The trial of Donald Trump on charges that he conspired to undermine the peaceful transition of power will likely be a show trial – but not in the usual sense of the words.
The phrase “show trial” has two connotations. In the most common understanding of the term, those connotations are negative: Show trials in authoritarian regimes are sham trials used for propaganda purposes where the outcome is predetermined and the defendants condemned as traitors to the motherland.
But trials that capture widespread public attention and expose wrongdoing by political or business figures may also produce highly constructive and positive outcomes as well. They can promote accountability for crimes against the state or against humanity.
Yet even these positive show trials, meant to affirm the laws and values of a democracy, can end badly, as with one prosecution in Germany in the mid-1920s – of the young Nazi party leader, Adolf Hitler, who had led an unsuccessful revolt to overthrow the country’s democratic government.
As international law scholar Martti Koskenniemi has astutely noted, political show trials may be useful “for establishing an impartial account of the past and for teaching younger generations of the dangers involved in particular policies.” Political trials that provide the public with a compelling narrative about crimes against the public trust can therefore have positive consequences for a democracy.
Show trials are not only useful for exposing war criminals, however. In democracies, show trials of political officials – defined as such because they captivate public attention – promote the rule of law and order to a very wide audience.
But there is a darker outcome lurking in show trials.
The facts underlying many political trials arise in a historical context. The interpretation of that context – let alone the very facts of the history – may be disputed.
Although comparisons with Hitler are largely considered out of bounds when discussing current politics and politicians, it’s relevant to any discussion of high-profile political trials that the future Nazi dictator’s rise to power was fueled in large part by a show trial.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler led an effort to foment revolution in Bavaria. Known as the Beer-Hall Putsch because it literally began in a beer hall, Hitler and his followers sought to lead a revolt against the governing German Weimar democracy. His effort failed and he was tried for the crime of subverting the constitution of Germany.
But in the 1924 trial, presided over by a judge sympathetic to the Nazi agenda, Hitler used the courtroom as a platform, writes law professor Douglas O. Linder, “to showcase his oratorical skills and promote his views to as wide an audience as possible.”
The United States has a justice system that is far more impartial than the German judicial system during Hitler’s rise to power.
But the history lesson remains relevant: Trials within a political context and the charging of political crimes have risks. Though they may be necessary to uphold the rule of law, these types of show trials may also provide the defendant with the opportunity to dispute the historical record and challenge the very governmental authority holding them to account.
Donald Trump has already begun his version of that effort.