“In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? And therefore, who may possibly be witness to it?”
—Judge Danforth, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible famously drew inspiration from the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, drawing an unstated but unmistakable parallel between the Wisconsin senator’s anti-Communist inquisition and the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century.
But Miller was too wide-thinking an artist to craft just a piece of agitprop to gin-up opposition to McCarthy and his followers. The Crucible endures because it captures, particularly in its gripping Act Three courtroom scene, in which an authoritarian judge steers the proceedings down the narrow straits of a foregone conclusion, what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” We have, Miller knew, always looked for witches and devils, and those in power have exploited that perceived evil for their own personal gain.
Miller’s play was a cry to expose this centuries-old and pernicious strain in our politics. When the hysterical town closes in, Miller’s persecuted hero John Procter calls out the paranoia’s deep claim on our identity: “We are only what we always were, but naked now.”
One day from the final certification of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, here we are again, what we always were, with manufactured paranoia rising up, this time against the facts of a democratic election.
A disarmingly large coalition of Republicans—Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and 10 more; a cadre of representatives led by Mo Brooks—cheered on loudly by President Trump and quietly but pointedly by Vice President Pence and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is staging its own theatrical crusade against the witchcraft of election fraud, protesting perhaps the most audited, adjudicated and affirmed election in our history.
Will the American people see the manipulative power play of these elected officials for the naked maliciousness that it is?
The malice is not in the danger of overturning the election. These Republicans know they won’t succeed (“We are not naïve,” Cruz and his senate colleagues baldly proclaim in their statement released Saturday).
What marks their “protest” as truly vile is its desire to hack at our democratic structures by casting fiction as fact and replacing evidence and jurisprudence with myth and propaganda.
Trump and his followers say a thing and that makes it so for far too many.
“By any measure,” the senators’ statement asserts, “the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election exceed any in our lifetimes,” and hence the January 6 certification of the election must be delayed, states’ votes called into question. But Trump and his cronies are the ones who’ve fomented these baseless allegations, which have been disproved in multiple recounts and refuted 60 times by state and federal courts. In the Republicans’ eyes, voter fraud, like The Crucible’s witchcraft, is “an invisible crime,” and hence can be conjured out of thin air.
The senators write with hypocritical piety that “tragically” almost 40 percent of Americans “believe ‘the election was rigged.’” They themselves are the authors of this tragedy! Trump stoked a paranoia about a rigged election even before November 3. Unable to believe he was capable of losing, he shouted, like the frightened teenagers out to save their skins in Miller’s play, that he saw Democrats with the devil, stealing votes. He planted the lie that many in his party have amplified and that 4/10 of the country now buys as truth.
Trump will be gone at noon on January 20. So we must call out, now and daily, any Republican seeking to delegitimize the Biden administration. We must tag those who’ve signed their names to this baseless protest as what they are—traitors to our democracy. They cynically pose as standing for constituents who’ve had something stolen from them, when they in fact stir this paranoia to preserve their power.
Hawley, Cruz, Brooks and crew have built an echo chamber, where they cry “Fraud!,” hear “Fraud!” shouted in return and then plead that they’re only following the will of the people, not their own deceptive ploy. There’s no room for outside voices in an echo chamber, no dissenting witnesses admissible.
But the witnesses are surrounding the chamber, and must hammer on it insistently, until it shatters for good. These witnesses are the ones who turned out in record numbers to vote, even in a pandemic; the ones who developed a process to expand voter participation in safe and legal ways; the ones who counted around the clock.
In Miller’s play, those in charge saw threats to their power on all sides. That drives the murderous verdicts that result in the hanging of perceived enemies. In our politics, if the feared loss of power means those who lose an election will wield any lie to keep their status, it will be our democratic process that is dragged to the gallows.
The real story of this election is one of ambitious enfranchisement. More people voted than in any election in history. That’s a fact. The president lost. That’s a fact. There was no invisible crime, only a very visible, just, collective act of civic participation. Until the Republican party can, with a unified voice, hail that as the great victory that it was, it can lay no claim to any profession of belief in law, order or Constitutional principle.
David Bradley is a theater director and arts/communications consultant who has directed and written about the works of Arthur Miller and worked the polls in 2020.Header photo courtesy Mraz Center for Performing Arts / Flickr