In recent months, President Trump has repeatedly used the words “witch hunt” on Twitter to refer to the Mueller investigation. He has also repeatedly denied there was any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials, and refers to any news outlet covering the story—basically every network or publication apart from FOX and Breitbart—as “fake news.” POTUS recently finally dispensed with context, in what would seem to many to be a signpost of self-incrimination—tweeting merely “WITCH HUNT!” by itself, and continuing to use the term in connection with the investigation that has so far seen a number of indictments and a good deal of cooperation from former staffers.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2018
But why does he call it a “witch hunt,” precisely? Does Trump, whose literacy has been questioned and whose limited, hyperbolic vocabulary is a source of national embarrassment, really understand the implications of this expression? On the one hand, it’s easy to see this as a classic case of narcissistic projection and inversion: the man who engages in nasty finger-pointing and rumor-mongering looks to deflect attention from himself by accusing his accusers, as Abigail Warren did during an actual witch hunt in Salem Village in 1692.
Since the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump’s part in the Russia scandal, he has clearly felt trapped. He, his vice president and his son-in-law lawyered up immediately. Numerous indictments have been handed down and staff members close to Trump have begun, to use a quaint metaphor, to sing. Thousands of pages of documents have been examined, some of them pointing to heinous crimes including money laundering, fraud and conspiracy. The evidence may still be somewhat ephemeral, but it’s far from spectral. The news media talk of little else, even when horrific tragedies interject—to a point at which the White House sees school shootings as a welcome “reprieve” from all the scandals and corruption in their ranks being exposed.
But what does it mean when we refer to a political debacle as a “witch hunt?” Are saying that the people being accused are innocent of wrongdoing? Are we saying that those doing the accusing are motivated by any number of prejudices—say, against women, pagans, socialists? Are we saying that lending credibility to such a “hunt” implies being ignorant, superstitious or even delusional?
Let’s ask some experts.
“Modern use of the term ‘witch hunt’ presumes that witchcraft does not exist,” Sabina Magliocco, Professor of Anthropology and Religion at the University of British Columbia—whose areas of research include witchcraft, folklore and ethnography—tells Ms. “That’s why it implies baselessness.” Professor of English and Medieval Studies Kate Laity says “the phrase has clearly become devoid of any significant meaning.”
But the term does fit into a contemporary context: “The key to the success of European witch hunts was two things—the alliance of church and state, crosier and crown, plus a gullible, Christ-haunted populace,” Byron Ballard, author and expert in Appalachian folk magic, explains. “Sound familiar?”
Indeed, we’re seeing an unprecedented time in America where increasing religious zealotry threatens to erode and even dismantle the carefully-tended separation of church and state that has defined our country for over two centuries. Witchcraft’s deepest cultural roots, of course, stem from the European, and later, North American, witchcraze in the 15th through 17th centuries, during which thousands of people—mostly women—were put to death for charges related to heresy, devil worship and other crimes against the religious status quo.
The most notorious culmination of this social phenomenon was the Salem witch trials. Following an intense period of rumor and what some modern historians call mass hysteria, 18 men and women were put to death for witchcraft in 1692.
Inspired by the “McCarthy hearings” of the 1950s—investigations by various congressional committees, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, into over a hundred Americans suspected of being Communist sympathizers or spies—playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, dramatizing the Salem witch trials to contextualize McCarthyism as a sort of throwback to an era of superstition and prejudice. In the wake of this play’s ascent to the literary canon and following thousands of professional and amateur productions, witch hunts are now associated not with the accused witches, but with the deluded persecutors. If witchcraft does not exist, then neither, it would seem, does treason.
Most of the people accused of witchcraft have been women, whereas most of the people accused of Communist sympathizing have been men—and the punishments for witchcraft was imprisonment and execution, whereas the punishments for being found guilty of “un-American activities” were imprisonment and blacklisting. These gendered differences speak volumes about the sexism of actual witch hunts—and fly in the face of Trump’s own sense of being hunted.
It’s worth pointing out that our President, a misogynistic sexual predator, has a reputation for publicly accusing and ridiculing women whom he sees as possessing power over him. Indeed, the use of the word “witch” is frequently leveled at women who challenge the dominant social paradigm—which, like it or not, is still patriarchy. Oddly, the name is only used pejoratively, and not to refer to witches who are young, glamorous, cool, benevolent or sexy. Forget Glinda or Samantha or Thomasin or even Fiona Goode—witches are Elvira Gulch, Endora, Dark Willow, Maleficent. People call women “witches” who are just plain too old, too ugly, too mean, too nasty, too dangerous, too unfuckable, too scary, too wise, too powerful. They scare us, so we hunt them. They threaten our sense of control, so we must take them down.
Hillary Clinton comes to mind. During the presidential election primaries, an event created by a Bernie Sanders supporter called “Bern the Witch”—wherein, apparently, a figure of Hillary Clinton would be burned in effigy—was subject to a fair amount of backlash for its blatant sexism and its call for violence. Sanders supporters who replaced chants of “Feel the Bern” with “Bern the Witch” at rallies were referred to by a HuffPo blogger as “trolls” apparently unclear on the concept of the “moral authority” emanating from the Sanders campaign. More recently, Clinton was referred to in connection to The Crucible by a right wing protestor who disrupted a New York performance of Julius Caesar. (It seems Trump supporters are dramaturgically-challenged.) And in response to Trump’s two-word exclamatory tweet, a Twitter user known as “seattlebern” tweeted a photoshopped image of Clinton as a witch in greenface.
The Nasty Woman who dared suggest she might be able to lead the country with skill and integrity was subjected to the most vicious sexist insults imaginable—but none more offensive than the ones characterizing her as a witch. The Hillary Clinton as Witch narrative is a compelling precisely because of the misogynistic throngs who wanted her jailed for…well, it’s not really clear what for. Failure of crops, perhaps, or causing milk to spoil.
Interestingly, Trump himself has avoided referring to her with this epithet: to do so would be confusing to him perhaps, since he fancies himself the one being hunted. With his repeated denials and outbursts, Trump goes beyond mere dismissal of the accusations and actively casts himself as a victim. The iconography of the classic witch hunt, a frenzied mob carrying torches and pitchforks, suggests a group of “insiders” pursuing a notorious “outsider.” For Trump, arguably the most powerful and most protected man in the world, to turn himself into a persecuted “outsider” is a manipulative ruse with no basis in reality or even plausibility. Then again, if more folks understood toxic narcissism a bit better, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Over the last few months, when Trump’s expressions of paranoid persecution were only an occasional outburst and not yet a constant drone, Alexandra Petri asked, in her perennial tongue-in-cheek mode of analysis, if Trump himself is a witch. On social media, Trump’s image has appeared in green make-up and witch hats, and even serious politicians like Ted Lieu can’t help referring to Trump as a witch.
We, the people, the women whom Trump has judged and ridiculed based upon our age, appearance and sexual relevance, roll our eyes in response and cringe. We understand he’s using social media once again to manipulate us, crying “witch hunt!” in a way that inverts its meaning. We understand that Trump is, in fact, the witch hunter, not the hunted, and is using the rhetoric of the classical witch hunt to erect a framework for punishment—not the John Proctor kind, but the Joseph McCarthy kind.
For a powerful man to be crying out as victim is in fact a mode of attack. Trump’s definition of a witch hunt is also, in the classical sense, built upon lies, deceit, jealousy and personal vendetta—because, of course, he alone can fix it and he has all the best words and he is, like, smart, and we’re all so sad we’re not him. We know he considers his naysayers to be vindictive bitches looking to shine a spotlight on their anger, even as he knows such characterizations will anger us further.
Trump’s cry of “witch hunt!” is a cruel commentary on those who truly are unfairly persecuted as a result of this man’s words and deeds—and that would include pretty much anyone who’s not white, male and rich, with immigrants being particularly vulnerable now. When the zealots of McCarthyism were compared to the self-centered, vindictive adolescent girls of Salem Village in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, the term “witch hunt” was re-contextualized. It still meant that people of integrity were targeted and convicted based on spurious rumor, but it also underscored the capricious nature of those whose accusations might carry political weight.
So what does it mean when Trump cries “witch hunt!” yet again? It means he thinks his integrity is inviolable, and that he thinks we’re easily fooled, and that he thinks he has public opinion on his side. He thinks this will make us—his accusers—fear him. (Of course, we are afraid of him—because he’s a sloppy, incompetent caricature of a man with the nuclear codes.)
There is a suggestion that all those whose fingers are pointed at Trump are somehow enmeshed in a nationwide mass hysteria—that they are a heaving mass of gullible, deluded goodwives. In defense of that delusion, it does kinda feel like Salem Village out there these days: the mundane seems surreal, the air rings with rumors so absurd they may as well be superstitions, the big picture looms like a funnel cloud on the horizon or a shadowy horde of flying monkeys. Things are unpredictable, unbelievable, crude and brutal.
But women know that Trump is no victim—and that he fears no unjust punishment for defying the status quo. Women, after all, know what a witch hunt looks like. We have really never been able to rid this term of its gendered meaning, and that meaning destroy’s Trump’s interpretation. Unraveling the rhetoric of the witch-finder lets us see that all he really has is his black bag of implements—which can be taken away as swiftly as news of an indictment flies over the airwaves.
Women know what witchcraft is. We understand that it is both sin and salvo, both malignancy and modus operandi. We understand what is meant when people refer to women’s behavior, or even their words, as “hysterical.” We see the backlash to the wave of sexual harassment and abuse revelations and wonder if being strong and outspoken is ever really going to be an okay thing to do—but despite the angry mobs at our doorsteps, we continue to scream.
We are cunning women who are persecuted: for being educated, for being uppity, for being alone, for being mothers or widows or teachers or waitresses. We are not stupid, nor weak, and yet we feel helpless. We now live daily with the knowledge that, with the self-conscious and ham-fisted stroke of a pen, this woman-hating man can condemn us, punish us merely for the crime of being female. We understand his followers, unsophisticated and angry, would condemn us without cause or hesitation. We know they like their guns, the bigger the better.
Nevertheless, we persist. We hang sheaves of dried herbs in our windows, soothe our nerves with essential oils or chardonnay or caramel ice cream, consult the oracles of our day—Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid, Samantha Bee, Sarah Kendzior—and pull our cloaks tighter, walk in the streets whenever we can, watch for portents, listen for sirens. We do our monthly bindings by the light of the crescent moon. We watch and wait. We know that the persecution of women as witches goes way back—and wonder if, or when, the Burning Times might come back.
There may be darker days ahead, but we’ve always been pretty good at finding our way in the dark. That’s how we travel to meet our friends, taking roads less noticed, meeting at the crossroads, stirring the cauldron, consulting our books, making magic happen.