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  • David Mattson

Witches, Hillary Hatred and Communities of Hysteria

Justified Intolerance?

I recently came across a publication by the Pew Research Center reporting on how those supporting Trump and Clinton see each other. Of all categories on either side, college-educated and white-female Clinton-supporters were most likely to “have trouble respecting” those who supported the others’ presidential candidate—on the order of 66-68%. I unabashedly include myself in this group.

I am profoundly distressed by the fact that there are multitudes planning to vote for Trump. Which confronts me with a cognitive-emotional conundrum. On the one hand, my life-long normative emphasis has been on finding compassion and understanding for those who are different. But, on the other hand, I fervently believe that not all attitudes and behaviors are virtuous and that some, in fact, are the genesis of great evil.

Consider the Communist Cadres who perpetrated Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution; or the functionaries who implemented Stalin’s cleansing of the Kulaks; or the sadists who attempted to fulfill Hitler’s Final Solution; or the Hutu thugs who macheted tens-of-thousands of Tutsis. Or consider the routine extrajudicial lynchings spawned by racism in the South; or the deprivations experienced by women due to widespread paternalism in the Muslim world. Ad nauseam. I consider all of these phenomena to be grotesque, and the perpetrators to be benighted and/or criminal.

Trumpian Profiles and Pathologies

This is not to say that those who plan to vote for Trump have expressed their attitudes in wanton mass criminal behavior—yet. And that is the big proviso. Not only is the racist, misogynist, and otherwise bigoted tendencies of most Trump supporters well documented, so is the embrace of violence and a disturbing disregard for democratic institutions. More to the point, these attitudes are a recipe for brutality and criminality when sanctified by a national political movement and, worse yet, resourced and inflamed by politically powerful demagogues. None of this is made any more palatable for me by someone waving around a pocket-sized version of the Constitution.

Not by coincidence, the demographic profile of Trump-supporters is stark: almost wholly white, and disproportionately aged, male, and poorly educated. For a while, political pundits were fond of asserting that these mostly ill-educated white guys and their wives were drawn to a demagogue such as Trump because they had been left behind and marginalized economically. But the facts don’t square with this claim. On average, Trump-supporters are no more dispossessed, impoverished or displaced than the average—if that. And, if marginalization or disadvantage were indeed a central factor, then you would expect Africa-Americans and Hispanics to have been squarely in Trump’s camp. But they weren’t.

To my eye, the rump of an explanation for the psycho-social-cultural engine behind the warped views of most Trump supporters can be found in their well-documented unifying beliefs and obsessions. For one, they are pathologically fearful of the alien other when defined as anyone Muslim and/or non-Caucasian—whether citizen or non-citizen. Hence the paranoid obsession with illegal immigrants, building walls, ISIS, firearms, national defense, and crime, largely rooted in gross exaggeration and evidence-free assertion. For another, they tend to obsessively hate Hillary Clinton, again, for voiced reasons that are largely bizarre. The Economist recently ran an article in which a bemused writer tried to explain the hatred in light of Clinton’s history, personality, and professional performance only to conclude that the passion was likely rooted, not in fact, but in a subculture of sexism and misogyny. Yes, we are talking about people who support a candidate who boasts of sexual assault, spouts crassly sexist comments, and seems to view women primarily as trophies. This is to say, the conclusion reached by the Economist is in the category of the obvious, along with the extent to which racism and existential terror play a role.

And Now for Something Completely Different?

But I would argue that there is another critical ingredient, which brings me to the European Witch Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. You remember, the decades-long period during which thousands of uppity older (62%) women (72%) were tortured and killed after being accused of being possessed, casting spells, bewitching innocents, consorting with the Devil, flying around, and dancing naked at Satanic Sabbaths? Now, if you actually believe such things are possible (allowing for the naked dancing), and that torture is a legitimate means of obtaining evidence, then you probably don’t need to read any further, but, if not, please continue.

Over a decade ago I read an essay by Hugh Trevor-Roper (one of Britain’s esteemed historians) about the European Witch Craze in a collection entitled The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. That seminal essay sparked for me an intense desire to understand what in Hell’s name drove this Craze and, more troublesome, recruited the support of so many hefty Protestant intellectuals of that time. And Craze it was, in the category of what some call a mass hysteria. Clearly it was not evidence-based; clearly it resulted in widespread and unjustified cruelty and suffering; and it was clearly bounded geographically and temporally. Despite what you may have read, the white-hot center of the Craze was not in England or Massachusetts, but in central Europe, in what was then a contested Holy Roman Empire, largely between 1550 and 1710.

The Craze was driven by multiple factors. It overlapped almost perfectly with the deepfreeze of the Little Ice Age (1470-1740), a period of frequent famine, steadily increasing grain prices, and, not coincidently, stunted human stature. Witch persecutions also coincided in both time and space with the upheavals and mass slaughter wrought by the many wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This devastation lasted over eighty years, from 1562 to 1648, concentrated in the many Bishoprics, Electorates, and other minor principalities comprising the Holy Roman Empire and adjacent Spanish-occupied Netherlands. The cumulative effects included depopulation of extensive areas coinciding almost exactly with the geographic concentration of major witch persecutions and panics. In other words, the Witch Craze was unambiguously rooted in existential terror arising from a profound and widespread somatic crisis.

Why Burn Uppity Older Women?

But why older uppity women? This is where the answers become complicated and, for that reason, all the more interesting—and perhaps relevant to understanding Hillary Hatred.

The focus of persecutions on a narrow demographic comprised of women arose from at least four intersecting and mutually reinforcing phenomena. The first of these is what I call the Demon Market. The Witch Craze was preceded by a long period of particularly vicious pogroms targeting Jews that lasted from roughly 1425 to 1625—hard on the heels of the devastating first outbreaks of the bubonic plague, lasting through onset of the Little Ice Age. The net result of this mass displacement of anti-Semitic-shaped anxiety was the exhaustion of a traditional source of “demons.” Most Jews were either expelled or killed. So, without intending to sound flip, demand remained high at a time of scarcity. The time was ripe for market innovation.

Which brings up a category of elites that I call Terror Entrepreneurs. These are influential people who inflame and focus public terror and anxiety to serve political or personal pathological purposes—the kind of people who find numerous ripe opportunities during times of social and cultural upheaval. And there were numerous Terror Entrepreneurs at work during the Witch Craze comprised principally of Prince-Bishops, Electors, and Witch Finders who found ample scope for their sadistic and often cynical pursuits in petty principalities of central Europe.

But there were several additional ingredients needed to focus the Demon Market and Terror Entrepreneurs on uppity older women. The first of these was Doctrinal Priming—the promulgation of a codified worldview that provides a rationale (in this case) for singling out a certain demographic for persecution. During the 1500s and 1600s demonization was aided by a preexisting fungible doctrine of torture institutionalized during the Catholic Church’s long-standing Inquisition. And Malleus Maleficarum, a chart-busting best-seller, admirably served the purpose of demonizing female witches as cause for persecution during a time of widespread anxieties about procreation. Not surprisingly, one sub-population targeted during the Witch Craze was mid-wives, laying-in maids, and naturopaths, who tended to be—you guessed it—older, uppity, and comparatively empowered women.

Malleus Maleficarum was authored by a flaming misogynist named Heinrich Kramer who comprehensively and systematically codified the purported behaviors and motivations of witches—at the same time indulging in his purulent fantasies. This doctrinal treatise built on the legitimacy imparted by first-ever recognition in 1398 of witchcraft by the University of Paris and Catholic Church—one of several official moves designed to deflect public attention from the fact that there were two Popes at the time residing in two capitals (Rome and Avignon) who had each excommunicated all of the others’ followers. Everybody was going to Hell, and people were dying in droves; even before the mass destabilization of peoples’ post-mortem expectations in 1517 by Martin Luther’s cataclysmic Reformation.

All of this was unfolding during a time of massive economic change that further implicated women. Wealth was becoming increasingly based on outright ownership of land and in town-based trades, as opposed to grants of temporary tenure by the nobility and appropriation of commodity-based rents. This relocation and concentration of wealth gave men additional incentives to usurp inheritances that had previously often been matrilineal and to dominate the wealth-generating opportunities of manufacture. Economic change synergized with all of the other forces afoot to strengthen anti-female prejudice and dependency, and further diminish the status of women. The upshot was a dearth of women in positions of influence to curb the Terror Entrepreneurs and the hysterias they fueled.

Fast Forward

Fast forward 300 years through the emergence of modern democracy, civil rights, feminism, and globalization of commerce, communications, and immigration—through changes that have constantly challenged those who are jealous of their prerogatives and fearful of exposure to alien concepts and people. Up to the present: Trump, Hillary hatred, and paranoid fears of disease-carrying Muslim terrorists, job-stealing illegal Hispanic immigrants, and ever-threatening young African-American men.

The Demon Market is clearly still flourishing, and there is no shortage of Terror Entrepreneurs and their fulminators of doctrine to stock the shelves with prospective demons: Muslims, Blacks, atheists, the U.N., illegal immigrants of whatever non-Caucasian stripe; even uppity women. All are prime for displacement of unresolved existential terror and anxiety by those who see their privileged place in America and the World slipping away. And all of this set against the social and cultural upheavals attending the liberation of historically down-trodden and disadvantaged nations, women, non-whites, gays, even children. The connections to the Early Modern Witch Craze are pretty obvious.

Hillary Hatred

But what about the sheer hysteria among some Trump-supporters and the vitriol aimed specifically at Hillary Clinton? Hillary, the older empowered woman who some Alt-Right commentators have claimed—in loud shrill voices—is possessed by a demon? Yes, seriously.

I suspect that if credence in witches and witchcraft were more widespread among those outside the fundamentalist Christian community, Hillary literally would be called a witch, and the cries would not just be for locking her up, but for burning her at the stake. The misogynist Witch Craze is alive and well in a necessarily more nuanced modern form.

This specific hysteria did not arise by chance. It was obviously shaped by the Demon Market. But more importantly, it has been nurtured for a long time—at least two decades—by some well-placed Terror Entrepreneurs and their doctrinal assistants. Newt Gingrich planted the seeds, which rapidly grew into the Tea Party movement, spawning ever-more rabid ideologues (think Ann Coulter) and related opportunists (think Rudy Giuliani). The constant theme has been paranoia focused on the alien other and opposition to empowerment of the historically disadvantaged—often under a comforting guise of traditional conservative rhetoric. Trump is clearly a culmination of all this. His veil of traditional social and fiscal conservatism is flimsy, at best, and the morally-bankrupt motivations of his core supporters are, at this point, transparent.

Finally, Hillary-focused hysteria probably couldn’t have flourished outside of the echo-chamber allowed by modern social media. Closed communities always work best for promulgating crazes, especially if the inoculum of a toxic doctrine is present and available for cultivation by Terror Entrepreneurs (think Rush Limbaugh). Absent the isolation intrinsic to the Late Medieval and Early Modern world, the self-referencing domains of Twitter, Facebook, and chat rooms provide an adequate modern-day approximation.

Justified Intolerance

Understand the motivations and worldviews of those supporting Trump? Absolutely. Condone them? Absolutely not. Even if those voting for Trump deviate from the profile of a core supporter, their vote will necessarily have been spawned by willful ignorance and disregard for consequences. In my moral universe there is no excuse for supporting a foul-mouthed, misogynist, racist demagogue, spurred by megalomania, unchecked by any apparent moral compass or sense of public service, and whose public statements were ascribed 70% “mostly false,” “false”, or “pants on fire” untruths by Dare I call this man a liar? Yes, I’m talking about Donald Trump. And this in contrast to Hillary Clinton whose untruths amount to a comparatively virtuous 26% of her purported factual statements and who has been widely described by those professionally associated with her as hard-working and driven by an ardent sense of public service. I can hardly believe we are facing a contest. But, then, there is the Hillary Craze…

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