For Trump, Greitens, ‘witch hunt’ is the tie that binds
WASHINGTON • In the span of 33 hours earlier this week:
• President Donald Trump tweeted “TOTAL WITCH HUNT” after FBI agents, acting on a referral from special prosecutor Robert Mueller, raided the offices and residences of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
• Fox News prime-time host Sean Hannity said that “Mueller’s witch-hunt investigation” was on a “runaway train.”
• Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, responding to a Republican-led legislative report of a woman’s claims that Greitens had sexually and physically assaulted her, referred to a “witch hunt” five times in an eight-minute speech and declared: “This is exactly like what’s happening with the witch hunts in Washington, D.C.”
The term that now binds the right of American politics is not designed to win people over as much as harden true believers against a common enemy: the “swamp of Washington,” the political elites of Jefferson City or the “deep state” of government bureaucrats and “liberal media” that Hannity attacks nightly.
“Witch Hunt” is a weapon in the verbal combat of what Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war.”
Beyond politics, its usage tells us much about fame, shame and power in 2018 America.
“We have heard that term ‘witch hunt’ more in the last six months than we have heard it in the last 50 years,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., and author of a new book on presidential communication. “And that is because it is a very effective way to dismiss allegations without having to deny them, one by one.
“If you ask (Greitens), ’Did you tie the woman to your exercise equipment?″ - it is a yes or no answer. ‘Was she crying?’ is a yes or no answer. But if the governor uses the term ‘witch hunt,’ then he can offer up the equivalence of a denial without having to go through a specific yes or no question which might be harder to answer.”
Trump, who is facing a Mueller probe into everything from campaign collusion with Russians to a hush payment to a porn actress, has been a profligate user of the term. Hannity provides the echo chamber on the nation’s most-watched cable network. Greitens, under indictment, is a more recent appropriator.
“When Donald Trump can retain his roughly 40 percent approval despite one revelation after another involved in the Mueller investigation, politicians in trouble will be tempted to try the same approach,” Farnsworth said.
Wayne Fields, an emeritus professor of English, American literature and American culture studies at Washington University, said “witch hunt” is employed by the powerful to demonize and neutralize accusers they try to argue are guilty of worse things than they are.
“They use this kind of language in a very vague and self-serving way, and that is what the governor of Missouri is doing, too,” Fields, author of many works on political language, said. “He is riding the popularity of saying, ‘Just as President Trump is being persecuted, so am I. Just as Fox News is being persecuted, so am I.’ ”
In the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to drain “the swamp” of Washington. Greitens mirrored that in Missouri, attacking what he portrayed as cravenness and dishonesty of political elites, including fellow Republicans, in Jefferson City.
But the two politicians diverge in one important way.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump, a brazen, self-promoting billionaire, relied on suspension of disbelief from supporters who viewed Washington through the same critical prism he did, and were willing to overlook — even applaud — Trump’s crass behavior and language.
Greitens ran as family man and inspiration. The Navy SEAL wrote books with titles like “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” and he ran for governor as an outsider on another righteous mission.
But cornered politically on salacious allegations, Trump and Greitens have fallen back to the same “witch hunt” defense.
Fields said it’s a way to delegitimize accusers, “whether you call it ‘deep state’ the way Hannity has sometimes; or whether you call it the ‘Washington elite’ the way Trump is inclined to; or Greitens in the very stark way that he has defined a kind of Jefferson City elite that he was going to run against, including Republicans he attacked early on.”
An irony is that the allegations against the Republican officeholders are being leveled by fellow Republicans, including this week’s explosive legislative report on Greitens’ alleged actions in an acknowledged extramarital affair. Mueller is said to lean GOP, politically, and the U.S. attorney who approved the “witch hunt” search was appointed by Trump himself.
From the literal witch hunts of the 17th century to the term’s usage in the anti-Communist McCarthyism of the 1950s, it has always been about politics.
Today, it’s a dog whistle, a signal to supporters to ignore the details because the mission is greater and the beliefs are purer than anything the accusers stand for.
“Greitens has always had this about him — the sanctimoniousness,” Fields said, referring to “the holier-than-thou thing that he used in the campaign and through much of his life.”
By contrast, Fields said, “Trump would sort of claim the mantle, but he was also running on ‘You know I am a man of the world, you know how many women I have had, you know I can get whatever I want.’
“And his crowds ate that up,” Fields said, arguing they believed Trump’s prophecy that because he is such a threat to the status quo that, ‘You know they are going to be out to get me. And we will show them.’”
“The thing that I find astonishing on all of this is that nothing produces shame, nothing produces humility,” Fields said.
Politics “has always had a self-serving element to it,” he said, but the witch-hunt claims are a window into culture as a whole.
“Look at the famous people in the culture these days,” Fields said. “There are people that did stuff that when I was a kid was considered shameful and disgraceful, whether it is the Kardashians or the Jersey Shore crowd — people who got famous based on a sex tape and have these utterly vacuous lives that made them a fortune.
“You have got fundamentalist Christians who used to scream about everything from dancing to gambling that there doesn’t seem to be anything — as long as it serves their fairly narrow political interests — that is unacceptable in terms of behavior.”
Men in Missouri’s congressional delegation mostly have avoided comment or had cautious responses to the allegations and Greitens’ “witch hunt” claims. Sen. Roy Blunt. R-Mo., and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, expressed concern but urged that political and legal processes be allowed to play out.
Fields said that was a vivid illustration of establishment Republicans like Blunt and Luetkemeyer “riding the tiger” in a Republican Party “that now has to respond to a Trumpian base.”
But the three women in Missouri’s 10-person congressional delegation — Republican Reps. Ann Wagner and Vicky Hartzler, and Sen. Claire McCaskill — were the earliest and most forceful in saying Greitens was not worthy of the office, rejecting his “witch-hunt” claims.
“Witch” has long been used to demonize women. Trump’s supporters did that to Clinton on social media and carried “ditch the witch” signs to Trump rallies where crowds chanted, “lock her up.”
“They couldn’t burn her,” Fields said of Clinton. “They were going to put her in prison.”