How a 15th Century Book on Witchcraft Helps Make Sense of Trump’s Bizarre Baby Execution Story

Hyde Amendment Fetal Tissue Research

Religion Dispatches Sex/Gender/Justice

How a 15th Century Book on Witchcraft Helps Make Sense of Trump’s Bizarre Baby Execution Story

Karen E. Park

When Trump claims that women and their doctors are wrapping, rocking, and then cruelly executing babies, he is engaging in a complex narrative rhetoric designed to both titillate and mobilize those in power against those whom they hate.

At an otherwise typical rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this weekend, Trump deviated from his usual incendiary and demonstrably false talking points in order to outline a grotesque murder fantasy:

The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.

As he spoke in a slightly lilting tone, he gently mimed rocking a baby with one hand, a baby soon to be fiendishly murdered by its mother and her doctor.

This was not the first time Trump has referred to the execution of “wrapped” babies after they are born. On February 12, at his border wall rally in El Paso, Texas, Trump accused governor Ralph Northam of Virginia of plotting to execute babies:

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The governor stated he would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world, and wrap the baby, and make the baby comfortable, then talk to the mother and talk to the father, and then execute the baby.

Later in February he tweeted that “the Democrat position on abortion is now so extreme that they don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth.”

However, his statement in Green Bay differs from the earlier statements which deliberately misconstrue laws in order to blame governmental officials for what could happen to babies. In Green Bay, Trump is telling the story of a crime which he claims has already occurred.

The New York Times, Vox, MSNBC, and other outlets called the story “false,” “inaccurate,” and “misleading,” but Trump isn’t merely “lying” here (something he has done more than 10,000 times since taking office). Instead he’s creating a new and lurid narrative based on hatred. The language of truth and falsehood is misapplied in this case, since Trump’s statement about “beautifully wrapped babies” being killed by their mothers can be neither backed up nor disproven with evidence—it wasn’t intended to be. This story is outside the realm of verifiable claims and instead must be understood as a deliberate act of fantasy and mythmaking about the despised and loathed “other” (in this case, women.)

In the 15th century, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (or Hammer of Witches) was published by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger as a guide for inquisitors and witch hunters. According to the manual, women are far more prone to witchcraft than men because of their carnal and evil natures. The authors explain that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable” and go on to helpfully locate the epicenter of this bottomless lust as the “mouth of the womb.” The power of witches was such that they routinely made men’s penises disappear where they could sometimes later be found in trees and birds nests, as in this passage:

Finally, what shall we think about those witches who somehow take members in large numbers (twenty or thirty) and shut them up together in a birds’ nest or some box, where they move about like living members, eating oats or other feed? This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk.

But common as penis-stealing was, Kramer and Sprenger reserve their greatest opprobrium for those mother-witches who, with the help of their witch-midwives, murder babies after birth.

Chapter VIII of the Malleus Maleficarum, entitled “How Witch Midwives commit most Horrid Crimes when they either Kill Children or Offer them to Devils in most Accursed Wise,” provides anecdotes about women who kill babies simply because they are evil and in service to the Devil. One story about another “beautifully wrapped” baby relates that

… a woman in the diocese of Strasburg confessed that she had killed more children than she could count. And she was caught in this way. She had been called from one town to another to act as midwife to a certain woman, and, having performed her office, was going back home. But as she went out of the town gate, the arm of a newly born child fell out of the cloak she had wrapped around her, in whose folds the arm had been concealed. This was seen by those who were sitting in the gateway, and when she had gone on, they picked up from the ground what they took to be a piece of meat; but when they looked more closely and saw that it was not a piece of meat, but recognized it by its fingers as a child’s arm, they reported it to the magistrates, and it was found that a child had died before baptism, lacking an arm. So the witch was taken and questioned, and confessed the crime, and that she had, as has been said, killed more children than she could count.

Stories such as these are not “lies” to be debunked any more than Trump’s statement in Green Bay is a lie. Sprenger and Kramer’s witches, like Trump’s women and their doctors, don’t actually exist in a factual sense. We aren’t expected to go and find them and stop them from committing these crimes. Instead, Trump’s story, like those in the Malleus Maleficarum, functions as a creative narrative device designed to stoke loathing and fear, and to legitimate punitive, even violent, action.

This kind of myth-making can be recognized in other contexts as well. One day before the Green Bay rally, yet another young male white nationalist opened fire on a congregation of Jews celebrating the last day of Passover. Throughout the middle ages in Europe, and into the modern era, anti-Semitism was stoked and encouraged by the grotesque fantasy of Jewish “blood libel”: fantastic stories about the ritual killing of Christian children and the drinking of their blood in cannibalistic mock-Eucharistic ceremonies.

The first fully developed medieval “blood libel” story is that of William of Norwich, a young boy whose mutilated body was found by the townspeople of Norwich in 1144 and whose murder was attributed to the local Jewish community by a fanatical Dominican monk. Soon though, stories of “blood libel” became divorced from even the most rudimentary burden of proof or narrative complexity. “BloodlLibel” became simply common knowledge; it was “what Jews do,” just as surely as witches steal penises and sacrifice babies to Satan. Just as in Trump’s world, American women wrap newborn babies beautifully, rock them briefly, and then cruelly execute them.

Trump’s lies have long been understood to be more frequent and egregious than those of any public figure in U.S. history. And the link between his many lies and the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories has been deftly explored as well. But it’s time we recognize that some of Trump’s many lies are not lies at all, insofar as they are not easily debunked stories designed to dupe a gullible public. When Trump claims that women and their doctors are wrapping, rocking, and then cruelly executing babies, he is engaging in a complex narrative rhetoric designed to both titillate and mobilize those in power against those whom they hate. Both in the medieval period and today, such stories have proven chillingly effective.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correctly identify Ralph Northam as the governor of Virginia.