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The Return of the ‘Witch Hunt’ Analogy

The political slur “witch hunt” is back. After continually using the term to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—84 times over a seven-month period of tweets, by one reporter’s count—President Trump has invoked the term anew to defend against the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, went one step further in an interview on October 8, 2019, with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham. Referring to the Salem witch trials of 1692, Giuliani said that the impeachment inquiry is “worse than a witch hunt.” The accused witches back then “had more rights”; the court “required witnesses to face the witch and some witches were acquitted.”

Giuliani claimed he was so angered by the House Democrats’ recent actions that he “went back to read two books about the Salem witch trials.” If so, he either picked deficient accounts, or else he failed to read them very carefully. In truth, all twenty-three individuals who were tried by the specially empowered witchcraft court at Salem were convicted. Nineteen of these were executed by hanging (along with one other accused suspect who was pressed to death under heavy stones for resisting the proceedings), two avoided execution by reason of pregnancy, one was later pardoned, and one escaped. Dismissal of charges, acquittals, or reprieves for the approximately 130 additional suspects came about only after the colonial governor disbanded the original court. The court’s use of “spectral evidence”—ethereal likenesses of the accused, visible only to the accusers—had been discredited by the dawning realization that at least some innocent people were being put to death. As for the accused having the opportunity to face their accusers, this feature of seventeenth-century jurisprudence did the defendants little good, since the accusers fell into fits of torment at the sight of the accused, results that were taken to corroborate the suspects’ powers of bewitchment.

Clearly, whatever deficiencies exist in the Democrats’ handling of the impeachment inquiry—and there appear to be some, addressed below—they pale next to the legal inadequacies of the witch hunting era, when criminal defendants did not yet have the right to counsel, judges felt no obligation to remain neutral, and crowds of onlookers could influence the legal process. And yet, despite its obvious flaws, the “witch hunt” analogy’s reintroduction into today’s partisan battle in Washington does provide the opportunity to explain why the president and his supporters have reached for this particular epithet and why it can be effectively employed, just as it was when defenders of Bill Clinton used it in the 1990s against Kenneth Starr and the Republicans in their own quest to remove a president through impeachment.

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The term “witch hunt” itself gained currency at the outset of the twentieth century, used to denote an incident in social psychology in which individuals are punished by a group, with or without official backing, for committing an alleged offense but without any procedures of due process involved. Suspects are presumed guilty as soon as they are accused. They stand little hope of exonerating themselves, even if innocent, because the crowd and whatever judicial apparatus exists provide them no fair and impartial means to mount a defense and clear their names.

Guilty consciences play a critical role in the genesis of a witch hunt. In the first instance there has to be a trait that the community at large regards with such stigma that most people are prepared to shun anyone who may be seen as openly tainted by its presence. But equally important, this same trait must be thought to exist to a lesser degree or just beneath the surface in enough people, so that when accusations begin to fly, the average person has an interest in clearing his or her own guilty conscience by denying the trait in themselves and foisting all of its blame on the named suspect or suspects. This is the mechanism of scapegoating, which always comes into play in a witch hunt. Personal guilt provides the fuel, ignited by the fear that one’s own sharing in the stigmatized trait will be discovered.

The American prototype for witch hunting (though without the name) took place in and around Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. In this colonial Puritan outpost, twenty people accused of witchcraft were executed, five more died in custody, and over 150 people were jailed for months, including over forty whose false confessions helped seal the fate of those who were convicted. The twenty who were executed went to their deaths proclaiming their innocence in the face of judicial badgering and enraged public opinion. These individuals, fourteen women and six men, refused to “belie themselves” before God by confessing to crimes they had never committed.

Because most people today no longer believe that witchcraft is real, it is sometimes thought that the essence of a witch hunt lies in persecuting people for entirely made-up crimes. This is a misunderstanding. In the context of seventeenth-century cosmology, in which nearly everyone believed they lived in a world of spirits and demons, it was entirely reasonable to think that certain individuals could be enlisted by Satan to draw on supernatural powers to inflict harm on other people or tempt them away from the Puritans’ utopian experiment. And who better for Satan to designate as witches than those who appeared on the outside to be pious members of Puritan congregations? This is why most of the people who falsely confessed to the crime of witchcraft (and often implicated others) were actually among the most, not the least, pious Puritans. These were the sensitive ones who, when they examined their own behavior and saw occasional signs of malice or greed or envy, were consumed by guilt and imagined that their sinfulness had already turned them in the direction of becoming witches. The Salem witch hunt did not manufacture the crime of witchcraft; it exaggerated the presence of a stigmatized trait that most everyone in the community believed really existed.

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These days Americans on the left of the political spectrum are most given to engaging in the social psychology of witch hunting—our first hint about why Trump and his supporters have seized on the term in their own defense. The fear of harboring “racist” or “sexist” thoughts or of being discovered to have engaged in behavior that can be so labeled by the community has produced numerous rushes to judgment (witch hunts) that have unduly injured a number of both famous and ordinary Americans. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam briefly supplied a recent example of a witch hunting suspect. Why was a sincere apology for his insensitive racial behavior (of appearing in blackface) thirty-five years ago insufficient to end the controversy, considering the man’s subsequent record as a physician and public servant lacking in racial prejudice? Why did so many Democrats believe he needed to resign, that nothing short of such drastic punishment would do? A similar situation confronted Minnesota Senator Al Franken two years ago in the wake of sexual misconduct charges that stopped well short of assault. Angry Democratic leaders forced Franken to resign before the authorized Senate Ethics Committee could carry out an investigation of the incidents in question. Franken had denied most of the charges, while apologizing for his actions in some of them.

A particularly striking small-scale example of the same phenomenon occurred in Albany, California, in 2017. In this San Francisco Bay Area community, enraged white and black high school students, over one hundred in number and backed by parents and teachers, yelled epithets at several white and Asian-American students and chased them off the campus when they returned to school after serving a suspension for having endorsed derogatory images posted about African-American students and a coach at the school. The crowd apparently deemed the school’s own disciplinary procedures insufficient. One of the targeted students was injured in the melee. In a similar way, local communities and anonymous internet users hounded various Americans, given scornful names such as “BBQ Betty,” “Permit Patty,” and “Cornerstone Caroline,” for alleged acts of racial prejudice before anyone cared to learn the details of their transgressions or their own explanations for their actions. Meanwhile, certain liberal universities—Middlebury College and Evergreen State College are two leading examples—have become notorious for permitting students and faculty to stifle the speech of those accused of holding “racist” views, even when such views are either noninflammatory or entirely lacking in prejudice.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s right-wing Americans took their turn at witch hunting. The stigmatized trait at that time was to be a communist sympathizer. Several thousand Americans lost their jobs as teachers, engineers, actors, film directors, and especially government employees for fear that they would undermine the resolve of the United States in its cold war with Communist Russia. As at Salem and as again today concerning what is taken to be insensitive racial and sexual behavior, confessions of guilt played a central part in the “Red Scare” of the era, adding to the seeming truthfulness of the charges and contributing to their spread. Here, too, the existence of communist sympathizers among professionals and within the government bureaucracy was not made up. A significant portion of Americans had developed anti-capitalist leanings during the Great Depression and the period of the World War II alliance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A small number of these individuals (perhaps a little over 300, according to historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes) carried such leanings to the point of spying for the Russians. But the witch hunt of the 1940s and ’50s exaggerated the threat posed by all these people, the vast majority of whom were loyal and idealistic Americans whose chief fault lay in their ignorance and naivete about what life under communism was really like.

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Knowing the propensity of Americans to engage in these extreme sorts of moral and political purges, especially the most recent crusades against racism and sexism, allows us to understand why a number of conservative politicians have lately fancied themselves the victims of witch hunting. President Trump’s repeated charge that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” offers the most prominent example, but similar charges were voiced in defense of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens when both of these Republicans faced allegations of wrongdoing. In fact, not one of these cases constituted an example of a witch hunt, since the ensuing investigations or trials operated in line with customary legal proceedings and respected the principle of due process. The Mueller probe, a prosecutorial inquiry, found insufficient basis to bring criminal charges against a sitting president. Even at this pre-trial stage of investigation, the president had the opportunity to testify in person or, as he chose to do, to answer questions in writing under the guidance of his attorneys. In the New Jersey case a jury convicted two Christie aides of illegal actions taken to get back at a political rival, while charges were ultimately dropped against Governor Greitens. Moreover, in none of these cases was the element of scapegoating present, because the public harbored no guilty consciences about similar behavior in themselves.

In the current impeachment inquiry, Democrats, who control the House of Representatives and all of its committees, have indeed shut minority Republicans out of exercising their own subpoena power, and they have allowed witnesses to testify in closed sessions without compelling reasons for doing so (protecting the identity of a formal whistle-blower, of course, would be one such compelling reason). Democrats liken the House inquiry to the secretive, prosecutorial grand jury stage in a criminal case, and they contend that if the impeachment process leads to a formal trial in the Senate, the president and his supporters will have the opportunity at that point to mount their own defense. While constitutionally defensible, this position appears to lack consideration for what might be called political due process. Since the success of any impeachment drive is dependent on ensuring the public’s perception of fairness throughout the process, Democrats are likely being shortsighted in some of these early procedural decisions. Still, the president, aided by his formidable legal staff, will be fully able to defend himself against any articles of impeachment, should the case move to a Senate trial.

Republican politicians have nevertheless cleverly employed the countercharge of “witch hunt” in all these instances, because, much as Americans have historically been prone to conduct campaigns of moral and political purification (i.e., witch hunts), another side of the American character has typically reasserted itself after each such episode and condemned the earlier miscarriages of justice. Following the catharsis of a witch hunt, tolerance for human foibles returns and more humane paths toward reform are found. Politicians can thus cynically appeal to these anti-witch hunting sentiments as a way to discredit legitimate investigations into their own actions. Close to 50 percent of the American population, according to a poll taken just prior to the release of the Mueller report, accepted President Trump’s mischaracterization of the special counsel’s investigation as a “witch hunt.” Even Joseph McCarthy, the leading witch hunter in the Red Scare of the early 1950s, could misleadingly cast his Senate opponents as a “lynch party,” when the Senate in 1954 finally acted to censure him, and Trump himself recently invoked the same concept (“a lynching”) to describe the impeachment inquiry.

The best way to prevent such perennial misuse of the “witch hunt” label would be for Americans to stop themselves before they allow their moral fervor to get out of control and run roughshod over the legal rights of others—in other words, to refrain from witch hunting in the first place.


Tony Fels is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of San Francisco and author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). He can be reached at

Featured Image: The trial of Martha Corey (wikicommons)


  1. The article went for a sensational and hyperbolic start in some parts, and I think it was worse for it. It gets to a punchy start by labelling the term “witch hunt” as a political slur, presumably on the same level as commonplace slurs such as “alt-right adjacent” or “cis heteronormative” that sound nasty but are entirely devoid of meaning or significance. The main evidence given here is that Trump and co have said it in reference to the impeachment inquiry. Ok, so if something is just a slur, surely we ought to just dismiss it, right?

    But then, the article goes on to talk about how sometimes a witch hunt is an accurate description of what happens (salem, social justice purges, McCarthy and many more interesting new examples) - so wait, does that mean the term isn’t just a slur, and that it often accurately captures reality?

    So what is the article is actually trying to say? The main point of the article seems to be that some people have misused the term witch hunt, but it’s an accurate term for many other instances?

    So why start in vitriolic fashion by labelling the term “witch hunt” a “political slur”, and not starting by the more accurate but less exciting “it is inaccurate for trump and co to use the term witch hunt to refer to the inquiry”.

    I care deeply about language, so for something to qualify as a slur, I think it must be used almost entirely to that purpose. A few people misusing a term isn’t enough to make it a slur. We know that one of the first victims of the culture war is language, which is why I get a bit irritable on the subject.

    But then the article does point out that there are aspects of the inquiry under democrat control that are somewhat shady and may lose the trust of the electorate. Also not mentioned here is that we have witnessed since 2016 an unprecedented level of unjustified demonisation of trump and his supporters. The treatment of the Covington teenagers stands out in my mind as another example of a witch hunt. Maybe the impeachment inquiry is not a witch hunt in itself, but to me at least, it looks like an important part of a broader witch hunt against the President and his fans.

  2. I don’t mind other people using the term “witch hunt”, but I try not to use it myself, simply because it so readily invites deflection.

    Instead of arguing about what people are doing to invite the allusion to witch hunting, one is soon arguing about the correct use of the phrase and forgetting all about the behavior that led to the conversation in the first place.

    I prefer to use the word “lie” as much as possible. So far, progressives have not yet come up with alternative definitions for the word “lie” and it is easier to stay on topic.

  3. The next time someone says “Trump is killing the constitution “ or “ the Democrats are raping the taxpayer”, I look forward to the author writing “that’s not true, you cannot kill an inanimate object, and there is no evidence of sexual penetration of all tax payers by the Democrats.
    In common parlance, correct or not, if it walks like a witch-hunt, talks like a witch-hunt, than people will call it…a witch-hunt!

  4. Numerous inaccuracies in this article.

    The Mueller probe, a prosecutorial inquiry, found insufficient basis to bring criminal charges against a sitting president.

    Mueller was bound by Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted, not on an insufficient basis. In fact, most observers felt that if Trump were not president, he would have been indicted.

    " [impeachment inquiry] they have allowed witnesses to testify in closed sessions without compelling reasons for doing so"

    One compelling reason is not allowing witnesses to “adjust” their testimony to that of others. When I was testifying in a criminal trial, I was not allowed to sit in court and listen to other witnesses, and that is an open forum.

    Regarding the Albany incident, that does not seem to fit the author’s thesis–black students in particular would feel no underlying racist beliefs as members of marginalized communities cannot be racist, only bigoted. Thus they could not be transferring their guilt. A more apt comparison might be a stoning of someone who violated a social norm, such as using the name of Jehovah in biblical times.

  5. :roll_eyes:

    Take your private definitions of commonly used words and shove them up your ass.

  6. Professor Fels assumes the reader already knows a good deal about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. I suspect most don’t. I’ll set out my understanding and let the reader and Prof. Fels correct my errors.

    Witchcraft was a civil crime in Scotland, England and the Bay Colony. The biblical injunction to not suffer a witch to live was taken literally all across Christendom in the 17th C. and since 1641 witchcraft had been recognized in the laws of the colony in the form:

    “If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death. (Ex. 22. 18. Lev. 20. 27. Dut. 18. 10.)”

    The General Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts Bay, Chapter XVIII, “Acts Respecting Capital Crimes”, Section 2.

    Prior to 1692, claims of witchcraft were handled through the usual judicial process and over the 62 years between 1630 and 1692, the Bay Colony hung a few witches (maybe 5) but most of the cases, (about 20-40 but the records are incomplete and some are only hearsay accounts) resulted in “not guilty” or “not proved” findings. The records from this period are often either incomplete or lost.

    In general, the Puritans in New England were much less inclined to find people guilty of sorcery (or any other crime for that matter) than were their contemporaries on the Continent.

    The period 1688-92 was a period of distress and transition in the Bay Colony. The grip of the second generation Puritan divines then led by Increase Mather, his son Cotton Mather and Joseph Dudley was loosening. In 1686, the old charter was revoked, the Dominion of New England was created and the Massachusetts legislature and town meetings were abolished in favor of arbitrary royal government. Boston revolted in 1688, the Glorious Revolution happened and a new charter was granted by William III in 1691.

    The tensions between the Old Charter Party and the New Charter Party were intense and Dudley and the Mathers were firmly on the side of the New Charter Party, which aimed to incorporate Massachusetts into what would soon become the first British Empire.

    The Dudleys and the Mathers were highly educated, very intelligent idiots; they were scholastics who were firmly convinced that they could and should make authoritative statements about any issue before them, including what was and what was not God’s will.

    In 1688, Cotton Mather, who was then 25 years old, published an account his observations of a case of witchcraft in Boston. Mather carefully described the antics of the children involved who were accusing an Irish washerwoman, Goody Glover, of having bewitched them. He seems to performed something like an exorcism on the children involved and took it as proof of witchcraft when the children’s antics ceased after the woman was executed. His published observations and conclusions were widely read.

    Mather was not an ignorant man. To the contrary, he graduated from Harvard and he was something of a scientist who read Robert Boyle, experimented with hybridizing plants and advocated for vaccination against small pox.

    In the 19th C., authors and historians like Charles Wentworth Upham and John Gorham Palfrey concluded that Cotton Mather’s account of the matter of Goody Glover provided the narrative or script that drove the Salem trials four years later. In the 20th C. authors like Samuel Eliot Morison thought more highly of Mather than did Upham and Palfrey.

    In1688 the French and Indians had begun raiding the borders not far from Danvers (the actual site of the Witch Trials). There were extreme political division between the “Old Charter” faction and the governing elite who wanted a royal governor. The second generation governing elite, the Dudleys, Cottons and Mathers, were raging about the devil in Massachusetts and God’s judgements on a sinful people. An uneducated adventurer, William Phips, had been appointed the first royal governor upon Dudley and Increase Mathers’ recommendation and Phips was foolish enough to listen to Cotton Mather and issue a warrant for a special court of Oyer and Terminer to try the matter of witchcraft in Salem.

    All of the members of the tribunal were members of the North End (of Boston) faction and cronies of the Dudleys and Mathers. All had either read or knew of Cotton Mathers’ account and conclusion concerning the matter of Goody Glover.

    I think Prof. Fels mischaracterizes everyone involved. The victims who were executed simply refused to swear a false oath out of principal. The ones who confessed did so either because they did not believe in witchcraft and were not prepared to die on the testimony of some hysterical children who were being manipulated by the governing elite or because a finding of guilty before before confessing could result in forfeiture of their estates to the Crown. Central their beliefs was the idea of predestination, which held that at the moment of conception, God had already decided whether or not they had been saved. No one confessed based on the idea that might have sinned and confession would make that aright. They would have call that idea sheer Popery.

    The villains in the Salem Witch Trials were not gullible, uneducated, sexist, racist Puritan villagers. The villains were the highly educated, vain, self-righteous, ideologues who orchestrated the trials. Personally, I think Prof. Fels is one of the latter.

  7. The author is right!

    This is not the “Witch Hunt”. To my regret, Americans are not familiar with much more correct analogy.
    This is “Andrey Vyshinsky Hunt”: “Give me a man and I will find the crime.”

    Andrey Vyshinsky, a state prosecutor of Joseph Stalin’s Moscow trials

  8. I realize you say you’re being 'somewhat facetious" but I don’t see how this is facetious, as it’s used all the time in certain circles, in all seriousness. These people make up their own definitions of common words - here, ‘racism’ - and then pretend they’re common parlance, and engage in tautologies based on their invented definitions, as happens here: “But racist black people can’t be racist black people because black people can’t be racist.”

    I’m going to try one. “But women in pain during labor can’t be in pain during labor because women cannot be in pain during labor, only uncomfortable.” “But dogs who sneak a treat can’t be sneaky because dogs cannot be sneaky, only fearful.”

    By the way, in my own experience, working with majority black people and a 100% black students, they most certainly believe they can be racist as they regard themselves as human. Some of the kids say racist things, particularly against Mexicans and Asians and whites , presumably learning from their parents, just as with any other kids of any race. The Black teachers and Black admin tell them not to be racist and they certainly do not want to offend other cultures. I think this whole “Black people cannot possibly be racist” is an insidious way to insert the bigotry of low expectations and perpetual victimhood–and need to be rescued, naturally, by white savior politicians and self-elected academics.

  9. That is a lame excuse and not a compelling reason. I hope we do not set such a precedent of using secret testimony to go after anyone, especially when only “approved” portions of testimony are leaked to the public.

  10. “the testimony of some hysterical children who were being manipulated by the governing elite”

    Vis: Greta Thunberg.

  11. Taking a step back and from the other side of the atalantic there does seem strong evidence that Trump halted military aide to the Ukraine to seek to damage a political opponent and benefit himself with no conceivable benefit to the US and the ptoential for significant damage.

    This surely is reasonable grounds to investigate regarding impeachment.

    If this is not then what is?

  12. You’re just digging yourself deeper into the hole, there, friend.

    Due process, a patriarchal concept? I suppose you will now facetiously explain how due process is a tool of oppression to be used against marginalized communities. A way for straight white men to commit crimes against “the other” and then run to seek shelter behind the law.

  13. So what is WIlliam B Taylor’s testimony if not first hand?

  14. It is. I didn’t care much about politics up until after November the 9th of 2016. Then, the instructor at a class that was supposed to be dedicated to a new edition of Microsoft Exchange server and my company has paid tons of money for me to attend spend whole day showing maps of how “divided the country is”, etc., basically pulling whatever hair he had left out of his hair worrying for the future of the democracy. When I mentioned that Hillary, IMO, is not much better and people definitely had reasons not to vote for her, and even though I didn’t vote for any of them two, I loved Apprentice, we used to watch it with my son every week, and I, actually, don’t mind Trump and kind of love how Hillary was packing stuff for the WH and now America stuck it to her, he looked at me like I just strangled a kitty, and I couldn’t understand why. That was a first time when I saw a face of The TDS! And decided, that probably I need to pay more attention to what is going on in the country, politically.
    (Kind of regret it, it’s upsetting…)

  15. No, if anyone started the witchcraft panic in Salem Village it was Rev. Samuel Parris. Tutuba was his slave, the first accusers were his children and his relations’ children and the first victims seem to have been people in the Village who had gotten cross-ways with the Rev. Mr. Parris over matters related to his election as minister and his subsequent leadership of his congregation.

    Cotton Mather’s “Memorable Providences” provided the script and Tutuba was merely playing the part of Goody Glover. But there was a lot political and religious kindling laying around and anything could have started the conflagration.

    After the trials were over, it is interesting to note that it was Increase Mather who exonerated him.

    In my opinion, the Trials were an exercise in political and religious terror orchestrated by the ne plus ultra old Puritan faction led by Increase and Cotton Mather. The Mathers were minister and co-minister of the Second (North) Church in Boston. For a brief time between 1690-94 the Mather led North End faction had control of the new royal governor, a good number of the Puritan clergy, the Boston Town Meeting and perhaps a plurality of the population. In the background was Joseph Dudley, an overt royalist who was perpetually scheming to be named royal governor of one province or another. He joined the North Congregation in 1692 but he was not in the province at the time of the trials.

    They executed 20 very quickly while the governor was off inspecting the troops on the Maine frontier and were prepared to execute about 120 more before the rest of the Province put a stop to it.

    Increase Mather was the minister of the Second (North) Church of Boston (not to be confused with the “Old North Church” which was founded as an Anglican church in 1723), a most conservative congregation. It’s political and religious opponent was the First (South) Church of Boston an all together more liberal congregation that subsequently and consistently spun-off even more liberal congregations in Boston like the Brattle Street Church.

    This division between the North and South Churches and their congregations had been a consistent feature of politics and religion in the Bay Colony since the elections of 1636. Back then, the South congregation had supported Ann Hutchinson (but not Roger Williams), it had supported Henry Vane against John Winthrop in 1637 and it had supported the revolt against James II and the Dominion of New England in 1688.

    The South Church was the home of the popular or country party and for a decade before the trials the North End faction and the South End faction had been battling for control of the Boston Town Meeting and the General Court.

    My opinion is that the Mather faction was intent on destroying it’s opposition in the Bay Colony and were using the the Witch Trials in the same way Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety used the Terror one hundred years later. But that’s only my opinion.

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