Donald Trump has been called many things, but few people have ever likened him to a witch. Yet to go by the US president’s Twitter account, he sees himself as the perpetual victim of a witch hunt.
As a woman who identifies as a modern-day witch, I find the comparison not just off-base, but outright insulting. As Annalisa Quinn recently observed in the New York Times Magazine, the term “witch hunt” “once meant persecution of the marginalized by the powerful.” Yet in contemporary society, it gets bandied about by powerful male politicians who want to portray themselves as victims—the better to distract from their own misdeeds.
It is deeply ironic for a president known for his misogynistic comments about women, who faces multiple accusations of sexual assault and supports anti-abortion and anti-reproductive health policies, to choose to align himself with a period in which women faced great danger at the hands of the state. But while Trump isn’t the victim of a witch hunt, his patriarchal attitudes have actually made him a target of contemporary witches. After all, they stand for the thing Trump seems to be most afraid of: The power of the feminine.
The great American witch hunt
Why does Trump seem so fond of the witch-hunt metaphor? Katherine Howe, a historian, novelist and descendent of three women tried as witches in Salem, says that it’s his way of suggesting that the accusations against him are preposterous.
“Implicit in the claim of being the object of a ‘witch-hunt’ is not only a sense of personal persecution, but an incredulity towards the accusation that the accusation could not possibly makes sense,” she says.
That was certainly the case with the witch hunts that swept through Europe from the 1300s through the 1600s, and culminated in the US with the Salem witch trials of 1692. As Stacy Schiff, author of last year’s The Witches: Salem 1692, details in the New Yorker, up to 185 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft in 1692. The hunt spread beyond Salem, enveloping 25 villages and towns surrounding the epicenter. The youngest accused witch was only five years old; the oldest, nearly 80. The primary targets were women who were seen as outsiders: the poor, the barren, the outspoken. Ultimately, 20 people, 14 of whom were women, were put to death.
The stakes are quite different in the present-day political witch hunt—a term favored by former US president Richard Nixon, and applied to the celebrities and government workers accused of sympathizing with Communists during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
“In the 1950s, not to belittle the very real stress inherent in McCarthyism, but what was at stake at that time was a bunch of men’s jobs” and their reputations, says Howe. “And what was at stake in an actual witch-hunt was being put to death by the state in front of a cheering crowd.”
It was with that in mind that Rep. Seth Moulton, who represents Salem and its district in Congress, pointed out the error in Trump’s tweets: He isn’t facing the greatest witch hunt in history. In fact, he’s not facing a witch hunt at all.
Also curious is the fact that Trump—a paragon of toxic masculinity—and other powerful men would choose a metaphor that calls up a history of women’s persecution. Howe asks, “so what is it about men, when they are pushed to the brink of an accusation of wrongdoing, that they then align themselves with women?” Perhaps men like Trump don’t have the language for articulating their sense that unjust forces in the world are conspiring against them. After all, it’s a feeling they don’t often experience—and that women and minorities know well.
Resistance is magic
But as men like Trump use the term “witch hunt” to signify their victimhood, the real witches of America are emphasizing their feminine power—the better to put to use in the anti-Trump resistance.
The night of the 2016 US election, at quarter past midnight, I sat in a living room with my friends—also known as my coven—as the reality of a Trump presidency began to sink in. Our overwhelming sense of dread and sadness was likely shared by groups of liberal friends in living rooms across the country. But we handled our grief a little differently.
Before we finally fell asleep in a heap on the couch, exhausted by the evening’s events, we cast a circle and lit some candles. We gave thanks to the Goddess and asked for protection in the uncertain future that lay ahead. An electric sort of energy flowed through us as we held hands around the coffee table that doubled as an altar.
Modern-day witches don’t necessarily sport pentagram necklaces or long, gauzy dresses. Very few wear pointy hats and dance in fields at midnight. Instead, modern witchcraft is all about claiming your personal power. And in this sense, witches are a natural answer to Trump’s brand of macho misogyny.
“Many men don’t understand how seemingly inferior creatures can possibly out-think or out-strategize or outperform them,” Schiff says. “Some occult power must be to blame; ergo, the woman in question must be practicing sorcery. If you take sorcery out of the mix, you might have to concede that women were every bit equal to (if not superior to) men. I am not sure there is a powerful woman in history who has not at some point or other been accused of practicing dark arts.”
Indeed, as my friend Anna Toonk, a “teacher of magical practices,” notes, witchcraft is inherently empowering for women because of its focus on the divine feminine—the idea that feminine energy is at the core of our universe and provides power to all beings, not just those who identify as women. Whether through tarot cards, reading star charts, or meditation, the daily practice of magic seeks to help people connect to the larger universe.
“The best definition I’ve heard of a magic is ‘the ability to change your consciousness,’” Toonk says. “ I think a lot of what is appealing of identifying as a witch is it’s this way of claiming your own feminine magic.”
And in Trump’s America, a whole lot of people are finding the resistance to be a good outlet for their magic. In the weeks and months following the election and, subsequently, the inauguration, groups of witches across America began joining forces to cast spells against the President. Under the “official” #BindTrump Facebook group, nearly 2,500 witches commune to cast spells to inhibit Trump’s policies from taking hold, most recently on the summer solstice.
The movement has drawn even the most high-profile witches out of their private practices. Lorde, who told the Daily Telegraph that she is “basically a witch,” has been vocal about her disapproval of Trump. And the #BindTrump effort has attracted participants like Lana del Rey, who tweeted out a series of dates corresponding to the upcoming waning crescent moons—prime time to cast spells to encourage removal of bad energy.
“My friend Liz [of Sister Spinster] gave me this definition for spells that I love, she calls them ‘prayers of audacity,’” says Toonk. “People are really scared of spells, and honestly they should be. The power behind witches, magic, spells—it’s intention.”
Spells and magical practice aside, US witches have also come together to resist in very tangible ways. Many members of my little New York City coven attended the Women’s March on Washington. A group came together to brainstorm ways to make money to donate to various causes in need, like CAIR and Planned Parenthood. A friend in Los Angeles performed a marathon of tarot readings, and donated the proceeds to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’m on various text threads with witches who will text, ‘Alright, we’re protesting at this location today, meet here at this time,” Toonk says. “These witches are just on it. They’re not just talking about it, they are showing up.”
I can’t help but find a bit of poetic justice, then, in Donald Trump’s cries of “witch-hunt.” He’s trying to appropriate the history of witch hunts to protect himself—and meanwhile, modern witches are rising up against him.
“This community is a lot of people who are trying to feel empowered, who aren’t trying to play the victim, who aren’t resigned to this fate,” Took says. “And I don’t think witches are any more powerful than anyone else, we just learned to take our energy and capitalize on it.”