This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
How should a historian respond to this statement?
First, we should probably consider the nature of a witch hunt. In the 17th century there were literal witch hunts. New England Calvinists who believed in witchcraft killed the people living in their communities who they believed were witches. The most famous of these witch trials, of course, occurred at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.
Second, at some point in American history the term “witch hunt” was used in the political sphere to describe “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.” The phrase “witch hunt” was rarely used in the English-speaking world prior to 1900. It became popular, as this Google Books Ngram shows, in the 1950s. The context for this rise in usage was probably a combination of Wisconsin Senator’s Joseph McCarthy attempt to sniff out possible communists in the American government and the opening of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials.
The use of the single word “witchhunt” spiked in the 1950s and skyrocketed in the 1970s. I am assuming that this had something to do with Nixon and Watergate.
Third, historically the term “witch hunt” is usually used by the one being hunted or someone opposed to the hunting. It is thus a highly political and subjective term, making it impossible to conclude which so-called “witch hunt” was the “greatest.” One person’s witch-hunt may be another person’s act of justice.
Fourth, Trump seems to be using the term in a generic way to describe the voice and activity of his critics. Again, the level of criticism a president receives is hard to measure in historical terms. But by Trump’s definition, nearly every President has faced some kind of “witch hunt” at one time or another during his administration. Certainly the Presidents who were impeached- (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) and the President who resigned in shame (Richard Nixon) should be in the “greatest witch hunt” discussion. Trump, as the leader of the Barack Obama birther controversy, may have contributed to one of the “greatest witch hunts” of a politician in American history. (If you don’t think the birther controversy merits “witch hunt” status then you are proving my point about the very subjective and political uses of this term in 20th and 21st-century America). Were the GOP politicians who plotted the obstruction of the Obama presidency while enjoying dinner in a Washington D.C. restaurant planning a great witch hunt?
So is Trump the victim of the “greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history?” I don’t know. It is not a historical question. Trump invokes American history for political purposes. He has no real interest in any kind of thinking that runs deeper than his own self-interest.