Progressive Groups Are Preparing to Thwart a Possible Trump-Led Coup. Here's How.

Sometimes democracy needs to be defended in the streets. These grassroots organizations are getting ready.

Maurizio Guerrero

Protestors march to the U.S. Supreme Court from the residence of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on September 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Dozens of grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions are prepar­ing coor­di­nat­ed respons­es to uphold democ­ra­cy in the Unit­ed States giv­en Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s refusal to com­mit to a peace­ful trans­fer of pow­er if the elec­tion results are unfa­vor­able to him. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the Glob­al South, in which sev­er­al coup d’é­tats have been avoid­ed, activists are orga­niz­ing on the premise that, at some junc­tures, democ­ra­cy has to be defend­ed on the streets — and the only way to resist a pow­er grab is by send­ing the unequiv­o­cal mes­sage that reg­u­lar peo­ple will not accept an impo­si­tion. The mobi­liza­tion of mil­lions of ordi­nary cit­i­zens could be the cru­cial fac­tor pre­vent­ing Trump from steal­ing the elec­tion, these groups say.

Democ­ra­cy is not sim­ply about vot­ing,” says Mau­rice Moe Mitchell, nation­al direc­tor of the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty. A robust democ­ra­cy includes every­day peo­ple using all the tools at our dis­pos­al. That absolute­ly means vot­ing, but it also means orga­niz­ing and protests.” Come Novem­ber, Mitchell adds, it will also mean pres­sur­ing leg­is­la­tors and elect­ed offi­cials on every lev­el to make sure each vote is count­ed and respected. 

Along with the Move­ment for Black Lives Elec­toral Jus­tice Project, the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty launched The Front­line, a Black-led, mul­tira­cial coali­tion that aims to car­ry the ener­gy of this sum­mer’s upris­ings to stop Trump­ism and white suprema­cy in both elec­toral and non-elec­toral forms.

We are talk­ing to peo­ple across the move­ments — from the cli­mate move­ment to Black lives to the labor move­ment — about every­thing we have to do to ensure that Don­ald Trump is a one-term pres­i­dent,” Mitchell says. We are not talk­ing about just one tac­tic, we are talk­ing about all the tactics.”

The Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty also par­tic­i­pates in Pro­tect the Results, a coali­tion of more than 100 pro­gres­sive and con­ser­v­a­tive advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions, good gov­ern­ment and faith groups, labor unions, and grass­roots net­works in the coun­try to defend the valid­i­ty of the elec­tions. The coali­tion was formed late last year when it was clear that Trump would not nec­es­sar­i­ly allow a peace­ful tran­si­tion of pow­er if defeat­ed, as sug­gest­ed since his first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. I will total­ly accept the results of this great and his­toric pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, if I win,” he claimed at a ral­ly in Ohio less than a month before his vic­to­ry in 2016.

Through a text-mes­sag­ing sys­tem, Pro­tect the Results would mobi­lize peo­ple to protest and to direct actions, includ­ing work strikes, if Trump attempts a pow­er grab. It will also dri­ve calls to state and local elec­tion offi­cials — to ensure votes are respect­ed, and to pres­sure them to denounce any attempts by Trump to under­mine the process. The coali­tion runs a cam­paign via text, email and social media to inform about the project and to urge peo­ple in the Unit­ed States to join the net­work. It also engages experts and aca­d­e­mics to edu­cate the pub­lic about the risks U.S democ­ra­cy is facing.

I expect mil­lions of Amer­i­cans would come out to the streets to defend our democ­ra­cy if need­ed,” says Brett Edkins, polit­i­cal direc­tor at Stand Up Amer­i­ca, a non­prof­it found­ed by LGBTQ rights activist Sean Eldridge. Along with Indi­vis­i­ble, which is engaged in pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy and elec­toral work, Stand Up Amer­i­ca leads the Pro­tect the Results coali­tion. Vot­ing is not enough with some­one like Trump, who flouts demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, lies about mail-in-vot­ing, spreads mis­in­for­ma­tion and fear,” Edkins says. We have to be pre­pared for the remote pos­si­bil­i­ty that he tries to sub­vert the will of the people.”

Oth­er coun­tries’ expe­ri­ences could serve as a guide for action. After ana­lyz­ing six coup sce­nar­ios through 12 case stud­ies, Stephen Zunes, pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co, con­clud­ed in Decem­ber 2017 that pro-democ­ra­cy ele­ments must mobi­lize quick­ly and engage in what may be unplanned and large­ly spon­ta­neous acts of resis­tance.” In these incred­i­bly flu­id sce­nar­ios, the key” that deter­mines if a counter-coup is effec­tive is the behav­ior and actions of ordi­nary people.”

Ordi­nary people’s power 

As pres­i­dent, Trump has rou­tine­ly ignored demo­c­ra­t­ic norms, vio­lat­ed laws and bent insti­tu­tions to his will. In Sep­tem­ber, he joked about extend­ing his pos­si­ble sec­ond term past 2024. He cease­less­ly lies, insults and abus­es, and refus­es to con­demn out­landish con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, like QAnon, which pro­motes the idea that Satanists” (high-pro­file lib­er­als) run a glob­al child traf­fick­ing ring. 

The threat he pos­es to democ­ra­cy was on full dis­play dur­ing the Sep­tem­ber 29 pres­i­den­tial debate, when he claimed that Novem­ber’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions could not be con­duct­ed with­out fraud, in remarks that appeared aimed at dele­git­imiz­ing the elec­tion out­come in the event he los­es. Indis­putably trail­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date Joe Biden in the polls, Trump could face crim­i­nal charges for tax fraud after leav­ing office. He has already shown he has the will to use the mil­i­tary to quash peace­ful protests.

We assess with a high degree of like­li­hood that Novem­ber’s elec­tions will be marked by a chaot­ic legal and polit­i­cal land­scape,” the Tran­si­tion Integri­ty Project, a bipar­ti­san group of over 100 cur­rent and for­mer senior gov­ern­ment and cam­paign lead­ers and oth­er experts, con­clud­ed in an August 2020 report. Pres­i­dent Trump is like­ly to con­test the results by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold on to pow­er,” the group stated.

To help pro­tect the vote, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), the largest social­ist orga­ni­za­tion in the Unit­ed States, is con­sid­er­ing dif­fer­ent direct action options for the post-elec­tion, includ­ing protests, sit-ins and a num­ber of mobi­liza­tion tac­tics,” says Mar­i­anela D’Aprile, a mem­ber of the DSA’s Nation­al Polit­i­cal Com­mit­tee. (DSA endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) in the 2020 pri­ma­ry and did not make any endorse­ment in the gen­er­al pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.) The orga­ni­za­tion is rely­ing on its mem­ber­ship’s huge upsurge since Sanders launched his sec­ond pres­i­den­tial cam­paign as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist in 2019. As of Fall 2020, DSA’s mem­ber­ship had grown to more than 71,000, from 50,000 two years ago.

In terms of mobi­liza­tion and protests, there’s been a kind of demys­ti­fi­ca­tion. It’s much more nor­mal­ized now as some­thing that it’s pow­er­ful and works,” says D’Aprile, whose par­ents lived through the bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship in Argenti­na that last­ed from 1976 to 1983. I think that our polit­i­cal land­scape has absolute­ly changed.”

Up to 26 mil­lion peo­ple came out to the streets after the mur­der of George Floyd last May — the largest series of pub­lic demon­stra­tions in U.S. his­to­ry. In some way, the activ­i­ty that we are going to be doing as we approach the elec­tions and after the elec­tions is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the move­ment of this past sum­mer, when so many peo­ple respond­ed in a his­toric way orga­niz­ing around Black lives,” Mitchel says. Those folks are still hun­gry for change.”

Right-wing vio­lence?

Pres­i­dent Trump failed to dis­avow the Proud Boys, a vio­lent white suprema­cist group, dur­ing the Sep­tem­ber 29 pres­i­den­tial debate. Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” he said, which was inter­pret­ed by the orga­ni­za­tion as an endorsement.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is how the mil­i­tary would respond in the con­text of uncer­tain elec­tion results,” accord­ing to the Tran­si­tion Integri­ty Project report. Vio­lent right-wing extrem­ists inten­si­fy that con­cern. The poten­tial for vio­lent con­flict is high, par­tic­u­lar­ly since Trump encour­ages his sup­port­ers to take up arms,” reads the report.

D’Aprille says, Of course this is scary, I’m not gonna pre­tend it’s not. But we are more pow­er­ful when we are togeth­er.” The most impor­tant thing for pro­test­ers to con­sid­er, she adds, is that our strength is in our numbers.”

Ral­lies of vio­lent right-wing mili­tias have essen­tial­ly func­tioned to intim­i­date and dis­suade pub­lic demon­stra­tions. Coor­di­nat­ed par­tic­i­pa­tion may counter these tac­tics. On the streets, unions could also be count­ed in the resis­tance. The Pro­tect the Results coali­tion includes Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca and the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), which togeth­er rep­re­sent almost 2 mil­lion workers.

We had a very robust and his­toric response from labor to the police killings of Black folks, includ­ing work stop­pages in sports teams,” says Mitchell. The reck­on­ing that we are expe­ri­enc­ing is pass­ing through every sin­gle sec­tor of our move­ment, includ­ing the labor movement.”

Coor­di­nat­ed by unions, grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions or social­ist groups, ordi­nary peo­ple might play a cru­cial role in main­tain­ing democ­ra­cy in the Unit­ed States, as they have all over the world through­out the 20th century.

Democ­ra­cy is not just some­thing that you check in every four years,” says Mitchell. You need to be vig­i­lant. Democ­ra­cy is the orga­niz­ing that you do in your neigh­bor­hood. It is the advo­ca­cy that you express in direct action and protests.”

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

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