Sometimes it’s the “Mueller Witch Hunt,” other times it’s the “Russian Witch Hunt,” occasionally it’s in ALL CAPS and often punctuated: “RIGGED WITCH HUNT!”
Just because Trump says something, however, doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong. The treatment of Trump by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and other investigators does have characteristics of a witch hunt. This is because Trump has characteristics of a witch.
So says a leading authority on the history of witchcraft, Thomas J. Rushford, history professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. In an anthropological sense, Trump “is really quintessentially a witch figure,” the professor tells me, and if what is happening to Trump is a witch hunt, “it is only in a good sense, that is, this is society policing the boundaries that they believe to be ethically and morally right.”
Some explanation is in order.
Witch hunts get bad press, probably because of playwright Arthur Miller’s portrayal of the Salem witch trials in his immortal takedown of McCarthyism, “The Crucible.” We tend to think of innocent women burning at the stake because of accusations by devil-possessed girls (or, if not so literary, we might think of a wart-nosed hag stirring a noxious potion with the broomstick she uses to commute). But witch hunts weren’t all bad, and their targets weren’t always innocent.
Therefore, to dismiss what is happening to Trump as groundless by calling it a witch hunt is unfair — to witch hunts.
In the time of the witch hunts, roughly the 1530s through the 1690s, the existence of magic and witchcraft was as universally accepted as the existence of electricity is today. Though typically illegal, the practice was generally tolerated until something really bad happened — cows got sick, babies died, men went lame. When that happened, authorities (they lacked our modern understanding of illness) cracked down on bad magic.
Likewise, today’s laws and norms say that certain behaviors — cheating on your taxes or your spouse, holding racist views, lying to business associates — are bad, even if they are fairly commonplace and often ignored. But when, say, the president smashes social norms in an extreme way — attacking minorities, boosting his wealth with foreign money, paying hush money to a porn actress — the culture no longer tolerates his bad magic.
“A witch would be doing a lot of magical things all considered to be wrong,” the witchcraft professor says, but authorities “wouldn’t do anything about it until there was some egregious enough act.” If somebody was “truly a witch figure,” Rushford said, he eventually “crossed a line.” He also noted: “Trump has done the same kinds of things.” Trump’s dubious legal and ethical standards didn’t matter as much when he was in the private sector. But people are alarmed now that he’s using those same dubious standards to run the country.
This defense of witch hunts isn’t to excuse the long-ago practice of torture-induced confessions and executions of innocent people — often women or those on the margins. But it’s unfair to say, with the benefit of modern scientific knowledge, that earlier cultures were foolish because even the best-educated among them believed magic controlled the unseen, which led them to regulate witchcraft. “If you take that culture on its own terms, they had every right to punish people who were breaking the law,” Rushford argues. “They were saying, ‘Here is a person we believe to have violated the ethical and moral conventions of our society.’ ”
Just as Europeans had laws against witchcraft some 450 years ago, the United States today has laws about cheating on taxes, working for foreign powers, and lying to lenders and civil authorities. Five former Trump advisers have admitted violating these laws, and a sixth has been charged. That’s half a coven.
As far as we know, Trump hasn’t turned anybody into a newt yet. But the dubious business dealings he has conducted for years and continues to conduct in the White House are a 21st-century form of bad magic. You can’t plausibly complain about a witch hunt if you’re the guy stirring the cauldron.