II. Show Trials – Clinton and Socrates

A show trial is defined as “a public trial in which the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt, and/or innocence, of the defendant. The actual trial has as its only goal the presentation of both the accusation and the verdict to the public so they will serve as both an impressive example and a warning to other would-be dissidents or transgressors.” The trial of Bill Clinton, only the second trial in history of a sitting president in the United States in over a century-and-a-half, is generally considered a show trial since the verdict was known in advance. In contrast, the outcome of Socrates’ trial was not so certain. And it too is considered a show trial. The necessary condition of a show trial is that it be addressed to the public at large where the innocence or guilt has been generally expected if not actually predetermined. However, the purpose of a show trial is NOT confined to serving as an example and a warning. For there are show trials where the accused is acquitted even though guilty, as in the trial of Donald Trump.

It is true that there are very few show trials where the individuals charged were both innocent and found to be innocent. But that does not mean the purpose of the trial was to impress and to warn, for if found innocent and if the person was actually innocent, there is certainly no need to warn. The Cambridge Dictionary offers a better definition than Webster’s because it is more general – the purpose is indeed to impress the public, that is, to alter public opinion, but not necessarily to serve as a warning or, more strongly, to reduce political opposition. The defining characteristic is that the function of the trial is NOT to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused but to shape the thinking of the polis.

That is why the trial of Donald Trump, who was charged with incitement to insurrection, was nevertheless a show trial. The objective was to impress the public. By and large, the finding of guilt or innocence was predetermined virtually independent of the evidence presented. What then is the function of the trial when someone like Donald Trump is acquitted? An initial examination of the other three quadrants of possibilities below can help clarify the issue. In this blog I will take up the cases of Bill Clinton and Socrates.

The quadrant where it is most difficult to find examples is the one in which Bill Clinton’s name appears – that of the trial of an innocent man with respect to the charges leveled against him and where he is found innocent, but the function of the trial was not really to determine innocence or guilt based on the evidence presented, but to shape public opinion. In the quadrants below, italics are used when the ultimate issue of guilt or innocence remains undecided, or, at least, controversial in history. Placing the Trump trial within a much larger conceptual and historical frame will, I believe, allow us to draw a much more careful and accurate analysis of its public purpose and results.

AcquittedPresident Bill Clinton 1999O. J. Simpson 1995 Donald Trump 2021
Found GuiltySocrates– 300 BC Jesus Dreyfus – 1894-1895 Ed Johnson 1906 Tenn. Scottsboro Boys 1931 Stalin 1930s purges Trenton 6 1948 Central Park 5 1989 Lena Baker 2005The Rosenberg Trial                        1951 Eichmann Trial 1960

President Bill Clinton was very unlikely to be convicted in his Senate impeachment trial in 1998-1999 because, as in the trial of Donald Trump, there was a very high bar for conviction. Two-thirds of the Senate had to make a finding of guilty. Unlike Trump’s trial, not one Democrat deserted supporting a finding of innocence.  His 12 February 1999 acquittal was never really in doubt given the party-line vote in the House of Representatives for impeachment. He was entirely innocent of the alleged corruption in a land deal back in Arkansas before he ever became president. And that was the instigation for the investigation of him. But how could the Senate acquit him since Clinton clearly had perjured himself and lied to the grand jury about not having any sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

Clinton was also guilty of having a sexual affair with Paula Jones, a former employee of the Arkansas state government, who had sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. Of the 11 possible impeachable offences that the investigating attorney, Ken Starr, had leveled, the Republican dominated House of Representatives only put forth four articles of impeachment against him, two for perjury in depositions to a grand jury and two for obstruction of justice for impeding Congress. However, the impeachment that emerged from the House of Representatives was only for one charge of perjury and one charge of obstruction of justice. In the Senate, he was acquitted of both charges.

There was no question over whether Clinton perjured himself. But there was a real question over whether his conduct amounted to obstruction of justice. Further, there was the real issue over whether his perjury in this case justified impeachment as a punishment. As a clear show trial, the spectacle affected public opinion only slightly. As the Pew surveys of public opinion indicated, “Clinton’s impeachment barely dented his public support, and it turned off many Americans.” Nevertheless, it evidently was enough for Al Gore to exclude Clinton from his presidential campaign, though not enough to diminish Clinton’s public approval rating. Further, though George Bush won the presidency over Al Gore, Gore received a higher percentage of the popular vote. A number of analyses suggested that the Republicans lost support because of the resort to impeachment in a situation that barely warranted such a serious charge. Thus, though the function was to impress the public in a certain way, there is a great deal of doubt that it succeeded and a lot of evidence that the effort backfired.

The largest number of cases of show trials fall into the category of those who were determined to be guilty but were found to be innocent in subsequent appeals or, at the very least, by history. In one of the most notorious cases, that of Socrates, history turned him into a martyr for truth, almost singularly as a result of the writings of Plato. He may indeed have been guilty as charged of corrupting youth, but not in the way one might imagine, for there is some evidence to suggest he was a pedophile. But the latter was not something for which he was charged. Socrates was charged with corrupting the hearts and minds of Athenian youth.

How? By teaching them to be wastrels? Certainly not. By teaching them to disparage the polity? Possibly. But, again, not in the way we were taught to believe, namely that Socrates was a symbol of the pursuit of truth independently of public opinion; kowtowing to public opinion was the root cause of corruption.  But this is a Gestalt experiment. For the same behaviour can be viewed as its opposite – as engaging in corruption by teaching youth not to consider themselves as responsible for the well-being of the polity. He corrupted them by putting down the status of the democratic polis as incapable of pursuing truth independently of self-interest.  

Plato and Xenophon have been the major purveyors of the first thesis, namely that democratic government was inherently corrupt. Socrates, in their view, rightly taught youth to think independently of interests and public opinion. However, much more recently there arose a contrary voice, not by an academic, but by an investigative reporter who for decades prior to his research on Socrates had published I.F. Stone’s Weekly to which I had subscribed for years.

Plato in the Apology (apologia in Greek means “defence”) argued that the purpose of his dialogue was NOT “to try to educate the people,” (19e) lest Socrates be dubbed a sophist, but rather, using a reference to the god of Delphi himself, to demonstrate that Socrates acted in service of advancing human wisdom. There was, in fact, very little evidence that he was truly guilty of the second charge leveled against him – that of impiety against the pantheon of gods of Athens.

Leveling the charges against him was motivated by the politics of resentment by one, whom he did not name, and whom Socrates had embarrassed because Socrates revealed that the other’s reputation as a wise person who taught wisdom was undeserved. Socrates discovered and revealed this by following the commandments of those very same gods for whom he was charged with impiety.

As to the charge of maliciously influencing youth, Socrates accused his accuser, Meletus, of being “a thoroughly selfish bully” driven to slander him because of jealousy. But what did Socrates teach youth – not to fear death because no one really knows what it is. And he challenged the Athenian jurors chosen by lot to offer a deal. Quit teaching such lessons and we will acquit you. But Socrates cannot refuse to do what divine command demands of him – the revelation of contradictions and claims posing as knowledge and wisdom.

If Socrates received such an offer – and he effectively did – he would be forced to answer, “I am your very grateful and devoted servant, but I owe a greater obedience to God than to you, and so long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practicing philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.” (29d) “(W)henever I succeed in disproving another person’s claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about the subject myself. But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little of more value.” (23a) Socrates, in unveiling the ignorance of humans, was both obeying God and helping God by proving that humans are not wise. In that, Socrates claimed, to be serving God and trying to save souls. And for that, “God has uniquely appointed me.” (30d)

But Socrates went even further in his defence and argued that, by its very nature, if you went into politics – as the jurors so readily did – then if you did so to right wrongs, you would surely be killed. Implied was that, if you were not seeking death, you would not go into politics and agree to render judgment against me. Why was Socrates so insulting and arrogant to his own jury?

A true champion of justice would of necessity have to confine himself to the private sphere and ignore politics. (31e) ‘I have not entered politics. I have not even ever claimed to be an educator of anyone in the ways of justice,’ Socrates continued. I merely engage in raising questions and engaging in conversations. I cannot be guilty of corrupting anyone if I never set myself up as anyone’s teacher. I do not teach or assert that I impart teachings.

Then came the nub of his defence. Don’t appeal to any fear of dying for that is to be a sentimental woman. Never ask for acquittal by an appeal to mercy, but simply inform the jury of facts and arguments and permit the jury to make a rational judgment. (35e) Otherwise, ‘I would indeed be disreputable and immoral. As well as impious in not obeying God’s command to me. I teach only that practical self interest should not be the basis for any judgement, but only your own moral and mental well-being. Further, I refuse to cop a plea and accept imprisonment; such an acceptance would totally undercut that which God has commended me to do. The same is true of accepting a fine. If found guilty of the charges leveled against me, then the only proper conclusion according to the law is a sentence of death. I will not stoop to servility.’

For what is at stake is not my life but the life of questing for truth. Further, I prophecy that “as soon as I am dead, vengeance shall fall upon you with a punishment far more painful than your killing of me. The result will be just the opposite [of submitting to your criticism]. You will have more critics whom up till now I have restrained without your knowing it, and, being younger, they will be harsher to you and will cause you more annoyance,” (39 c-d). In other words, rather than teaching youth a lesson, you will stir up a backlash. In Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury based on the philosopher Hermogenes’ notes, he offered an additional defence that is only hinted at in Plato’s account, namely that, if found guilty and sentenced to death, that would be an actual favour since Socrates would not have to face senility. Socrates’ evident motive was not just his commitment to God’s command.

This gives the store away. I.F. Stone in his offered a revisionist account that tried to clear up the puzzles both about the trial and about fifth-century Athens. Stone’s motive was to gain insight into the high value placed on free speech in Athens and then their total betrayal of that value in sentencing Socrates to death. As I.F. Stone put it, “Free speech – what the Greeks called parrhasia – was as much taken for granted as breathing.” Why, after allowing Socrates to teach as he did his whole life, did the aristocrats level charges against him when he was 70-years-old and why did they end up sentencing him to death? Stone wanted to challenge Plato’s attempt to put Athenian democracy on trial and demonstrate that “the common people were too ignorant, benighted and fickle to entrust with political power.” Socrates became the sacred martyr of the antipathy to intellectual aristocracy, the parallel to the oligarchy that challenged Athenian democratic propensities.

I.F. Stone makes the very bold claim that “the case against Socrates was political and that the charge of corrupting the youth was based on a belief – and considerable evidence – that he was undermining their faith in Athenian democracy.” In other words, democracy itself was on trial in a polity that had become an oligarchy and where philosophers like Plato had become de facto apologists for oligarchy. Each version of Socrates’ defence on the basis of rationality alone was intended to hide why Socrates was found guilty by a democratically selected jury. Why? Because Socrates had educated Critias and Critias turned into the worst and most tyrannical ruler in Athens. His successors, the Thirty Tyrants, engaged in ideological cleansing, forcing one-tenth of the population into exile.

In his account, Socrates points to the reference in both Plato and Xenophon to his, Socrates’, personal role and disobedience of direct orders, not through protest or confrontation, but by going AWOL. In other words, Socrates turned political irresponsibility into a virtue. Xenophon revealed Socrates’ anti-democratic propensities because ‘none wrought so many evils’ to the city of Athens as Critias and Alcibiades, the two most famous pupils of Socrates. The accuser said that in the terrible days of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias ‘bore the palm for greed and violence,’ while Alcibiades ‘exceeded all in licentiousness and insolence.”

Further, Xenephon, in quoting Homer to support and reinforce his portrait of Socrates, in his anti-democratic teaching, left out Homer’s praise of the ordinary man in the street’s voice and opposition to the monarchy and the divine right of kings. Xenophon also omitted any reference to the assembly called by King Agamemnon or the interventions of Thasrites, the vulgar upstart or “the Brash One.” Plato and Xenophon had provided cover for Socrates when the Democrats regained power and the extremist mobs under Critias and the Thirty Tyrants had brough so much disrepute to Athens. The goal, then, of Plato and Xenophon was to use Socrates in defence of an intellectual and political aristocracy in opposition to the demos on the one hand and tyrants on the other. The jury convicted Socrates because of both his arrogance and the suspicion that his teachings would undermine democracy once again.

The point of a show trial s to shape public opinion and to shape history. The responsibility is then laid not only at the conduct of the trial itself, but on those who shape the narrative afterwards. That is what is most important and not whether Clinton or Socrates of The Donald was or was not found guilty.


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