When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)
Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. There continue to be people who call themselves witches, of whom more below. But one reason we look upon the Salem witch trials with such horror is that the mass hysteria that led to the execution of 20 people in Salem, Mass., in 1692-93 was based on such profoundly mistaken ideas that those executed were innocent by definition.
But did the Puritans hunt witches? They might have been eager to label nonconformists like the non-churchgoing Sarah Osborne witches in order to assign blame or get revenge. And they attempted to entrap witches with various “tests” including witch cake, a yummy concoction of rye meal and urine by which the guilty among them might be found out. But the witches were already among them, just not named as such. In fact, just like the Good Witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, for many centuries white witches were in great demand for their healing powers. Only when unexplained phenomena like the Black Death devastated the population did church authorities go looking for the malevolent forces causing them — and in that sense, they were hunting witches the way I might set a cat to hunting the mice that I’m sure are getting into the corn.
Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term witch hunt, which Donald Trump used last week to refer to the investigation into whether his campaign had ties to the Russian government, was first used in 1885, in H.R. Haggard’s fabulist novel King Solomon’s Mines. Before then, witches were suspected, tried, prosecuted, and condemned, but not hunted. By 1938, witch hunt had taken on a distinctly political cast. We call the ruthless methods of the Josef Stalin and Joseph McCarthy witch hunts because we understand their victims to have been framed or unjustly persecuted. No one called the subjects of those trials “witches,” but the sins of which they were accused — Trotskyism, Communism — both existed and were considered dangerous by a good swath of the population. By shaping the plot of The Crucible so that the motives of the witch accusers were entirely instrumental and their effects hysterical, Arthur Miller not only drew attention to the cruel absurdity of McCarthyism but also defanged the Communists his “witches” represented.
Later in the 20th century, the “Satanic ritual abuse” panic led to witch hunts of nursery- school teachers that destroyed many careers. Here, the water is a bit muddier. That pedophilia existed as a criminal tendency in the world at large was never in question by either prosecutors or the defendants seeking exoneration. The existence of Satanic rites is more disputable. There are present-day self-identified witches and Luciferians, but it’s doubtful that any of the accused day-care teachers were involved in such practices.
Only in the latter half of the 20th century did witch hunt apply to individuals, and always in attempts either to deny that such a thing was taking place or to assert the unfairness of whatever was taking place. This use of the term seems categorically different to me. The role of guilt by association in rounding up so-called witches, Trotskyites, Communists, nursery-school pedophiles, and so on is far less salient here. Perhaps more important, the so-called victim of the witch hunt tends to deny the very existence of the witch and to rely instead on their own innocence and the perfidy of accusers:
“The Watergate witch hunt . . . was run by liberals in the media.” –Paul Johnson, Modern Times
“Nixon Sees ‘Witch-Hunt,’ Insiders Say” –Headline on Bernstein/Woodward Washington Post article, July 22, 1973
“I’m asking what is it about [the Clintons] that attracts these witch hunts or, dare I say, these vast right-wing conspiracies?” – Tavis Smiley, November 20, 2015
“There has been a witch hunt against every prominent person of color that has served alongside the president. And this is part of it.” –MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe, speaking about the Obama administration appointee Susan Rice, November 27, 2012
Now, witch hunt has become Donald Trump’s go-to phrase for whatever emerges from James Comey’s testimony, Robert Mueller’s investigation, or any report in the news media of suspicious actions taken by the administration or the Trump campaign. And it’s not any old witch hunt, but the greatest in U.S. history against a politician. (It would have to be the greatest. Bigly.)
But here’s what I’m wondering. The people who hanged those unfortunate individuals in Salem thought they were witches; the people on trial thought witches existed, with powers they themselves did not possess or crave. Many in Hollywood in the 1950s thought Communists existed — many were Communists — but they just didn’t think Communism was a bogeyman. Nixon, by contrast, denied the existence of the conspiratorial president depicted in the media; Hillary Clinton denied the existence of the wrongdoing that the Benghazi investigations seemed determined to uncover.
Now we have an individual who promised great health care for everyone with no costs; who promised to bring back the coal industry with a wave of his wand; who promised to rid the world of ISIS in a matter of months. Such magic! Could it be that the president believes investigators are after him, not for conspiring with Vladimir Putin, but because he really is … a witch?
If so, all I can conjure is Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who cast a spell and almost drowned when things got just a little out of hand.
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