Wait, does Donald Trump want us to think the Russia investigation is a witch hunt? I’m starting to get that impression.
Indeed, the leader of the free world has tweeted the term “witch hunt” 106 times in 2018 alone—which, I’d like to propose, is a poor choice of metaphor. If this were an actual witch hunt, Mr. Trump would be on the side of the hunters.
Estimates vary widely, but it is thought that between the 14th and 17th centuries around 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft (in Europe and America), and 75 to 90 percent of them were women.
Actual witch hunts were largely gendered affairs, with women being targeted because they were sexualized and literally demonized: one common theme was that Satan grabbed witches by the you-know-what. Another was that women were “weak.” Does any of this sound familiar?
Moreover, women accused of witchcraft were disproportionately those who did not conform to gender expectations. Outcast women (“sluts”), single women (including widows), women who disobeyed their husbands. Nasty women.
Once again, methinks the president doth protest too much.
All of this woman-hating rhetoric, of course, was holy and wholesome and good, because religion. Seventeenth century Puritans believed women to be particularly susceptible to evil. Puritan women themselves believed this. Thus women had to be exceptionally pious and saintly, and also kept close at hand.
Mike Pence calls his wife “Mother.”
But it’s not only women that were targeted by witch-hunts, as by the president’s schemes of seduction: it was sexuality itself. Women outside the control of men and the church were seen to be dangerously sexual. The witch hunts of Europe and America were in part sexual inquisitions, often snaring those we might call LGBT today: perceived sexual deviants, ‘mannish’ women, ‘effeminate’ men.
Needless to say, all these impulses, too, are abundant within the current administration: sexual puritanism, the need to control women’s bodies, and the denial of dignity to those who are gender-nonconforming, transgender, or queer.
Indeed, the conservative evangelicals so lately enamored of our philandering president are the spiritual and sometimes literal descendants of those same Puritans: the extremely conservative theology, the bizarre belief that all of us are born sinners, the active roles Satan and Jesus take in human lives, the sex-phobia, the inability to let people live and let live, the rigid gender hierarchy.
Moreover, to the extent there really was witchcraft in the 16th to 18th centuries—most likely folk traditions and holdovers from the pre-Christian past—they share their Christian ancestors’ religious intolerance as well.
Even the notion, now prevalent on the Christian Right, that Donald Trump’s manifest unsuitability to be president only proves that he is an instrument of Divine Providence, is part of the same worldview that regards people as puppets of greater forces, whether benevolent or malevolent. Some people are instruments of Christ, others of Beelzebub.
Well, you might say, Trump doesn’t mean actual witch hunts—he means figurative ones, like McCarthyism. After all, that’s where the term entered common usage: the Red Scare was the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which forever linked the two phenomena in American culture.
Here again, though, Trump is on the side of the hunters: namely, his loathsome political mentor, Roy Cohn.
People forget sometimes that Trump didn’t burst out of the womb with his pugilistic rhetorical style and reactionary political views intact.
He learned that stuff from Cohn, who before becoming Trump’s mentor was Senator McCarthy’s henchman. It was Cohn, not Robert Mueller, who helped orchestrate the actual “greatest witch hunt in political history,” now known as McCarthyism. Careers were ruined, lives destroyed, and anyone who ever supported a union or protested a politician was regarded as guilty until proven innocent.
It’s a short stone’s throw indeed from Cohn’s imprecations against all those he deemed Un-American to Trump’s evil claims that the free press is the enemy of the people—and, more recently, his stripping of security clearance from his critics such as former CIA Director John Brennan.
More broadly, McCarthyism was a burst of populist conservative paranoia, just like “Make America Great Again.” Both claimed that America was both the best nation in the world and threatened with imminent destruction by anti-patriotic elites and unpopular minorities “opposed to our way of life” (then: communists, African Americans, Jews; now: Muslims, immigrants, Jews).
Both movements are radically anti-rational, anti-education, anti-science. Both are fervently particularistic, placing America First and defining America as narrowly as possible (white, suburban/rural, conservative, Christian).
Trumpism is, itself, a great witch hunt, desperately in search of an enemy.
Really, it’s quite an irony: the flaxen-haired prodigy of America’s foremost witch-hunter now declaring himself the victim of a witch-hunt—no doubt an irony that Cohn himself would have admired, and been all too familiar with.
Remember, Cohn focused his attacks on people disproportionately like him, especially Jews and closeted queers.
Cohn, with the assistance of the closet queen J. Edgar Hoover, relentlessly persecuted gays in what became known as the “Lavender Scare,” associating homosexuality with ‘subversives’ and communism. That led to President Eisenhower’s order banning gay people from serving in government, which led to the firing of over 5,000 people.
This is what self-hatred looks like, and Cohn and Trump can’t help but show it off: the preening, the vulgarity, the tacky taste for the gaudiest luxuries imaginable, the constant need for validation. (If Roy Cohn could’ve hosted demagogic pep rallies in the 1950s, he would’ve done that too.)
In other words, whenever Trump tweets against contemporary witch-hunters, he’s attacking his own reflection in the mirror.