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I’m Not Sure How to Tell the President That Witch Hunts Weren’t Led by Witches

Disney's Hocus Pocus

Donald Trump’s campaign store is selling “witch hunt” merchandise that’s so over-the-top it’s hard to believe that someone signed off on this.

One of Trump’s favorite go-tos when his actions are taken into account is to exclaim, often in all-caps on Twitter, “WITCH HUNT!” He did this frequently during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and the refrain has been echoed as the impeachment inquiry gathers heat and, well, quite a lot of damning evidence. It’s not a correct usage of the term, but he’s made it part of his lexicon.

So it isn’t surprising that Trump would seek to capitalize on “witch hunt,” or in this case, on “Stop The Witch Hunt,” and to profit from Congress examining his actions for impeachable offenses. Sure, why not. We have lost the capacity for surprise where he’s concerned. But I’m concerned that Trump, or at least several in his merchandising employ, sincerely believe that a witch hunt is led by … witches.

That’s the takeaway from a newly-released t-shirt and poster in Trump’s campaign store. The design features the trifecta of Trump’s prominent Congressional foils as the focus of the Malleus Maleficarum and the huge-handed President in what appears to be action hero mode. As noted on Twitter by journalist Ryan J. Reilly:

Let’s zoom in for a closer look, shall we?

Trump witch hunt t-shirt

First of all, this is an affront to the camp classic Hocus Pocus, and I hope they receive a strongly worded letter from Disney’s copyright department. This is, in fact, an insult to the very season of Halloween in which we dwell. The crappy caricatures of Representatives Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, and Jerrold Nadler are drawn in the style of the witches played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy, and they’re positioned in the same poses as the poster for the 1993 movie. “Hoaxus Pocus!” crows the item’s description in the Trump shop.

But most troubling—other than that even a cartoon version of this President must be pictured with enormous hands in his official campaign store—is that Schiff, Pelosi, and Nadler are the witches here. Trump, presumably, is being hunted. I’m not sure how to break the news to him and his team that this isn’t how witch hunts work.

In some parts of the world, people are still gruesomely punished over accusations of witchcraft, and such events have been a part of human civilization since ancient times. But most commonly associated with “witch hunt” is the mania that gripped much of Europe for several centuries and resulted in tens of thousands of horrific deaths. (In America, we had a mini-hysteria centered in Salem, if you recall your Crucible.) The great majority of those murdered were women, and to say that these bloodthirsty acts of bigotry and femicide were in the wrong is to put it mildly.

That’s why we call the relentless, senseless persecution of someone or something a witch hunt today. The very phrase has become synonymous with a brutally unfair pursuit and trial (or lack thereof). And it almost always represents an entity with power, or a frenzied mob, coming down arbitrarily and harshly against those accused of violating a cultural norm. I’ve found it offensive from the start that Trump glommed onto a concept associated with so much gendered violence and unjust accusations as a cover for his outlandish behavior.

In politics, we might talk of the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy period. But to apply “witch hunt” as Trump likes to—deploying it as a catch-all for the perfectly legal investigations his own actions sparked—is preposterous, at least in terms of the English language and how we define “witch hunt” in both the dictionary and in history.

If they’re going to butcher what a “witch hunt” means, surely, surely we can at least get them to understand that a witch hunt was not a gallivanting band of Satanic brides chasing down a hapless man. I can’t help but feel this is, at heart, what Trump and his lackeys believe a witch hunt to be. Otherwise, it’s odd to botch this one so badly—unless the objective was simply to equate the Representatives with something scary and female-aligned? Neither option is good.

Everything about this design, shuffled out in time for Halloween, is awful, and yet it comes with a heaping side of irony. Technically the Trump campaign is now sending the message that witches Schiff, Pelosi, and Nadler are being unjustly accused, and that it should stop. The big-handed accuser appears below the trio. If it didn’t repulse me to give $24 to the Trump campaign for this terrible t-shirt, I would buy and keep it forever for posterity.

In summation, Mr. President: in a witch hunt, the one being hunted is the witch. The witch is not hunting. Witches are awesome. Thank you and goodnight.

(via Twitter, image: Disney)

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Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.