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The Return of the 'Witch Hunt' Analogy

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.

· 9 min read
The Return of the 'Witch Hunt' Analogy
The trial of Martha Corey (wikicommons)

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.

‘More Weight’: An Academic’s Guide to Surviving Campus Witch Hunts
Sydney. London. Toronto.

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

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 (2018)

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