Did he cry Witch Hunt? Again? A term he has tweeted close to 300 times like rapid fire at all of us? Of course he did, because if there is one thing this president knows about lies, is the power of repeating them. “Calling himself the victim of a witch hunt allows Trump to label charges against him as not just inaccurate but fundamentally impossible. Witch hunts, by definition, are illegitimate, their victims innocent, their judgments always wrong” (Markham- Cantor). Is there anyone who believes he is innocent? Not even Trump claims that verdict. He boasts his lies like a prankster proclaims laughs.
Having just finished Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with my Advanced Placement English Literature students, who, due to the large number of theater kiddos in the room, read with passion and gusto, it was as if John Proctor and Abigail Williams and the rest of those iconic characters peopled my class. When Abigail, in all her initial seductive coyness said, “A wild thing may say wild things” they predicted that Proctor’s sin of adultery would unravel around him, and that she had indeed “an endless capacity for dissembling”. In Act Three John lets loose his shame, “I have know her, sir. I have known her.” “You–you are a lecher?” The crux of the Salem Witch trials fought over land tracks and false blame and stifling fear all come to a “pointy reckoning” when the innocent hanged “high over the town.” My students were hooked on every word like greedy fair-goers, ready to watch as lies replaced fact and insanity trumped reason.
“The Salem tragedy… developed from a paradox. It is a paradox in whose grip we still live, and there is no prospect yet that we will discover its resolution. Simply, it was this: for good purposes, even high purposes, the people of Salem developed a theocracy, a combine of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies” (Miller).
And yet, this very structure tore Salem apart. The deception that lay under their somber puritanical garb festered until these young girls sent hysterical to the highest court, and took down whoever their frenzy pointed. They themselves were no angels, but as ropes tightened around innocent necks, they walked Salem as prophets. It was a topsy-turvy world of mistrust and speculation spinning recklessly, until 200 years later when the state of Massachusetts officially apologized and make right to the falsely accused families. Of course, witch hunts still go on today– real ones– most often “They have mostly been women and have almost exclusively been poor” (Markham-Cantor). The very term elicits persecution. It conjures not being treated fairly. One falls into a pit of accusations that fly up like those spirits we can’t see and on most days besides Halloween only cause laughter. Salem, as Miller retold to us, was what happens when violence is sanctioned. Unchecked. Fueled by mistrust and malevolence.
“As with other witch hunts, this bitter injustice happened because the Salem court of law elected to credit “spectral evidence.” That is, the court accepted as evidence claims that the defendant harmed the victim in visions and dreams. Cotton Mather played a significant role in the Salem witch trials in no small part because he had previously written about the ability of witches to project a spectral vision of themselves and afflict their victims remotely. After Salem, he continued to espouse this belief, detailing in his The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) how a witch’s victim can be “assaulted with Instruments of Iron wholly unseen to the standers by.”
In a sense, Mather was more right than he knew when he insisted that to hunt a witch one must embrace the spectral. Indeed, this is one of the defining characteristics of a witch hunt, its dependence on confabulated “evidence.”
Arthur Miller reflected deeply on this when he wrote The Crucible. In his 1996 New Yorker essay “Why I Wrote The Crucible,” he notes that he was drawn to the notion of “spectral evidence” and how it created a “poisoned cloud of paranoid fantasy” in which the strangest accusations “made a kind of lunatic sense to them” (Field).
“When Trump cries witch hunt, it is a rallying cry. It is not designed to prove his innocence but to whip his listeners into a frenzy, to turn their ire upon those who were so bold as to think they could hold him accountable. Donald Trump, like witch hunters throughout history, has proved skillful at flipping the narrative, writing himself as the victim even when he is the aggressor. When Trump cries witch hunt, it is to summon the hunters” (Markham-Cantor).
And summon he has, in fact, with the exception of a few old-school-staunch Republicans the whole of his party has bought his victim stance. In contrast, the sinner and hero of the The Crucible, John Proctor, calls out such hypocrisy, when he demands Reverend Hale to seek the truth, “Is the accuser always holy now? I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem now– vengeance is walking Salem.” Might we not ask the same of the whole GOP? Are they so willing to turn a blind eye to evidence? Are they so willing to sell our country’s good name to any dictator Trump admires? Will they drive our constitution into the past tense? Can they not call out a fraud when he sits in their ranks, taunting the armed yet undisciplined citizens to mobilize against decency and decades of established morality? Like Abigail, Trump’s entire fabrication, from Obama’s birther claim to his suspect dealings with Russia to buying dirt from the Ukraine “is a whore’s vengeance, and you must see it.”
“Trump would do well to remember that it is only a witch hunt if the accusations are untrue” (Field).