Last week, Donald Trump accused his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, of murder, retweeting a video pushing a conspiracy theory that the Clintons had somehow managed to murder Jeffrey Epstein in jail. Epstein was the former financial manager (and/or swindler) who committed suicide in his jail cell while awaiting trial for sex trafficking of minors. Trump’s latest retweet came shortly after another one, claiming that Bill Clinton “took private trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘pedophilia island.’”
Both accusations were false, of course. But because of the explosion of falsehoods, Trump’s retweets received a shrug from much of the media.
The posture of bored, above-it-all cynicism that infects the political press will, I suspect, be a major factor future historians point to when writing about the collapse of the American empire. Even if saying so doesn’t impress the high school debate nerds who make up the majority of our political media, it is in fact a big deal that Trump is floating this conspiracy theory: The video he retweeted got more than 3 million views by the next morning.
Outrage is exhausting, but it’s necessary.
Just a week before Epstein’s suicide, we were all subjected to a vivid reminder that Trump’s rhetoric is getting people killed. A young white man, hyped up on the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric being popularized by Trump, opened fire in an El Paso Walmart, killing 22 people. After surrendering to the police, the suspected killer said he was targeting Mexicans; he posted a manifesto online painting Hispanic people as an “invasion,” language Trump and his allies at Fox News have frequently used.
Despite this reminder that Trump’s lies are inciting violence, the media couldn’t be moved to take seriously his false accusation that the Clintons are involved in Epstein’s death.
The likeliest explanation for Epstein’s suicide is merely the incompetence and negligence of prison authorities, which is an ongoing problem at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Epstein was being held.
There’s been a lot of justified hand-wringing about the growth of conspiracy theories in American politics, and about the way that conspiracy theories erode the public trust necessary to keep our democracy functioning. Trump never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t want to amplify.
Ignoring Trump’s tweets, out of an abundance of conspiracy-theory caution, is also problematic. Even if journalists and politicians have learned to shrug off Trump’s rantings as hot air streaming out of a credibility-free buffoon, there are still a lot of people in this country who take the president seriously. Some of them shoot up shopping centers or send mail bombs to former presidents.
Outrage is exhausting, but it’s necessary. The country is falling apart and people are dying. After Trump was elected there were a million op-eds about not allowing ourselves to normalize his brand of reality-TV evil. That message is even more important now than it was then.