Over the weekend, director Woody Allen made headlines when he warned that the uproar over Harvey Weinstein’s history of alleged sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct might create a “witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” in Hollywood and beyond.
In making these comments, Allen joins a host of powerful men who have used the term “witch hunt” to preemptively absolve themselves of wrongdoing. This past June, President Trump tweeted that he was the victim of “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history!” This was not the first time he had referred to Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt,” nor would it be the last.
When powerful men like Trump and Allen use the term, they perversely cast themselves as victims, distorting the historical reality of actual witch hunts for the purpose of exoneration. In the 16th and 17th centuries, witch hunts targeted the marginalized and comparatively powerless, enforcing gender hierarchies and instilling fear in the wider populace. If anything, men like Trump and Allen resemble the authorities that drove these epidemics of persecution, not the innocent victims killed for a fictional crime.
Americans have used the term “witch hunt” to describe unjust socially and politically motivated investigations for at least a century.
The label grew popular in the 1930s as a way to describe the Stalinist purges of dissenters in the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, the term gained wider currency amid the feverish hearings and general paranoia of the McCarthy era. The term came back into vogue 30 years later, during the frenzied search for demonically motivated child abusers during the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.
In short, the “witch hunt” has long held an evocative place in this country’s political and cultural discourse.
Yet this modern usage should not obscure the much older and darker reality behind the “witch hunt” label. Thanks to Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible,” many Americans know that the term derives its historical inspiration from the Salem witch trials, when upward of 200 individuals were accused of practicing demonic witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death and four died in prison.
But witch hunts were not unique to the American colonies. In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, over 100,000 people were officially tried for witchcraft. Approximately half were executed at the stake or by the noose, sentenced to death for an imagined crime.
These witch hunts were, at their core, expressions of power and fear orchestrated by the church, the state and the social hierarchy that dominated their society. While some of the accused may have dabbled in folk medicine and magic deemed illegal by Catholic and Protestant leaders, none engaged in the demonic conspiracy to overthrow Christendom envisaged by authorities.
As historians have long acknowledged, the vast majority — around 80 percent overall — of those accused of witchcraft were women. Yes, there were male witches, but often these were men who did not meet prescribed norms and expectations of masculinity within a patriarchal society. Witch-hunting was, therefore, closely related to sex, if not solely determined by it. Ideas about female carnality, weakness and susceptibility to Satan — inspired by a potent combination of Scripture and social hierarchy — informed much of the motivation for and rhetoric surrounding the witch hunts.
More often than not, it was women who paid the price.
This historical witch hunting revolved around a powerful fantasy — and fantasy of the powerful — substantiated by very little that would constitute actual evidence in modern courts. The dozens of women accusing Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault are, conversely, all too real. As for the Mueller investigation, we have yet to find out to what extent, if any, the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. But experts agree that the Russians undoubtedly interfered in America’s democratic process, a frightening fact that we will be grappling with in many elections to come.
That a truth is inconvenient for those in power does not make it any less of a truth.
The most striking aspect of these prominent men crying “witch hunt!” is the intentional ignorance of social dynamics and hierarchies. Those accused and executed for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries often existed on the margins of society. Some were poor, widowed, elderly or ill. Most were women who had little political, legal or economic agency outside of their relationships with men.
Even accounting for regional variations, these purported “witches” were almost universally victims of a combustible atmosphere of religious zeal, misogyny, economic want, judicial laxity and fear. Indeed, those accused and executed during the early modern witch hunts often had little tangible power in their own societies. Their lives — and their genuine victimhood — could hardly have been more different than those of powerful men like Trump, Allen and Weinstein.
There is a particularly pronounced irony in the president’s casting himself as the target of a modern witch hunt. Those of us who closely followed his campaign will remember that his supporters often called Hillary Clinton a witch. T-shirts sold at Trump’s rallies pictured Clinton astride a broomstick, wearing a pointy black hat. Many women can probably relate to being labeled, as Rush Limbaugh so memorably put it when describing Clinton in 2016, as “a witch with a capital B.”
This is why the use of the term “witch hunt” by men in positions of power is not only historically negligent, but dangerous. It diminishes and, in the case of Allen’s explicit mention of Salem, dismisses a tragic history in which tens of thousands of individuals, in Colonial America and across Europe, lost their lives. More glaringly, it attempts to negate obvious power dynamics by casting those in positions of dominance as victims of systematic injustice that they have never actually experienced.
We needn’t be purists about popular parlance. Historically inspired terminology, like all language, is malleable, finding different expressions at different moments. One need not understand the nuances of the early modern witch hunts to grasp the cultural and historical resonance of the term as applied to current events.
In this moment of profound social division, however, people in positions of power — especially those who have, on record, repeatedly demonized others — would do well to avoid willfully co-opting a term that denotes tragic events in which the disempowered were persecuted and prosecuted. As ever, history matters, not only in informing the meaning behind terminology like “witch hunt,” but in understanding the weight of words articulated by the powerful.