President Donald Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power no matter who wins the election. What is to be done if Trump loses the election but refuses to concede?
Tyrannical regimes from Serbia to the Philippines to Brazil and many other places have been brought down by “people power” — non-violent revolts that made society ungovernable and led to regime change. While the US has a strong tradition of social movements based on people power, it does not have a tradition of using mass action and general strikes for the defence of democracy. However, in other countries where democratic institutions have been so weakened or eliminated that they provide no alternative to tyranny, such methods have emerged and been used effectively.
After the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr. in 1983, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos met growing protests. Marcos called a presidential election to be held in February, 1986. Aquino’s widow Corazon Aquino was backed by all major opposition parties. Marcos’ campaign included vote-buying and the murder of more than 70 opposition workers. On election day casting of fake ballots and falsification of returns was widely witnessed.
Marcos claimed victory, but Mrs. Aquino met with opposition leaders and proposed a long non-violent campaign of what she dubbed “people power.” Top military officers resigned, withdrew support from Marcos, recognised Aquino as the legitimate winner, and fled to military camps in Manila. The city’s Roman Catholic Church leader appealed on nationwide radio for people to non-violently protect the officers and prevent bloodshed. By midnight 50,000 surrounded the camps; two days later it was more than a million. Marcos ordered tanks and armoured transports to attack. Nuns knelt in front of the tanks and priests climbed on them and led a million protesters – plus soldiers – in prayer. The troops turned back. Next day Marcos ordered another assault, but the commanding officer ordered his troops to return to their base. The military rebels announced that ninety per cent of the Armed Forces had defected. Large crowds took over the government television station. The next day Marcos fled the country and Aquino was inaugurated president. Ever after mass non-violent direct action has been known around the world as “People Power.”
This summer a group called the Transition Integrity Project held a series of “war games” with more than 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts to review possible scenarios for the upcoming election and presidential transition. The result:
We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. We also assess that President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power. Recent events, including the President’s own unwillingness to commit to abiding by the results of the election, the Attorney General’s embrace of the President’s groundless electoral fraud claims, and the unprecedented deployment of federal agents to put down left-wing protests, underscore the extreme lengths to which President Trump may be willing to go in order to stay in office.
Their likely scenarios included: Trump’s refusal to concede; Attorney General William Barr opening investigation of vote-by-mail fraud allegations and Democratic ties to antifa; and rival selection of pro-Trump electoral college slates by Republican state legislatures. Meanwhile Trump would call for armed supporters to challenge pro-Biden demonstrators, leading to multiple killings of demonstrators; Trump says he will invoke the Insurrection Act to teach anti-American terrorists a lesson. All this before Thanksgiving. Except in the case of a big Biden win, each scenario “reached the brink of catastrophe, with massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse.” In two of the scenarios there was no agreement on the winner by Inauguration Day.
An extended article in The Atlantic by Barton Gellman released in late September presented evidence that Trump and Republican officials are already laying the groundwork for such scenarios. The disruption of the Post Office and the plans to intimidate voters and prevent full vote counting are already under way... Preparations are already being made for red state legislators to replace elected members of the Electoral College with their own appointees. Barton spells out in detail this and many other strategies available and likely to be used to prevent a losing President Trump from being forced to leave office.
In late September, four movement activists and experts on civil resistance issued a manual called Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy. Reminiscent of the Indivisible manual that helped launch the resistance to Trump in 2016, it presents a detailed plan for locally-based resistance to a Trump Coup. It lays out various scenarios in which Trump refuses to leave office. It calls for forming community-based “election protection” groups. These can start immediately with meetings by a small core group that develops a response plan and recruits others to participate in it. These groups will “hold the line” that all votes must be counted; all irregularities must be investigated impartially and remedied; and election results must be respected, regardless of who wins. Public officials can be called on in advance to state their commitment to these principles. Violation of these “Red Lines” by Trump or other officials will trigger these groups into action.
The guide provides sample meeting agendas, templates for “Power Maps” of forces to influence, tactics “brainstorming sheets,” and other planning tools. It outlines targeted action to “undermine the pillars of support” for an illegal Trump regime. It calls for mass popular mobilisation based on disciplined non-violence because “violence will backfire badly against the side that uses it.” It discusses tactics including displaying symbols of protest; engaging in demonstrations, marches, and non-violent blockades; strikes of all kinds; deliberate work slowdowns; boycotts of all kinds; divestment; refusing to pay certain fees, bills, taxes, or other costs; or refusal to observe certain expected social norms or behaviours.
Trade unionists Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jose La Luz have made a related proposal for organised labour to establish “pro-democracy volunteer brigades” in preparation for the election.
We need volunteers who will assist with voter registration; mobilise in large numbers should law enforcement and right-wing militias show up at polling places in order to intimidate voters; block the right-wing from challenging legitimate voters and ballots; and lay the groundwork for massive civil disobedience should the Trump administration attempt to forestall the elections and/or refuse to recognise the results.
The Trump presidency has been an era of mass resistance. A social science organisation called the Crowd Counting Consortium listed more than eighty-seven hundred protests with six to nine million participants in the first year of the Trump administration, 90 percent opposing Trump’s agenda. The Black Lives Matter protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd constituted the largest mass uprising in the US in half a century with an estimated 15 to 26 million participants. The base for contesting a Trump Coup is already in motion.
At the start of September, a coalition of 50 organisations called the Fight Back Table, which includes Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, Color of Change, Indivisible, and MoveOn, established a post-election planning vehicle called the Democracy Defence Nerve Center. Taking off from the Transition Integrity Project war games, they have begun to chart out what it would take to stand up a multi-state communications arm to fight disinformation, a training program for non-violent civil disobedience, and the underpinnings of what one official described as “mass public unrest.” They began to struggle with such questions as how do you maintain sustained strikes and occupations and what do you do if armed right-wing militias show up at polling places?
A number of other groups have been mobilising to forestall or overcome a Trump coup. Protect the Results, a joint project of Indivisible and Stand Up America supported by 80 other groups, is planning mass mobilisation in more than 1,000 locations. Keep Our Republic is organising to support a “civic creed” to “Let all citizens vote. Let all votes be counted. Let the count stand.” The group People’s Strike has issued a Pledge of Resistance committing to occupy civic squares on Wednesday, November 4th, to occupy state capitols on Saturday, November 7th, and to engage in “strategic rolling strikes” thereafter. No doubt other preparations are under way as well.
Resisting the rise of tyranny will no doubt require sacrifice. After all, we are dealing with an aspiring tyrant who lionises someone who shoots down demonstrators in the street. But that sacrifice will not be primarily on behalf of one political party vs. another, of Democrats vs. Republicans. It will be a defence of democracy – defence of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Beyond that, it is the protection of that which makes our life together on earth possible... Overcoming a Trump Coup is Social Self-Defence.
• Abridged, with thanks, from here.