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Trump Is Even Wrong About “Witch Hunts”

November 18, 2019
Trump Is Even Wrong About “Witch Hunts”
Salem, Massachusetts, USA. 10/26/2015. The only structure still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Witchcraft Trials of 1692 (Shutterstock)

Right now, Donald Trump lovers saddled with the burden of too much expendable income may head to his official campaign website to purchase T-shirts emblazoned with the topical words “Read the Transcript,” “Get Over It,” and “Where’s Hunter?

And then there’s this:

That’s right. For the low price of $30, you can get this “limited edition” “Stop the Witch Hunt” shirt adorned with a cartoon of House of Representatives leaders Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, and Jerrold Nadler dressed as “witches” peering ominously at a patriotic Trump holding an American flag. There’s a “fine art” poster version, too, if you have space on your wall next to your Rembrandt.

It seems not to have occurred to anyone in Trump World that this image has the concept of a “witch hunt” exactly backward. In the way the term has been popularized, it is not the witches doing the hunting. It is a mob of people, motivated by an animating hysteria, attempting to track down innocent people—like Donald J. Trump!—who have been wrongfully accused of witchcraft.

But what’s really great—what’s so delicious that it makes your teeth hurt—is that even this Trumpian version of the phrase is wrongly conceived.

The phrase “witch hunt,” which is rooted in the Salem witch trials of 1692, has been part of the American political lexicon for decades. On the eve of the 1952 presidential election, Dwight D. Eisenhower promised to no longer engage in “witch hunts or character assassination” related to “the McCarthy issue.” Richard Nixon frequently wrote off the Watergate investigation as a “witch hunt.” Trump has called both the Mueller investigation and the impeachment inquiry “witch hunts.”

And not surprisingly, Trump, like Nixon, has the entire idea of the “witch hunt” wrong.

In her spectacular book The Witches: Salem 1692, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff vividly recreates the world of 17th century Massachusetts, where a religious panic suddenly turned neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife, and even child against parent. (Schiff is not related to Trump’s chief House adversary, although for a mere $34 on Trump’s campaign store, one can purchase a “Pencil Neck Adam Schiff” T-shirt.)

When I talked to Schiff, she took exception to Trump’s characterization of his own situation as a “witch hunt.”

Both Trump and Nixon “turn the traditional expression bluntly on its head,” she told me.

“With a witchcraft charge the powerful accused the powerless of phony crimes. . . . So instead of the unpopular or disenfranchised being caught in a nightmare in which they are unable to clear themselves from specious charges, you have the most influential man in the free world, one who regularly bullies and berates and tramples, wailing that he is a victim,” she said.

As Schiff put it, Trump sounds more like “Salem’s reckless, hysterical teenaged accusers than he does their victims.”

Indeed, the behavior of Trump and his supporters is far more evocative of the purveyors of the Salem panic than its victims. (Marginally relevant fact: Yours truly is the 10th great-grandson of Mary Esty, one of the women hanged for alleged witchcraft.)

For instance, the politicians and villagers that did most of the accusing were unfailingly credulous, believing their fantasies over actual evidence. They were more than willing to point the finger at others in order to deflect suspicion from themselves. And when there was “evidence,” it was retroactively manufactured in order to “prove” the guilt of others.

“Trump seems to hint there are actual witches—people who wish him harm, who furtively plot against him, who cast some kind of secret Deep State spells—out there,” Schiff said, noting that none of the actual people put to death (most hanged, one man crushed to death under the weight of rocks) claimed they were victims of a “witch hunt.”

“To howl ‘witch hunt’ these days seems a desperate, demented attempt to mug the truth,” she said.

In early October, Schiff tangled online with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who took to Twitter to cite the Salem Witch Trials as evidence the “whistleblower” accusing the president of malfeasance should be unmasked.

“Even Salem witch trials didn’t use anonymous testimony,” said Giuliani. “The accused had to be confronted by a witness willing to put their name and reputation behind the charges and then had to be available for cross examination.”

Giuliani “could not have been farther off-base,” Schiff told me, adding:

The Salem evidence was purely imaginary. It was visible only to the accuser; curiously, no one else in the courtroom could see it. Hearsay was acceptable in the 17th century. In the absence of sufficient evidence, strong suspicion would do. You could be convicted for a different crime from the one for which you had been indicted. There was no voir dire or cross-examination. “Reasonable doubt” was still a century in the future. The judge could direct his jury about how to evaluate evidence and as to what kind of decision he hoped to see.

I might add that no one who sat on the Salem court had a legal degree at the time. With the exception of the invisible evidence, these were Anglo-Saxon standards at the time. But no, not a sterling example of due process.

Perhaps the most resonant lesson of 1692 stems from the fact that the Salem trials went on longer than they should have, in large part, because it was difficult for the prosecutors and jurors to admit they had made a mistake. Any recognition of error on their part would mean they sentenced innocent people to death. In poker parlance, they were “pot committed” and so they forged ahead, hoping the facts would turn in their favor.

And here, finally, we get to an actual point of similarity between Salem and Trump World.

For Republican politicians who dedicated themselves to defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016 by insisting that Trump wouldn’t be that bad are now faced with the fact that he has already committed impeachable crimes. To turn on Trump now by recognizing his misdeeds would be tantamount to admitting they were wrong about him all along.

There certainly is a “witch hunt” underway right now, but in this case, the “witches” are Hunter Biden, the whistleblower, and the other professionals working in American intelligence who were horrified by Trump’s willingness to trade military aid for campaign favors, and now find themselves being smeared and accused by the most powerful man in the free world.

And if past is prologue, Republican Senators are only weeks away from demanding that we throw the whistleblower in a lake to see if he floats.

Christian Schneider

Christian Schneider is a member of the USA Today board of contributors and author of 1916: The Blog. Twitter: @Schneider_CM.