Ah, election season. There’s a patriotic buzz in the air. Bumper stickers and lawn signs all over the neighborhood. Now comes the time when we check the location of our polling places, make a plan to vote—and pack a “go bag” in case we need to take to the streets in sustained mass protest to protect the integrity of the vote count. That last one is not something you’d expect to be doing in the United States, but things are different in the Trump era. For months, the President has been warning that he might not concede the election in November if he loses, telling reporters who asked him to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” It sounded ominous, although it was hard to imagine how he could make good on the threat to stick around no matter what. Then, media organizations began publishing pieces outlining the myriad ways in which the President and his allies might turn a narrow loss into a win. The possibilities include familiar tactics—contesting mail-in ballots and turning the process into Bush v. Gore on steroids—and others that sound straight out of a police state. For example, Trump could summon federal agents or his supporters to stop a recount or intimidate voters. According to some experts, this would constitute an autogolpe, or “self coup”: when a President who obtained power through constitutional means holds onto it through illegitimate ones, beginning the slide into authoritarianism.
O.K., then. Time to start getting ready. But how, exactly, do we do that? In September, a group of organizers and researchers published a fifty-five-page manual called “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” which has been downloaded more than eighteen thousand times. And the Indivisible Project, along with a coalition called Stand Up America, are preparing their members to take to the streets if Trump contests the election results. “I’ve been beating the drum on this particular cause since July, and I’m delighted to see so many people coming around to it,” the activist and sociologist George Lakey said recently. His own “Aha!” moment came when Trump sent federal agents in military fatigues to Portland, Oregon, to tangle with protesters. “It hit me, the way Trump is dealing with Portland, Oregon, that’s a test,” he said. He guessed that Trump was hoping to provoke a violent backlash from the protesters, so that he could lay the groundwork for not accepting the election results, under the pretense that the country had descended into violent chaos. “Trump can be underestimated by the left,” Lakey said. “He gets made fun of, but he’s shrewd.”
Lakey, who is eighty-two, is best known for his book “A Manual for Direct Action,” from 1964, which was often referred to as a bible for the participants of the civil-rights movement. Since then, he has trained activists in countries including South Africa, Thailand, and Sri Lanka in their struggles against repressive regimes. “In the U.S., we’re used to waiting for social change,” he said, referring to multiyear efforts like the civil-rights or women’s-rights movements. But defeating a coup is different. “Everything happens really fast. You’ve got sometimes three days, sometimes a week, sometimes three months to beat a coup.” The average American activist needed a new skill set. “This is the teen-ager who’s been playing excellent football, and now he wants to play baseball,” he said. “He can’t just walk on the field and be great. He needs to learn a new set of rules.”
In August, Lakey helped form a group called Choose Democracy that has been circulating a pledge committing people to “nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted,” which has more than thirty thousand signatures. And he began giving a series of training sessions via Zoom called “How To Beat an Election-Related Power Grab.” On a recent Thursday, at 7:30 P.M., more than five hundred concerned citizens tuned in. They exchanged greetings on the group chat:
Lakey, who has white hair and bushy white eyebrows, is a Quaker, and brings a cheerful, Sunday-school-style delivery to lessons about overthrowing authoritarian regimes. He began with the work of the political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has studied occasions when the citizens of a country managed to rise up and defeat a coup: Bolivia, in 1978; the Soviet Union, in 1991; Thailand, in 1992; and Burkina Faso, in 2015. According to Zunes, these movements had several things in common: they were nonviolent, and they drew from a broad cross-section of society. And they refused to compromise. So, Lakey emphasized, there could be no cutting a deal with Trump. “That is reeeeally important,” he said, citing a demand from the Choose Democracy pledge: “Every vote must be counted. And we refuse to accept the authority of someone who is practicing something different.” Another takeaway, for activists, is to focus “on the center of the political spectrum,” Lakey said. “We’re looking to influence them to tip the outcome of the struggle in our direction.” Will they side with the protesters or with Trump?
To illustrate, he told the story of the Kapp Putsch, in the Weimar Republic. In 1920, a group of soldiers, veterans, and civilians tried to seize control of Berlin, under the right-wing leadership of Wolfgang Kapp. The legitimate government fled, and Kapp proclaimed himself the country’s leader. “He walked into the capitol building ready to run the country,” Lakey said. “However, he found that the government workers had all gone on strike. There was nobody in the building except him.” He wanted to issue a proclamation that he was running the country, Lakey added, “But he didn’t know how to type. So, the next day, he had to bring his daughter to type out the manifesto.” The coup collapsed within days. Lakey said, “The magic in that situation was the rapid alliance that was built, over a weekend, between the left”—trade unions, Communists—“and the center. It could overcome the right wing, even though they had the Army.”
He said that his listeners should start to build similar alliances. “Go beyond the usual suspects: the progressives, the left.” One woman asked in the chat, “Who is the Center in the US these days? Dems? Church? Libertarians? Moderate Republicans? Ha. How to trust them?” Lakey assured his audience that, while the U.S. may feel extremely polarized, “the truth is we’re not nearly as polarized as we may become.” He said that centrists could be found everywhere from the business world to the medical establishment. “Bank presidents. People who manage schools or colleges . . . you name it, if it’s some kind of institution that expects to have a future.”
There were questions about tactics. “What does refusal to recognize illegitimate authority look like? ” one participant wrote. Mass protests? Lakey warned that, while marches may be useful, “in my opinion they are wayyyy overrated.” (It is hard to imagine a Trumpist regime being swayed by a mob of citizens in pussy hats.) Instead, he encouraged his audience to think strategically. He pulled up a slide titled “Pillars of Power,” which showed a classical edifice. The roof was labelled “Regime/Status Quo.” The pillars were labelled with the words Business, Politicians, Military, Media, Judiciary, Police, and Bureaucracies. “Obviously, the Trump family is not going to be able to run the government by itself,” he said. They’ll need institutional support. “The question is how do we, as activists, go after these pillars in such a way as to encourage them to buckle, and allow the Trump regime, or his attempted regime, to fall?” Participants in the chat then came up with politicians they might approach:
“State officials in PA will be critical!!!”
“Retired politicians can be powerful and are less constrained by their funders. ”
Last, Lakey clicked to a slide that said, “What about Violence?” This topic had been hovering over the proceedings. Zunes, the political scientist, had said in a recent interview, “The thing that scares me the most is, unlike all these other countries I’ve studied, this country has millions of people who have guns—and not just guns but semi-automatic weapons—that are loyal Trump supporters, and whom he can call out to suppress such a nonviolent uprising.” Several attendees had expressed concerns in the chat about groups like the Proud Boys and right-wing militias, writing things like, “ I have never been in a demonstration where some people are likely to have automatic weapons.”
Lakey acknowledged, “There are a lot of alarming things going on already in this country with regard to what I call Trump’s ‘irregulars.’ ” He said that protesters should plan their rallies for places where it would be difficult for violence to break out: in the lobby of an office building or in a car caravan. He told participants to imagine that they were Proud Boys looking to “rumble.” “Ask, ‘What would they welcome?’ And then not do that!” he said. One tip, from the civil-rights movement: “When in doubt, sit down. It’s counterintuitive. But it has been used in multiple cultures, and it works.” (Except with tear gas. Then, he said, “walking slowly would be best.”)
If things do get ugly, he noted, it could be useful for the cause. “Get your smartphone and expose what happened. Offer yourself for interviews,” he said. The key is to draw a contrast between the violent regime and the peaceful protesters. That’s what happened during Thailand’s military coup, in 1992, when soldiers shot into a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators. The public was horrified. “It brought a surge of people into the struggle that overthrew the coup plotters,” Lakey said. “What we’re teaching tonight is evidence-based. It’s how baseball is played.”
Frances Brokaw, a retired physician and Quaker in Hanover, New Hampshire, attended the Zoom training and came away feeling better about the coming weeks. “I found it helpful and hopeful,” she said. She’d written to New Hampshire’s secretary of state, a Democrat, and its governor, a Republican, asking them not certify the election results until all absentee ballots have been counted. The secretary of state’s office had responded affirmatively. “I haven’t heard back from the governor,” she said. But she plans to keep writing. And she will join in street protests if necessary, despite the spectre of election-related violence and the threat of the coronavirus. “If need be, I’m ready,” she said. “If we’re talking about the well-being and safety of millions of people in this country from this President—who is totally off the rails from what I’ve seen—yes, I’ll put myself on the line for that. I have a grandson who’s five months old, and I want the world to be safe for him.”