The Season of the Witch: Impeachment, Biden, and the Un-Enlightened GOP
Republicans’ talk of impeaching Biden is a lesson in early American power politics and a sign of our deepening descent into un-Enlightenment
Republican calls for an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden have finally found support from Speaker Kevin McCarthy. In his announcement, McCarthy cited questions of “abuse of power, obstruction, and corruption,” though no evidence of such crimes has been forthcoming as of yet.
Here at Arc Digital, Nicholas Grossman recently offered one of the clearest and most astute analyses of how the American right thinks about political power today.
The idea that leftists executed a hostile takeover of all major institutions and now use them to persecute conservatives is a foundational truism for the new right.
As Grossman notes, the problem is that this is simply untrue, and he offers a detailed take on why this theory of power is insane.
The right’s view of power is in fact completely unmoored from the facts of our political reality. And yet it is totally in line with a kind of paranoid and magical thinking not uncommon across the centuries of American life. In this way, it actually aligns with one of Donald Trump’s favorite strawman accusations: the witch hunt.
The talk of impeaching Biden fits with such a view that’s at once mystical and power-grabbing. It is both about a very real expression of the fantastical understanding of who wields power and a self-righteous endeavor in power politics. It’s both a transparent attempt to scupper Joe Biden’s presidency in advance of a re-election fight and an expression of the very real rage and fear on the MAGA right.
In linking this, I found inspiring Malcolm Gaskill’s remarkable history of witch hunts in colonial New England, The Ruin of All Witches. These events and the beliefs that supported them were neither explosions of pre-modern hysteria nor purely cynical acts of scapegoating but rather complex interactions of religious belief, local resentments, and political insecurity. As Gaskill puts it,
Puritan idealists who had predicted that charity between neighbors, which was waning in England, would be revived in America were proved wrong. Local quarrels were to an extent contained by litigation and arbitration but could also burst into violent rage. Passions were thought to emanate from without and within, volatile souls inflamed by heavenly or demonic forces. And at the crossroads of the human and the cosmic, at the core of local society, lurked the mundane evil of the witch.
Witchcraft was not some wild superstition but a serious expression of disorder embedded in politics, religion and law. Witches were believed to invert every cherished ideal, from obeying one’s superiors to familial love. They were traitors and murderers, bad subjects and neighbors, delighting in spite and mayhem. Like other horror crimes, such as sodomy and infanticide, witchcraft represented the polar opposite of goodness and godliness, especially when, as in the mid-seventeenth century, such virtues felt gravely threatened.
Historical analogy can be overwrought, and it’s popular to compare our current moment to this or that crisis in the past. But I find Gaskill’s description here resonant, though I’m not suggesting it’s more than a rather poetic comparison.
Much of the madness sweeping the new right has a flavor of both the religious and, at times, the not-quite-modern, even as much of it is in line with 20th and 21st century currents of authoritarianism and illiberalism. Biden and the left are seen to be destroying family values, wrecking household finances, and scheming to hoard power and wealth for themselves. It’s fairly standard far-right conspiracism in many ways, but I am applying Gaskill’s history as a lens through which to think about this moment and, more specifically, about the hunting of Joe Biden by the GOP.
Joe Biden and the Ruination of America
Republicans have presented a portrait of America under Biden that is rife with hardship, corruption, and a diffuse wickedness that preys on children and encourages all manner of deviance. We can start with the accusations of one of the party’s chief impeachment cheerleaders: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Earlier this month, Greene launched a long thread on X defending her demands to investigate and impeach Biden. In it she described an America ravaged by economic pain and put the blame squarely on the president. In her world, senior Americans “…shed tears daily over the America they knew that is no longer while they scrap together pennies to buy food that has doubled and tripled in cost and medicines they can’t afford…”
She also accused the administration of corrupting the minds of America’s youth to believe “most evil disgusting lie that they can change their gender from what God created them to be.” In a March interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, Greene accused Biden in fairly explicit terms, “Even Joe Biden the President himself supports children being sexualized and having transgender surgeries. Sexualizing children is what pedophiles do to children.”
Hunter Biden also features heavily in the calls for investigating and impeaching his father, both through unproven allegations of cronyism and more feverish suggestions of Biden family plots and schemes. Matt Gaetz, who entered Hunter’s laptop into the congressional record last year, bluntly asked FBI Director Wray whether or not he was protecting the president’s family during a House Judiciary Committee hearing this summer. In the wake of McCarthy’s announcement, Greene has expressed excitement at the prospect of uncovering “the crimes of the Biden family…”
Yet even as McCarthy has moved forward with an inquiry, Gaetz remains unsatisfied with the speed of events. He took to the floor to threaten McCarthy’s speakership and to complain that “Here we are eight months later, and we haven’t even sent the first subpoena to Hunter Biden…”
But other right-wing activists have been even more forceful on the issue of Hunter Biden than Gaetz and Greene. At a stop on the ReWaken America Tour, which includes headliners like Mike Flynn and Donald Trump, Jr., Stew Peters called for Hunter’s execution and said that Anthony Fauci should “hang from a length of thick rope until he is dead.” True to form, Donald Trump, Jr. used his time to warn of the wider dangers posed by a crazed left.
Flynn’s presence on the tour is part and parcel of his total transformation into a semi-mystical, deeply conspiratorial advocate of Trumpism. I have written in detail about Flynn’s turn to conspiracy and populist animus and its echoes in American history before here at Arc Digital. That Flynn’s new form seems to have come at least in part as a result of his firing from the DIA also echoes somewhat the way in which Gaskill details the roles of ambition and bitter rivalries in the witch crazes of New England.
So a mixture of mystical belief, paranoid fear, thwarted ambition, and naked power politics sit at the intersection of the Biden impeachment fight. In truth, this is a microcosm of much of the current American right. Corruption—financial and political, spiritual and bodily—stalks good Americans. It emanates, seen and unseen, from those who have come to bring our misfortune.
But impeachments and impeachment inquiries are still formal processes, typically subject to serious scrutiny. Shouldn’t that give us some hope? Unfortunately, such thinking offers little relief at the moment.
Proof? That’s What Inquiries Are For
Nancy Mace went on television this week to defend the idea of launching an impeachment inquiry against President Biden. In her interview, Kaitlan Collins asked Mace whether there was, in fact, sufficient proof of wrongdoing to justify an inquiry. Inquiries are, after all, typically a tool to be used when there is already evidence that an impeachment could be necessary. They are supposed to be a last step of fact finding and due process before plunging into a process as serious as putting a president on trial. That’s why Mace’s reply was so remarkable. She told Collins, “That's what the inquiry is for, to get more evidence.”
This statement perverts both the formal purpose of impeachment inquiries and the basic facts of the situation. But it is not so bizarre when viewed in the context of how the GOP now regularly approaches questions of truth, due process, and reasoned inquiry. It’s an un-Enlightenment attitude—I use “un” here to sidestep pre- or post- terminology—that subjugates these modern totems to a more cosmically ordered worldview. Gaskill lays out how the witch craze period in colonial America marked a transitional period into the Enlightenment and in many ways exposed the hazards of this journey:
Should truth depend more on proof than precept, on seeing rather than believing? Such questions, raised in situations where life and death hung in the balance, reveal stirrings of a shift from an enchanted world toward a world of enlightenment, in which demons and specters vanished in the bright light of reason. And witches and heretics, for heresy is another thread of this story, no longer threaten the temporal dominion of god, the integrity of the state, or the common peace.
Greene’s aforementioned impeachment screed began with this sentiment:
We have the evidence they have desperately been trying to hide to just ask the question. Should we inquire? Should we just take a look? Dare we investigate further? The answer is YES but the White House is outraged at my audacity to demand it.
Gaetz, as I have noted, still believes things are moving all too slowly. None of the hardliners appear to be satisfied with anything less than the rooting out of Biden and all the rot they imagine to be associated with his time in office. Evidence, strictly speaking, is not what’s most important here. This is not the way of reason, due process, and modern liberal democratic government.
And it’s a deeply dangerous path we are now treading, one that threatens to further erode trust both in government and our fellows citizens. Much as Donald Trump has been fond of evoking witch hunts whenever confronted with any form of accountability, Speaker McCarthy has given in to those very phantasms.