Most people I know are working hard to ensure that Trump and the Republican Party lose on November 3rd. Whatever you think of the Democrats, it is clear that if we want a country that is not ruled by brute force and hateful ideology, we need to win this election.
With days to go before the election, it is looking likely that Joe Biden will win and that he will win by a large enough margin that, while Trump may flail and moan, he will have to slink off to some island that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the US, to golf away the rest of his days in obscurity.
But just as it is a good idea to have an evacuation plan if you live in a fire-prone area, it is important that those of us who want to protect against the triumph of actual fascism in this country need to have an emergency plan to to protect democracy if Trump refuses to concede.
In order to prepare for what may come in the days after the election, many people are laying the groundwork to call for swift action so that the rest of us can just sign up, clear our calendars, and be ready to act. This essay summarizes some of the findings of three crucial written pieces that make the case for what we are up against, and it shares links to organizations mobilizing people to protect the results of the election.
Whether you have found the stability of our system frustrating because you wished it was more amenable to change, or you loved that stability because you thought the system upheld justice, most people in this country have believed our government to be stable and resilient to being overthrown. But four years into the present administration, we have seen just how flexible and unrooted our institutions are. Under the right circumstances, rules and laws can turn into water.
Some recent examples of how far things have come: that a president could be caught bribing a foreign leader and it would come to nothing; that a president could say on national television to terrorists to stand back and stand by; that when a plot to murder a governor was uncovered the president would side publicly with the plotters, and still have the strong support of more than 40% of voters; that a white supremacist could murder two people in front of police and a large crowd, walk away, and have large parts of the country, including many television personalities support him.
In “The Election That Could Break America,” Barton Gellman lays out a very persuasive case that if the election is not a landslide, there are several holes in our legal system that could allow Republicans to give the election to Trump even if he loses.
The worst case, however, is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him. If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold on to power.
How can he do that? One way is through intimidation of voters on November 3 and through intimidation of those counting votes. For forty years there was a consent decree that specifically prevented the Republican Party from intimidating people at the polls. In 2018 a judge allowed that consent decree to expire, and now, although voter intimidation is still illegal, there is no longer specific scrutiny on the Republican party to not engage in it. Gellman writes that,
This year, with a judge no longer watching, the Republicans are recruiting 50,000 volunteers in 15 contested states to monitor polling places and challenge voters they deem suspicious-looking. Trump called in to Fox News on August 20 to tell Sean Hannity, “We’re going to have sheriffs and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” to keep close watch on the polls.
In his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, historian Timothy Snyder draws simple lessons of the things we need to be aware of as the country creeps toward fascism. One lesson is that “When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.”
One of the core elements of fascism is that agents of the government act with brute force without regard for law. When the Department of Homeland Security uses teargas against peaceful protesters, and when the lines are blurred between people committing acts of violence in the street, the police, and the federal agencies, we are in a very dangerous situation. With respect to the coming election, it is crucial that armed mercenaries, off duty police, and armed security guards are not allowed to intimidate voters or those counting the votes.
Snyder argues that governmental institutions don’t protect themselves. Structures that seem to protect us from illegitimate accumulation of power can be overrun with incredible speed when those holding the reins of power decide to ignore them.
Gellman argues that, “State by state, [Republicans] have sought—with some success—to purge voter rolls, tighten rules on provisional votes, uphold voter identification requirements, ban the use of ballot drop boxes, reduce eligibility to vote by mail, discard mail-in ballots with technical flaws, and outlaw the counting of ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive afterward. The intent and effect is to throw away votes in large numbers.”
And the point of all of that work,and all of the talk about fake news and fraudulent mail in voting are not just to suppress the vote, but also to delegitimize the results. If in some crucial states the Republicans have more votes on election night and after a few days of voting the result shifts to the Democrats, those cries of fraud will seem legitimate to many.
There is a whole long period between November 3 and January 20 when the new President is put into power, an interregnum, where there are tremendous opportunities for abuses of power. First there is the period between November 3 and December 8 where there is time to settle lawsuits, recount ballots, and decide the outcome in each state. After December 8 comes the phase where electors are chosen. Gellman outlines constitutional and political ambiguities and openings where an election can be stolen. His article is worth reading in detail but to give just one point about the December 8 to January 20 period:
We are accustomed to choosing electors by popular vote, but nothing in the Constitution says it has to be that way. Article II provides that each state shall appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Since the late 19th century, every state has ceded the decision to its voters. Even so, the Supreme Court affirmed in Bush v. Gore that a state “can take back the power to appoint electors.” How and when a state might do so has not been tested for well over a century.
While most of us have grown up with an “it can’t happen here” mentality with respect to stolen elections, so much of what has already happened exceeds our wildest nightmares. Few of us, who grew up with Republicans talking about the constitution, rule of law, and our beloved institutions, would have expected the levels of mendacity we now see from Republicans, and their blind obedience to brute power.
And because the guardrails are so weak at this point, it is important that we prepare ourselves for the possibility of a coup. In “10 Things you Need to Know to Stop a Coup,” Daniel Hunter argues that we should use the language of the coup to describe what could happen on November 4th. What is likely to happen is more than voter suppression, it may be a full on attempt to take power without the legal right to do so. Hunter argues that
We know it’s a coup if the government: stops counting votes; declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election. These are sensible red lines that people can grasp right away (and that the majority of Americans continue to believe in). People who do power grabs always claim they’re doing it to save democracy or claim they know the “real” election results. So this doesn’t have to look like a military coup with one leader ordering the opposition to be arrested. If any of those three principles are violated, we have to declare loudly and strongly: This is a coup.
Hunter looks at the history of coups all around the world, and argues that the most important thing needed to stop a coup is that regular people are mobilized, watchful, and prepared to resist.
The role of citizenry is crucial. That’s because during the period right after a coup attempt— when the new government is claiming it is the “real” government — all the institutions have to decide who to listen to. A failed coup in Germany in 1920 gives an example. The population felt beaten down by defeat in World War I and high unemployment. Right-wing nationalists organized a coup and got the help of a few generals to seize government buildings…Widespread nonviolent resistance quickly began. Printers refused to print the new government’s newspapers. Civil servants refused to carry out any orders from the coup. And leaflets calling for an end to the coup were spread by airplane and by hand.There’s a story of the coup leader wandering up and down the corridors looking in vain for a secretary to type up his proclamations. The acts of resistance grew and eventually the democratic government (which still had grave problems) was returned to power.
Stopping a coup is dependent on the size of mobilizations and winning over the center. It is really a fight for legitimacy. Which voice is legitimate? Some people will have already made up their minds. The aim, then, is convincing those who are uncertain — which may be a more surprising number than you expect. To swing them to our side, that uncertain center has to be convinced that “we” represent stability and “the coup plotters” represent hostility to the democratic norms of elections and voting.
So what can you do to prevent the coup that Trump is likely to try, and that might gain enough traction to subvert the election? There are many people working on this preparation. In the US, elections are managed by the states and each state has its own process for counting ballots, settling lawsuits, and choosing electors. If you live in a swing state where there is likely to be serious work being done to protect the results you should connect with local organizations working in your state.
On a national level there are two organizations asking for people to sign up and be ready to act:
- Choose Democracy has a pledge to take to be on the streets to act when it is needed.
- Protect the Results is a broad coalition of organizations that is asking people to set up local actions and they’re coordinating about when is the best time to ask people to go out onto the streets
- Training Manual for Nonviolent Defense Against the Coup offers just what the name says.
I wrote this not to incite panic, but to help us all to not let our exhaustion allow us to be in denial about the real actions we may need to take to be ready to defend the election from a coup. While we are all doing other things with as much energy as we have, we also need to also put a few minutes into preparing our emergency kit.
My suggestion is that you spend most of the next days working with all you have for voter turnout, but that you also keep your eyes open to the possibility of the election being stolen, and be ready to follow the lead of organizers mobilizing a strong response.
Winning, and then protecting this election against a coup, are necessary steps to getting back to our regular work of fighting to build a just and sustainable society.
Published in Common Dreams October 25, 2020