What’s the game plan if Trump really does try to steal the election? 7 tactics to stop a coup

As coup prevention has gained mainstream attention, here’s a series of tactics with a plan to defend our democracy.

, October 21, 2020 (reprinted from Waging Nonviolence)


It’s Nov. 4. Votes are still being counted in dozens of states and election results are not final. But Trump tweets that he won while claiming massive fraud from mail-in ballots. Trump loyalists prepare to ignore election results. What do folks do next?

Before talking tactics, it’s worth asking: Is a coup really possible?

There is growing evidence that Biden’s lead is durable. A blow-out Democratic victory makes a Trump coup harder to pull off. But relying on the Democratic Party alone is a dubious position. That’s why people are voting (of course) and signing up to be poll workers, be poll monitors or handle intimidation at the polls.

The potential for a coup is increased when people aren’t on alert. Trump’s near consistent refusal to promise a peaceful transfer of power has bought us time. Even business leaders are organizing for core democratic values like counting every vote. The country no longer expects results on Election Day and media knows to cover this as a whole election season.

This is all good news for coup prevention.

Another positive development comes from Pennsylvania. House Republicans proposed an open-ended, subpoena-wielding commission with potential authority to seize uncounted ballots. This provided a clear mechanism for the GOP to claim fraud and derail the election. But within days of becoming public, moderate Republicans bailed and killed the plan.

Let this be a reminder that Republicans are not in lock-step on this. There are allies in many places.

With news stories flying fast, it’s hard to keep a grounded sense of how close we are to a coup or whether democracy is winning the day. This balance is considered on the new website IsThisACoup.com — with a handy “coup-a-meter” that shows where we are. Currently we’re in “Preparing for a coup” but not yet in “Attempted coup.”

A Trump-led coup seems somewhat less likely than a month ago, but not impossible. If my house had an equivalent chance of burning to the ground, I’d make sure to find my fire extinguishers.

In that spirit, based on lessons from past coups and a scan of the organizing horizon, here are some tactical fire extinguishers — actions likely to be more effective than others.

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. It highlights actions that regular folks can take based on the premise of influencing a “pillar of support.” In a pyramid model, all power flows down from the top; in this model, power also resides in the pillars that hold that top up. Rulers cannot do all the work of making a country run. If the people who are doing this work stop, the ruler cannot rule. So when enough pillars of support refuse to go along with a coup, it inevitably fails.


Tactic #1: Strengthen election officials’ backbones

One key pillar of support is election officials. As an example, Protect Our Election has launched a letter-writing and call-in campaign to encourage election officials to do their jobs.

I rarely recommend a petition campaign. But when trying to stop a coup, you need people ready to defect if given illegal orders. The likelihood increases when they feel support and sense they are siding with a broad citizenry.

The goal here is to let election officials know we are watching them — in affirming ways that side with their better angels. In a time of COVID, this is an action that is easy to take.

Tactic #2: Get democracy pledges from elected officials

Elected officials are another key pillar. The failed Pennsylvania commission shows that power — and that they can be moved.

One tactic to apply pressure on elected officials is getting them to take a pledge (before and after the election) affirming basic democratic principles: assuring every vote is counted and respecting the outcome of the election. Although there are many, the most strategic pledge I’ve seen comes from Hold the Line, whose wording is accessible: “All eligible ballots are counted, the election results are respected.” Their pledge is easy to pick up and run with.

However, the Hold the Line campaign isn’t just a request. If folks won’t sign immediately, they encourage continued pressure for the pledge with tactical escalation, like bird-dogging and confrontational nonviolent direct action that has worked in other cases to get reluctant elected officials to otherwise commit.

Tactic #3: Local rallies on Nov. 4

The Protect the Results coalition has put out a call to join their 100-plus groups in the streets on Nov. 4. This is a critical moment to test our ability for mass action in the streets. Their organizing page makes it easy to find a group and host a local action.

The timing is just right: Use action to set the tone, rather than waiting for the Trump administration to cross a “red line” by halting the vote count.

Coups are never stopped by holding any building or location, but instead by winning defectors and stripping away legitimacy.

On this date people from many walks of life will be in the streets. Don’t worry that the signs, dress code and chants will be wide and varied. The general message of “count every vote” will make its way through.

One messaging point: If the election is a Biden sweep, it’s still a bad idea to demand Trump concede. He may not be psychologically able to concede. So getting a concession cannot be a condition of a peaceful transfer of power.

If things go well, we’ll have lots of people on the streets, which is really important — because it makes the next steps more feasible to take.

Tactic #4: Organize actions at local board of elections and elsewhere

After Nov. 4 there will be lots of actions around the country. That is good and actually more strategic than concentrating our efforts on one place, like a national march to Washington, D.C. The dispersal allows us to respond to the chaotic and fast-paced environment, rather than putting all our eggs in one basket.

One place very likely to be important: local election offices.

Recall the Bush-Gore election in 2000. While election officials began a recount, a group of Republican operatives were ordered to “stop them.” They attempted to bully their way into a Florida election office, trampling and punching people. This became known as the “Brooks Brothers riots,” with unusual protesters who were “50-year-old white lawyers with cell phones and Hermès ties.”

The bourgeois riot’s pressure on the election officials — which included both an inside strategy of lawsuits and the outside strategy of protests — resulted in them ceasing the recount and changed the course of the national outcome.

The Brooks Brothers riots worked in large part because there was no meaningful counter-narrative of street protests. We’re already neutering that by being in the streets, even if we don’t end up confronting every regressive action to support a coup.

So our goal isn’t round-the-clock occupations to stop election offices from those kinds of riots. Tactically, that kind of occupation is likely a mistake — one where it attracts political die-hards on our side, violent counter-protesters who choose the time and place to show up, and then an ensuing confrontation that isn’t about democracy but street confrontations.

Coups are never stopped by holding any building or location, but instead by winning defectors and stripping away legitimacy. That means showing up at election offices with a tone to match: Bring the kids, balloons, order pizza for poll workers and so on.

In that way, our actions aim for greater legitimacy in the election process and give election officials all the cover they need to keep doing their jobs.

And if all this doesn’t stop a coup situation, where does the movement go? All the experts I consulted suggested the same destination: some kind of “national strike.” The following tactics head towards a series of rolling strikes that force remaining fence-sitters to join sides, threaten business leaders who prefer stability over chaos and apply pressure on all parts of society to disallow a coup.

Tactic #5: Preparation and youth strike

National strikes don’t just happen. In fact, one way to shoot ourselves in the foot is for tiny groups to announce a “national general strike.” We would be much wiser to follow the organizing smarts shown by Rochester’s AFL-CIO. They are the first regional AFL-CIO body to urge a general strike to be called if Trump refuses “a Constitutionally-mandated peaceful transition of power.” It prepares people while keeping our powder dry.

Wall Street hates chaos. And a Trump coup would be highly chaotic.

During this phase of preparation it’s about starting union and community-organized strike funds, discussing strategies and readying people for the impacts. Thankfully, the research on coups shows we’re most likely talking about days or weeks, not months.

One sector of society appears ready to be the bulwark: youth. A national youth coalition is putting in place plans — if necessary — to call a nationwide youth strike. As is often the case, young people from around the country may be the vanguard to withdraw from schools and workplaces, and go into the streets in protest.

Tactic #6: Consumer strikes

Waves of protests and escalated actions will continue across the country, gaining public sympathy and showing we have large numbers of people on our side. But that’s not the only tool in our toolbox.

Even now, the business class is extremely shaky on Trump. Wall Street hates chaos. And a Trump coup would be highly chaotic. But business as usual will try to keep going. Large national effort will be needed to make that impossible.

One way to further swing business and middle-class America is withdrawing as consumers from the marketplace until we have a peaceful transfer of power. Two tactics have been floating around in anti-coup circles: a consumer strike refusing to buy holiday gifts unless all the votes are counted or a strike against any state that sends two electorate slates to the Electoral College on Dec. 6.

The goals and tactics will depend heavily on the timing and how things have unfolded. But the action is clear: using consumer power to make it too costly and forcing widespread segments of society to disallow a coup.

Tactic #7: Rolling strikes

Calling a “general strike” may be overly ambitious. “Rolling strikes,” where various sectors withdraw their consent, are more likely. A lot of the strategy is up to organized labor, but with just over 10 percent of the workforce in unions, a lot of the efforts may be wildcat strikes, walk-outs and sit downs.

With rolling strikes multiple pillars of support get targeted in rapid succession. Some workplaces shut down for an hour while others stay in the dark for a week.

In “Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective,” Stephen Zunes notes that almost all anti-coup resistance involves strikes. That’s for a reason — striking is the ultimate withdrawal of our consent, our bodies, our labor and our money.

With widespread striking, the likelihood of defection increases, building pressure for more people to refuse to carry out orders by a tweeting ex-president.

So these are seven tactics we can add to our arsenal. Some of them we can act on right now; others may be right for later. You can get links at Choose Democracy’s Action Center as you consider which ones might be a fit for you (or sign our pledge for updates).

If a coup doesn’t happen, is the preparation worth it?

Absolutely. I’ve been part of efforts where our preparation alone kept the opposition from mobilizing against us.

Further, we’re teaching how power works. Trump’s tweets don’t determine the outcome of the election. People do. Our job isn’t over when the election is over — we need to understand how power works to make change for the future. Because the fight to save our country and the planet is just beginning.