Politics, it is said, makes strange bedfellows. And occasionally that maxim is useful in explaining the erratic behavior of former President Donald Trump.
Because he seems to have no guiding political principles or moral anchors he happily draws inspiration from unpredictable and unexpected sources.
As I’ve followed what Trump is doing in his various encounters with the American legal system, I have been struck by how much of it seems drawn from the playbook followed by the defendants in the Chicago Seven trial more than 50 years ago. In that trial, the defendants were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. That riot emerged out of an effort to organize and protest against the Vietnam War.
The Chicago Seven trial started after Richard Nixon became president and was presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman. As noted by the History Channel, it “turned into a circus as the defendants and their attorneys used the court as a platform to attack Nixon, the Vietnam War, racism and oppression.”
Like them, Trump is intent on mocking the legal process, goading the prosecutors, judges, and other legal officials involved in his trials, and turning the solemnity usually associated with legal proceedings on its head.
Like them, he wants to put the law and the trial process on trial.
Like them, he is treating his legal troubles as political events and reaching an audience far beyond the courthouse.
All the while, even as he protests that the way he is being treated will “undermine confidence in the United States judicial system,” he hopes to undermine confidence that the law is anything but a tool of political persecution.
Before elaborating further on the comparison to the Chicago Seven trial, let’s look at examples of Trump’s effort to mock the legal process. There are many of them, from his glaring and menacing look in his Fulton County mug shot to his noisemaking and attention-seeking during witness testimony in his New York civil fraud case to his face-to-face attacks on the judge in that case during his own testimony.
But the one I like to focus on here is the motion he filed on November 10 seeking to have proceedings televised in the election interference case filed by special prosecutor Jack Smith in Washington DC. That motion is less about the law and any remedy it can provide than it is an attempt to turn law into political theater.
In its five pages, Trump’s lawyers cite only three cases as precedents, and none of them has anything to do with the question of whether federal criminal trials can or should be televised. The work of supporting his request is done by marshaling scholarship on “show trials,” which is what Trump contends his would be.
As his motion asserts, the charges against him are “baseless and politically motivated.”
It alleges, without offering any evidence, collusion between the court and the prosecution in what it labels a “coordinated effort to undermine Pres. Trump’s candidacy as he faces, and leads, Pres. Biden in the 2024 presidential election.” It contends that televising the trial would show that Jack Smith’s prosecution is part of a “transparently partisan mission to defeat a political opponent to heaven election that the prosecuting administration is likely to lose” and that is designed as an unconstitutional attempt “to eliminate its leading political opponent.”
Moreover, the court and the prosecution intend, the motion says, to deny Trump his “inalienable rights.” Those rights, it argues, include the right to “a fair trial in a politically diverse venue, due process, a judge without the appearance of bias or prejudgment, prepare for trial, and the right to speak freely and publicly about this case in the face of the prosecutions agree just lies.”
The court and the prosecutor are colluding, the motion contends, to carry out a “travesty in darkness.” The public should be able to watch as “Pres. Trump exonerates himself from these baseless and politically motivated charges.”
In his November 10 motion, Trump behaves in a familiar way, accusing others of doing what he himself is intent on doing. It suggests, with no hint of irony, that his prosecution is designed “to squeeze propaganda value from possible distortions of actual events” even as he himself uses such distortions for his own purposes.
The motion warns that his prosecution has “all the unfortunate badges of a trial in an authoritarian regime,” even as he makes clear his plans to institute such a regime if he is returned to the White House.
Trump and his lawyers say that show trials “tell more about the power of the state than its concern for the decent administration of justice,” even as he makes clear that if returned to power he will prosecute political opponents and use the administration of justice to repress and punish dissent.
Throughout the November 10 motion, Trump and his lawyers expressed contempt for the judicial process and announced their intention to turn his forthcoming criminal trial into a made-for-TV event.
While the 1969 Chicago Seven trial was not televised, it was by all accounts a widely publicized and well-covered event. As an article in Smithsonian Magazine notes, “From the day the trial began on September 24, 1969, it captivated the media.”
The defendants and their supporters tried to use this fact to their advantage. Outside the courthouse where they were tried, they chanted repeatedly, “The whole world is watching.” What they hoped that the world would see was their subversion of the legal process.
The Smithsonian article argues that the entire defense strategy “was one of disruption, and it worked.” The defendants and their lawyers succeeded in turning the trial into “political theater.”
They regularly greeted the jury with a fist salute, a symbol of Black resistance to oppression made popular by American Black athletes in the 1968 Olympics. In addition, they “refused to rise when Judge Hoffman entered the courtroom and wore American and Communist Vietnamese flags.”
One of the defendants, Abbie Hoffman, insisted on calling the judge “Julie” rather than “Your Honor” and blew kisses to the jury.
As the Smithsonian recounts, on one occasion two of the defendants arrived in court “wearing judicial robes, which they removed on the judge’s orders to reveal blue policeman’s uniforms underneath.”
And, in the most dramatic provocation, Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, repeatedly disrupted the trial proceedings, calling Hoffman “a racist and a fascist and a pig.”
Exasperated and provoked, Judge Hoffman ordered Seale chained to a chair and gagged in the courtroom. For several days, Seale appeared that way before the jury, struggling to get free and managing to make muffled sounds.
Kunstler received a contempt citation when he reacted to what was done to Seale by saying, “This is no longer a court of order… this is a medieval torture chamber.”
And, as the Smithsonian notes, “the image of a Black man in shackles, rendered by courtroom artists because cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom, was circulated by media around the world.”
On February 18, l970, all seven defendants in the case were acquitted on the conspiracy charge, but five of them were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent of inciting a riot.
In the end, they succeeded in turning their trial into political theater and what the Chicago History Museum calls “a cultural moment in the 1960s.” They succeeded in highlighting law’s inability to counter their disruptions in ways that did not enhance their portrait of themselves as martyrs to a corrupt and unjust political regime.
Whether or not Trump will be as disruptive in any of his trials as the Chicago Seven were in theirs remains to be seen. But we already have enough evidence to see Trump’s approach for what it is and how it takes inspiration from them.
There may be little that any of the judges in the cases against him can do to counter Trump’s mockery and subversion of the judicial process except by not overreacting and scrupulously adhering to what the rule of law dictates.
As was the case with the Chicago Seven, whether Trump ultimately prevails will be decided in the court of public opinion and not in any courtroom.