Events in Charlottesville, Lafayette Square, and Portland have shown the country that President Donald Trump is prepared to do whatever it takes to keep power, including embracing militant white supremacists and using federal troops to tear gas and arrest peaceful protesters. His noxious proposal to postpone the elections is not the real threat to democracy. He has openly declared that he may not abide by the election results in a nationally televised interview on Fox News. Trump has a lot of tools at his disposal to steal the election if he loses, many of which he’s already putting into motion. Can he be stopped? We believe that he can be, but only if most Americans are willing to put their trust in people power — rather than courts, norms, and elites — to save democracy.
The evidence of the risk we face is impossible to ignore. Trump is questioning the legitimacy of an election that will rely on mail-in ballots, even though he himself has often voted absentee. He has threatened to withhold funding from states that are trying to make it easier for people to vote, and he is undermining the U.S. Postal Service, both of which are essential, especially in a pandemic. His Republican allies around the country have been passing voter ID laws, purging voter rolls, and cutting the number of polling places in urban areas, forcing people to stand in line for hours to exercise their right to vote. This is a war on voters who lean Democratic, specifically Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, poor people, and young people. We’ve already seen in Georgia and Wisconsin how these tactics play out on Election Day.
Trump’s administration has downplayed foreign interference in the elections that benefit him. He has given succor to white nationalist groups, and the Republican Party has deputized 50,000 “poll watchers” to intimidate minority voters on Election Day. This will be the first election since 1980 during which the Republican National Committee will not be bound by a federal consent decree that prohibited “ballot security” efforts whose real purpose was to intimidate and disenfranchise minority voters. Let’s be clear: Trump and the Republicans are already trying to steal the election.
Trump is already crying fraud with absolutely no proof and could use the days after the election to stoke hysteria, rage, and violence among his supporters.
If all that chicanery fails and Trump still loses, most people assume that his only option is to concede defeat and leave — especially if he loses by a big margin. But let’s picture what things could look like after Election Day. The new voting procedures implemented in response to Covid-19 will make this election feel different to many voters, and will also delay the counting of ballots well past November 3. New York was still counting ballots over a month after its June 23 primary election. Most people expect a “blue shift” — meaning that Trump may be ahead in the count of votes cast on Election Day ballots but that mailed ballots will skew Democratic. Trump is already crying fraud with absolutely no proof and could use the days after the election to stoke hysteria, rage, and violence among his supporters.
To steal the election, we suspect he will adapt the standard playbook of authoritarians everywhere: cast doubt on the election results by filing numerous lawsuits and launching coordinated federal and state investigations, including into foreign interference; call on militia groups to intimidate election officials and instigate violence; rely on fringe social media to generate untraceable rumors, and on Fox News to amplify these messages as fact; and create a climate of confusion and chaos. He might ask the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security — which he has now weaponized against democracy — to deploy to big cities in swing states to stop the vote count or seize ballots. If he does all this right, he’ll be able to put soldiers on the streets, inflame his base, and convince millions of people that the election is being stolen from him. This would create the predicate for overturning the will of the voters.
What’s his end game? Under the Constitution, state legislatures decide how to appoint electors. They have all chosen to rely on the popular vote. But could they create a false justification to claw back this power? The legislatures in all of the closely contested states this fall — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina — are controlled by Republicans. Trump could argue that mail-in ballots should not be counted and ask state legislatures to appoint electors different than the ones chosen by voters. This would be undemocratic and illegal; it’s hard to conceive how you justify changing the rules for appointing electors after the election. But they have contemplated it before: Florida’s Republican legislature seriously considered doing just that in 2000 before the Supreme Court ultimately stepped in.
All this orchestrated chaos could prevent the electors from casting their ballots as required on December 14 or allow Trump to get a competing slate of electors sent to Congress from the states. Either way, he will have pushed our election into January when the new Congress meets to decide the outcome. At this point, the rules about how to resolve disputes are unclear, and could be governed by a badly worded law passed in 1887. If neither candidate receives a majority of the Electoral College votes, the Constitution’s 12th Amendment allows the House of Representatives to choose the president. You might think that’s good news — but the rules in this case give each state delegation one vote, so the lone Republican congresswoman from Wyoming has the same power as the 52 members of the overwhelmingly Democratic California delegation. Right now, Republicans control a majority of the state delegations even though the Democrats control the chamber.
This is far from an exhaustive list of what could go wrong in the 78 fraught days between Election Day and inauguration. Experts have considered the mechanisms in our rickety constitutional order that a would-be autocrat could use to defy the will of the people and the provisions that might restrain the usurpation. It turns out that our democracy rests on a set of shaky norms more than on ironclad rules. The possibilities for malign mischief are legion.
We will be urged not to “politicize” the process, to wait patiently and to not “prejudge the results.” We need to ignore such advice and take to the streets.
What must we be prepared to do if Trump questions the legitimacy of the electoral results and won’t concede defeat? We can learn what not to do from the disastrous 2000 election in which George W. Bush lost Florida and therefore the election to Al Gore but ended up taking the White House anyway. Republicans famously mobilized a “Brooks Brothers riot” of young white male campaign staffers, many flown in from D.C., to protest the recount and create an atmosphere of intimidation and chaos. Democrats dithered, mobilized no one, and played by Marquess of Queensberry rules. They naively relied on the courts and local election officials to validate Gore’s victory. The ultimate result of this pathetic Democratic strategy was not only a Bush victory but the Iraq War, the racist and inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and trillions of dollars of tax cuts for the rich.
Exactly the same dilemma will face us this time if Trump won’t accept defeat. Joe Biden’s campaign is recruiting lawyers, not organizers, and Biden himself has expressed misplaced confidence that the military “will escort [Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” on Inauguration Day. Democratic Party operatives, good-government types, an army of constitutional lawyers, and other self-appointed experts will urge us not to “politicize” the process, to wait patiently and talk about the “rule of law,” to not “prejudge the results” — to trust the process and the courts, to stay home and let the smart boys in D.C. work things out on our behalf.
We need to ignore such advice and take to the streets. We have been through four horrendous years in which our vaunted institutions have failed to hold Trump to account — most notably with the failure to convict him in the Senate after the House impeached him. The Republican Party and Fox News have divorced themselves from both the formal rules and the unwritten norms that constrained unaccountable executive behavior. During the public health crisis, the president and many Republican leaders have shown contempt for truth and a willingness to fan the flames of outlandish conspiracy theories. There’s no reason to believe that there are any norms that will constrain this president, who likely faces criminal prosecution when he leaves office. His fellow Republicans have had four years to reign him in and have chosen not to. And if you think John Roberts’s Supreme Court will save us, think again: For all the attention given to a few unexpected victories for liberals, the Court ruled four separate times this term against voting rights.
While institutions, norms, and elites have failed us, there is abundant evidence that mass protest produces change. We are living in a golden age of social movements. Most recently, the Movement for Black Lives changed how white people think about policing in America, put bold new demands on the agenda, and is producing substantial, albeit thus far insufficient, changes in policies. The immigrant rights movement responded to the Muslim ban and the caging of children at the border with mass protest that forced a national reckoning with these cruel policies. Workers, often outside of union structures, have taken to the streets in extraordinary numbers – from the Fight for 15 to strikes by teachers and mobilizations by Amazon employees and essential workers. They have won big increases in wages and improved working conditions. The Occupy movement reintroduced the problem of economic oligarchy into the political debate. Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential candidacies were powered by this movement vision and pushed the Democratic Party to the left. And the “resistance” groups that mobilized early in the Trump years — the Women’s March, Indivisible, and others — have built muscle memory among millions of people of what it’s like to engage in sustained activism. Most encouraging, these movements have recruited millions of new supporters. These groups together provide a powerful social base from which to contest the president’s planned usurpation of power.
And the movements have substantial leverage in two decisive arenas: politics and the economy. In politics, the Democratic Party relies on voters allied with these movements. If the party decides to play hardball, it can stop Trump from stealing the election. Right now, Democrats can insist on funding for a free and fair election as well as the Postal Service, and ensure that local election systems have the resources and systems in place to accommodate the surge of mail-in ballots. And when Trump tries to steal the election after November 3, Democrats will control governors’ mansions in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If the Republican legislatures in these states try to overrule the will of the people, governors can push back and send a legitimate electoral vote tally to Congress. Likewise, after the election, Democratic House and Senate members will have leverage of their own.
Getting Democrats to use the full extent of their power will not be easy. It will take a mass movement on a scale we have not yet seen, and the mobilization will need to be sustained for weeks and possibly months. Intense pressure from millions of people — that rivals the intensity of the Trump base — will be needed to stiffen the spines of national and state Democratic leaders.
The professional communicators, technocrats, and lawyers in much of the mainstream Democratic Party and some in the media will be horrified by this call for a mass nonviolent uprising in response to the theft of an election. Culturally, the professional, middle-class people in these roles believe that expertise and good judgment, not mass protest, deliver the goods. They have learned in their own lives that rational debate, rule-following, and conflict avoidance help them climb the ladder. Unfortunately, these traits and behaviors don’t work against autocrats. Politically, the Democratic Party has, for 30 years, triangulated, dodged, and capitulated to its ruthless opponents, and since its leaders are from that earlier generation schooled to cower, they will not adapt quickly now. The liberal establishment inside the Beltway will argue for sober analysis, moderate messages, following procedures, and, above all … for waiting. We must prepare to defy those milquetoast nostrums just as much as we prepare for Trump’s planned theft of the election. Overcoming complacency, rampant incredulity that “it could happen here,” and misplaced faith in norms, courts and elites may be our biggest challenges.
Unfortunately, rational debate, rule-following, and conflict avoidance don’t work against autocrats.
Another key movement objective should be to force corporate and Republican elites to break with Trump. Doing so will require pushing them to answer a simple question: Is the price of keeping Trump in power greater than the price of allowing Biden to take over as president? Truth be told, Biden should not scare the elite. He has been sympathetic to their agenda on everything from bankruptcy to trade, and has resisted policies like Medicare for All. But Trump has delivered deregulation, tax cuts, and huge numbers of judges for the right’s core constituencies. He has, until perhaps recently, been good for their bottom line. So the protests will need to be not only boisterous and performative but also to put profits at risk. We should plan for and encourage forms of mass action such as work stoppages, consumer boycotts, and rent strikes that target the corporate class. The message from us to them needs to be clear: If you stand by and allow Trump to steal the election, we will threaten your profit. The only thing that would compel corporate titans and their political lackeys in the Republican Party to abandon Trump would be a crisis — not a crisis of conscience but of profitability.
If Trump steals the election, a broad united front will have to make the country ungovernable and the reigning regime illegitimate, despite the risks involved. We can take lessons and heart from other countries around the world where autocrats have sought to steal elections. We can pull off a peaceful Orange Revolution of our own. To do so, we will need to encourage mass civil disobedience — and dare the authorities to arrest hundreds of thousands of people day after day. If an illegitimate election gives rise to civil disorder that cannot be easily suppressed, corporate and political elites will move to dump Trump to protect their interests.
To prevent Trump from stealing the election, we must act now. Movement leaders should discuss these scenarios with their members and plan for action immediately on election night and beyond. We can also reach beyond progressive bubbles and talk to other people of good will, local elected officials, civil servants, members of security forces, and faith and civic leaders who will likely be willing to take risks they have never previously considered if they are engaged about the stakes and respectfully invited in. Thousands more people should be trained in the methods of nonviolent civil disobedience; this would be the right way to honor and carry forward the tradition of the late John Lewis, who famously enjoined us to make “good trouble, necessary trouble” in response to injustice. Organizations should create bail funds and recruit lawyers. Everyone working to defeat Trump should redouble their efforts, with a focus on mobilizing voters of color — a landslide weakens Trump’s hand — and also be prepared to keep staff and volunteers going until noon on January 20. Grassroots groups in key states should be supported with extra human and financial resources, since all of us are depending on them to be able to keep up the fight past Election Day. Everyday people can make plans as workers, tenants, and consumers to organize and prepare to use their economic leverage in the days and weeks after Election Day to cut off the source of profits for Trump’s corporate enablers. We can also organize mutual aid, building on the explosion of such effort during the pandemic, to support people who take such risks, many of whom already face great hardship.
We hope that the worst does not unfold this fall. If the establishment concludes Trump is a menace to them as well as to the rest of us, they may yet rally to find a path to ease Trump out of the way and get him to abide by the results. But we should not make the fatal mistake of underestimating Trump or, more importantly, his supporters and the vast infrastructure aligned behind him. Trump did not beam into America from another planet; there are millions of people who are driving this authoritarian turn, and they are independent actors unlikely to stand down. If they don’t believe in Covid-19 or in wearing masks, and do believe in unproven drugs, what makes anyone think they’ll believe Trump lost the election? Fox News and the right-wing social media apparatus are formidable vehicles for mobilization and coordination. Perhaps most ominously, some of local law enforcement has proved to be in cahoots with the right-wing machine.
So we should prepare now to respond — psychologically and strategically — to something akin to a coup. These are dark but plausible scenarios, and we’d be better off facing than avoiding them. The worst of all possible outcomes would be for a broad united front of anti-Trump forces to be caught flatfooted in the 72 hours after Election Day, stunned by his brazenness and gathering its wits. We must lay the groundwork now for the kind of mass action that defends democracy and evicts this despicable, racist, wannabe authoritarian from the White House. In so doing, we will remind ourselves that American democracy is not a set of institutions or rules or an event that happens once every four years; it is what everyday people do to participate in and shape the life of our country.