Donald Trump dodges responsibility by conjuring illusions of 'witch hunts' and 'hoaxes'
Witch-hunts and hoaxes. For years, now, Donald Trump has been conjuring them while claiming to ‘spot’ them. He conjures them as needed, not everywhere, but in places where he sees that his person remains stubbornly un-worshiped; where his brilliance is defied and his personal cause is under threat (the public cause, alas, is irrelevant). As go-to tools in his rhetorical kit, the spotted hoax and the witch-hunt do lots of heavy-lifting for our president. Because they require no meaningful effort on his part, they function as work-saving devices; the golfing president’s best friend. Just say the magic word “hoax” or “witch-hunt” and (“POOF!”) a real problem is given the slip, and it’s off to Mar-a-Lago he goes.
By conjuring these illusions, Donald Trump dodges responsibility. More importantly, by repeatedly dramatizing these acts of evasion in front of audiences who are gladly taken in, he gives his supporters to see exactly what he wants them to see: a devilishly handsome (white-hatted) hero beset by devious, Trump-hating (dark clad) socialists who defy his brilliance because they are bent on our country’s demise. Whether we situate ourselves on the left or on the right, climate catastrophe is something none of us wants. We’d all love to make it go away. Enter Donald P. T. Trump with his magician’s wand and a silk wizard’s purse of his favorite incantational words and the problem disappears in a puff of smoke. A “Chinese hoax”.
This is an escape act that the president performs over and over again because it gets things done for him and for the moneyed interests who promote his cause: coal gets dug, forests are leveled, and the extraction economy chugs happily along, all the while the planet goes up in flames. The same might be said of his rhetorical handling of the Mueller investigation, the impeachment trial, the tax returns that he refuses to divulge, and so many other ugly truths that our conjurer in chief would rather not face up to. By invoking the word “witch-hunt” he can make them all disappear.
Such is the late-Victorian carnival act to which we have all been subjected for the last three years going on four, the one where we are asked to believe that he, the flabby, over-the-hill reality t.v. star in the red cape with the tall top-hat on his head is not the one conjuring illusions. No, a secretive cabal of devious others are: climate scientists, environmentalists, career officials in the intelligence community, constitutional lawyers, concerned citizens, activists, mothers who want clean air for their babies to breathe and women who refuse to be groped. All are deep-state conjurers, hucksters and paranoiacs, not to be trusted.
Here’s the problem, one of many that I have with the president’s spotted hoaxes and witch-hunts. He hasn’t a clue what these words actually mean. The basic rule of hoaxes is that they must never actually do what they claim to be doing. To count as a hoax, a climate catastrophe must produce no heat, melt no ice, burn no forests. Hoaxes only fabricate. That is, they fake doing rather than do. A conjurer of illusions cannot say “the beheading of my lovely assistant, Zelda, was just a hoax” and have her actual head, rather than a fake one, rolling around on a blood-soaked floor. That wouldn’t be a hoax, it would be murder.
To function as a hoax, a global warming hoax must generate no heat, and yet this one keeps doing exactly that: torching the planet, acidifying oceans, sinking islands, whipping up hurricanes, and toasting baby koalas in their nests. As far as hoaxes go, this one is awfully destructive and un-hoaxy. Still, how relieved the people of Australia must be to know (has the president called to tell them this?) that the fires burning their homes and the smoke choking their lungs are just fabrications; that the dead koalas can’t really be dead, because the whole thing is just a fabrication, a liberal hoax.
Then there’s the witch-hunt. Here again our president doesn’t seem to have a clue about what his favorite catch-phrase actually means. The basic rule of a witch-hunt is that it must never catch a witch. That sounds odd, I realize, but built into the term, in its common negative sense, is the presumption that the “witches” captured in said hunt are not really witches at all, but persons conjured as witches by collective paranoia: unkempt, childless misfits who keep to themselves, eschewing the company of church-going ladies and men, who spend lots of time puttering in their gardens, collecting herbs to stir into their tea. These are the “witches” rounded up by a witch-hunt in its common, negative sense. Should any given collective effort to hunt down a witch ever happen to turn up a real one, catching her red-handed as she stirs the limbs of the village’s missing infants into her boiling cauldron, the process of her having been hunted down, interrogated and punished would be a hunt that caught a witch, but it would not be a witch-hunt. For that you need fake witches, not real ones.
That’s what President Trump does not seem to realize about his favorite magical phrase. He uses it to say one thing, but it means another. The Mueller investigation did not conjure fake witches. It found real ones at their cauldrons. It found Russians actively interfering in our elections, and key members of the Trump election team engaging in a veritable stew of illegal activities. Paul Manafort, who headed Trump’s election team, is in jail now. He was convicted of real crimes, not conjured ones, and the jail where he is spending real time for his crimes has real bars to keep him penned in. It was no witch hunt that sent him to jail. It was his criminal activity, exposed by the Mueller investigation, that sent him to jail.
If there is any takeaway to be had from these considerations, it isn’t that Donald Trump is a con man. We’ve known that since the nineties. It’s that we need to have a better sense of how his rhetoric of evasion operates if we are ever to save ourselves from it. As a mythical creature, a spotted hoax can do us no harm. As an instrument of obfuscation, there is no limit to how much damage it can do and, in fact, has already done.
Kirk Freudenburg is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics at Yale University, and a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (FAAR 2002). His Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, co-edited with Shadi Bartsch and Cedric Littlewood, appeared last November.