Protests Won’t Be Enough to Stop a Coup
Resistance requires a lot more strategy.
Casting a ballot by Election Day is just the first thing Americans have to worry about. What if President Donald Trump and his allies stop the counting of ballots, or delay vote certification until Republican state legislatures can play hanky-panky with the electors? What if civil war breaks out? “We’ll take to the streets,” Joe Biden supporters tell one another. Isn’t that what people do?
Protesting is certainly what a lot of people will think of doing, and will do. It’s what Protect the Results, a coalition of more than 100 grassroots groups, is recommending, at least for now. Of the more than a dozen election-protection organizations that have popped up over the past two months, Protect the Results is probably the best-known. As of this writing, you can find more than 450 events around the country on its website, many scheduled for the day after the election. I signed up for one in New York City and got an email telling me to be ready to report to an address on Fifth Avenue on November 4 in the “highly likely” event that national protests will be necessary.
But I’m not sure that amassing on Fifth Avenue the day after the election will be the right call—at least if votes are still being counted and Trump hasn’t falsely claimed victory. Protests alone won’t be enough to stop what might be coming, and to be effective, they should be timed just right. Early in October, I came across a webinar called “How to Beat an Election-Related Power Grab” being offered by a then-obscure group named Choose Democracy. The course was advertised as a workshop that would “share the most important things to know and practice in order to be ready in the event of a coup.” Coup sounded tendentious, but I figured I could log off if the tutorial was nutty. It wasn’t. Instead, the instructor, George Lakey, a white-haired longtime activist with a genial, professorial manner, forced me to rethink my knee-jerk assumptions about mass marches. If you want to prevent a power grab, he explained, you don’t just take to the streets. That’s one tactic among many, and not always the best one.
I called Lakey last week and learned that he had, in fact, been a professor, most recently at Swarthmore College. He’s 82, and has been teaching the principles of civil resistance since 1964, when he trained students going south to register Mississippi voters during Freedom Summer. “There’s a tendency to think, I’ll go to a big rally and express my opinion,” he said. “Actually, that doesn’t move the dime.”
So if tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people showing up isn’t enough, what should be done to stop the theft of an election? Over the past week, I’ve spent hours talking to Lakey, other experts, and activists, and have distilled their insights into three principles of successful coup prevention. Coup, by the way, no longer seems too strong a word for a scenario in which a president retains power by running roughshod over the Constitution. And although I believed before those conversations, and still believe, that America is more divided and combustible and institutionally weakened than it has been in my lifetime, I’ve been amazed and encouraged to discover how quickly some Americans are gearing up for action, keeping these principles in mind.
The first imperative of civil resistance is nonviolence—that is, maintaining the discipline not to strike out or strike back. In Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, the political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed data from 323 violent and nonviolent prodemocracy movements. They concluded that nonviolent protests were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones—53 percent of the nonviolent demonstrations achieved their goal, as opposed to 26 percent of violent ones.
Practicing nonviolence doesn’t come naturally. It’s “a hard lesson” that every generation has to learn anew, Lakey says, so that when the time comes to march or hold a sit-in or undertake some other (ideally imaginative) action, peace is kept. Preferably, it’s reinforced by a corps of designated monitors and marshals who can identify and neutralize hot-headed protesters and maybe even agents provocateurs. Complicating the work of de-escalation are two anomalies of present-day America: its uniquely large and soaring number of guns per capita and nonviolence’s fall from favor among some members of the left. At one point during Lakey’s webinar, the chat sidebar erupted into a heated debate about whether it’s fair to condemn the destruction of property when the other side is destroying bodies, a topic much discussed during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Lakey is less interested in what’s fair than in what works. If property destruction is perceived as violence, it’s functionally violence. Nonviolence is effective for two reasons: The obvious one is that vandalism or fighting attributed to protesters, rightly or wrongly, will serve as an excuse for a crackdown. The less obvious but probably more important reason is that the ensuing chaos is sure to alienate the silent members of the public not yet sure which side to join.
Aim for the Center
In that sense, nonviolence undergirds the second rule of a winning protest strategy: It must pull in the mainstream. A robust movement will be “diverse and multigenerational,” Erica Chenoweth told me, with children and grandparents, civil servants and judges as well as radicals. She cited the 2000 Serbian uprising against the murderous dictator Slobodan Milošević, which triumphed by mobilizing people from nearly every age group, economic sector, and geographic region of the country.
A prodemocracy movement’s most important constituencies are the institutions that keep society running: banks, businesses, the military, schools, the media, government bureaucracies, police, the judiciary. Lakey calls these “the pillars of power.” An authoritarian head of state must command their loyalty, or at least their subservience. Should financiers, college presidents, distinguished members of opposition parties, and middle-school students start defecting to the other side, the political, physical, and even psychological costs of putting down an insurrection will become prohibitive. The Serbian uprising came to an end when police and army commanders refused to order the police guarding the parliament building in Belgrade to fire on the crush of protesters gathered before it, because, according to a reporter cited in a documentary about the rebellion, "they knew their own kids were in that crowd." The takeover of the building was the coup de grâce in the dictator’s downfall.
Hit Them Where It Hurts
As essential as the first two laws of grassroots regime change may be, the third one makes it stick: Whatever the movement looks like, it will have to cause economic pain. If worst comes to worst, victory will hinge on consumer boycotts and strikes, Hardy Merriman, the co-author of one of the growing movement’s key handbooks, “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” told me. I was skeptical. Boycotts take months to have an impact, and coups happen fast. Plus, America isn’t France. We don’t do general strikes. Moreover, 21st-century American unions are not the force that 20th-century American unions were; overall membership is less than a third of what it was at its peak in the 1950s, and some union members voted for Trump. But strikes don’t have to be general, Merriman explained. Strikes can be rolling, moving from place to place, industry to industry. And if workers, unionized or not, can’t afford to go on strike, they can engage in a slowdown. Civil servants could slow-walk orders they disagree with (even more than Trump says they now do) by insisting, say, that they require legal review.
In any case, I was dead wrong about American unions. One after another, local chapters have been declaring themselves ready to strike. On October 8, the Rochester, New York, branch of the AFL-CIO—the nation’s biggest federation of unions—passed a resolution calling on its national leaders and “all other labor organizations in the United States of America” to prepare for a general strike, in the event of “any effort to subvert, distort, misrepresent or disregard” the outcome of the election. Labor councils associated with the AFL-CIO in Seattle and Western Massachusetts have done the same.
The national AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers, has also expressed alarm, although its leaders and those of other national unions have been reluctant to throw around terms like general strike. Last week the AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, called an emergency meeting of union heads, though it was canceled after NBC broke the story. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me that labor leaders held several meetings last weekend, and on Monday the AFT passed a resolution saying that the union “will do whatever it takes” to ensure that the will of the voters determines the next president.
The American Postal Workers Union is on high alert. The APWU represents everyone who processes the mail, except letter carriers. It is very worried about attempts to sabotage the election or put a heavy thumb on the scale. The APWU’s main concern, I was told, is that it will be scapegoated as part of the effort to delegitimize mail-in voting. The fear is not overblown. The Washington Post reported last Saturday that officials in Weber County, Utah, were being barraged with phone calls from residents distraught at the thought that “rogue postal workers” and other nefarious characters might be throwing mail-in ballots in ditches, rivers, and dumpsters, or delivering them to dogs. APWU leaders have held Zoom meetings in which they try to game out every scenario that could materialize after Election Night, so as to prepare the rank and file. For what? The APWU wouldn’t say.
Some unions are mulling actions short of a general strike. At a meeting of labor organizers and activists last week, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America (also affiliated with the AFL-CIO), made the case for rolling strikes: “We can have a major impact if we know that we can shut down one specific place, and it doesn’t even have to be for a very long period of time. If we take control of the schedule of the country, we can have a tremendous effect.” Sal Rosselli, the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, told me that his members would support a general strike, though they themselves wouldn’t walk out on their patients. They could help out strikers financially, however, or provide free medical assistance.
Other social sectors that Lakey counts as “pillars of power” have been going public with their opposition to election subversion as well. On October 14, more than 50 business leaders issued a statement demanding that every vote be counted, no matter how long that takes. The signatories now number in the hundreds, and they include top executives in finance, tech, real estate, and other industries. Political chaos, the statement argues, “would pose significant risks to business and markets in an already fragile economic environment.” Politicians and retired military officers have formed a bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity “to defend the legitimacy of our elections,” as former Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist wrote last month in The Washington Post. Last week, federal workers were outraged when Trump signed an executive order stripping them of protections against being fired at will, the latest in a series of attacks on civil servants from the Trump administration. Federal unions are also said to be considering what they’ll do after the election.
To be clear, all these groups understand that there may be no need to mobilize, on November 4 or later. “We will be in contact with people on the 4th to say whether it’s a go or not,” said one of Protect the Results’s co-founders, Sarah Dohl of Indivisible, the anti-Trump resistance organization. If Trump is the clear winner on Election Night (“unlikely”) or keeps uncharacteristically quiet (“the chances are not high”), the groups under the Protect the Results umbrella will bide their time.
How will protesters and strikers decide whether to take action, and when and how to escalate? Protect the Results and similar organizations have spent months defining which lines should not be crossed. They came up with three:
- Trump declares himself the winner while the results remain unclear.
- Election officials find unexplained irregularities or signs of tampering.
- Trump loses but won’t leave office.
In their manuals, these groups suggest that people familiarize themselves with the power holders in their state and county who play a role in the election, such as governors, state legislators, state attorneys general, secretaries of state, and county election commissioners. Then, during the periods when the outcome of the election rests in one or another of these officials’ hands, he or she can be besieged by letters, calls, petitions, or in-person protests. (I found “The Count,” co-written by Zack Malitz, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, to offer a clear, step-by-step explanation of the labyrinthine post-election process, how it can be manipulated, and when to intervene to stop the manipulation.)
Another risk exists here, one that prodemocracy forces are well aware of: Attempts to head off the hijacking of the election could be interpreted as, well, attempts to hijack the election. And indeed, some conservatives watching the frenzied pace of organizing think they’re witnessing the early stages of a Democratic power grab. This September, Michael Anton, a former national security adviser in the Trump administration, published an essay called “The Coming Coup?” in The American Mind in which he warned, “We now have Democrats and their ruling class masters openly talking about staging a coup.” In the Democratic putsch, Biden would refuse to concede his loss, harvested ballots would show up in tipping-point states, and fights would break out in the streets.
Still, everyone I spoke with has been adamant that they will accept the results of a demonstrably fair election. As the AFT resolution puts it, “The American people should freely elect this country’s next leader, and we will accept the legitimate outcome of the election regardless of the victor.” If the American people are lucky, the losing candidate will accept the results too. If he doesn’t, many Americans will be galvanized into action. Let’s hope they’re strategic about it.