Quit Your Stalin
It’s morally repugnant to compare the January 6 hearings to show trials.
Dear Reader (excluding those of you in a romantic relationship with a fence),
So, I emerged from recording a solo podcast to the news that the Supreme Court has overruled Roe v. Wade. While I have lots of opinions about this, I’m not going to write about any of it today. Here are my reasons: 1) I haven’t read the decision—which I gather is very similar to the leaked draft from February. 2) I can’t follow the reactions and write about them at the same time. 3) It’s not like there will be a shortage of pieces out there about this. 4) My views haven’t changed since I last wrote or podcasted (yes, that’s a verb) about abortion, Roe, Dobbs etc. 5) Everything I could rush to say today will be less considered than what I can say when I know more. 6) I don’t feel like it.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about show trials. What is a show trial? The Britannica dictionary has a pretty standard definition: “A trial in a court of law in which the verdict has been decided in advance.”
This is a fairly clinical definition. It leaves out the moral horror of how show trials actually work.
While the phenomenon of show trials undoubtedly goes back to the first city-states, the term became commonplace thanks to the Bolsheviks and the practice was perfected under Stalin. Vladimir Lenin implemented “demonstrative trials” as propaganda and terror tools as early as 1922. But it was Stalin who used them for industrial slaughter during the Great Purge, as part of his effort to consolidate his rule by terror. “Death solves all problems,” Stalin liked to say. “No man, no problem.” His henchman, Lavrenty Beria, once declared, “Show me the man and I'll find you the crime.”
By the way, when Stalin died, Beria was fittingly “tried” in a special court that denied him any right to counsel or defense. He was summarily executed.
Given the sheer magnitude of Stalin’s terror, it’s almost a moral crime to try to summarize the horror of Stalin’s show trials. Evidence was invented. Confessions were extracted by torture and threats against family members. Stalin signed a decree holding that the family members of the accused—including children as young as 12—shared the predetermined guilt of husbands and fathers. The point of the decree was to make it easier to coerce false confessions.
The victims weren’t just potential political rivals of Stalin’s—though they were the first to go—but whole classes of people. Ludmila Ulitskaya's book, My Father's Letters: Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, captures the scope of this evil (a good review can be found here). Merely being an intellectual, a scientist, or an expert of almost any kind marked you as a threat to the state. Anything that suggested independent thought or “bourgeois” tendencies—including stamp collecting—could mark you for prosecution. And since guilt was a foregone conclusion, to be charged was tantamount to being found guilty.
Ulitskaya recounts how doctors, engineers, and agricultural experts were rounded up in cells holding hundreds of other supposed traitors. Tortured and deprived of sleep for nearly a week, they were forced to sign blank sheets of paper—the crimes they confessed to would be written in later. If you refused, you were beaten, your teeth kicked out of your head. They were told, “Sign the confession or we'll bring in your wife and mother.”
Until recently, this was the kind of stuff people—particularly conservatives—raised on the righteous cause of anti-communism, referred to when they talked about “show trials.”
Now the term “show trial” apparently means something different. Trump’s impeachments were show trials, according to his defenders. Writing about the post-January 6 impeachment trial, Roger L. Simon wrote:
Yes, I know they fear his political comeback above all things and wish to extinguish it, but what is it, on a deeper level, that makes them believe this man to be such a monster that they are going full Stalinist in conducting what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) aptly called a "show trial"?
Donald Trump Jr. tweeted after the first impeachment concluded:
He then followed up with this:
Forget the fact that no evidence was manufactured and no confessions were coerced—Trump was acquitted in both impeachments. A show trial in which you are not found guilty is not a show trial. The “establishment” in Stalin’s Russia was Stalin. The “establishment” in this context are a bunch of elected politicians, particularly a bunch of senators, the majority of whom voted to acquit. If a constitutionally valid impeachment trial amounts to going “full Stalinist,” then “full Stalinist” is a meaningless term. It’s like saying a 5-year-old is going “full Hannibal Lecter” if he bites his sister.
But at least impeachments are trials of a sort. They are not trials in a court of law, which is integral to the actual definition. But at least the word “trial” is in there.
The trials of the rioters who stormed the Capitol are also show trials, according to Ron Paul and numerous others. Now, those are actual trials, but they aren’t show trials. The accused have counsel. They are tried in accordance with the rule of law. No one is tortured. Confessions aren’t coerced. Obviously, no one has been executed. And plenty of defendants have been acquitted or let off with probation or fines. Stalinism this ain’t.
Now we’re told that the January 6 hearings are nothing less than a “show trial.” Rep. Scott Perry calls them “Soviet Style Show Trials.” Tucker Carlson strikes a courageous pose refusing to go along with the show trials. And Michael Goodwin thinks the lack of pro-Trump Republican apologists on the committee is proof of a “show trial.”
And of course, here’s Mollie Hemingway:
Now, obviously I agree that show trials are disgusting and “deeply unAmerican” [sic]. But here’s the thing, the January 6 committee isn’t even a trial. It has zero power to punish Donald Trump or even charge him with a crime, never mind execute him. Countless witnesses have refused to cooperate with the hearings, either by invoking the Fifth Amendment or defying subpoenas. If Liz Cheney were a Lavrenty Beria, do you think she would take “no” for an answer? No evidence was manufactured—or at least no one bleating about “show trials” has offered any evidence to the contrary. No confessions have been coerced by threats or torture.
Peter Navarro isn’t in a dungeon. And if he’s convicted of contempt of Congress, he’ll get a month in jail. Navarro even asked the judge to delay the trial until after his book is released in September. The judge set the trial date for mid-November. The monster.
And at the end of this supposedly heinous show trial, when the committee reaches its (admittedly foregone) conclusion, you know what it will do? Gird your loins, people: It will … release a report. The horror!
If you think “going full Stalin” amounts to releasing a politically inconvenient report, then you either don’t know anything about history, or you think history is a partisan plaything. And if you think finding the truth of what happened, even imperfectly, is un-American, then I guess I’m un-American in your eyes.
It’s all so incredibly stupid and morally vapid.
I fully expect some readers to say that I’m overreading the obviously metaphorical use of “show trial.” I don’t think I am. I’ve written for 20 years that invoking the Holocaust to describe things that aren’t remotely like the Holocaust is morally repugnant. It’s an effort to steal the moral resonance of a profound horror to make an argument you can’t make on merit. I’ll leave it to the moral philosophers to debate whether Stalin’s show trials approach the evil of the Holocaust, but even if they fall short, they’re sufficiently evil to make the same point. This is an especially important point for conservatives. We spent decades arguing that Soviet crimes were at least in the same moral ballpark as Nazi crimes. Now, for many conservatives, the central crimes of Stalinism amount to a toothless committee because it’s not bipartisan enough.
Besides, there’s little to no indication these Trump acolytes mean it metaphorically. Last night on Special Report, Mollie Hemingway said, “So, one of the problems with having a show trial, which is what this is, is that you only get one side.” Donald Trump Jr. is a moron, so he may be able to plead ignorance. But Hemingway knows what she’s doing. She’s right that one of the problems with show trials is that you only get to hear from one side. But given the reality of what show trials are, and what the January 6 committee isn’t, this is like saying the problem with state-sanctioned torture and murder is that it makes it hard for the victims to vote.
But even if you disagree with me and think I’m making too much of rhetorical excess, the underlying argument of all of this is pathetic. The cult of victimhood runs like a river through MAGA nation. People are still licking their wounds from Hillary Clinton calling half of Trump supporters “deplorable.” That was stupid, and it was fair game to complain about it. But the same people who insistently whined about it spent years cheering Trump for calling journalists, political opponents, and insufficiently loyal aides “enemies of the people” and “traitors,” and whipping up crowds with chants of “lock her up!”
Trump tried to steal an election and, so far, none of these defenders have mounted a serious defense against the charge. Instead, they carp about the lack of Trump defenders on the committee. As far as it goes, it’s a fair complaint. It just doesn’t go very far. Heck, even Donald Trump blames Kevin McCarthy for it. But there’s nothing stopping the carpers from offering a defense on TV or outside the hearing room.
They don’t because they would rather whine about how everything is so unfair to Donald Trump, who—while far from Stalin—is the only person credibly accused of using lies as a pretext to violate the law and the Constitution.
One last point. Last week, Eric Greitens, a sociopath Senate candidate in Missouri, released a video in which he LARPed hunting “RINOs.” You can watch it here.
A lot has been said about the grotesqueness of his ad, particularly in the wake of two mass shootings (though I haven’t seen much from the crowd bleating about show trials). But I’m going to focus on two things. First, as Charlie Cooke recently noted, it’s dumb on pro-Second Amendment grounds. It depicts a bunch of military types conducting what is effectively a no-knock raid on a citizen’s home. Such affronts to civil liberties are an outrage to serious supporters of the Second Amendment.
Second, the people Greitens wants to murder (metaphorically at least) aren’t guilty of any crimes, they’re simply “political opponents,” as many commentators have said. But calling them “political opponents” overlooks an important point: They’re fellow Republicans. This is where those going around trying to sniff out Stalinism should feel the sting in their nostrils.
I’m not saying the ad would be any less heinous if he called for hunting Democrats. Maybe he’s saving that ad for when he gets the nomination. But the fact he’s talking about other Republican voters is psychologically and politically revealing.
Before Stalin started his wholesale murder, he concentrated on the retail elimination of his political rivals within the Bolshevik Party. Admittedly, he got this idea from Lenin, who believed that the greatest threats to his power were fellow socialists and Bolsheviks who could offer an alternative to his rule. The depraved obsession with RINOs stems from the same sort of thinking, even if we have to concede it isn’t matched by comparable real-world violence—for now.
On the right, there’s a broader intellectual political effort to cleanse the political sphere of any conservative who doesn’t adhere to the new MAGA, or nationalist, or whatever definition of conservatism. It’s very similar to what the left went through in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, where leftist radicals reserved most of their hatred and energy for attacking ostensible members of their own coalition because mere liberals didn’t share their radicalism. It’s a form of popular front thinking—another approach once deplored by conservatives—only the front is defined by support of one man, or the radicalism inspired by him.
Most of these people, I’d like to think, don’t fully subscribe to Greitens’ performative asininity. But they’re still objectively less offended by it than by Liz Cheney’s efforts or, say, David French’s writings.
We’re through the looking glass when supporting the January 6 committee is deemed tantamount to supporting full Stalinism, but criticizing a president who thought the mob’s heart was in the right place when it wanted to hang his vice president for not wanting to help steal an election is invalid.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: As you might recall, I was in Alaska for much of the last week so my time with the beasts was limited. But they had a grand time while I was gone. Indeed, they’ve been kind of run down since I got back. I can’t tell if it’s because they’re catching up on sleep they missed at the sleepover or because they’re mopey about it being over. Zoë even phoned-in a rabbit attack the other morning. I didn’t get a video of the Alaska-return welcoming committee, alas. But I did get one after Wednesday thunderstorm. Even that was subdued. Also, Gracie is jazzed about the new Brad Thor book.
And now, the weird stuff