At 11 am CT on January 20, 2017 — just as Donald Trump was being sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States in Washington, DC — I was sworn in as a brand new American citizen in Rock Island, Illinois. It was an odd day. On the one hand, knowing that the inauguration was happening was not unlike being involuntarily doused with ice water on an irregular but persistent schedule. On the other, I turned in my green card, swore an oath, and left with a certificate that said I was American. My friends took photos, several waved tiny happy signs on sticks, and one gave me flowers. We all agreed that my new ability to vote was a small but measurable dose of comfort on a profoundly unsettling day.
I then drove to Iowa City with two friends to see Lindy West at a fundraiser for the Emma Goldman clinic — an independent health clinic offering gynecology services and, most importantly to us that day, abortions. We bought the tickets and drove two hours because we knew that we needed to do something to take back that day from Trump. Contributing much-needed funds to an abortion provider while laughing ourselves silly at Trump’s expense seemed just the thing.
I don’t remember if we paid extra to attend a cocktail hour before the show, or whether we just got there early, but cocktails were had, and we met West. She was fun and kind and generous, and in conversation my friends and I ran the gamut from “It’s so lovely to meet you” before beating a hasty exit (me, I’m British and we rarely want to bother anyone) and offering a detailed list of all the ways West had impacted our life and getting a photo (Melinda).
West remembers that night too. “I knew Iowa had gone red for Trump,” she writes in The Witches are Coming. “I believed naively that I was there to comfort them [the people in attendance]. What I found was exactly the opposite: a group of people not drowning in shock and despair, as I was, but putting one foot in front of the other with grace and good humor, just as they had the day before and would the day after.”1
Putting one foot in front of the other is the secret of the titular witches of West’s book. They are not hunted, she assures us, but doing the hunting, refusing to brook platitudes or excuses from anyone (but especially wealthy white men) who whines. Witches are relentless. They will find anyone’s (but especially wealthy white men’s) complaints anywhere they exist and outsmart and outshine them with tenacity and intelligence.
This is particularly clear in “A Giant Douche is a Good Thing if You’re a Giant,” an essay devoted to shredding Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind South Park. West takes apart the “irreverence” with which Parker and Stone approach their show, their lives, and their politics (they’re Republicans) and arrives at one of the most vibrantly clear conclusions of the book: “There is no cool version of conservatism, no ethically responsible version, no rational version ready to reclaim the tiller after Trump leaves office.”2 West is uncompromising in taking Parker, Stone, Louis C.K., and Stephen Fry to task for being men who have retreated into comfort, complacency, and compliance within an unjust world order. “There’s a type of person who thinks he’s getting away with something by not believing in anything,” West writes. “But not believing in anything is believing in something. It’s active, not passive. To believe in nothing is to change nothing. It means you’re endorsing the present, and the present is a horror.”3
From there, the book sings. West tells the story of a local online swap-and-sell noticeboard, and the moderators’ ability to shut down proto-Nazis, before analyzing how thoroughly uninterested Jack Dorsey is in doing the same on Twitter. She explores the life of Joan Rivers as a means of interrogating patriarchy’s hold on women, and the metrics of beauty that so many people have decided indicate a woman’s value. She eviscerates the men who believe women should never have access to their rage, especially in the realm of politics. I read these chapters hungrily, enjoying every well-crafted word.
Nevertheless, I struggled with the early chapters of West’s book. There, West adopts a tone that’s almost a throwback to a 1980s Valley Girl in style. There is no mistaking her anger at the profound injustices of the world in which we live, but that rage feels something like a parody of itself, expressed in ALL CAPS asides and long meditations on the political meanings of Grumpy Cat, Fixer Upper, and Adam Sandler’s entire filmography. I wanted more — a keener dissection of our political situation, more appreciation for the fault lines in our society, an acknowledgment that things are so very dire. Those are exactly the things I got from the book’s second half.
As I pondered the book after finishing, I had to admit that perhaps even Grumpy Cat, Fixer Upper, and Adam Sandler have a place in our navigation of Trump’s America. I returned to West’s words about taking things one step at a time — and wondered if the early chapters of her book weren’t about starting with the small stuff, seeing the structural problems embedded within The Wedding Singer and JoJo’s love of shiplap, and from there building an ability for us to take on the kyriarchy more directly. After all, we spend most of our time dealing with the small stuff. It adds up.
To be clear, this is not a book about literal witches, historic or otherwise. Turning the idea of a witch hunt on its head gives West a great hook for her introduction, and contextualizes her way of looking at the world, but it isn’t threaded through the rest of the essays. It is a book about women connecting with other women, making choices about how to spend their wealth (or lack of it), and supporting each other in their decisions regarding their bodies. These are all acts which have led to women being identified as witches in the past, and no doubt all over the internet in the present.
West sits in her studio in a converted Immigration and Naturalization Services building in Seattle at the end of the book, reflecting on her family’s immigrant experience. She makes her hopes clear: that we all practice radical empathy, critical self-reflection, and a refusal to compromise on matters of social justice. The INS building, and all that it has represented in the past and in our present, took me back to that day when I took an oath of citizenship and told myself that I had a responsibility to work to undo the systems of oppression around me. I left the courtroom, putting one step in front of the other until I became one of those women in a theater in Iowa City. We showed up, and in that West found grace.
That’s the take home: keep showing up. Create community. Be a witch if you want to. Claim your space.
- Lindy West, The Witches Are Coming (New York: Hachette Books, 2019), 175–6. Return to text.
- West, The Witches Are Coming, 115. Return to text.
- West, 121. Return to text.