Show trials: From Stalin’s Moscow Trials to Trump’s impeachment

Trump’s impeachment trial will go down in history next to other travesties of justice.

Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump gestures as he departs for travel to Florida from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on January 31, 2020 [Reuters/Leah Millis]

The US is the oldest democracy in the world. Well not quite! You will have to take that cliche with a pinch or two of salt for to swallow it you will have to disregard the genocide of Native Americans, the transatlantic slave trade, relentless warmongering around the globe, and the fact that most black Americans (voting rights act of 1965) and women (1920) could not vote until quite recently. 

Be that as it may, the US institutions of liberal democracy, especially the legislative and the judiciary, are theoretically there to protect it against whims and wanton tyrannies that might threaten its executive branch. 

The spectacle of Donald Trump’s impeachment, however, makes one wonder.   

‘The Moscow Trials’

What today we recall as “the Moscow Trials” were a series of show trials in the former Soviet Union in the late 1930s staged against Trotskyists and other “enemies” Joseph Stalin had deemed dangerous to his reign. The defenders were charged with trying to subvert the Soviet Union and bring back capitalism.  

On the surface nothing in Trump’s impeachment trial at the US Senate resembles those dark years of the former Soviet Union. What we are witnessing in the US is democracy in action, isn’t it?

The US president has been impeached by the House of Representatives, charged with abusing the power of his office to force a foreign country to investigate a political rival and obstruction of Congress. The impeachment was then sent to the US Senate for a trial and possible removal of the president from office. That is what the US constitution has wisely stipulated. 

The senators were now to hear the case, evaluate the arguments, call in witnesses, and cast their votes. Democracy and the rule of law and thus justice would be served. After all Chief Justice John Roberts is presiding over the impeachment trial.  

That would be the case if the two main factions of US politics, the Democrats and the Republicans, were actually interested in the rule of law and reason and serving justice rather than safeguarding their immediate and banal political interests.

A fair trial, an impartial jury and the calling of relevant witnesses Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not interested in. He had already declared openly that “I’m not an impartial juror.” His sidekick, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham had also said openly: “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here” – promising he would do everything in his power to make the impeachment proceedings of the incurably corrupt Donald Trump “die quickly”.

Stalin was probably not as remotely pleased with his henchmen back in the 1930s as Trump must be with his Republican comrades today. He will be acquitted and sent on his way to use this very show trial to his advantage in securing a second term.   

Theatre of the absurd

Neither the Moscow Trials nor Trump’s impeachment trial were after truth and justice. They were make-believe spectacles staged to suggest justice was being served when, in fact, it was being actively subverted.

The show will be used by Republicans to keep their grip on the White House and the Senate, to continue appointing conservative judges to the Supreme Court, to hold the reins of power in the three branches of government and to make the US the envy of xenophobic dictatorships around the globe. 

But neither Russia, nor the US has any exclusive claim on such show trials.

Perhaps the prime example of all such show trials was in France during the Dreyfus Affair when, in one of the most notorious examples of European anti-Semitism, a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was then publicly humiliated and subjected to the most hateful anti-Semitic venom.

In Iranboth under the Pahlavi regime and now under the Islamic republic, show trials have been the staple of political persecution, with the most famous case being that of Mohammad Mosaddeq after the CIA coup of 1953. In China during the so-called “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1962) Mao Zedong also had his real and imagined political enemies rounded up and given show trials, with some sentenced to death.

More recently in Egypt, the trial of Hosni Mubarak and later Mohammad Morsi were integral to the counterrevolutionary mobilisation to prop up Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military junta. In Saudi Arabia, even more recently the so-called trial of the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi was meant to put an end to speculation about the top leadership‘s culpability in the murder of a dissident. 

All of these show trials, from Stalin’s and Mao’s to Trump’s, are reminiscent of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd, a genre of theatrical plays that emerged in Europe in the 1950s.

In the Theatre of the Absurd, playwrights deliberately use disjointed and meaningless dialogues and stage wayward apparition of plots to make a mockery of meaning and reason, very much on the model that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House Press Secretary, or better even Kellyanne Conway,  senior counsellor to President Trump, use to defend their boss. 

Indeed the absurd is on full show in Trump’s trial: everyone knows that he abused his office to pressure a foreign country and yet in broad daylight, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor of law on the president’s defence team, stands up and says the US constitution does not say what the US constitution says, while McConnelputs together a whole political machinery to exonerate Trump and help pave the way for his re-election.

Trump’s presidency and his impeachment are a theatre of the absurd on a global stage, except with real and calamitous consequences. There is no exiting this theatre.

We are all trapped in it and forced to watch a mockery of justice in which the organs of “the oldest democracy in the world” begin to devour themselves and the very idea of democracy is reduced to nullity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.