Since the Ukraine scandal broke 34 days ago, Donald Trump has tweeted the phrase “witch hunt” 45 times. That’s the equivalent of 1.3 times a day. In nine of those instances, he asserted that the Ukraine investigation constitutes the greatest witch hunt in the history of the United States.
Given this country’s long, brutish history of witch hunts, both literal (think Salem) and metaphorical (think McCarthyism), that’s a hefty claim. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from hurling the term about like a deranged heckler. Since becoming president, Trump has tweeted the words “witch hunt” a total of 294 times, including, yes, during the Russia investigation. And before he was president? In 2013, he retweeted a supporter’s allegation that the investigation into the now-defunct Trump University was a “liberal witch hunt”—but ultimately paid $25 million to avoid a trial. In 2013, he complained in the same terms about corporate-fraud allegations against finance CEO Hank Greenberg (who settled for a cool $ 9.9 million). And in 2012, Trump used the phrase to defend Herman Cain—later his nominee for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors—from multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Poor Herman seemingly couldn’t buy his way out, so he withdrew his name from consideration.
If Trump wants to convince people that he’s innocent, papering himself with a phrase that he previously used to defend guilty parties doesn’t seem like a brilliant move. But it’s actually a shrewd tactic. The repetition itself can serve a powerful, reality-shifting function: A 2015 study on the “reiteration effect” confirmed that when false information is repeated often enough, people come to believe it. (To wit: A USA Today/Suffolk University poll last March found that half of Americans believed Trump’s claim that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt.”)
But the problem with Trump’s crying witch hunt is not just that we’re subjected to the ceaseless flatulence of his self-pitying tweets. The problem is that each time Trump tweets the term, he is doing something else as well, something both more sophisticated and more sinister. 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. In a society that already lets the rich and powerful off the hook for just about anything, handing them a tool that frames holding them accountable as inherently unfair is dangerous—and other powerful players are picking up on the trick.
To understand what Trump is doing, it helps to start at the beginning: What is a witch hunt? Historically, it describes a process by which a community scapegoats a member or members for social, economic, or other ills, and then punishes them, usually with death, in an attempt to reverse or seek vengeance for those ills. The scapegoating is justified by framing the victim as the true aggressor, a sorcerer who has used some kind of hidden power to harm the community. When most people in this country think of witch hunts, they probably think of Salem in the 17th century or the great witch hunts of Europe, which spanned roughly 200 years during which at least 80,000 people, mostly women, were killed as witches across the continent.
As witch hunts became less frequent in Europe and North America (though not in other places), and witch hunts of the past came to be disdained as backward and fundamentally unjust, the phrase “witch hunt” became a metaphor for unfair persecution. The term appeared in print in a political context as early as 1930, when Iowa Representative Christian Ramseyer decried as “witch hunting” the creation by Congress of a special committee to investigate communist activity. Not long after, The New York Times used the term to describe the treatment of Trotskyist dissidents in the Soviet Union, and George Orwell used it to describe the political persecution of revolutionaries by Communists in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. It appeared in various magazines and academic journals in the years after World War II.
Not everyone cried witch hunt in the same way. As Annalisa Quinn wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2017, “the right tended to use [witch hunt] to describe persecution of industry, the left to describe persecution of labor and everybody to describe persecution of themselves.” In the 1950s, the phrase skyrocketed into common parlance with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a thinly disguised lambasting of McCarthyism in the form of a story about the Salem witch trials.
Trump is hardly the first politician to cry witch hunt—in 1973, Richard Nixon said that the Watergate hearings were a witch hunt, just a year before he was forced to retire. But Trump is by far the loudest. And he is using the phrase in a new way.
In her Times Magazine piece, Quinn put Trump’s usage of “witch hunt” into the context of a larger pattern: She showed how the term had begun transmuting, in his mouth and others, from a description of the persecution of the marginalized into a complaint of the powerful, a way of dismiss accusations of wrongdoing. Now, Trump is transforming the meaning of “witch hunt” once more. As he decries the Ukraine investigation—again and again and again—he is shifting the term from a complaint to a political maneuver, a way not only to discredit his detractors and hang on to power, but also, and perhaps most crucial of all, to rev up his base.
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.
This usage of the phrase is already catching on. Just as the term “fake news” has begun popping up in the mouths of all kinds of grifters and dictators, “witch hunt” has begun dropping from the lips of everyone from local sheriffs to prime ministers. As recently as December of 2018, my Google Alert for the term “witch hunt” might deliver 10 articles on a given day, nine about Trump and one about a current hunt. (Yes, you read that right—actual witch hunts still happen. More on that in a moment.)
By July of 2019, it was more common to see one article about a current witch hunt, five about Trump, and four articles about other politicians or assorted bigwigs claiming to be victims of witch hunts. These self-proclaimed victims range from CEOs to local school board representatives, but the background circumstances are usually the same: a corruption or sexual misconduct scandal that is threatening to take them down. Among the most prominent are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used the phrase to try to dismiss serious corruption charges against him; Colombia’s former defense minister, who turned to the term after resigning amid allegations that he had received money from a drug cartel; and Martin Shkreli, famous for jacking up the price of life-saving medications just because he could, who hurled the words when he was convicted of securities fraud.
Not all of these witch hunt criers are trying to whip a constituency into action, but all are attempting to turn allegations of wrongdoing back on their opponents. They use “witch hunt” not just to proclaim their own innocence but also to make a statement about the unreliability or corruption of their accusers. Crying witch hunt is turning into the political equivalent of throwing down a Reverse card in Uno.
It is a particularly vicious sleight of hand for powerful men to play the witch hunt victim card, because real witch hunts—“I think my neighbor can do magic so I’ll murder her” witch hunts—still happen around the world, and they uniformly scapegoat the marginalized, not the powerful.
Since January 2017, while Trump was busy tweeting “witch hunt” roughly every three days, more than 500 people worldwide have reportedly been killed after being accused of witchcraft. At least another 215 people were attacked and tortured for being witches but survived. Across four continents, people have been beaten, burned, tortured, and beheaded. They have mostly been women and have almost exclusively been poor. There’s a lack of scholarship on why modern witch hunts happen where they do, but academic and feminist Silvia Federici, who has been tracking witch hunts since the 1980s, notes that most contemporary witch hunts take place in countries recovering from colonialism, exploitative policies by the World Bank or the IMF, or Christian missionary activity.
When you add up all the incidents in the past 30 years, a conservative estimate holds that 30,000 people have been killed in witch hunts. These witch hunts have taken place in every continent except Antarctica. Thirty thousand in 30 years divides out to two to three people per day, and these are just the ones we know about. Trump is right that witch hunts still happen. They’re just not happening to him.