“Salem And Trump: The Power Of Fear In 1692 And 2016” by Garn Press Author David Joseph Kolb

By David Joseph Kolb

The political use of fear, against which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt properly warned Americans in the face of the Great Depression and the looming menace of world fascism, is nothing new.

In fact, it’s a common blood-red thread running throughout American history, from our “first century” – the 1600s – to this latest year.

Weaponized fear tactics have been used to hang women in the 1600s, accelerate the slaughter and disenfranchisement of Native Americans in the 1700s, provoke a Civil War in the 1800s, demonize liberalism in the 1900s and, finally and perhaps with the most dire consequences of all to follow, drive facts-confused presidential voters into the arms of a demagogue in 2016.

The first and most memorable of these assaults on the anxieties of an innocent population was the notorious Salem “witchcraft” hysteria of 1692. This fraud was in fact instigated by a deliberate fear campaign that stampeded the fertile imaginations of New Englanders into a frenzy of false accusations and, ultimately, murder. 

Roosevelt, an accomplished politician himself, saw first-hand the Nazi and Stalinist mastery of propaganda used to bend the public will to its bidding.

The president understood that inciting fear and wielding it as a political weapon is designed to overwhelm common sense and stampede public opinion.

To his eternal credit, Roosevelt called “freedom from fear” one of the four basic human rights worth fighting for.


Provoking fear in the unreasoning mind is a powerful drug but one that wears off when the spell is broken. Lamentably, however, the damage done in its name remains a dark blot on the collective memories of the survivors.

How else to account for the ongoing popularity in the public imagination of the witch mania of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts and throughout New England?  For more than three centuries the outrages committed in Salem have exerted an unholy fascination on American culture out of all proportion to its fatal impact on the victims of that particular crime.

Certainly, the lives of those 20 innocents – for none was guilty of what they were accused – mattered.  But is it only that gross miscarriage of justice that holds our interest all these years later? 

You could put 1,000 Native American lives, snuffed out by murderers who were never held to account before the bar of justice, next to each of those strangled New Englanders and still not be square with the true count of loss, not even close.

And if one could unbury 10 times that number of black men, women and children, worked to death in slave days, or crushed out of all memory by the grinding brutality of racism in this seemingly endless post-Civil War era, there would be all too many dead still missing from the equation, not to mention human memory.

So if it is not about the numbers, what is it about the witch hunts that so supremely still commands our attention, almost to the exclusion of the other fear-driven campaigns of the past?

The answer lies in the terrifying ease with which fear manipulated a gullible public to acquiesce to crimes against law and reason that it would never countenance otherwise.

In Salem-era New England, the power of fear was magnified to such an extent that it drove a community of like-minded co-religionists into a condition of temporary insanity.

Puritans in that summer of 1692 under the thrall of the descriptive powers of the supreme witch-hunter of his time, the Rev. Cotton Mather, were absolutely convinced that a plot to destroy them was afoot in their colony and that Devil’s hand – literally, Devil himself – was conniving to murder them and enslave their souls.

In order to accomplish this, went the story Mather and his fellow pastors spread, Devil needed willing accomplices within the communities he sought to destroy. The question that puzzled and worried so many that summer was who among their number would aid such a blasted conspiracy?

The introduction of unreliable evidence accepted as fact, the willingness of learned and respected peers to participate in the mad hunt, the absence of credible media, and the limited education of a public unwilling to question authority, all combined to provide the fuel necessary for the witch-hunt.

Once the flame caught, the mania to uncover these unholy covens was an idea that spread throughout the northern colonies like a plague, resulting in victims caught up in the net of suspicion and then convicted based upon evidence so flimsy that, when examined by the lights of a more reasoning moment in time, would appear ludicrous were the end results not so tragic.


Today, with Salem now centuries removed, a nervous world quells at the ascension of one Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States.

It is only fair to state that fear among many of his own fellow citizens was their most prevalent driving emotion to “vote Trump.”

The idea that a greedy, paranoid, immoral serial liar and sexual predator would be taking charge of the machinery of government of the most powerful nation on earth, a concept both preposterous and awe-inspiring to many, was ignored by Trump voters who saw him only as their Great Protector from their many fears.

It’s a disconnect not so odd when viewed in the light of history that tells us when the power of fear-mongering waxes full, common sense and reason wane – and make no doubt about it, the power of fear helped elevate Trump to this singular place of honor.

Long before Citizen Trump became President-Elect Trump, the path had been well-prepared for the future resident of the White House. For decades, a virtual army of well-funded, right-wing propagandists has been selling the lie that the Democratic Party and especially its liberal and progressive core are the enemies of America.  Since there has been little concerted pushback or counter to this onslaught, almost half the nation’s voters take the “Democrats are the enemy” lie as gospel.

An entire news network, Fox, has been devoted to pushing Trump-like principles and ideas -– long before Trump was even a gleam in voters’ eyes.  And one can travel the length and breadth of the United States and never be more than a twitch of the radio dial away from the angry voices of far-right screamers warning of this or that Democratic, liberal plot, whatever that might be at any given moment.

Ironically, these purveyors of fear, pitting American against American, are themselves funded largely by the power of fear. Commercials promising relief from crime, bankruptcy and impotency help pay the freight for these programs. Meanwhile, the Democratic investment in public education is under attack, as is the teaching profession itself, since those who help open young minds to critical thinking, and prod them to ask questions and consult the history books of their local libraries are also viewed as suspects in the grand conspiracy.

The newspaper-reading public, what remains of it now, has been almost as ill served.

Corporate acquisition of independent papers has led to the dominance of newspaper chains and the rise of a media oligarchy that has put many daily publications into the same boat – a leaking one. 

Poor decisions and ignorance about the Internet during the 1990s weakened newspaper revenues, leading to cutbacks in content, declining readership and ultimately the kicking of tens of thousands of trained journalists to the curb in search of new employment. 

The once-numerous editorial pages of American newspapers, representing the snarling of those precious Fourth Estate watchdogs so beloved by the Founding Fathers, have largely been silenced for fear of angering the dwindling advertising base.

Book-reading, too, is taking the hit. Bookstores are endangered, as are small publishers. Americans increasingly get their ideas and even news from social media, a medium ripe for assault by “fake news” outlets, and hence about as informative as the gossip of old Salem.

Trump was able to exploit this national decline in the power of reason through his own use of the power of fear, revving up suppressed hatred and native prejudices, long in existence, against Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, feminists and intellectuals. 

His promises of new greatness and wealth for the nation, backed up by nothing but empty rhetoric, went down easily among supporters predisposed to believe whatever they were told, and ineffective opposition arguments only cemented such support.


When fear is dominant, injustice reigns.

We know this because history cries to us that this is the result when reason fails, when ignorance prevails over education and, most disturbingly, when the old truths are ridiculed and laid aside.

Why does the power of fear triumph when the lessons of history warn us to beware?

It is because it is essential human nature to cling to the idea that protection from the demons without is possible only within the thrall of the loudest voices among us.

Screaming, shouting, strutting dictators who promise everything have long been the stuff of derision and scorn among Americans who once had everything, and who, comparatively, wanted for nothing.

The attack on America of 9/11 in 2001, coming so soon after one of the most controversial elections and Supreme Court rulings in history seemed to change all that.  Suddenly, a “mandate” could be declared when there was none, drawn up in order “to protect us.”

Fear won. The Bush Administration of that era changed not only our politics, but the way in which America saw itself, no longer independent, uncowed, optimistic — but frightened, fearful and anxious.  Under that administration, the national economy almost crashed due to mismanagement and greed, bringing misery to millions and wounds that have remained unhealed.

That rescue was possible was because enlightenment resurfaced briefly – as it sometimes does — in our body politic, like Camelot of Arthur’s day.

But Arthur could not prevail forever.

And after Nov. 8, 2016, the long eclipse of reason has resumed.

The end result can only be, as history has warned us when citizens desire answers and reassurance from those who mean them harm, that the old, familiar demons of our past will once more be set free to ravage the land.

It remains the duty of the rest of us to carry the lamplight of reason and truth forward into the new darkness at whatever cost, and to protect it for those who come after.

For once that light is extinguished, is there any guarantee it will ever be relit?


About David Joseph Kolb

David Joseph Kolb is a journalist and author. Born in New York City, he has lived mostly in the Midwest, serving as editorial page editor, city hall reporter and police reporter for newspapers there for more than a quarter-century. Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century is a mystery-in-the-archives thriller written with great charm and cinematic flair. David was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Devil Knows and the novel was a finalist in the USA Best Book Awards in the Historical Fiction category.

Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century

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Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-23-0
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-22-3
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-24-7

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Book Description

In the dead of night at the height of the 1692 Salem mania, a dying smallpox victim collapses in prison while visiting a witch condemned to hang – Mary Bradbury, the great ancestor of famed writer Ray Bradbury.

A delirious old man, Hopestill Foster, is brought before the Rev. Cotton Mather, the infamous witch-hunter and the most powerful man in ancient Boston, for a very private interrogation. Mather is desperate for answers about Foster’s past because he knows it ties into his own. Better had he not asked. Over the course of the prisoner telling his story to the cleric, 60 years of a terrible history unfolds, at the heart of which is a monstrous secret about Mather’s family that must not be allowed to escape the room where Foster is being held.

Hopestill Foster, the novel’s protagonist, a man inured to a lifetime of suffering and one to whom a great wrong was done by him and to him in his youth, ultimately has to decide. Pass on, leaving the wreckage of his life behind, or accept a final deadly mission to make things right. For Hopestill Foster, there is only one choice.

David Joseph Kolb’s Devil Knows: A Tale of Murder and Madness in America’s First Century, a thrilling historical adventure in the grand storytelling tradition ofNorthwest Passage and Drums Along the Mohawk, breaks new literary ground about the very first American century – a nearly forgotten post-Pilgrim past when intolerance, misogyny and ignorance culminated in horrifying outrages against ordinary people.

Yet it rediscovers, too, that hope was never lost, and that heroes were always among us.


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