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writing for godot

The Trump 'Witch-hunt' and the Real Thing(s)

Written by Steven Jonas   
Wednesday, 18 December 2019 11:31

By Steven Jonas, M.D., M.P.H.

"Either this nation will kill racism or racism will kill this nation."  (S. Jonas, August, 2018)


Donald Trump never gets tired of telling us that --- you name it --- the Mueller Report process and publication, the constant stream of investigative journalism revealing everything from possible crimes by Trump and Trump Family-and-Friends to the many oh-so-non-Presidential acts by same, and of course the current Impeachment Inquiry, are nothing more (or less) than a "Witch Hunt." In doing so, Trump a) reveals once again how little he knows about history, b) reveals how much he would like to run rough-shod over the Constitution and the separation-of-powers/freedom-of-the-press it provides for, and c) what an absolute master history's greatest con man is of his WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction.

Most U.S., including myself, use the term "Witch Hunt" to originally refer to the "Salem Witch Trials" of the late 17th century. They were indeed a leading example of the use of public non- or pseudo-judicial prosecution, primarily for supposed "religious crime(s)," usually in an atmosphere of mass-hysteria ginned-up by the reigning religio-governmental authority of the day. As the Wikipedia entry says: "The episode is one of Colonial America's most notorious cases of mass hysteria . It has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process."

But actually, "Witch Hunts," and trials, and public punishment up-to and including execution by hanging, stone-crushing, and burning-at-the-stake, long preceded "Salem." For example, "witch-hunting" came and went in Scotland over a 200 year period, 1550-1750. There was always a predominant religious centrality to it. Like its successor in Salem, it was directed mainly (although not exclusively) at women. It focused on thought and belief-related actions (if any), both real and, on the part of the accusers, imagined, not any of the usual category of acts generally considered to be "crimes," like assault, battery, stealing, murder, and etc. And in fact, over the same period of time, "witch hunts" occurred across Europe , for the same purpose(s), mostly against women, often leading to burning at the stake, both separate from and part of the religious wars which raged on and off across Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

So, the variety of investigations/actions that are being taken against Trump hardly amount to a "witch-hunt" in the historical sense. First of all, the context is hardly religious. Second of all, those parts of the investigations that are being undertaken by various branches of Federal and state governments are carried out under strict rules of civil and criminal procedure. Third of all, those parts of the investigations which are being carried out by the media, are just that, investigations by the media, not any kind of judicial or quasi-judicial authority, and have no potential outcomes involving directly the imposition of civil or criminal penalties.

Which brings us to the use of the term "witch-hunt" in modern U.S. history. This of course, refers in part to the "McCarthy Period ," 1947-60. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) was a leading avatar of the "Second Red Scare" generated in the U.S. after World War II. In major part it was to help turn the political atmosphere in the U.S. against the recent principal ally in defeating the Fascist Forces in World War II. That was, of course, the Soviet Union. The so-called "Cold War" had been declared by Winston Churchill in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech of March 5, 1946, at Fulton, MO. The Red Scare got underway in fairly short order after it.

Led in the beginning by McCarthy and his principal acolyte, a young lawyer from New York City named Roy Cohn (sound familiar ?), the cudgels were soon taken up by a wide variety of governmental and non-governmental actors. A principal governmental one was the House Un-American Activities Committee (which ironically had originally been created before the start of World War II to focus on combating Nazi influence in U.S. politics and policy. But under Cong. Martin Dies the focus was quickly changed to "communist influences"). After the War, the Red Scare quickly spread from government "investigations" to private industry and the imposition of government "loyalty oaths:" forcing people to swear that they were "not now and had never been a member of the Communist Party" (which of course was then and still is a perfectly legal entity), or face loss of position/employment.

A principal element of the non-governmental Red Scare, which by the 1950's came to be referred to as a "Witch Hunt" because of its focus on thoughts, not actions, was the "black list." It began in the entertainment industry and then spread to others, both openly and covertly. People were fired and not hired, not because of anything illegal that they had done, but rather for what they thought and what they attempted to do to promote their ideas in the public and political square in encouraging others to join them.

There were four major elements of "McCarthyism/the-Red-Scare: its use in foreign policy (principally to support the ginning-up pf the "Cold War"); in attacking labor and labor unions (which began with the "anti-Communist" provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act); its use in terrifying ordinary left-wingers (the Black List) and punishing people simply for being left-wingers in thought and perfectly legal actions by depriving them of their livelihoods extra-legally; and its use politically (an early example being what was done by none other than Richard Nixon in his red-baiting campaign against Cong. Jerry Vorhiis , in 1946).

Tens of thousands of people --- in the entertainment field, in K-12 and higher education, in government service, in private industry, in labor union leadership, in science and medicine, really suffered in the "McCarthyite-Red Scare," over a 15-year period. The collection of attacks was widely known at the time as "The Witch Hunts," even after the alcoholic Joe McCarthy had left the scene. Just as in the historical witch hunts, most importantly, no crimes in the conventional sense were charged. They were all about thoughts and beliefs, and perfectly legal public acts related to those thoughts and beliefs.

Trump is being investigated for a wide variety of civil crimes, like violations of campaign finance law and obstruction of justice, and Constitutional "high crimes and misdemeanors," like violation of the Emoluments clause and using foreign policy in an attempt to influence domestic politics. Given the historical meanings of the term "witch-hunt," what is currently happening in the Trump-investigations could be described as one only in the Trumpublican© world of Alternative Facts.


Post Script:   On Dec. 5, 1484, the notorious "Witches Bull" (Bull Summis desiderantes) was issued by Pope Innocent VIII. Historians estimate that victims put to death as a result ranged from 600,000 to more than 9 million over the 250 years of the witch hunts.

Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cybo, 1432-92).

From Freedom From Religion Foundation's "Freethought for the Day, 12-5-19


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