The president has a new favorite catchphrase. But he has its meaning precisely backward.
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history — led by some very bad and conflicted people!” Donald Trump tweeted in response to the news that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation had expanded to include Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.
Even if he hadn’t chosen to capitalize them, it’s clear Trump chose the words “witch hunt” with intent. Last month, he called the Russia investigation “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” And he had used the phrase 11 times before that on Twitter.
But the term is a strikingly poor fit for the circumstances.
The single greatest witch hunt in American history — and, tellingly, the only reason “witch hunt” exists as a political reference point — was, of course, the Salem witch trials. For anyone who forgot high school history, those trials involved the persecution of marginalized people — mostly women — at the hands of the powerful — mostly men like Trump.
During the trials in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, nearly 200 people were accused, 19 were hanged, and several more died in jail. The first three victims were a homeless beggar, an elderly impoverished person, and a Caribbean slave. All three were women — as were nearly all of the targets throughout the roughly 15-month ordeal.
“It was usually women who were suspected because women didn’t have to act out as much to be seen as out of line,” said Marilynne K. Roach, the author of two books on the Salem witch trials, including, most recently, “Six Women of Salem.”
“Of course they weren’t just tweeted about,” she added. “They were actually hanged.”
And though often portrayed as being driven by the mob, the Salem trials were only deadly because the religious and governmental authorities sanctioned them. It was Massachusetts Governor William Phipps, for instance, who ordered the establishment of a special court to oversee the trials.
And what happened centuries ago in Salem is worth revisiting for what it makes clear: Witch hunts are about authority going after the most vulnerable members of society — it doesn’t work the other way around.
Even though some men were victims of the trials — a 71-year-old man was crushed to death by rocks — the term “witch” is deeply gendered and plays on a long history of dismissing women’s stories as hysteria — a word which, tellingly, comes from the Greek for “uterus.”
It wasn’t until the 1950s, more than 250 years after the fact, that Massachusetts authorities got around to formally apologizing for the historic wrongdoing of the trials.
By that time another witch hunt was underway. The outsize fear of Communism within the United States led to the rise of McCarthyism, largely spearheaded by the man who would go on to become Trump’s lawyer and mentor: Roy Cohn, then the legal counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy.
As Trump’s longtime former adviser Roger Stone put it recently, “I think, to a certain extent, Donald learned how the world worked from Roy, who was not only a brilliant lawyer, but a brilliant strategist who understood the political system and how to play it like a violin.”
Now Trump’s doing just that, with the entire country as his instrument. And he isn’t the first president to think of it. In 1973, the term was employed by President Richard Nixon in reference to the Watergate investigations. Then, as now, Nixon cast himself as the victim. Then, as now, it was pernicious drivel.
Trump’s rise has been fueled by the very thing that has propelled witch hunts through the centuries: The promotion of false narratives that play on fear and paranoia, often ones which can’t easily be disproved — birtherism, for instance, or the Muslim ban.
With his “WITCH HUNT” bellowing, as with so many things Trump says, the exact opposite is true: “Free speech” isn’t about protecting the rights of powerful white men to say bigoted things; corruption investigations into his administration aren’t “fake news” concocted merely to hurt him; and, as each passing day makes more obvious, the “enemy of the people” of which he so frequently speaks, isn’t the press.