The Return of the ‘Witch Hunt’ Analogy

tags: Trump, witch hunt, Salem

Tony Fels is professor emeritus of history at the University of San Francisco and the author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

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.

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.

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