The Actual 'Single Greatest Witch Hunt of a Politician' in U.S. History

It happened long before a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

A portrayal of the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. 
A portrayal of the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts.  ( Library of Congress / Getty )

It’s been a turbulent 11 days in the Trump administration. From the abrupt firing last week of former FBI Director James Comey to the appointment Wednesday of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to be the special prosecutor leading the investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 election, the Trump presidency has earned its title, as my colleague McKay Coppins described it, as “one of the most dramatic political stories in modern American history.”

President Trump, however, described it a different way. In a tweet Thursday morning responding to Mueller’s appointment, the president said, “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” He also went on to place the on-going scandal in history, dubbing it “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

The likening of Trump’s perceived mistreatment by political adversaries and the media alike to a witch hunt drew many on social media to correct the president, including Seth Moulton, a congressman from Massachusetts who represents Salem, the town where the famed witch trials took place.

I spoke with Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American history at Cornell University and the author of In the Devils Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, to discuss the actual “single greatest witch hunt” in American history. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yasmeen Serhan: As a historian, what do you make of President Trump’s claim that he is the victim of the “single greatest witch hunt of a politician” in U.S. history?

Mary Beth Norton: The Salem witch hunt has always been used exactly the way President Trump used it. The term “witch hunt” has entered a parlance in the United States as a means of discrediting any kind of investigation that people are not happy about or an event of some sort where someone seems to be targeted unfairly. That is of course our image of Salem witchcraft, which is that it was a bunch of people—women, for the most part—who were unfairly accused of being witches ... When someone draws this analogy to a witch hunt, it implies from the very beginning that it’s unfair.

Serhan: Are there other notable instances of politicians using this analogy?

Norton: I don’t remember if he ever used it, but it struck me that one of the most obvious recent examples is the impeachment and trial of President Bill Clinton for what certain people regarded in Congress as a “high crime and misdemeanor,” which basically meant an attempt to cover up a rather sordid affair with a young woman—something that surely the framers of the Constitution never intended to be covered under the high crimes and misdemeanors clause. That's the most recent example.

Another recent way in which witch hunts have been used in the same kind of way happened in the discussions ever since the great panic about satanism in day-care centers in the 1980s, which resulted in people being sent to jail after little children told wild stories about sexual abuse in these day-care centers. Not just sexual abuse, but very weird fantasies about satanic rituals and tunnels under the building and things like that. People analogized them as a witch hunt as well.

Serhan: You’ve characterized the Salem witch trials in your writings as a fundamentally political event. How so?

Norton: There was a politician who was targeted in the Salem witch trials. The governor’s wife was herself accused of being a witch in 1692 and there was someone who we would today term a politician—he was an office holder in the town of Salem, and he was not only accused of being a witch, but he was arrested and held. He was never tried because he was very wealthy and bribed the jailor and escaped before the trial. His name was Philip English, he was the selectman of Salem and he and his wife were both accused of being witches ... A number of wealthy people who were accused of being witches escaped, and they all went to New York and hid out until the trial blew over.

Serhan: Would you say the witch hunt was an expression of political fear?

Norton: It was an expression more of military fear. There was a war going on and a lot of the people who were accused were those who had connections to the Maine frontier, and a number of prominent men who were accused were failed military leaders. They were not able to defeat the Abenaki Indians and some people accused them of being witches as a result, because it was believed that the devil controlled the Indians. And since the devil also controlled witches it was easy for people to conflate witches and Indians in their minds. The Indians were winning this war and the late 17th century English settlers, the Puritans, put the two things together and decided that the reason they couldn’t defeat the Indians was that the devil was helping them—and the witches, of course. That’s the main thing that happened in 1692 to make it such an explosion, because there had always been witch craft accusations in New England, but they come in ones or twos or threes—there were about 150 accusations in 1692, leading to 21 executions.

The problem that I set for myself as a historian was figuring out why Salem was so different, and my answer was fear of the Indians and the Indian war and how the fear of the Indians got conflated with the fear of the witches.

Serhan: Have there been any notable witch hunts since?

Norton: The big witch hunts were mostly in Switzerland and Germany, in a much earlier period. There was a comparable witch hunt in England during the English Civil War in the 1640s with hundreds of people accused and many executed. There was also a witch hunt in Scotland very soon after Salem in 1696 too, and that was really the last in the history of the Western world. Very soon the ideas of the Enlightenment began to take hold and people began to question whether there really was such a thing as witchcraft or witches. ... People began to argue that you cannot prove these accusations legally in a court of law.

Serhan: Between now and then, it sounds like we’re dealing with two very different political circumstances.

Norton: Yes, the political circumstances are really quite different. But it’s a situation in which politics are involved, there’s no question. To me what’s interesting about Trump’s tweet is the use of the witch-hunt analogy, because it’s a classic way in which somebody implicitly claims, “I am being unfairly targeted,” because we all believe that the people who were accused of witch craft in 1692 were unfairly targeted. It’s not just that it’s a massive attack on him, it’s that it’s an unfair and false attack on him, which goes along with everything else he’s said. That’s what it means to people. It’s not an intrepid investigator finding the truth— it’s someone raising false charges. That’s the implication of the analogy.