A hairdo sustained by a maniac stands behind a glowing lectern. The strands cling to his skull like a cloud to a mountain. Below him spreads a brushed velveteen floor, its royal blue studded with white five-pointed stars. He stands on a stage that represents only a miniscule fraction of this vast arena. As stipulated by mutual agreement in advance, the temperature is sitting squarely between 63 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. $8m has been spent to organise this sparring match but it is appropriate that the venue has been most recently used for a rodeo demonstration. Behind the hair you can make out a hoarding – white text on blue background. It is the text of the Declaration of Independence in Matlack’s long hand but the words seem blurred, pixelated even. An audience sits engrossed in the stands; the jury watches at home. A curious but weary compere is again addressing this man directly, politely swatting away interruption. The Las Vegas wattage pounds the stage. The hairdo has just been asked a question about his insistence that this election is being rigged.
Salem should be a fairly unremarkable town on Massachusetts Bay: one more stitch in the liberal fabric of that state. As I drove in last week, the town did, at first, appear to be without special interest. There are the New England staples; a high street of Colonial red-stone with white trim, where idle insurance firms nuzzle savings banks. There is even a Dunkin’ Donuts as you swerve in from Peabody – the next town over. Salem is a sleepy seaport of around 42,000 souls. But as you move further into it you notice a theme. The police cars are all branded with witch logos, most shops sell tarot readings and you pass a campus known as the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School. This is the site of the witch trials, which have become the industry of the city. Here they struck oil with an early trauma of the American experiment. Ghost tours are available most places, mentions of the trials are everywhere, and witchcraft, in its modern, hippy sense, pervades the approach the locals seem to have to outerwear. It is as if the entire town is designed to tell the American story of hysteria.
The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in between February 1692 and May 1693. These trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. The behaviour of those few members of the settlement was deemed to be controlled by outside malignant forces. The devil’s work was seen in the quotidian, and fear of him made murderers of this community. Testimony from the nether world was permitted in a court of law – so-called ‘spectral evidence’ – and the ‘post-fact’ nature of proceedings should be familiar to anyone who consumes news today. The trials were only brought to a close when the Governor of Massachusetts’s wife was accused, at which point Governor Phips apparently saw the error of allowing the madness to run unchecked.
These events are of undeniable cultural importance in the United States; a shameful misstep in manifest destiny with which many will be most familiar from Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. The trials are viewed as an instructive polyp of irrationality that mars the American creation myth. However, in the world of the Salem trials, the vision of the world as corruptible by malevolent and uncontrollable forces was endorsed by supreme authority figures – the Puritan minster Cotton Mather stoked the frenzy. So how irrational is it to follow the lead of your elites?
Donald Trump has used the same apocalyptic palette that the accusers in Salem found so effective. There is power in dark myths. Indeed, Mr Trump got his political start by suggesting that President Obama was born in Kenya. Conspiracy theory is the easiest snakeoil to sell, since any contrary argument is seen as exactly the tactics that would be used to conceal the real truth; ‘that’s what they want you to think’. Like Cotton Mather, Trump is the only member of the elite who appreciates that there is a sinister universe beyond our vision, a shadowy network who run things. For Salem it was the devil, for Trump it’s Clinton and her Wall Street donors. Unseen forces control the American body politic, decent white-picket-fencers are powerless before this sketchy cabal. Bad hombres are at every turn and only a purge will set us right: ban Muslims, build a wall, rise up – because this election is rigged.
It took Governor Phips to end the madness of Salem, we will know if the American people will perform a similar function on November 8th. The mood here is uncertain. The hairdo grips hard as he puckers his entire face. The questioner puts the following to him: “But, sir, there is a tradition in this country – in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and that no matter how hard-fought a campaign is, that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner – not saying that you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and that the country comes together, in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” Trump now interrupts even himself: “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?”