United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, Monday, July 8, 2019. Federal prosecutors announced sex trafficking and consp
( Richard Drew
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York this is On The Media. Bob Garfield is out, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week we came up for air after the eviction series and the money show to review the stories we hadn't covered, among them the malignant neglect of the most vulnerable of children at the migrant detention center in Clint, Texas. And the chronicle of an alleged sordid, squalid rape committed by our commander in chief. And we started to feel a little numb and that obviously isn't good for any of us or for the country which requires its citizens to stay engaged. So we thought we'd take up the issue of numbness, paralysis and how to treat it. First, with a little bit of good news that relates to our theme because this case was finally liberated from the grip of a long paralysis allowing justice to begin its work.
MALE CORRESPONDENT He has rubbed elbows with the likes of President Trump and President Clinton and Prince Andrew and today the feds charged the multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein with running a network for the rape of underage girls.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Epstein first faced other sex crime charges back in 2006 and 2007. At the time, he could have faced life in prison for allegations with underage girls. But the prosecutor in the case, Alex Acosta, now President Trump's labor secretary, struck a more lenient deal. Epstein served just 13 months in a county jail for those charges.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT We have got breaking news Alexander Acosta is resigning. The labor secretary just announcing--[END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the indictments were announced and the details emerged, one group readied itself for what New York Magazine writer and editor Max Read calls, 'the fulfillment of the message board prophecy.' One ardently embraced by a group of far right conspiracy theorists. But as they say even a broken clock is right twice a day.
MAX READ I'm talking about QAnon, which is a sort of infamous sprawling conspiracy theory borne out of message boards like 4chan and social networks like Facebook that has held for the last several years that there is a high level ring of pedophiles among the governmental, political, academic, financial elite–specifically among the Democratic elite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For those of us not in those circles, we first saw it when that guy came in to shoot up a pizza shop, which was apparently fingered as a pedophile front.
MAX READ Yeah. That was the pizza gate era, the roiling QAnon conspiracy and a key component of their theory is that Donald Trump is in fact conducting a secret investigation into these rings and that he is eventually going to reveal the investigation and ship a bunch of the Democrats up to Guantanamo. His partner in this investigation as it happens again according to the conspiracy theory is the late JFK Junior who is said to have faked his death 20 years ago and will someday reveal himself alongside Trump in order to bring justice to these offenders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Before the Epstein indictments came down, one faction of QAnon people seemed to believe that on the Fourth of July Donald Trump and JFK Junior would finally make their move.
MAX READ Yeah. On July 4th, maybe at the big rally that Trump was giving there would be some kind of announcement. That it would finally be the moment when Nancy Pelosi was let off in handcuffs. Some people thought it was July 5th. Obviously as it turned out--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Boy they couldn't have been more wrong.
MAX READ No, no. It wasn't until July 6 that a really high level member of the financial elite was arrested by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York City for taking part in a sex trafficking ring that seemed to implicate a huge number of politicians, financial, elites, academics even entertainers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did the QAnon message boards react?
MAX READ For me what was interesting is that what they were saying tracked so closely with the story of Epstein, which we actually have known a fair amount about for the last 15 or so years. You know the charges that were brought against him this weekend are similar to the ones that were brought against him 10 years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The headline of your piece in New York Magazine is So Was QAnon … Right? And I think you argue it was right in the general contours that there's a culture of impunity and there were sex trafficking going on.
MAX READ If you squint your eyes, they did get it right. But then there's all these details that really they got wrong such as, for example, John F. Kennedy Junior has not appeared. For example, they have imagined this to be some awful Satanic occult sex practice. When it seems to kind of have been almost a side business to potentially some kind of money laundering business, some ponzi scheming that Epstein is doing. It's still kind of unclear exactly how he made his money. One of the biggest points on which they're wrong is the idea that Donald Trump was the hero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The reporting suggests he's an erstwhile friend of Epstein who reportedly broke with him over some business deal gone sour. So how has QAnon dealt with this mixed Trump connection to Epstein?
MAX READ Well they seem to have convinced themselves that he was sort of undercover for the last 20 plus years. That he was a kind of Donnie Brasco of the Eyes Wide Shut set. The way conspiracy theorists tend to operate is they take any evidence and they figure out a way to make that evidence work in their system. That there can't possibly be anything that would contradict the big machine that they've got going.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know we have a rough theme for this episode of On The Media and it has to do with the numbing effect that comes from being constantly hammered over the head. And I wonder how do you think QAnon fits into this if at all.
MAX READ The QAnon paranoid conspiracy starts to emerge as actually a somewhat more optimistic vision of the world. From all we can tell and from all that's been reported, Epstein is a story of an awful criminal who was allowed to escape justice for many many years based on his powerful connections. Whereas the QAnon on story is one where there are elites working in the name of truth and righteousness. It's one in which, at the end of the day, the bad guys are going to go to jail and the president is not a multiply accused sex offender himself but a true and noble hero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it your view then that conspiracy theories can be soothing?
MAX READ Soothing is a good word. I don't know that conspiracy theories can make people happy necessarily. But I think that they allow people to structure the information that they see around them–the things they read, the way the world works–in such a way that it begins to make sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Bringing order to a chaotic world.
MAX READ Exactly. And you know, if you look at this particular situation it can be infuriating to think that Jeffrey Epstein skated off on a sweetheart plea deal for 10 years of his life despite most of the crimes that he allegedly committed having been known. If you look at that it can be very difficult if you believe in truth and justice and the American way to understand how and why that was allowed to happen. And QAnon gives you a structure to understand it. It allows you to say, 'well look, I know that he's been in this mansion for the last 10 years enjoying his life but in fact JFK Junior and Donald Trump are working very hard to put him in jail and also Nancy Pelosi and all these other people.' You know, it might still make you angry but you have a sense of order to the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now I know you're not licensed but where does that leave the rest of us?
MAX READ The most cynical thing to say would be that we all kind of have a grand narratives about where the world works. It used to be the case, for better and often for worse, that every city had one maybe two or three newspapers that told you the way the world worked and you trusted your democratically elected representatives to represent you to the world and to represent the world to you. And now we have this sort of multiplicity of institutions, companies, digital platforms claiming to do more or less the same thing. And that kind of splintering of reality is strange. At best it makes you feel weird. At worst it makes you kind of go crazy. That system of achieving consensus through deliberation and discussion is a sort of peacetime project and it feels very much like we're at war right now. It has a lot to do with the way the Internet works and the way we've allowed social platforms to take over. In the case of something like QAnon, like those are people who have entered a full kind of wartime footing or full kind of wartime attitude toward the world. That they have shut off the possibility of deliberation of achieving consensus with people who disagree with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they're comfortable there?
MAX READ I mean it takes a lot of risk and vulnerability to say, 'I might be, wrong convince me. Let's talk this through.' You know, compromise requires you to give stuff up. When you're at war, you have one objective and that's to win. And it's, it is comforting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Max, thank you very much.
MAX READ Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Max Read is the senior editor for New York Magazine.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Next up, climate scientists cope with the crippling anxiety that comes with tracking global warming. This is On The Media.