Donald Trump isn’t known for being a wordsmith—or even getting most words right. He boldly ignores spell-check when tweeting, and he can’t seem to get a handle on the difference between council and counsel. Lately, he called the investigation into his campaign’s potential collusion with Russian officials a “the single greatest witch hunt” in American history, which brings us to the question: Does Trump know what a witch hunt is?
According to Trump’s biggest fan, online dictionary Merriam-Webster, a witch hunt is defined as “a searching out for persecution of persons accused of witchcraft” or “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.” As Merriam-Webster explained when the word started trending on its site on Thursday, the first meaning has to do with the literal hunting and persecution of perceived witches in centuries past. English speakers began using the second, figurative meaning of the phrase in the 1920s.
Normally, we could assume he meant the latter version, having to do with harassment of political opponents, but knowing Trump, he could very well be thinking of voodoo dolls and cauldrons as well. If so, there are a few key differences between Trump’s situation and the most infamous witch hunt in history, the Salem witch trials of 1692. According to Smithsonian, hysteria infected colonial Massachusetts after a minor war on the border of New York and Canada sent a surge of refugees south. By the time the conflict between wealthy landowners and poor, displaced northerners settled down, more than 200 had been tried for witchcraft, and 20 had been executed.
Obviously, there was no sound basis for pursuing those accused of witchcraft. For the most part, town leaders went after impoverished women who had female friends. In Trump’s case, however, there are several sound reasons for pursuing an investigation, which he further fueled by dismissing FBI Director James Comey last week. According to a memo obtained by the The New York Times, Trump reportedly pressured Comey to stop his investigation into disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn’s involvement with Russia. An independent, unbiased investigation into this matter isn’t a witch hunt; it’s a necessity.
In reality, Trump uses the word in a kind of Orwellian doublespeak, accusing others of what he has done himself. Look no further than the way he’s openly attacked journalists, given every shade of critic the broad label of “fake news,” incited hysteria among his fan base via the birther movement, or repeatedly called for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment—and the list goes on and on. Indeed, pursuing a thorough investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia will be necessary, if only for the sake of defending both democracy and the English language.