Over Independence Day weekend, as most of the rest of us set off fireworks and grilled at cookouts, a cadre of conspiracy obsessives awaited the fulfillment of a message-board prophecy. In its broadest strokes, QAnon, as the expansive and complicated theory to which these people have dedicated their energy is known, claims that a group within the federal government has been conducting a secret investigation into a network of elite pedophiles. On the Fourth of July, or maybe on the fifth — depending on which version of the theory you subscribe to — with the nation watching, John F. Kennedy Jr., who faked his own death 20 years ago this month, would reveal himself, and then, as QAnon interpreter Will Sommer puts it, “team up with Trump and ship a huge number of top Democrats off to Guantanamo Bay” for their participation in these global child-sex rings.
Of course, this wild theory turned out to be bogus. They got the date wrong: July 4 and 5 both passed without incident. It wasn’t until July 6 that the feds handed out an indictment over a global underage sex-trafficking ring implicating U.S. presidents, heads of government, top lawyers, world-famous actors, and a member of the English royal family. And, to be fair, JFK Jr. didn’t emerge from hiding. Otherwise, though, the Saturday arrest of well-connected financier and convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein on one count of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking went a long way toward fulfilling the QAnon prediction — and therefore raised a troubling question: Did QAnon turn out to be kind of, well, right?
Epstein, the federal indictment alleges, “created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit, often on a daily basis.” He’s said to have groomed girls as young as 14 in his mansions in New York and Palm Beach, and alleged to have forced them to have sex with the powerful people who ran in his circles. One woman says that she was coerced into sex with both superlawyer Alan Dershowitz and the Prince of Wales’s younger brother Prince Andrew; President Bill Clinton, as the right-wing press is fond of pointing out, was a frequent guest on Epstein’s jet, which was apparently nicknamed the “Lolita Express” by locals on the U.S. Virgin Islands hideaway where Epstein allegedly hosted orgies.
If you believe the most sweeping version of the allegations, Epstein and a handful of helpers were running what was in essence a mobile teenage-prostitution ring catering to the one percent aboard his private jet and in his palatial estates — themselves decked out in full occult-orgy fashion, with a mysterious Eastern European hostess, a custom erotic chess board, and “a life-size female doll in a wedding dress hanging from a chandelier.” Until this weekend, he’d managed to escape justice, thanks to a strange leniency from top prosecutors, including Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and former U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, now Trump’s Secretary of Labor. One-percenter sex rings? Creepy mansions rife with dark symbolism? A culture of impunity emanating from the highest levels of government? That sure sounds like QAnon.
But it’s not quite QAnon. In many details, the Epstein case is QAnon’s inverse. The charges aren’t coming from a zombie JFK Jr., who faked his own death to escape the system, but from the establishment-aligned U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York. Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring seems possibly to have been a sort of awful side hustle to a real business that involved money laundering, or offshore banking, or even just blackmailing and ponzi scheming, rather than the center of a fantastical satanic cult based out of a pizza parlor. (Though, don’t think too hard about the fact that Epstein once said that his dinner parties were “like eating pizza at the ballet.”)
Most conspicuously, in the world of QAnon, Donald Trump is a crusading savior, the face of a deep-state conspiracy to expose the moral depravity of the global elite and bring a cabal of child molestors to justice. In real life, Trump was friendly with Epstein. “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” he told New York in 2002. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Trump is not the only person who’s known for decades about Epstein’s conspicuous preference for young women. The journalist Vicky Ward says that references to Epstein’s abuse in a 2003 article she wrote for Vanity Fair were killed by editors. Stories emerged anyway; many of the details of his alleged crimes have been extensively reported over the last fifteen years, and the charges levied against Epstein over the weekend are extremely similar to those brought against him in 2008. The “conspiracy theory” of a network of predators centered around a wealthy enabler, protected by the privileged cohort in which he ran, was easily found in the Miami Herald, or on Gawker, or pieced together through court documents. If QAnon was kind of right, it was as a twisted, telephone-game rendition of a story already out in the open, filtered through Satanist moral panic, right-wing partisanship, Christian prophecy, and Kennedy nostalgia.
What was surprising about this weekend’s news wasn’t the specifics of the allegations, but the fact that anything happened regarding them. Back in 2008, thanks to his sweetheart plea deal with Alex Acosta, Epstein served only 13 months of an 18 month sentence, mostly on work release, for the reduced crime of soliciting an underage prostitute. As more victims came forward and new details emerged, Epstein remained free, and the powerful men who once made up his social circle untainted by their relationships to him. The name Jeffrey Epstein became synonymous with, as Michelle Goldberg puts it, “deep corruption among mostly male elites across parties, and the way the very rich can often purchase impunity for even the most loathsome of crimes.”
If anything, QAnon was a more palatable version of this story — a rendition in which elites spent decades secretly working toward justice, in which the forces arrayed against them were supernaturally malevolent rather than simply rich and networked, and in which the president of the United States is a covert agent for good, rather than a former Epstein acquaintance and enabler. Or rather than, for that matter, a multiply accused sex abuser himself.
In that light, QAnon sounds less like a paranoid conspiracy than a kind of optimistic fantasy. The world of QAnon isn’t a happy one, but as the Epstein case demonstrates, neither is the world the rest of us live in. At least QAnon promises justice, victory, a resurrected JFK Jr., and a nice bit of drama over a holiday weekend.