Opinion: Call It a Coup

South Carolina protesters at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. following the murder of George Floyd. Photo: Crush Rush

Russ Vernon-Jones

As terrible as the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was, it made one thing perfectly clear.  Donald Trump has no intention of conceding the election or yielding power, even if he loses. He explicitly said that the mail-in ballots will make the election fraudulent and refused to agree either to count all the votes or to accept the outcome of the election. 

He clearly plans to do everything possible to see that the mail-in ballots are not counted, including taking it to the Supreme Court where he expects to have a solid partisan majority.   (It remains to be seen how much he may also use armed forces to intimidate voters on Election Day or to seize mail-in ballots before they are counted on the pretext of safeguarding evidence of fraud.)

It Won’t Be Over On Election Night 
Polls show that a larger percentage of Republicans plan to vote in person and a much higher percentage of Democrats plan to vote by mail.  This means that even if far more people vote for Biden, it is likely that the vote totals reported Election Night, before the mail-in ballots are counted, will show Trump in the lead.  It will take a good number of days for the mail-in ballots to be counted, so there will be a significant period of time during which Trump can claim victory and disrupt a full count.

Trump has already told his supporters, “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election.”  He will undoubtedly claim that he is protecting democracy and maintaining electoral integrity by not counting the so-called fraudulent mail-in ballots.  

A Coup
What Trump is planning is a coup.  There is nothing democratic, fair, or honest about it. It will be thinly disguised as something else, but it is a coup. I know this is a bold claim, but one group truly committed to defending democracy puts it this way:

“We can know it’s a coup if the government:

  • Stops counting votes;
  • Declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or
  • Allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election.”

What Trump Has Already Gotten Away With
It seems incredible, doesn’t it?  In the United States?  Although he has said clearly and publicly that he will not accept the results of the election if he loses, nor support an orderly transfer of power, we still don’t want to believe it.  “Surely Trump will never get away with it”, we think.  But look at what the nation has already let him get away with:  over 20,000 false or misleading statements, welcoming foreign interference in our elections, obstruction of justice, personally enriching himself through corruption in office, using the military and heavily armed agents to attack peaceful protesters, spouting racism and manipulating racial divisions, vilifying and abusing immigrants and their children, praising dictators,  buying the silence of women he abused,  encouraging white supremacist militias to arm themselves for action against civilians, consistent attacks on the free press, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths by managing the COVID19 crisis for his personal political gain instead of for public health and safety, and consistent action to worsen the climate crisis that is bearing down on all of humanity.

[Note to reader:  I originally had twice as many items in this  list, but I leave it to you to add any other items that seem particularly outrageous to you.]

Each of these is a step toward authoritarianism and potentially fascism.  Each undermines long established norms, the rule of law, and democracy itself.  Yet Trump has gotten away with all of it without being removed from office, with the support of a majority of the U.S. Senate, and the strong endorsement of one of our two major political parties.

Is IT Possible?
How might a coup succeed?  Could it really happen?  One scenario is that at the end of Election Night Trump is ahead in the vote count.  His margin begins to diminish as mail-in ballots are counted.  He ramps up charges and false evidence that those ballots have high rates of fraud, and tries to stop the counting of mail-in ballots, either by use of force or court action. 

Whether he can stop the counting or not, on December 14th the electors of the Electoral College meet in the state capitals.  In the six most closely contested battleground states the Republicans control both houses of the state legislature. They may invoke a long-unused section of the Constitution that allows state legislatures (instead of the popular vote) to pick the electors for the Electoral College. Some states may submit two competing sets of electoral votes — one chosen through the popular vote, and one chosen by the Republican legislatures, who claim they know best because of supposed fraud in the mail-in voting.  Resolving the conflicts will be up to Congress through a complicated process that will likely favor the Republicans.  Alternatively Trump’s forces could tie up so many states’ results in endless legal challenges that the whole election ends up before the Supreme Court.

The Transition Integrity Project
A group that includes anti-Trump conservatives (including Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General and a former head of the Republican National Committee), some progressives, and various elected officials, academics and lawyers — over 100 experts in all — has been worried about just such a subverting of democracy. During the summer they formed the “Transition Integrity Project“.  In four days of simulations they modeled what might happen if the election is contested.  They found many places it could all fall apart. 

One of their key conclusions was that “A show of numbers in the streets- and actions in the streets- may be decisive factors in determining what the public perceives as a just and legitimate outcome”.  (Remember, this was a group in which conservative Republicans were key participants, that came to the conclusion that protests in the streets may be key to protecting the outcome of the election.)  Worldwide, many attempted coups have been unsuccessful because enough of the populace rose up to oppose them.  Historically, whichever side “resorts to violence the most tends to lose“. We may need to show up non-violently in the streets repeatedly between November 4th and January 20th, to protect democracy.

What Can We Do? 

  1.  Do everything possible now, before the election, to help Biden win by the biggest landslide imaginable.  This will help win the battle for legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
  2. “Begin by rejecting the temptation to think that this election will carry on as elections usually do,” says Barton Gellman, writing in the Atlantic   Give up hoping that tradition, decency, or precedent will eventually result in a fair outcome.
  3. Call it a coup.  There will be a battle over what is real and what is fake.  Calling a coup a coup is essential.  (See the definition above.)
  4. Prepare now to participate in non-violent public protests when Trump’s forces try to stop the counting of ballots or to steal the election in any way.   Even if you are someone who doesn’t usually go to protests, going into the streets starting November 4th may be the only way to stop a coup d’état and the end of democracy.  Start talking now to friends about doing this together, so none of us is doing this alone.
  5. Sign up or make an online pledge now with one or more of the groups who are preparing to coordinate defense of the results of the election.  I don’t know which is best, but so far I’ve signed up with “The Frontline“, “Choose Democracy“, and “Protect the Results” (a coalition of over 100 groups “building a system to mobilize millions of Americans”).  I’m sure there are other groups as well that will also be effective.  Each of these has an informative website and training opportunities are being listed now.  There is much we can all learn as we get ready for this impending moment of truth for our country.

It’s obviously impossible to know how things will play out. I would love to be wrong about this.  However, I think it is likely enough that I ask you to think about it and prepare to participate in defending democracy.  Most of all, I ask that you decide now that you will not be passive if they try to not count all the votes or to allow Donald Trump to stay in office if he doesn’t win the election.

Russ Vernon-Jones was the Principal of Fort River Elementary School from 1990-2008.  He is a co-facilitator of the Coming Together Anti-Racism Project in the Amherst area.  He chairs the Racism, White Supremacy, and Climate Justice working group of Climate Action Now of Western Mass, and blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Call It a Coup

  1. Great letter, Russ. Very helpful with the links at the end for joining different nonviolent protest groups. Thank you.

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