Okay, so if you’ve been paying attention to the right-wing political rhetoric lately, you’ll be noticing that a lot of the rhetoric from (mostly male) proponents of The Big Lie about the 2020 Election “being stolen” have once again contained the phrase “witch hunt.” This phrase has been used many times in the past by the same people, and honestly I’m a little tired of it, but as so often happens with rhetorical analysis, new layers of meaning were popping up for me this week around this usage of the phrase within this particular type of fascistic rhetoric.
So if you give me a few minutes, let’s talk about what happens when fascistic white male politicians claim that legitimate criminal proceedings are “witch hunt(s).”
As always, I’m looking at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination that went on to get a PhD in Communication.
Not Talking About Modern Witch Hunts in Other Parts of the World Here
I also have known people well from parts of the world where witchcraft is alleged to be practiced in ways that are potentially harmful to others, and witches are still actually hunted. I don’t plan to get into that side of things today, as I’m not an expert on what’s fully going on there, and I hold that loosely.
But yeah. Let’s be clear.
The way these fascistic white male politicians aren’t using the term “witch hunt” in relation to the Big Lie relating to those current situations AT ALL. And I’m not here to judge what’s happening in those other cultures.
I’m just here to analyze this one particular usages of “witch hunt” by right-wing (mostly male) politicians these days. Especially those defending the Big Lie of Election 2020 being stolen (eyeroll emoji) or to support other fascistic policies.
More Than Immediately Meets the Eye
And yeah, as I said, when we all hear the term often enough—and goodness knows we’ve heard it a lot since the beginning of the 2016 election from The Former President—we tend to shrug it off.
Usually as an act of unhealthy persecution rhetoric.
And don’t get me wrong: it absolutely is that.
But I think there’s more to it than that.
So Much To Unwrap Here
When you think about it in terms of fascistic rhetoric (and once again, I strongly recommend the book How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley if you need a refresher on that–here’s one place where I’ve talked about that book), there’s a lot going on in that short, evocative phrase.
The Gendered Nature of “Witch Hunts”
Yes, absolutely there’s a d*mned lot of persecution complex mixed up with an awful lot of misogyny.
Because who gets accused of witchcraft historically in Western culture, and especially of that being a problem thing? Yeahhh, that’s deeply gendered.
Especially when it comes to this usage of the word witch hunt.
Flipping the Script in Disturbingly Territorial Ways
So to have this flipped around in gender dynamics?
Well, that’s where it gets both disturbing and academically/linguistically interesting.
See, as I’ve discussed before, part of what Stanley’s identified as integral to fascistic rhetoric is the idea of the call back to a nostalgia for a mythical past that never actually happened.
So yeah, particularly in Western cultures, this phrase “witch hunt” is on the whole VERY past-oriented. It’s a historical term. And in this country, it is largely used as a devil term, as in, something really extreme and unjust to be fought at all costs.
Ah, the Misogyny!
And it occurred to me that of course it fits that fascistic male politicians would use this term. After all, fascistic rhetoric and policies tend to also be both deeply misogynistic and territorial.
So this term seems to me in part to be part of an attempt for rich and powerful white males to literally take back the ground of innocence and woundedness from a vulnerable and marginalized group—in this case, women.
These deeply misogynistic men naturally can’t stand that women had the moral high ground in retrospect regarding the witch trials.
SO MUCH ZERO-SUM VIEW OF THE WORLD!
This fits in perfectly in the attempts we’re seeing to revise the way history and other truthful versions of reality is being taught in schools, by the way. It’s just a different twist on that same attempt to take over the territory they want to see others as trying to take from them.
So yeah, witch hunt is a deeply territorial phrase to use in this way. And most people would at least dimly perceive these aspects, but maybe not be able to name them in that way.
The other thing that occurred to me, though, is that the use of this phrase, in its misogynistic overtones, is also part of that mythical callback to that imagined past meant to regain and gain more power for an already favored group.
Imagined Callbacks Really Trying to Create a Different Future
See, it’s an imagined callback to the past that like all fascistic rhetoric is really meant to bring that imagined past into the present and future.
In short, what I’m seeing is that the term is both claiming persecution and inciting that future-oriented mythical nostalgia for these kinds of witch hunts.
See, in fascistic visions, it is the Other who is to blame for all problems. From these white men defending themselves and others from being held accountable for the January 6 insurrection and the attendant Big Lie, it is made clear that witch hunts are only a problem when other people do them.
Ah, Yes, Making Room for Witch Hunts—So THEY Can Enact Them
Which is how it’s a form of negative projection of what these politicians are actually trying to gain power to do.
These people don’t have a problem with witch hunts in the Western devil term sense.
They just want to be doing them themselves.
You know, like the mythical witch hunters of old that persecuted people without good cause. (Definitely not the nice modern remarkably human and helpful ones as depicted in Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens! Those are fun and lovely.)
Trying to Create an Extremely Unhealthy Future
So yeah, this term seems to be, in this usage about the Big Lie specifically, an attempt to take over historical, present, and future territory from groups of people seeking equality and equity in the present. It’s also attempting to call back their people to think nostalgically about witch hunts and persecuting those people who are seeking equality and equity in the present and future.
Broadening That Societal Window of Tolerance to Move Us Even Further Right
And yeah, like all other fascistic rhetoric, the attempt is to gradually make more room in society for these attempts to happen moving forward—to shift society’s window of tolerance further in a more fascistic direction. To try to gain more and more power in society and have that be considered a normal thing to be doing.
As Long As You Reverse It, It’s Fine???? Gotcha (Sigh)
In short, the idea is with every use of this term to further and further normalize the idea that Democrats are unjust persecutors and need to be held accountable for that.
And because fascistic rhetoric is remarkably good with shorthand, it’s also suggesting that to do that would in turn actually be a witch hunt.
Because witch hunts are fine to fascists. As long as they do them.
It’s justified when people are trying to take over the mythical territory they think they should own—in short, that the entire territory should be theirs and only theirs to use and abuse as they will.
Such A Toxic World That Is Being Attempted!
Ugh ugh ugh. So much cringe, blench, shudder and recoil at that vision of the world and living in it.
Sorry if that made it as clear to you as it just did for me.
Hopefully, like it did for me, that vision can rev up your desire to keep fighting that vision. I have hope that these criminal proceedings may move on in positive directions, but we’ll see.
Important to Keep Doing What We Can
In the meantime, any way we can keep fighting the fascistic creep of trying to normalize this stuff for us in the US, and do what we can to keep organizing to fight wherever we are, the better chances we have to fight this coordinated attempt to take things over down the road.
After all, even if the former president is held accountable, others are trying to pick up the baton on all sorts of levels.
There is much work to do. May we all keep working to assertively do the work as much as we can. And if we are tired, may we rest rather than quit.
A Final Charge
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