Trump Lashes Out But Has No Idea What a 'Witch Hunt' Really Is

President Donald Trump speaks during the United States Coast Guard Academy commencement ceremony in New London, Connecticut, on May 17. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Update | President Donald Trump complained in a tweet Wednesday morning that he's the target of "the single greatest witch hunt" in American political history.

His tweet, which ended in his signature exclamation point, came a day after the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller a special counsel in the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. In another tweet, Trump also accused both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign of "illegal acts," complaining that "there was never a special councel appointed!" (He misspelled counsel.)

Just as first daughter Ivanka Trump has a penchant for certain words ("architecting" and "I" ), her father seems to have an affection for witch hunts. He used the phrase back in January when criticizing the frenzy around Russian hacking allegations in an interview with The New York Times. And he invoked witch hunts in his commencement speech Wednesday at the United States Coast Guard Academy, saying, "Look at the way I've been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly."

Mr. Trump, you have no idea what a witch hunt really is.

In politics, the phrase has come to represent a swift and all-encompassing investigation aimed at rooting out a person or group that allegedly threatens the social order. The best recent example came from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who spearheaded accusations against alleged Communists in the 1950s. Some might argue that Kenneth Starr's investigation into Bill Clinton in the '90s was a "witch hunt" too. Trump may claim he's the subject of the worst witch hunt in history, but as U.S. Representative Seth Moulton tweeted Wednesday, "As the Representative of Salem, MA, I can confirm that this is false."

As the Representative of Salem, MA, I can confirm that this is false.

— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) May 18, 2017

The history of witch hunts goes back centuries to Salem Village, Massachusetts, where a group of tween and teenage girls upended their tranquil Puritan society when they started accusing their neighbors of witchcraft. In January 1692, Betty Parris, the 9-year-old daughter of the local minister, and her 12-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, started behaving strangely. They fell into horrible fits, babbled uncontrollably, hid under furniture, complained of being bitten and pinched by mysterious specters and fell into trances. A moment later, they'd appear to be completely normal.

Soon their so-called affliction spread, and more girls and young women exhibited similar fits. As one eyewitness described it, "Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented." When parents and community leaders pressed the girls to explain their behavior, they started accusing villagers of witchcraft.

"What started as a series of hysterical reactions among a group of local girls at Salem created a spreading panic in the entire community and led to an official investigation, which by the end claimed to have identified over 200 people as confederates of the devil," says John Demos, an emeritus professor at Yale and author of two books on the history of witch hunting.

Most of the accused were middle-aged and older women, and many of those charged with witchcraft were jailed for months. By the end of the year, Salem had executed 19 "witches" by hanging. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by a pile of rocks. When asked to enter a plea, he famously replied, "More weight."

In premodern times, a witch hunt was the search for anyone "working with the devil to subvert God's sovereignty," Demos says. Today, that definition has grown less religious but no less urgent. "In most cases, both then and now, the targets have been innocent victims of social panic."

When Trump claims he's the subject of "the single greatest witch hunt" in history, he makes it clear that he sees himself as the victim. But as he grasps for a moral high ground that he's no more likely to find than Salem's 20 murdered "witches" were, he ignores a critical fact: His own policies and rhetoric reek of witch hunting, from his attacks on journalists (whom he's called "the enemy of the people") to his ban on immigrants (whom he's called "criminals, drug dealers, rapists").

As Demos puts it, "When accused of something, Trump quite regularly shoots the same charge back against his opponents. In other words, 'I'm not the witch hunter; you are.'"

This story was updated to include a relevant tweet from Representative Moulton.