I’m hearing a range of views on the likelihood of President Donald Trump refusing to leave office if Joe Biden wins in November. Some don’t believe that even the reckless Trump would go that far, no matter how messed up mail-in ballots become and how close the vote is. Others point out that Trump has surprised observers again and again with bizarre behavior, doubling down even on nonsense regarding COVID-19. And he’s stated numerous times his envy of other heads of state who’ve been appointed president for life.
Fortunately, we needn’t agree that a Trump coup attempt is likely in order to prepare for the possibility. We can think of it like insuring a house, not because it’s likely to catch on fire but “just in case.”
Actually, a plan against a coup is better than insurance, as it can reduce the chance that we’ll face a coup attempt. The better prepared we are to counter it, the more likely that wiser heads in the Trump camp will realize that a coup is futile, and not attempt it.
In July the well-known Harvard civil resistance researcher Erica Chenoweth joined two colleagues, Maria J. Stephan and Candace Rondeaux, in urging that democracy-loving Americans prepare for a possible “November surprise.”
There are many aspects to preparation, and they include developing an overall strategy, a handy list of tactics that are mutually supportive and a communication network. It will help to train as many as possible because at a time of crisis, people look to the “early responders” for a way forward.
The more that preparation is informed by research, the better. Donald Trump may scorn evidence-based conclusions, but most of us actually believe rationality is a good thing. Fortunately, some researchers have already found out how people in other countries handled coup attempts.
In 2003, Bruce Jenkins worked with nonviolence studies founder Gene Sharp to analyze the most important features of successful defenses against a coup. The authors suggested specific preparations activists and social institutions can make ahead of time to be ready.
In 2011, writer-activist Richard K. Taylor, who served on Martin Luther King Jr.’s national staff, wrote a research-based manual for trainers wanting to help groups in a possible pre-coup situation.
Most recently, in 2017, political scientist Stephen Zunes studied 12 attempted coups around the world since 1958 and found that eight were defeated by nonviolent resistance. He then examined what made the difference between those eight victories and the four where the people lost.
Altogether, the research shows that the best strategies are the ones that make the most of our strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. At the same time, it’s clear that we also need to fix our own weaknesses, if we can, and get ready to handle the strengths of the opponent.
What we have going for us
We’ve recently seen enormous numbers of people in motion: Black Lives Matter, action for climate justice, the immigrant rights movement, the movement to end gun violence, teachers and other workers’ strikes, rent strikes and more. The studies of successful resistance to power grabs find that where the people won, large numbers were willing to participate in direct action. Many in the United States have already shown their readiness to act.
Another strength we have here is that political power is not highly centralized. The federal system gives states, and even cities and towns, some flexibility. Trump unwittingly reinforced that flexibility through his irresponsibility in dealing with the pandemic. The states that wanted to had the ability to take over public health management, and many cities did as well.
States have been stepping up in other areas. To Trump’s horror, California famously went its own way on auto pollution control measures, with other states joining it. Combinations of states are frequently in federal court on multiple issues. States and cities have defied Trump’s war on immigration.
The recent Portland example — where the state intervened to get Trump to pull back federal troops — shows the usefulness of popular nonviolent pressure. Such action has the ability to motivate power centers near the grassroots to assert themselves.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown may have been quick to issue a statement opposing Trump’s attack, but it was grassroots pressure extending “beyond the choir” of the usual Portland street activists that enhanced her power in the subsequent negotiation. If the fires and projectiles of some protesters in front of the courthouse had been the only story, Brown’s negotiating power would have been weak or nonexistent. The larger picture was always the mass nonviolent action — as described by the mainstream media — which continued to grow as the confrontation continued.
Even though the large influx of local white allies brought a problem as well (shifting focus away from Black Lives Matter to defending against Trump’s attack), movement growth always brings problems. In fact, the history of social movements shows that one job of movement leadership is to solve problems as they come up, confident that new problems will continue to emerge as growth continues. Bigger movements face bigger problems, and a mass revolutionary movement will face the biggest problems of all.
While the tendency is often to complain when problems appear — and then criticize instead of solve them — life for movements is, in that way, the same as life for individuals. As author and activist adrienne maree brown might put it: power comes with learning to meet our challenges with “emergent strategy.”
In any case, one lesson from Portland’s experience is that it can be useful, when the feds attack, that other centers of legitimate power exist. And that’s only one of many strengths movements possess.
What’s special about a coup
Activists are used to spotlighting problems that have been around for a while — such as fossil fuels, inadequate schools or cash bail — and developing campaigns to take them on. But it may take a while to pull the pieces together in order to wage a vigorous campaign.
Stopping an attempted coup is not like that. Political scientist Stephen Zunes joins other scholars in finding that power grabs — whether or not they succeed — are often decided in a matter of weeks or months at the most.
In Zunes’ study of a dozen modern cases of coup attempts, eight of the struggles were won by the people. Each win was touch-and-go because people were not prepared ahead of time to resist. They lost valuable time mobilizing actions and building alliances — two key ingredients for winning.
In the four cases where the people lost, the mobilizing and alliance-building were too little, too late.
The importance of preparation is why Richard K. Taylor prepared a training manual that enables any group, union or neighborhood to begin training now for the possibility that a leader will resist leaving office.
Doing training and alliance-building ahead of time has a second use: If Trump does win the election, the workshop grads will be that much better prepared for the struggle to defeat Trump’s second-term agenda. They’ll need to shift strategies — from defense to offense — but they will still be better prepared than movements were in 2017 when Trump’s term began.
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What else works to defeat a power grab?
In addition to widespread participation in direct action and building alliances, Zunes found it was effective to flat-out refuse to recognize illegitimate authority. That can be difficult for many — not just politicians — whose careers have depended on their negotiation skills. They may think they can temporize and negotiate their way through the next “hard patch.”
What works is the opposite, Zunes found. Refusing from the outset to recognize the authority of Trump’s claim to office — or the authority of anyone who answers to him — is key. The more public the refusal, the better, because it stimulates others to do likewise. For example, the immediate start of a general strike of government workers, powerful by itself, would also be a signal to everyone else to act.
Most Americans will of course be initially surprised by an attempted coup… Bold activists will become the “first responders.”
When? The sooner the better, because case studies suggest that coups are weakest in their first hours and days. After all, the plotters know they are taking a big chance, and they have no guarantees of success. Trump’s success depends on others complying, but will they?
One tactic for accelerating resistance and building confidence would be to circulate a “pledge of resistance,” in which people sign on to the pledge to resist if the unexpected happens and Trump refuses to leave office. Unionized workers have an advantage: They can get a resolution of that kind passed in their union.
That doesn’t mean Trump can only be defeated through swift action. Some coups were defeated after protracted struggle. So, a slow start is no reason to give up — it’s just simply to our advantage to act quickly.
Most Americans will be surprised, even shocked
Most Americans will of course be initially surprised by an attempted coup, as has been the case with Trump’s previous deviations from the norms of expected presidential behavior. Bold activists will become the “first responders.”
Such activists are legendary for running toward disaster while others are running away. They are people who accept risk in extraordinary situations.
In the attempted Russian coup in 1991, people climbed on the barricades and faced tanks even though they believed an attack was coming and that they might well be killed.
Researchers agree that movement growth in response to violence is more likely the more nonviolent the movement remains.
As Taylor noted in his manual, women linked arms and created a “sisters and mothers chain” in front of the tanks with a placard saying: “Soldiers, don’t shoot at your mothers.” Three people were killed in confrontation with the tanks. Thousands more quickly joined the nonviolent struggle and defeated the coup.
When the French people faced a coup attempt in 1961 the workers — unlike the Russians — had independent trade unions. The French workers’ high degree of organization and experience in striking paid off: 10 million workers participated in an immediate general strike, not long enough to hurt the economy but big enough to persuade the army that it was better off not siding with the military leaders of the coup. The plotters were defeated.
What if Trump’s forces use violence?
In struggle after struggle a win for the people comes after the power grabbers try violence. Thailand offers one example. People there resisted a coup attempt in 1992 with public hunger strikes and major street protests of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, according to Stephen Zunes. Opposition groups quickly formed an alliance that crossed class lines.
When half a million people nonviolently protested in Bangkok, the army tried to stop the movement’s growth with violence. Some activists responded with projectiles and started fires.
Evidence-based knowledge shows more allies are stirred to act when we heighten the contrast between our tactics and the tactics of our opponent.
The government then used that as an excuse to crack down more. At the next large demonstration the government upped the repression, including shooting into crowds of nonviolent demonstrators.
As a result the movement grew: more boycotts, strikes, withdrawal of money from military-controlled banks. Other sectors of society joined in. The movement won.
Some researchers call this phenomenon “backfire,” others call it “the paradox of repression,” but all agree that movement growth in response to violence is more likely the more nonviolent the movement remains.
Whatever an activist’s personal code of morality about violence and property destruction is, this question is a collective and strategic one. Evidence-based knowledge shows more allies are stirred to act when we heighten the contrast between our tactics and the tactics of our opponent.
Even though I don’t in general regard property destruction as violence, my personal definition is not what matters here. What matters is the perception of those we seek to win over to support our side. If they see the fires I set as “violence,” I’m giving them a reason not to support us. The Trumpists are delighted.
Our opponents know that, are pleased, use it to justify increased violence, and may even win.
The research of Zunes joins other researchers in their conclusion: nonviolent discipline is one of the predictors of success in stopping a power grab. The way a movement can maximize the chance of winning, then, is to train participants to remain nonviolent in the face of violence used against them. Training adds skills and builds courage. We’ll need all of that for the times we now live in.
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Let’s broaden the conversation. NON VIOLENCE NON VIOLENCE NON VIOLENCE and persistence.
I completely support Lakey’s ideas about nonviolent resistance to an attempted coup, if Trump loses the election but fails to leave office. However, he never mentions the most important part of the scenario, which is that Trump has to lose the election or his remaining in office will not be a coup at all. Too many of those on the progressive left and who are nonviolent political activists refuse to vote for a candidate who does not meet their strict criteria of progressivism. They vote for a third party candidate or don’t vote at all. The reality is that Donald Trump is much more likely to win the election and stay in office than lose it and refuse to leave. Since Trump’s presence in office is synonymous with loss of individual freedoms, support of inequality and racist beliefs, and denial of climate change, among many other things, it’s imperative he leave office. The first step is to vote him out, then we’ll see if he leaves and we have to take a second step.
This piece nicely complements Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy which still serves as something of a manual of tactics for what L del Vasto calls the non-violent “warrior for peace” in his book of the same name. Thanks George.
I’ve been arrested in NVCD over 40 times and am certainly open to using that experience in such a case. Because of the pandemic and the new major aspect of vote by mail, there will be 3 stages here. 1) Get out the vote 2) Make sure all votes are counted, including activity election day and after. Did you realize that the GOP will send people to watch as mailed votes are opened to argue the signatures don’t match? Did you realize audits will be widely needed? 3) Resort to nonviolent resistance in the case described above.
What do we do now to defend the US Postal Service?
Or to strengthen the other election processes?
Because that is the most likely way tRump stays in power: by suppressing the vote, stealing ballots, not delivering ballots, tampering with electronic voting machines … strategies of that nature.
Replying to Casey Dorman’s comment, “The first step is to vote him out, then we’ll see if he leaves and we have to take a second step.”
Far more efficacious: Don’t vote. A choice between Trump and Joe Biden (or any Democrat) is a choice between Frick and Frak. Trump is a dishonest mysogenist and racist; Biden is a dishonest progressive (viz., a socialist-lite). I’m not sure which is more deadly, historically speaking: racism or socialism. Both are essentially statist constructs predicated on state violence to ensure adoption of their preferred modus operandi.
The Voluntaryist website has a lot of good information on the benefits of nonvoting. http://voluntaryist.com/
As for nonviolent opposition to Trump’s state or Biden’s state, efficacious resistance to federal taxes can topple either one like a house of cards. If you’ve been paying your federal income and employment taxes for the past 3.5 years, you’re an effective Trump supporter than, perhaps more so than the guy up the street wearing a MAGA hat with a TRUMP 2020 sign in his front yard.
I feel we are at the crossroads between Democracy (flawed though it may be) and Authoritarianism. Trump and his Republicans are becoming more obvious in their attempts and methods. This should be a sign to us that an attempt at take-over may be at hand. We need to be ready to act.
As I understand the situation of tRump’s refusal to accept a loss in November, January 20 will be the occasion of the Speaker of the House being invested with the Presidency.
This is significant because it provides a path forward.
I have been feeling lost (where do I go from here), with every new political shock!
I have reassurance, and relief!
Get involved with the election campaign now. Trump is pulling out all the stops to block voting. Then if there is a coup, we will be in a much better position.
Please keep me informed
Greetings George Lakey,
I met you long ago in West Philadelphia, and have been thinking along the same lines for a month or so as you. I direct your attention to Lincoln Mitchell’s CNN opinion piece about mass civil action if The Don refuses to leave office. Best, Ned Worth (firstname.lastname@example.org). I am hoping the Quaker response should be mass Nonviolent training for all responders in order to deny violent suppression of actors. The Kremlin Playbook seems relevant. Any ideas of how mass education can be achieved in NV practices is where I think we need to move now. Best, Ned Worth
Greetings. Please see Kyle Murphy on Rachael Maddow show last week, and Columbia U.’s CNN op-ed piece a month ago.Trying to get free non-violent training to protestors in Portland, Albuquerque, Chicago &c. where protestors may be infiltrated by agents provocateurs who commit violence to incite a harsh reaction. How to get Geo. Lakey, AFSC, Pendle Hill, Civil Rights (SNCC 2021?), to put an Elevator Pitch on YouTube, Tik-Tok, and/or other Social Media sites to get it to go viral. Best, Ned Worth
George and others
Greetings from Baltimore. I have been somewhat involved in email exchanges here regarding nonviolence training so Friends and others could serve as marshals at huge street protests that could be expected if Trump loses the election but refuses to leave office.
However, as I shared in Meeting for worship today, it seems that we may be called to nonviolence service earlier/now at some of the BLM protests around the country. That is, sometimes there have been a few extremists at such protests who have turned to violence–throwing bricks or rocks, looting, etc. This seems to happen especially at the rear of such marches. This violence plays into the Republican message that only they can provide “law and order”. If this continues it could turn a sizable number of undecided voters to vote Republican. What is your sense? Maybe such nonviolence training that you do could be made easily available to Meetings/Friends around the country or maybe that is true already or…?
Thank you for listening.
Mostly a curiosity: what do you think the chances are that Trump won’t leave office after he loses? I have to mention that the polling of every 7-day average gives Biden a large lead, well outside the margin of error. Biden could literally shit himself on the debate stage and he’d still win. https://i.ibb.co/cwXkRRm/RCP-polling-aggregate-Biden-Trump-2020.png
Thanks for your guidance!
I entirely agree. I am hoping the BLM protests become like meditations. Entirely silent people, just standing humbly; you can’t beat it. How can we train that now when so many people are so angry they just want to destroy things?
I like the ‘pledge of resistance’. Wondering if we (meaning lots of people) can ask various people and entities if they will take a pledge. Our Republican Senators? Judges? I would like to ask Mitch McConnell and some of Trump’s loyal supporters if they would resist a coup. Let them know that this is a real concern of many Americans.
Thanks for this article. Yes, we need to plan to mobilize in the streets immediately and in large numbers. And yes, a national strike where all supporters refuse to work OR spend money for anything, stopping the economy in its tracks until the People are heard and our Constitution is upheld!
I agree with your philosophy but we need more. We need to organize groups in Washinton DC ready to fight the good fight against Trump and his criminal sycophants like Barr. No matter what happens in the election Trump is prepared to take over the Government even if the Demos win the Senate. With nobody to stop him from Nov. to Jan, he simply will govern by decree and he still has the Supreme court, criminal Barr and the Senate to cover his butt during that time. His former wife has stated that Trump reads Mien Kamph at night and he knows all of Hitler’s tricks. The militias that are now forming to go against the peaceful protesters could easily become Trump’s “Brown Shirts” Contact me if you ever decide to start forming groups to go to DC
More Gaslighting I see
george we need to address tear gas which seems to be their most effective disrutor tactic. leaf blowers help some, gas masks of course, but strategies for regrouping, or laying down and staying together in the way, eye drops to mitigate sting, what else???? seeing protestors turn and run is so disempowering!! maybe vehicles on side streets people can retreat to until the gas disappates or the leaf blowers do their work and then regrouping… let’s brainstorm!
Here we go again. The one thing I have learned in my 70 years is that the Democrats are masters of Transference. They take their feeling, fears and
emotions and accuse the Republicans of these things. They do it ALL THE TIME. Ask yourself this. What if Trump wins? Are you going to accept it. That’s funny because you still haven’t accepted his 2016 win.
I think we’ll have an easier time saving democracy if Trump loses and tries to stay versus if he wins and continues dismantling democracy to a dictatorship. We need a plan for that too.
Please publish a way to organize for a response? Also how can we be sure to be able to recognize and call out those that will infiltrate the movement to start violence?
Thank you for this piece. I’ve been mulling over the question for a while – what will I do when (and yes, we’re talking when) this happens. I’ve tried to engage friends around this, and they’re just too horrified by the suggestion and think I’m a raving paranoid. So how do I engage them to get them to think, in advance, about what to do the DAY OF the takeover? How do I engage with local officials to plan against this eventuality? Any thoughts you have are appreciated.
Thank you for sharing your insights, George. I hope people listen.
WhAt would Gandhi Do?
Thank you for sharing these insights and perspective. It also might be worth reflecting on what is unique about the circumstances of the upcoming election. For example, that the risk of an attempted coup is posed by the incumbent president, that the president has been impeached, and that it is the president who is trying to cast doubt on the integrity of the voting process (a process his office has some level of responsibility for.) Could these unique circumstances potentially help in effectively reaching across the isle well before November? Could it help simply to persistently ask Trump’s officials how their concerns could be allayed?
GEORGE, My email address for you was old and just bounced; I had copied you on my response to Spee and Jens Braun (I registered for the Choose Democracy training):
“SPEE. I not only signed up to attend the Tuesday evening Zoom meeting, but also decided to offer George Lakey my training skills in somatic nonviolence for “anti-coup” organizers and facilitators.
As always fear is the real enemy of nonviolence, not the human opposition; ‘in a crisis we do not rise to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training’ (taken from Herodotus’ report, I believe, on preparing the hoplite warrior).” – peace, bill leicht 212-228-0980
How/where do I make my pledge of resistance?
Why are the masses and media ignoring this threat to democracy?. How can we elevate this before another Hitler arrives? I read your methods but dont see actions that aren’t called fake news.
How do I find and join anti-coup people for the week of Jan. 20th in D.C.?