Time for a Show Trial

Photograph Source: Jeremy – CC BY 2.0

The media is full of stories predicting that the Democrats will lose their minimal control over Congress in the upcoming November election. Yet, if the Covid pandemic is contained and inflation declines, the Dems have one potential trick up their proverbial sleeve that could shift the election outcome – a political “show trial” about the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

The Washington Post reported that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said that the House’s Select Committee on January 6th will hold public hearings to “tell the whole story” about the attack. “I think we will want [public hearings] to tell the whole story,” Schiff said. “Security at the Capitol, the intelligence leading up to the attacks, lack of intelligence, the role of social media, the former President’s role, the role of those around him, and tell it in an era fashion so the public knows exactly what’s going on.”

Evidence is mounting that the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th was not an isolated, impulse act by well-meaning, if uninformed, citizens.  No, January 6th was but one aspect of an incoherent, poorly planned and even more poorly executed coup d’état.  It failed and Joe Biden became president.

Reports in the mainstream media, including the Post and Times, let alone more critical publications, make it clear that Trump and his followers were part of a conspiracy to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. They sought innumerable ways to accomplish their illegal goal.  Pressure on the Vice President to abrogate the Electoral College was one; threats to voting officials in a handful of critical states was another; and fantasies of seizing voting machines still another.  There was also an effort to provoke a civil disturbance between the rightwing “militia” and leftwing “antifa” activists in the January 6th civil disturbance to requiring the intervention of the National Guard and stopping the count of Electoral Votes; the left stayed home.

A Congressional show trial could be a perfect venue to reveal to the American public that what happened on the 6th was not merely an attack but an attempted coup.  With live coverage on many media outlets (excluding Fox) and endless follow-up stories, a Congressional hearing could generate significant public attention and potentially further undercutting former Pres. Donald Trump’s claims that the election was stolen.  To the extent that a planned conspiracy can be detailed, a public hearing also has the potential of eroding support for Republican electoral candidates, especially hard-core Trump backers.


“Show trials” have a long history in the U.S.  The Puritans landed in New England in 1620 and, for the first quarter-century of settlement, occasional accusations of witchcraft were raised, but no one was executed. However, during the following half-century, 1647–1693, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and about 30 were executed. Most of these alleged witches were women who came from more than 30 communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including Easthampton, Long Island, now part of New York.

The most notorious of these trials took place in Salem, MA, during 1692–1693.  Bridget Bishop was the first woman at the Salem trials executed for her sins. She was first accused of being a witch in 1679 when her husband died. It was during the Salem trials (and when she was in her fifties) that she faced a second trial for being a witch, for attending a witch’s gathering at the Parris field, for having a body mark (or what was known as a “witch’s teat” or imp) and for giving her body and soul to the devil. She steadfastly insisted on her innocence but was nevertheless hung.  Others followed to the gallows. In the wake of the Salem convictions and executions for witchcraft, such trials essentially ended.

Puritan notions of sin and punishment have cast a long shadow over the nation’s conscience. A century-and-a-half after the trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne recalled the Puritan anxiety over adultery in The Scarlet Letter (published in 1850) and, a hundred years later, Arthur Miller invoked the trials in The Crucible (published in 1953) to challenge anti-Communist hysteria.

However, the most notorious show trials took place in the Soviet Union under

Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship as part of what was known as the Great Purge of 1937–1938.  According to one estimate, over 1,100 delegates to the party congress in 1934 were arrested. Among those tried were member of the Bolshevik Party’s Old Guard labelled“enemies of the state,” including Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev.  Many were executed and many more imprisoned in Siberian prison camps.

Stalin’s purges set the stage for U.S. anti-communist show trials that took place during the post-WW-II era.  While numerous anti-communist trials took place at the state level, three federal trials were “show” — or media staged –events.

In October ‘47, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, directors and producers who were thought to have ties to the U.S. Communist Party and were accused of subverting the movie industry.  Many had been placed on what was known the Hollywood “blacklist” and banned from working in the major Hollywood studios.  In the Hollywood Ten Trials (1947-1950), HUAC tried and convicted for contempt of Congress such established industry notables as Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Albert Maltz.

In 1950, Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were arrested on charges of conspiring to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.  The next year, they were triad and, after a brief show trial, were convicted; in 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed.

The third Cold War show trial was held during April–June 1954 and pitted Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) against the U.S. Army. McCarthy was a notorious communist hunter who accused and investigated 200 members of the Department of State for being “known” communists. McCarthy, incensed that one of his former investigators had been drafted, charged that the Army was “soft” on communism. In a new famous exchange, the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch, shamed McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Since the Cold War, there have been numerous show trials revealing hidden secrets of the political establishment.  In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked secret documents known as the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times that revealed that the U.S. government had misled the public regarding U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war.  Following the publication, Ellsberg was indicted under the Espionage Act, but at the in ’73 trial all the charges were dismissed

The most famous postwar show trial is the Watergate hearings (1973).  Richard Nixon took office as president in 1969 and, in ’71, order two federal operatives — known as “the Plumbers” — to wiretap Ellsberg’s phone and brake into the office of his psychiatrist.  The following year, five men were arrested for breaking into — and illegally wiretapping — the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Senate convened the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities that revealed secretly recorded tapes that revealed that Pres. Richard Nixon, along with members of his inner circle, were behind both the Ellsberg and Watergate break-ins, forcing Nixon’s resignation.

Most recently, the two Trump impeachment trials were the latest show trials.  In the first, in December 2019, the Democratic controlled House found him guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress; the Senate acquitted him.  In the second, in January 2021, following the 6th Capitol attack and one week before his term expired, Congress charged him with “incitement of insurrection” and “lawless action at the Capitol”; the Senate acquitted him.

Now, the U.S. is ready for a grand show trial. In this one, members of Congress — Democrats and the two Republicans — should carefully and clearly reveal just how many people — and how much planning — went into the attempted coup on January 6th.  And, one could hope, Donald Trump would be forced to testify.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.