Show Trial: Bellows of Civil War

Strong arm political theater stokes the fires scorching our constitutional order

Abruptly, right on the very edge of forever, BLUE shut down its show trial. Why? To answer this question, we must examine just how show trials work in the dramaturgy of civil conflict.


The show trial is pure politics that comes in the form of a ceremonial package. Its purpose: To drive home the power and majesty of the winners in a brutal ritual that drives down the losers. However, show trials are convened as a form of religious ceremony to secure the sacred symbols of power and legitimacy in politics.


There are four parts to the trial-as-package: 1) Accusation and denunciation, 2) Dramatic exposition and interrogation, 3) Pronouncing judgment, and 4) Masque of execution. Together they represent a kind of ceremonial state theater. Think of the show trial form as narrative dramaturgy in the form of a four-act play.


Act I, Accusation and denunciation, frames the former rival now as traitor and insurrectionist: A universal threat to the polity and its constitutional order.


Act II, Dramatic exposition and confrontation, confronts the accused with treason's bill of particulars, in which the accused is fully and fatefully incriminated.


Act III, Pronouncing judgment, the play's dramatic climax, is the electric moment when Truth vanquishes evil, and the traitor legally and forever condemned.


Act IV, Masque of execution, is the denouement, in which the entire story arc is satisfied in execution's solemn fulfillment of condign justice.


Forcing overwrought, theatrical ritual on the public is designed to affect the political order for a long time to come. First, the accused political faction is delegitimated root and branch, meaning, its former status, its practice, and its perquisites in politics are wiped away due to its support of the traitor on trial. Hence the Leader alone is not on trial, but rather the entire political party he led.


Second, the prosecuting faction that renders judgment and executes punishment is -- as a result of the trial -- now endowed with dominant authority as the only legitimate faction in politics. The disgraced and condemned party can only renew its participation with the permission of the Truth party.


Third, the guilty party is intimidated and cowed by the majestic dramaturgy of the show trial, guaranteeing a long era of one-party rule.


Some such trials have an elevated purpose, and so should shine. Consider the trial of Marshal Petain — Savior of France at Verdun, Traitor to France at Vichy — as French national exorcism. This grim ceremony was intended, literally, to cast out the evil spirit from the sacred body of the French nation: The fallen angel that had brought such shame and humiliation to la Grand Nation. Yet venal agendas ripped up sacred solemnity, even here. DeGaulle wrote: “Too often, the discussions took on the appearance of a partisan trial, sometimes even a settling of accounts.”


Many of the most notorious show trials, in fact, head in a far more fatal direction, and end up achieving the very opposite of what they intended.


Consider the trial and execution of Charles I, or Louis XVI. The faction with all the power — the impresarios of the show trial — lost all legitimacy and were humiliated in defeat: In the case of après-Charles, in ten years; and Louis, in twenty.


Yet what is essential for Americans to consider is the fateful impact and consequences of the two show trials that occasioned our truly bloody-minded civil war: The twin show trials that were the Dred Scott "decision" and John Brown's trial and execution.


Dred Scott was not a classic show trial. Yet it had all the hallmarks of a sacred national trial. It took on America’s entire existential split, and it registered — from the high bench — a magisterial judgment equal to the killing of a king.


Simply, Taney’s decision was an Olympian blow to Abolitionism. Going further, the ceremonial occasion was conceived as a final reckoning. Henceforth, slavery would be the law of the land. Not only was the Fugitive Slave Act ringingly reaffirmed, but its terms were made legally and constitutionally inescapable. Henceforth, all Americans, whether they resided in slave or free state, would be criminally liable in the enforcement of chattel slavery. Whatever the politics of Free States, no Negro could be a citizen, and yet all American citizens were, under penalty of law, forbidden from aiding a fugitive slave, and also, under criminal sanction for failing to bring to justice a fleeing chattel in thrall.


Not content, the Slave states sought to make criminal any boisterous opposition to their “Slave Power.” Hence, when John Brown staged a media-rich assault on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, the South made his trial and execution a political-religious event: Designed to show to all the power of the South to force their chattel way of life on the nation.


Yet their grip on power was weaker than it appeared. Democrats — or “The Democracy” as they styled themselves — controlled it all after the election of 1856: President, Senate, House, and Supreme Court. Yet after Dred Scott they lost the House. A seismic shift against the Democracy was underway.


So when it came to John Brown’s show trial, Democrats were already under the gun, and on the strategic defensive. Nonetheless they sought to make a show of the suppression of domestic terrorism. Yet Brown outmaneuvered them. At his sentencing, Brown delivered a speech that electrified the North on its social media networks (52 newspapers!). The 100 letters he wrote between his sentencing and his execution metaphorically blanketed Northern consciousness. The grave ceremony of execution itself became a moment of intense national decision-making, aye or nay.


Democrat strategy-by-show-trial failed spectacularly in the late 1850s. Rather than buttressing their place in the American polity, these two ceremonial events pushed Northern states (now emotionally opposed to slavery) into arguably existential opposition to the South and everything it represented, including, above all, its grip on political power.


We know what happened next.


So there are two lessons to take away from all politico-religious show trials.


The first is this: Show trials mean to ritually and symbolically reduce a faction accused of sedition and insurrection and require that they unconditionally submit to the power and authority of the convening party.


Hence, when Representative Jamie Raskin, lead impeachment manager, closed with a ringing invocation of Thomas Paine, in 1776: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. But we have this saving consolation: The more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory. Good luck in your deliberations.”


Notice how the entire show trial event is — by his own admission — to achieve the defeat of RED. Notice too, how the struggle is “glorious” only as an entirely BLUE victory.


Less visible — more sotto voce — is the deeper motivation of the trial masters.


At last, in the end, the show trial is a rite promising deep fulfillment. The enactment is in itself a thrilling, almost transcendent experience. The earth shakes, the world will never be the same, all humanity takes note, mankind holds its collective breath.


In the bated imaginations of show trial conveners, there will never again be such a moment. They are, together, changing history, reshaping the future, clearing the way for something new:


So that the clamoring call — “The King Must Die” — becomes the agency of liberation, the turning of the page, where an evil past is left behind. Surely, this was the passionate expectation of those who so solemnly judged, condemned, and beheaded Charles Stuart, or Louis XVI, or those slaveholding Southerners who thought abolitionism so weak as to be easily driven down.


Those who indulge extravagantly in show trials need their own emotional ratification, and they seek this in spite of the always-visible outcome: Alienating their foe forever. They believe — and will always believe, fervently — that the high-minded and even sacred ritual of condemnation, performed with all the gravity of a high mass, and followed with severest punishment, will bring their hated bêtes noires (“black beasts”) into final submission.


That les bêtes refuse to bend the knee, or worse yet, even take up arms, is never in the show trial calculation. The act itself is all that counts, for its exhilarating, delicious righteousness.


And yet clearly, someone in charge in BLUE had the sense to pull back, on the very edge of forever.