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? The purpose of this commentary is to stimulate discussion and preparation for how to overcome such a Trump coup.
Even before the 2016 election, Donald Trump hinted that if he lost he might not accept the outcome. Now, far behind in the polls, Trump is taking action to disrupt the 2020 election and laying obvious groundwork for refusing to leave office if he loses. As this threat has moved from a hypothetical concern to an immediate fear, the media have been filled with stories about Trumpite plans for red state legislatures to overturn popular votes, destroy mail ballots, and send in the military to quell demonstrators defending the vote. But reports have also begun appearing about plans to defend the ballot and resist a Trump Coup d’état – an “executive usurpation” sometimes referred to as a “self-coup.” This commentary gives a brief historical background on the effective use of “people power” to contest coups and stolen elections and reviews recent writing and organizing against a Trump Coup. It presents resistance to a Trump Coup not as primarily a matter of Biden vs. Trump or Democrats vs. Republicans, but rather as Social Self-Defense — a defense of society against an attack on the very things that make our life together possible.
Anti-Coups Have Succeeded
Tyrannical regimes from Serbia to the Philippines to Brazil and many other places have been brought down by “people power” — nonviolent revolts that made society ungovernable and led to regime change. While the U.S. 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 defense 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.
There is now an extensive literature analyzing popular resistance to subversion of elections and other forms of coup d’état. The pioneer of such research was theorist and historian of nonviolence Gene Sharp. His Waging Nonviolent Struggle provides extensive analysis and many case studies of effective nonviolent resistance; his The Anti-Coup focuses in on the use of these methods against illegal seizures of government power. It proposes such guidelines as:
- Repudiate the coup and denounce its leaders as illegitimate
- Regard all decrees and orders from the coup leaders contradicting established law as illegal and refuse to obey them
- Keep all resistance strictly nonviolent – refuse to be provoked into violence
- Noncooperate with the coup leaders in all ways
Steven Zunes’ Civil Resistance Against Coups analyzes the resistance to twelve coups and provides an expanded theoretical framework. Sharp and Zunes provide invaluable background for anyone who contemplates resisting a possible Trump coup. Here are two examples that involve popular resistance to coups that utilized stolen elections:
In 1988, despite the circumventing of electoral laws, repression of universities and media, and ethnic cleansing, Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic was still holding elections of a sort. An activist group called Otpor formed around the goal of driving Milosevic from power and began hundreds of small actions of resistance around the country to counter pervasive fear of the regime. Its plan was that activists would compel the regime to call elections; they would create massive turnout around a united opposition candidate; they would join other nongovernmental organizations in carefully monitoring election results so they could document their victory; and they would use mass noncompliance – leading up to a general strike – if and when Milosevic refused to step down.
In 2000, Otpor pushed 18 of Serbia’s squabbling opposition parties to form a coalition to support a unity candidate, promising to deliver 500,000 votes to the unity candidate but threatening to put 100,000 protesters at the door of any politician who betrayed the coalition. As elections approached, the regime called Otpor an “illegal terrorist organization”; police raided its offices and shut down independent radio and TV stations; each day an average of seven activists were arrested.
Meanwhile, the opposition organized ten thousand election monitors. They announced exit polls showing Milosevic had been defeated by a 50% to 35% margin. Instead of accepting the results, Milosevic refused to leave office and demanded a run-off election.
Otpor announced a deadline for Milosevic to concede and 200,000 people demonstrated in Belgrade. The opposition called on the population throughout the country to “perform any acts of civil disobedience they have at their disposal.” Miners struck; TV and radio stations opened their airwaves to opposition voices. As the deadline approached, cars and trucks filled the highways heading toward Belgrade. Police put up roadblocks and were issued orders to shoot, but seeing the size of the convoys they abandoned their barricades. Half-a-million people gathered in Belgrade. Police fired tear gas, but when the crowd stood its ground riot police began running away or joining the crowd. The opposition candidate declared victory and Milosevic accepted his defeat.
There are many other cases where popular action has forestalled or reversed efforts to subvert the outcome of a democratic election. 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 nonviolent campaign of what she dubbed “people power.” Top military officers resigned, withdrew support from Marcos, recognized Aquino as the legitimate winner, and fled to military camps in Manilla. The city’s Roman Catholic Church leader appealed on nationwide radio for people to nonviolently 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 armored transports to attack. Nuns knelt in front of the tanks and priests climbed on them and led a million protests – 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 percent 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 nonviolent direct action has been known around the world as “People power.”
How the Trump Coup Is Unfolding
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 leftwing 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. Gellman maintains that after election day, “Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede,” and that he may “obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in the Congress.” 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.
How to Overcome a Trump Coup
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 mobilization based on disciplined nonviolence because “violence will backfire badly against the side that uses it.” It discusses tactics including displaying symbols of protest; engaging in demonstrations, marches, and nonviolent 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 behaviors.
Trade unionists Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jose La Luz have made a related proposal for organized labor to establish “pro-democracy volunteer brigades” in preparation for the election.
We need volunteers who will assist with voter registration; mobilize 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 recognize the results.
Organizing So Far Against a Trump Coup
The Trump presidency has been an era of mass resistance, an upwelling of direct action that came to be known as the Trump Resistance or simply The Resistance. A social science organization 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 U.S. 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 organizations 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 Defense 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 nonviolent 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 mobilizing 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 mobilization in more than 1,000 locations. Keep Our Republic is organizing to support a “civic creed” to “Let all citizens vote. Let all votes be counted. Let the count stand.” The group Peoples 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.
Other sectors of society are also beginning to consider what their responsibilities will be if Trump refuses to concede electoral defeat. On September 25 AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released this statement about the post-election transition:
The AFL-CIO categorically rejects all threats to the peaceful transition of power. The labor movement simply will not allow any breach of the U.S. Constitution or other effort to deny the will of the people. Union members across the political spectrum are united in our fundamental belief that the votes of the American people must always determine the presidency. America’s workers will continue to be steadfast in defense of our democracy in the face of President Trump’s antics, and we stand ready to do our part to ensure his defeat in this election is followed by his removal from office.
A recent New York Times article reported that
senior leaders at the Pentagon, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that they were talking among themselves about what to do if Mr. Trump, who will still be president from Election Day to Inauguration Day, invokes the Insurrection Act and tries to send troops into the streets, as he threatened to do during the protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Several Pentagon officials said there could be resignations among many of Mr. Trump’s senior generals, starting at the top with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, should troops be ordered into the streets at the time of the election. As we have seen in the opposition to the Serbian and Philippine electoral coups, the role of various sectors and levels of the military – from the brass to the privates — can be critical. But as revealed by the top brass’ second thoughts after the military was called in to provide Trump a photo op confrontation in Lafayette Square during a June Black Lives Matter demonstration, they are most likely to come to a sense of their responsibilities when they are called on to suppress peaceful protestors in the interests of a tyrant.
Resisting the rise of tyranny will no doubt require sacrifice. After all, we are dealing with an aspiring tyrant who lionizes 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 defense of democracy – defense 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. It is defense of the human rights of all people; of the conditions of our earth and its climate that make our life possible; of the constitutional principle that government must be accountable to law; of global cooperation to provide a secure future for our people and planet; and of our ability to live together in our communities, our country, and our world. It is a threat to all of us as members of society. Overcoming a Trump Coup is Social Self-Defense.
 From the Spanish autogolpe, used to describe cases in Latin America in the early 1960s. Sharp and Jenkins, Anti-Coup, p. 6. https://novact.org/2012/09/the-anti-coup-bruce-jenkins-and-gene-sharp/?lang=en  The term “Social Self-Defense” has its origin in the Polish Committee for Social Self-Defense which led to the creation of the Solidarity trade union and ultimately the dissolution of Poland’s Communist dictatorship. I have used it before to characterize the Trump Resistance. Jeremy Brecher, “Social Self-Defense: Protecting People and Planet against Trump and Trumpism,” https://www.labor4sustainability.org/uncategorized/social-self-defense-protecting-people-and-planet-against-trump-and-trumpism/  Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (Boston: Porter Sargent, 2005). Gene Sharp & Bruce Jenkins, The Anti-Coup (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution). Sharp’s magisterial three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent) lays out how and why nonviolent direct action is able to work.  Steven Zunes, Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective (ICNC Monograph Series) https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Stephen-Zunes-Monograph_Final.pdf  Joshua Paulson, “People Power Against the Philippine Dictator – 1986,” in Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle (Boston: Porter Sargent, 2005), Ibid.  “Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition,” Transition Integrity Project, August 3, 2020. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/7013152/Preventing-a-Disrupted-Presidential-Election-and.pdf and Rosa Brooks, “What’s the worst that could happen? The election will likely spark violence – and a constitutional crisis,” Washington Post, September 3, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/03/trump-stay-in-office/?arc404=true  Barton Gellman, “What If Trump Refuses to Concede?,” The Atlantic, pre-released in late September from November, 2020 issue. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/what-if-trump-refuses-concede/616424/ Much of the same material is covered and confirmed with additional details in David Smith, “Recipe for Chaos,” The Guardian, September 27, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/27/recipe-for-chaos-2020-election-threatens-snap-us-already-pushed-limit  Hardy Merriman, Ankur Asthana, Marium Navid, Kifah Shah. Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy. version 1.1. 2020. http://holdthelineguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Hold-The-Line_-A-Guide-to-Defending-Democracy.pdf  Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jose Alejandro La Luz, “Organized Labor and the ‘Cold Civil War,’” Portside, September 17, 2020. https://portside.org/2020-09-17/organized-labor-and-cold-civil-war  The Trump Resistance and other mass opposition to Trump and Trumpism is recounted in Jeremy Brecher, Strike! Revised, Expanded, and Updated Edition (Oakland CA: PM Press, 2020) Chapter 12, “Harbingers.” https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1085  Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui, Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” The New York Times, July 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html  Sam Stein, “The Left Secretly Preps for MAGA Violence After Election Day,” The Daily Beast, September 8, 2020. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-left-secretly-preps-for-violence-after-election-day . Developing efforts against a Trump Coup are also described in Sasha Abramsky, “Is Trump Planning a Coup d’État?,” The Nation, September 7, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/trump-coup-elections-gop/  Sam Stein.  Richard Trumka, “We Will Not Tolerate Any Constitutional Breach,” AFL-CIO, September 25, 2020. https://aflcio.org/press/releases/trumka-we-will-not-tolerate-any-constitutional-breach  Jennifer Steinhauer and Helene Cooper, “At Pentagon, Fears Grow That Trump Will Pull Military into Election Unrest,” New York Times, September 25, 2020. https://portside.org/2020-09-25/pentagon-fears-grow-trump-will-pull-military-election-unrest
Jeremy Brecher is the Research and Policy Director of Labor Network for Sustainability.