Donald Trump has made a habit of whining on Twitter about how unfairly he gets treated. It’s an unattractive character trait, especially from someone who just won the Presidency. But one recent tweet should be cause for reflection about a larger trend in political rhetoric.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
We’ve been comparing political investigations to witch hunts for decades, if not centuries. The most famous example of this is the Army-McCarthy hearings, in which Senator McCarthy searched in vain for communists within the federal government, including in the U.S. Army. Now, faced with an investigation into his own alleged Russian connections, Trump invokes the same tired analogy, which has by now become a cliche.
The problem commentators have pointed out is that other “witch hunts” have been conducted with less evidence of wrongdoing. But that misses the larger point: none of these are actual witch hunts. I don’t mean that just in the literal sense since that’s obviously true–no one has alleged the practice of witchcraft in the Trump campaign. That’s fine, it is the nature of analogy to compare things that are not perfectly alike.
No, the bigger issue is that all of these comparisons miss the point. The problem with witch hunts is that witches don’t exist.
No matter the motivation of the Salem Witch Trials, the outcome was bound to be unjust because the people were accused of committing a crime that does not exist. Witchcraft is fake. Contrast that with the McCarthy hearings, and you see the problem.
Some of the people McCarthy accused were innocent, but communist spies did exist. They existed in America. They existed in the American government, as more capable investigators like Richard Nixon proved. McCarthy’s investigation was overzealous and often lacking in evidence, but the crime he alleged was one that was actually being committed.
Trump’s Russia ties will likely prove illusory, but it is not unreasonable to believe that some of the people around him have improper relationships with the Putin regime. But even if the dirtiest characters in the administration are absolved of wrongdoing, calling this a witch hunt remains a poor analogy. Unlike in Salem in 1692, Michael Flynn and others are accused of a crime that is capable of being committed. A witch hunt, it isn’t
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