Why Donald Trump Needs to Keep the Term “Witch Hunt” Out of His Mouth

Lorraine Berry
Oct 4 · 6 min read

The witch hunts of the Early Modern Period of European History resulted in the torture and executions of thousands. His use of the term is obscene. Here’s why.

Image: “The Torture of a Witch, Anne Hendricks, in Amsterdam in 1571” (PBS Learning Media)

“Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and — God pity him — bethinks him of something.” Thus began a letter written in 1628 that was smuggled out of a jail in Bamberg, Germany. The writer was Johannes Junius, a man who confessed to his daughter that it had taken him several days to write the letter she was reading because his hands were broken from the torture he had endured in jail.

I was thinking about Junius and the thousands of men and women like him as Donald Trump continued to tweet that the current impeachment inquiry is “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” adding the exclamation point to let his followers know how much umbrage he had taken at charges laid against him this past week. At other times, he has tweeted out his witch hunt claims in all caps, an attempt to signal to Twitter that he may have claimed witch hunt before (for example, 12/13/18 and 1/26/19), but this time HE REALLY MEANS IT. By claiming that he was enduring a witch hunt, Trump likened his suffering to that which was endured by hundreds of thousands of people accused of witchcraft in Europe between 1400–1700, during a time of political and religious upheaval.

But there are manifold differences between Junius and Trump. Donald Trump confessed to Lester Holt on camera and without any kind of threat that yes, he had shared intelligence with the Russian officials with whom he had met. He confessed on camera this past week that he had asked the president of the Ukraine to dig up political dirt on Joe Biden. No one forced him to do either of these things, and, in recent days he has repeated the charges against him and then added to them, by asking China to do what the Ukraine refused.

Junius, on the other hand, wrote to his daughter, “…the executioner … put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands…”

But we are all witness to Donald Trump: “I’d think if they [the Ukraine] were honest about it they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens … Likewise, China should start an investigation.” All of this came tumbling out of Trump’s mouth in response to a question from a reporter asking what Trump had wanted the president of the Ukraine to do.

Many of the people who were dragged before inquisitors to face charges of witchcraft were caught up in “witch panics,” which could spread like a wildfire in an area where witches were thought to be operating. The way a panic operated was that initially, one person would be brought in, accused of witchcraft. Under torture, they were asked to name other people whom they had seen at the witches’ sabbath, the imaginary gathering of practitioners of witchcraft where they were thought to pledge their fealty to the devil, often by having sex with him.

Under torture, people started naming neighbors, relatives, any name they could think of in order to make the torture stop. Each of the named people were brought in, and they were tortured and asked to provide names. These panics would continue until the stereotype of the witch broke down. This could happen when the number of men accused started to reach high numbers, or people who still had their wits about them would start accusing the inquisitors and judges of having been present at the sabbaths. Once inquisitors started to doubt the information they were given, the panic would put itself out, like a rainstorm putting out a wildfire. Because torture was allowed in extracting a confession of witchcraft in the German lands, the witch panics there are thought by historians to account for nearly half of the 90,000 estimated to have been killed across Europe. Johannes Junius is just one of these victims.

Johannes Junius was consumed by the conflagration. He managed to withstand turning in any of his neighbors during the thumb-screws. But the strappado did him in. The strappado was a form of torture in which the hands were tied behind the back, and then a rope was tied around the bound wrists. Then, the person was lifted by their wrists. The shoulders and arms would be dislocated during the torture. Additional pain was caused by the attachment of weights to the prisoner’s feet. Junius told his daughter: “Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony…”

He tells his daughter that, under torture, and because he knew the torture would be unceasing until he gave the inquisitors what they wanted, he had named names. He describes in detail the crude cartography used by his tormentors.

“Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch-sabbath]. I said that I had not recognized them. “You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you. Say — was not the Chancellor there?” So I said yes. “Who besides?” I had not recognized anybody. So he said: “Take one street after another; begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next.” I had to name several persons there. Then came the long street. I knew nobody. Had to name eight persons there. Then the Zinkenwert — one person more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle — whoever it might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to strip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. “The rascal knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won’t name him.” By that they meant Dietmeyer: so I had to name him too.”

Again, I don’t recall Donald Trump being subjected to the strappado. So, his claim that the investigation of his activities constitute a “witch hunt” is yet another false claim by a president who is incapable of speaking in terms that are either not hyperbole or flat-out lies.

There’s nothing much that I can do to change Donald Trump’s personality. But we are all tasked with challenging his misuse of the language. He has not experienced a “witch hunt.” Not even close. Johannes Junius was executed in July of 1628 for a crime that didn’t exist, and to which he was forced, under torture, to detail imaginary acts that his torturers suggested to him.

When Donald Trump uses the word “witch hunt” to describe the lawful investigation currently being carried out against him, one in which he has access to a fleet of attorneys and an entire cable news network willing to defend him, he dishonors the memory of those who were dragged before the witch tribunals. Circles of gossip, petty resentments, envy, the fear of authorities, the fear of eternal punishment — and in certain areas, misogyny — led to the initial accusations that a certain person was a witch. Torture extracted the answer that inquisitors fabricated and gave to their victims so that they might repeat the words back to them. And then, based on those words that were put into the mouths of torture victims, other people were arrested as the confessed witch was taken to be burnt at the stake.

Draping himself in the suffering of others in order to distract attention away from himself is a rhetorical tactic we have seen Trump do over and over again. Hearing the president liken his suffering to that of real victims is an abomination.

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