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.”
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.”
Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.