Trump’s coup threat

Paul Garver on voter suppression, Democratic activists taking campaigning into their own hands to win in swing states, and the need for international solidarity

Since my last comment on US electoral politics and the Left, the fundamentals have not changed. President Trump further undercut himself by testing positive for Covid-19, with the White House staff becoming the biggest super-spreader of the virus in Washington, DC. Trump ranted and raved during his first Presidential debate with Joe Biden, repeatedly interrupting him and the debate facilitator from Fox News. Trump made it clear that he had no intention of quitting the White House, no matter what the vote count showed, since the election results were bound to be fraudulent unless he won.

Trump’s white electoral base has apparently remained faithful to their Dear Leader – as it has consistently over the last four years, regardless of revelations of Trump’s tax cheating, rampant cronyism and corruption – and responsive to his overt appeals to racist nationalism and xenophobia. The latest attempt to mobilise that base is the effort to put an open opponent of reproductive rights onto the Supreme Court with a Republican majority in the Senate prepared to rubber stamp and rush through the nomination, even at the expense of failing to consider a desperately needed Covid relief bill. Trump and the Republican Party hope thereby to win enough votes from traditional Catholics and evangelicals in key “battleground” states to amass enough electoral votes to win a majority in the Electoral College. They have also suppressed voter turnout among voters of colour in those battleground states, spread voter disinformation, weakened the capability of the US Post Office to deliver mail-in ballots, sharply reduced the number of polling places in cities like Milwaukee and Houston, and blatantly discouraged ex-felons in Florida from voting, despite a clear referendum vote in 2018 to allow them to vote.

The official Democratic Party is behaving like the proverbial “deer in the headlights”, with Biden campaigning mainly that he is “not Trump” (we know how well this strategy worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016). The massive amount of campaign funds flowing into the Democratic Party is largely being spent on campaign ads, rather than on registering and mobilising voters. Fortunately, a vast array of progressive movements are taking up that slack, relying on phone and Twitter banks, and even direct canvassing, to reach out to persons of colour in specific battleground states, urging them to vote. Professional athletes have become one public face of get-out-the-vote efforts targeting communities of colour. Elected democratic socialists like Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota are strongly focused on these efforts in their crucial battleground states.

The most likely scenario for the election is a relatively high voter turnout, focusing on base voters, both anti- and pro-Trump. Because many Democrats are choosing to vote by mail and most Republicans will vote in person, early returns will show Trump strength and a possible lead in electoral votes. Biden will run up huge popular majorities in states like New York, California and Massachusetts, but these votes are expected and will be discounted by the media commentators. Although it is now likely that a final count of votes in all states would result in a majority of electoral votes for Biden, it is also likely that Trump will declare victory, label the yet-to-be-counted votes as fraudulent, and call upon his Supreme Court nominees to certify his re-election (as the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount in 2000, which resulted in Bush defeating Gore).

There are numerous variations to this post-election scenario, all involving defects in the undemocratic US electoral system that is heavily weighted towards states with lower populations. In any event, it is quite likely that chaos and conflicting claims will continue well into November and December.

Moreover, the other crucial federal elections for control of the US Senate will also be in doubt. The Republicans now hold a 53-47 majority here, but with several critical Senatorial races polling now as very close, the Democrats could eke out a narrow majority. As the Supreme Court nomination battle shows, the current Republican majority is totally aligned with Trump, and if it continues in the majority it would be able to block most initiatives and nominations from a President Joe Biden.

As the likelihood grows that Trump will try to stay in office by sowing doubt about the integrity of the electoral process, many US organizations on the sane Left are pivoting to preparations for a prolonged period of institutional chaos and instability. Several overlapping coalitions, including progressive issue organisations, political groups and unions, have been formed to ‘Respect the Results’ or ‘Choose Democracy‘. The common denominator is a pledge to organise large-scale nonviolent protests around simple basic principles like:

  • We will vote.
  • We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
  • We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
  • If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

These coalitions to resist a possible Trump self-coup include many organisations which endorsed Biden (often reluctantly, after Sanders withdrew). Others, like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), did not endorse Biden but regard the prospect of a second Trump administration as disastrous for the issues and interests of the multinational working class.

The ongoing pandemic makes it more difficult to envisage what form mass public resistance to a possible Trump coup attempt can take. Armed resistance would be foolish and counter-productive. Trump has already made it clear that he welcomes armed private right-wing militias like the Proud Boys to intervene at polling places and vote-counting sites to “prevent Democrats from voting fraud”. Trump also has political control over a large motley array of armed Federal agents, including the Border Control agents which he displayed to try to cower protestors in Portland, Oregon. In addition, some elements of some police forces in various cities and areas are itching to revenge the humiliations they feel were imposed on them by the Black Lives Matter protests. However, Trump has made so many attacks on the FBI and top commanders of the Armed Forces that their reliability for rendering uncritical obedience may be in doubt, if Trump’s claim to the Presidency is widely disputed as illegitimate.

On the other hand, lacking the traditions and skills of clandestine or armed resistance, the US Left must rely on massive and sustained popular nonviolent demonstrations, and conceivably general strikes that include whole communities as well as workplaces. Imagining these possibilities of resistance for the US Left, more accustomed to passively cheering on resisters in faraway Palestine, Belarus or Hong Kong, represents a major stretch. We may have to learn quickly on the fly.

Democratic socialists in other countries are certainly looking on these potential horrors in the USA with some interest. We on the US Left are not accustomed to asking for help, nor can we expect a great deal in this situation. But given the enormous stakes for everyone else in the world if a climate change-denying, racist, xenophobic regime persists another four years in the USA, we may have something to ask from our overseas comrades.

Solidarity action

By the 4th or 5th of November it is quite likely that many cities in the USA will be rocked by large-scale protests. If the Trump camp refuses to allow a fair electoral count, as we fear, our only recourse will be to take to the streets. We would welcome our friends in the UK finding appropriate ways to support our democracy movement.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has a department called the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), with some 40 permanent staff and long-term observers in the USA to observe the US 2020 election. For the immediate November 3rd election period, they will be joined by some 100 other short-term parliamentary observers from various countries. A day or so after the election, the ODIHR mission will hold a press conference in Washington to issue its preliminary findings on the conduct of the US election.

We can expect the mission’s report to include several critical observations, albeit in a careful and balanced fashion. If Trump tries to maintain an illegitimate regime, we hope that it will not be recognized internationally. Large-scale protests outside the USA, reflecting those in US cities, will help isolate a reckless, undemocratic and dangerous threat to global democracy.


  1. Great article Paul. It is often argued that the USA is not a true democracy because of the Electoral College, among other things. You’ll remember that Clinton was well ahead in the final vote count in 2016 (see The past few years have shown us that this is not just an academic argument. If Trump gets back in with significantly less votes than Biden, or if there is serious malfeasance in the Electoral College, then it’ll be up to the people to enforce their will. Are unions prepared/preparing for such a scenario? It’s a common situation in many other countries.

  2. Paul,
    As usual your article makes great good sense. It touches many of the bases, thereby marshaling an argument that marches down the page with interlocking logic.

    The problem I have, and which you to some extent wrestle with, is that there are many bases and to a great extent they are dynamic not static. That is at one point it looked as though there would not be anything like the amount of mail in or early voting that we are now seeing. Or, that that Malyn or early voting will include so many of the communities we had concerns about voting insufficient numbers.

    (I I am thinking of Cleveland and Ohio for example. The state is more in play then I would have imagined, given what seemed the relative lack of registration of Cleveland voters of color. But the reality is, somehow, they have registered and they are voting in overwhelming numbers, sufficient perhaps to carry the state for Biden.)

    It’s likely that my pre-November 3 optimism is to a great extent condition by the fact that the last several years I have been much more involved not only in electoral politics, but in local electoral politics. While it is true that some of my shrewder neighbors have argued for a much more disciplined partisanship, calling out hobby politics as again more focused and more disciplined partisanship, we are simply seeing a huge number of people voting in opposition to Trump, his policies, but also the policies of a code, supine, nearly criminal republican party.)

    Some might have thought that the virus would cut against such an outpouring of voting.

    I suppose it has, but the way in which Biden, no doddering old fool by any means, has laser focused on what the virus has done not just to individualsBut to the society, and not least, the least in our society, his campaign has quietly wesponized Trumps irrational policy attitudes to the point even the New York Times has called it “colossal failure of leader ship.”

    It’s just possible sufficient voters, center, right center and apathetic have been weighing their lives against the daily new body count, and, risen or rising up and off their couches to pull the lever against ‘four more years.’

    So much is the same, yet So much has changed.

    Notice, I’ve left out the demographic shifts, the increased involvement of women in electoral politics so evident not just in the millions who turned out shortly after trumps inauguration, but those who dramatically altered the balance of power in the house of representatives.

    Yes, the Democrats are big on spending their big money on big ads.As you note, other groups have picked up the on the ground game, and those ads, and social media work, have been important in countering the immense amount of Disinformation and sheer noise coming not only from Fox News and Company, but A dozen other places.

    Plan for the worst? I agree with you on that, and your various suggestions including appealing to international friends. For my money, I am thinking Biden will take it Tuesday night, and all the other counting will simply be a confirmation of the People’s choice.

    Of course that doesn’t let us off the hook.

    A tremendous amount of damage has been done not only to the normative structure of the democratic process, such as it was, yet what we have relied upon for decades and decades.

    If FDR called for a new deal, saving capitalism in some form but also saving quite a bit else, we are going to need a real deal.

    Meaning? Almost, as I’ve been thinking of my own decades of teaching, a new civics starting in every public school in this country and continuing through university. Our notions of citizenship have virtually evaporated in the 20th century. American individualism, a means to a democratic end, has virtually driven out of the market place the notion of what it must mean to be a citizen.

    It’s all rights, no duties. Error; the two must be reciprocal.

    Let’s hope for a sunny, warm day to see one another soon.

    My tribal emotions overwhelmed my rational assessment when I saw Biden speaking from the Chester, PA square half an hour ago.

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