One day late last month, longtime activist George Lakey was yet again training people on how to peacefully resist a coup. But this time, he was not in Moscow or Bangkok or one of the many other far-off places where he has traveled over his 70-year career as a sociologist and writer promoting democracy and nonviolent forms of protest. He was in the United States, at his home in suburban Philadelphia.
On the other end of Lakey’s Zoom webinar were around 1,000 American voters — 500 more, he noted, than had shown up the week before — from around the country who were glued to their screens, taking careful notes.
As President Donald Trump has spent the last few months planting seeds of doubt about the integrity of the US’s electoral process and urging his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” dozens of advocacy groups, mostly progressive, have been hard at work trying to organize and train everyday Americans for what to do if their democracy appears to fall apart before their eyes.
“When Trump a few weeks ago began saying he wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power, that’s when I decided I needed to do it,” said Lisa Graustein, a 45-year-old former public school teacher in Boston, of her decision to give up two hours of her day to partake in a training on the finer points of mass demonstrations, peaceful sit-ins, and putting public pressure on elected officials.
Graustein, who now runs a food distribution center, said she had been “semi active” in local political and activist causes in the past. Still, that was a far cry from pondering the questions Lakey asked in the training, such as: Are you a person who will stand up to authority and be a voice for others? Or hearing Lakey assure the group that dictatorships fall when the masses rise up and that nonviolent resistance — like in Argentina in 1987 and the Soviet Union in 1991 — could be used to defeat a possible power grab by Trump.
But Graustein said she and all her friends and work colleagues are anxious about the election. “People not active in previous elections are active now,” she said. And so when someone in her Quaker community told her about the training, she signed up.
The idea behind the effort was to “actually help prevent” the possibility of a coup, explained Eileen Flanagan, who moderated the training with Lakey.
The training was organized by Choose Democracy, a Washington, DC–based group that describes itself as a “crew of organizers, activists, trainers, academics, and concerned citizens preparing for the scenario of a coup in 2020.” Choose Democracy has held three training sessions so far, each larger than the last; the first training of this month had more than 1,500 trainees and more than 3,500 have been involved in all so far, said Flanagan, a member of the political action committee. The events have become so popular that the group has organized six more this month, including two designed specifically for trainers to learn how to coach more people in their communities.
Another participant, a West Coast–based healthcare union organizer, told BuzzFeed News that prior to this election she had never been involved in an exercise like Lakey’s. But this year, she felt the need to take action.
Listening to Lakey discuss the history of attempted power grabs and political moments fraught with peril in other countries, “it really brought home this idea, ‘Wow, we’re really about to cross a rubicon,’” said the union organizer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized by her employer to speak to the media.
Choose Democracy and Lakey are far from the only ones preparing for what many Trump opponents believe would be a doomsday scenario for democracy.
The preparations include voter education campaigns and planning street protests, and getting public officials to pledge to not accept the results until every vote is counted. Some groups are using political and election experts to conduct war game–type exercises.
Erica Chenoweth, an American political scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told BuzzFeed News that the planning for a potential coup is unprecedented in US history.
“First, there’s genuine talk of trying to avoid a coup. And the talk about this is with a level of seriousness that I think we haven’t seen in the country before,” she said. “Second, there’s a genuine national infrastructure around coordinating effective people power and avoiding an election power grab that is totally novel in American politics.”
That infrastructure is being built with initiatives like Choose Democracy and many others. Another organization is Protect the Results, which was launched by Stand Up America and Indivisible, two progressive groups formed after 2016 to fight the Trump administration’s agenda. Protect the Results is a coalition made up of more than 100 bipartisan organizations composed of millions of members nationwide. It is also gearing up in case Trump prematurely declares victory; the organization will have a robust national response in the form of street protests in all 50 states to demand that every single vote be counted before a winner is decided.
“Our view is, in any scenario where Trump might refuse to concede or choose to contest the results, it will be incredibly important for Americans to respond swiftly and for there to be a plan in place for grassroots mobilization,” Sean Eldridge, the founder and president of Stand Up America, told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve already seen Trump lie about voter fraud and demand foreign election interference. He’s behind in the polls and desperate. He’s clearly willing to bully and cheat his way through this election.
“So we are signaling to our community members that the most important thing they can do is to make a plan to vote and vote early — but that the work might not end on Election Day, and we might also need to be prepared to protect the results if Trump tries to put corrupt pressure on election officials or tries to undermine the results.”
The coalition includes members of the Black Lives Matter movement and organizations like Women’s March who have experience mobilizing large groups of people in multiple states.
This week, Protect the Results launched a map which Americans can use to RSVP for a protest near them — should it become necessary to take to the streets to demonstrate opposition to what the government is doing. As of Friday, the map already had more than 160 protests planned for Nov. 4, from Boston to Portland, Oregon, and everywhere in between.
Many of the groups began putting protest plans into motion after a bipartisan group of more than 100 current and former senior government and political campaign staffers and other experts in June organized the Transition Integrity Project, an exercise that has war-gamed various scenarios in which the presidential election could be disrupted. Its findings showed that an overwhelming protest presence in the streets “may be decisive factors,” the project’s website said.
The groups are also planning for Election Day itself. The nonpartisan grassroots group Common Cause is appointing “election protection volunteers,” which it describes as “voters’ first line of defense against restrictive election laws, coronavirus-related voting disruptions, or anything else that could silence their voices.”
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, told BuzzFeed News that the volunteers will monitor the polls from outside voting stations while others watch for online disinformation and field calls to a hotline set up to take reports of voting problems, which could be anything from a lack of wheelchair access to illegal campaigning inside polling stations to explicit voter intimidation. In 2016 and 2018, the group had about 6,500 volunteers; this year, the number went up exponentially to more than 36,000.
Albert said the thousands of unarmed volunteers outside polling stations will be trained to handle situations in which they face intimidation or violence, although she believes that anything of the sort is unlikely to happen.
One such newly minted polling station observer is Jessica Mann, a 44-year-old social worker in Austin, Texas. Since early voting began in the state on Oct. 13, she has monitored activities outside various stations in three-hour shifts. A first-time-volunteer, she said she was motivated to do something after hearing Trump encourage supporters to come out and watch for “fraud” inside polling stations which raised fears of voter intimidation.
“I wanted to be there in case his monitors showed up,” Mann said. So far, she hasn’t seen any Trump supporters intimidating voters or faced intimidation herself. Under Texas state law on electioneering, Mann can only monitor a station from outside a 100-foot perimeter. (Other states have similar laws.) But she has sensed that people are more on edge than usual. “It’s a tense time and it’s an emotional time,” she said.
Many election experts worry about the probability of tense and possibly even violent confrontations this year due to challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, tensions surrounding nationwide anti-police brutality protests, and Trump’s recent call for the violent men-only group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by, which has emboldened far-right militant groups.
A threat assessment issued this month by the Department of Homeland Security showed that the agency also warned of the potential for political violence at and around the polls, particularly from extremists. “Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places and voter registration events, would be the most likely flashpoints for potential violence,” it said.
The Justice Department said it is planning to station officials in a command center at the FBI headquarters to coordinate the federal response to any election disturbances, the Washington Post reported, citing officials familiar with the matter.
Talk of a coup is not only coming from the progressive political wing. For their part, Trump-supporting conservatives have claimed the anti-coup preparation from the predominantly left-wing groups is actually the foundation of a coup itself being planned by Democrats.
The New York Times reported that after right-wing commentators began pushing disinformation about a Democrat-led coup, the unfounded allegation had spread quickly across social media. The Times’ analysis found mentions of it had “made its way into at least 938 Facebook groups, 279 Facebook pages, 33 YouTube videos and hundreds of tweets.”
With the heightened rhetoric and finger-pointing, experts say we are likely in for a hot Election Day and a chaotic post-election situation.
“With the exception of the ‘big Biden win’ scenario, each of our exercises reached the brink of catastrophe, with massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse,” Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and cofounder of the Transition Integrity Project, wrote in the Washington Post about the war games she conducted with colleagues. “In two scenarios (‘Trump win’ and ‘extended uncertainty’) there was still no agreement on the winner by Inauguration Day, and no consensus on which candidate should be assumed to have the ability to issue binding commands to the military or receive the nuclear codes.
“In the ‘narrow Biden win’ scenario, Trump refused to leave office and was ultimately escorted out by the Secret Service — but only after pardoning himself and his family and burning incriminating documents.”
Lakey said he isn’t certain Trump will try to hold onto power no matter the election’s outcome. But the president has previously threatened to use the military to quash unrest, and he is now increasingly signaling that he could challenge the election results if they do not turn out in his favor. With this in mind, Lakey stressed the importance of being prepared.
“It’s like buying fire insurance,” he said. “You hope your home won’t catch on fire, but you want to have it if the worst should happen.” ●