Chaos as a strategy for seizing power
If Trump makes a bid to steal the election, calling it a coup highlights that it’s an undemocratic power grab. At the same time, the term “coup” can be misleading, because it conjures images of soldiers occupying government offices and TV stations, setting up roadblocks, and arresting political opponents. Trump stealing the election would—by design—be a lot muddier than that. As Barton Gellman argues, Trump’s strategy makes use of traditional voter suppression methods—such as purging voter rolls and (probably) intimidating people at the polls—but the crux of it is not controlling the election but discrediting the electoral process itself.
For example, Trump’s efforts to disrupt mail-in voting (such as gutting the postal service) may help shift the results in his favor, but their main effect—coupled with his team’s relentless lies about the supposed danger of widespread voter fraud—is to call the validity of the results into question. Through this and other tactics, in Gellman’s words, Trump “could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold onto power.” At that point, the outcome could depend on Trump’s control over key federal agencies and support from rightist street forces (Patriot groups, Proud Boys, etc.), but only because the election itself has been discredited.
This approach is well calibrated both to the constraints Trump faces and also to his whole approach to politics. On the one hand, as Gellman points out,
“Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance. Trump denounced Special Counsel Robert Mueller but couldn’t fire him. He accused his foes of treason but couldn’t jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints.
“A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix the victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.”
But as a strategy, discrediting the election results also makes sense because sowing confusion and chaos is one of the few things Trump does well. Trump doesn’t have the patience or skill to plan and implement a well-organized military-style operation, but he is very good at spreading disinformation. Some people believe his lies and—just as important—others don’t know what to believe. Trump has contributed to a larger shift in the political culture, in which information itself is increasingly treated as partisan, and this in turn makes it easier to leverage power through chaos.
Divided state, divided elites
For years, some liberals and leftists have warned that Trump, the far right, and the ruling class are working hand in hand to establish a dictatorship—or, as Henry Giroux put it, “neoliberal fascism.” This claim not only glosses over the far right’s complicated and sometimes hostile relationship with Trump, it also hides the contradictory nature of the Trump administration as an unstable alliance of pro-corporate neoliberals and America First populists. Trump has won support from some capitalists, but also opposition from many others—including such hardline right-wingers as the Koch brothers. He was definitely not the ruling class’s preferred candidate in 2016, and there’s no reason to think he is now. A centrist neoliberal like Joe Biden is much more in line with what the business community—and much of the Republican Party—wants than an unpredictable demagogue who is more concerned with glorifying and enriching himself than bolstering U.S. capitalism at home or abroad.
Trump also has had limited success in consolidating support within the federal bureaucracy. As It’s Going Down notes, he has used political appointments effectively to control such key agencies as the Justice and Homeland Security departments, but has had much less success extending such control over the military. This has direct implications for a coup scenario. Trump may well be able to deploy U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security agents to “prevent fraud” in Democratic majority areas, but it’s unlikely he could deploy actual troops.
Some leftists conclude, wrongly, that these limitations make a Trump coup implausible. Roger Harris of the Peace and Freedom Party argues that Trump won’t attempt a coup because capitalists don’t want him to:
“In Europe of the 1930s, sections of the ruling class in their respective countries accepted Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships for fear of working-class Communist and Socialist parties coming to political power. There is no such political contention in contemporary US…. If rule by and for the elites is accepted, why should the bourgeoisie squander this gift and opt for a more costly fascist dictatorship?
“Even if Donald Trump personally would aspire to be the first US führer, he does not have sufficient backing from the ruling class, notably finance capital. Many military generals detest him. The foreign policy establishment does not trust him. At least half of the active-duty service members are unhappy with him. And the so-called deep state security agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – are among his harshest critics.
“Trump might be able to mobilize some skinheads with gun show souvenirs. But these marginalized discontents would hardly be a match to the coercive apparatus of the world’s superpower.”
Harris exaggerates the ability of elites to determine political outcomes. Yes, in broad terms U.S. capitalists hold state power, and as a bloc they wield political influence far beyond their share of the population. But if they could simply dictate who was president, Trump would never have made it to the White House in the first place. This point is driven home when we revisit what Harris wrote exactly four years ago:
“We don’t have to worry about [Trump] getting elected in 2016. The ruling elites will take care that he will be lucky to win Alaska. Trump’s already fatally shaky presidential prospects will be enormously even less impressive as the corporate media continues to whittle him and his big hands down.”
The reality is that not every president—and not every shift toward or away from authoritarianism—reflects ruling class preferences. To succeed, a Trump coup attempt doesn’t require active support from the economic, political, or military establishment. Their passive acceptance, disunity, or indecision at a critical moment could be enough. At the same time, the limits on Trump’s support will constrain what he can do both before and after the election, limit his capacity to consolidate control, and leave him vulnerable to determined opposition even after a successful coup.
Not fascism versus democracy
The threat of a Trump coup is not about a struggle between fascism and democracy. As I’ve argued since 2015, while Trump promotes important elements of fascist politics, he is not himself a fascist and does not have the capacity to create a fascist state. Fascism, in my view, involves much more than repression or even full dictatorship. Among other things, it involves a systematic effort to transform society to conform to a unified ideological vision (such as Mussolini’s total state or Hitler’s renewal of the Aryan race), as well as an independent, organized mass mobilization to overthrow the old political order and implement the transformative vision across all social spheres. Trump exploits far right political themes, but he doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he has never tried to build an independent organizational base that would enable him to do so.
This is not to downplay the threat. Any kind of second Trump administration will be even worse than the first, but if Trump steals the election and gets away with it, the erosion of the constitutional, republican system of government will be dramatically greater. The formal political structures probably won’t just disappear, but they’ll become a lot weaker and hollower than they are now. (Think Putin’s Russia, which still has a parliament and even an independent press and political opposition of sorts.) We can expect a sharp increase in repression and brutality by the state and its vigilante allies, which will be disastrous for all of our movements and for the great majority of people in the United States. Yet even this uber-authoritarian version of Trumpism would be less ideologically driven than fascism—more chaotic, more disorganized, more dependent on Trump’s mercurial leadership to hold it together. This too, like the limits on Trump’s support noted above, could create vulnerabilities that we can exploit.
On the flip side, opposing a Trump coup is not about “defending democracy.” As I wrote in 2015,
“The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy.”
Political space in the United States has in many ways been shrinking for decades, as the state’s repressive and surveillance apparatus has been steadily expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Yet President Trump has accelerated the process through his contempt for government accountability, demonization of opponents, and blatant manipulation of state organs for personal ends. A Trump coup would sharply ratchet things up even further.
We can recognize that pluralistic space is most at risk from a Trump coup without romanticizing the political system as a whole. Navigating this double-sided reality is, I believe, a central challenge in developing radical responses to Trump. How do we call out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the present political order, while also being clear that the future Trump offers would be dramatically worse?
Anti-Trumpers versus the left
Another challenge for leftists responding to a prospective Trump coup is the fact that many anti-Trumpers would be happy to throw us under the bus. One of many surreal aspects of the Trump era has been watching neoconservatives—who just a few years ago were the top proponents of U.S. expansionism and mass killing—repackaging themselves as voices of moderation and civility. In 2003, neocon David Brooks was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most brutal and devastating acts of U.S imperialism in decades. Now he calls for mass activism to stop a presidential coup, but his rallying cry is directed almost as much against the left as against Trump.
Brooks declares that “If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy…” This campaign would unite “sober people who are militant about America”—including “a certain sort” of conservatives, moderates, and liberals—against “the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption.” Those foes include “the Trump onslaught” on one side, but also “the fringe of the left” on the other, people who seize “their chance at mayhem…with sometimes violent passion.” It’s classic horseshoe theory, like equating white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous extremists threatening civic order and “sober” discourse.
Neoconservatives aren’t the only anti-Trumpers prone to horseshoe theory centrism. For example, while demonizing antifa might seem like the special province of Trump and his supporters, recent history shows otherwise. In the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist murdered antifascist Heather Heyer, liberals from Nancy Pelosi to Chris Hedges joined a propaganda campaign against militant antifascists that exaggerated and distorted their use of violence. Berkeley’s liberal mayor, Jesse Arreguin, declared that antifa should be classified as a “gang,” while the Anti-Defamation League urged the FBI to infiltrate and spy on antifascist groups. If conflict intensifies around the coming election and its aftermath, we can expect many liberal anti-Trumpers to embrace David Brooks’ “sober” condemnation of leftists.
Mass resistance and non-sectarianism
U.S. presidential elections routinely present leftists with the depressing question of whether to vote for the lesser evil or reject the options presented as a false choice. This year many leftists, but by no means all, are reluctantly supporting Biden, not so much as the lesser evil over the greater, but rather as the abysmal over the catastrophic. Wherever you come down on that question, whether you plan to cast a ballot or not, the threat of a stolen election should make clear as never before that voting in itself will not decide this. Trump needs to be stopped, and organized mass resistance is needed to do it.
Mass resistance can give the lie to propaganda about voter fraud. Mass resistance can denounce and confront poll “watchers,” federal agents, and rightist vigilantes sent to skew the results on Election Day or while mail-in ballots are being counted. Mass resistance can offer a countervailing force to Trump’s supporters and change the context in which lawmakers and judges, police and National Guard members decide how to act. Mass resistance can demand that Trump be brought down.
Mass resistance to a presidential coup has the potential to attract wide and varied support, because Donald Trump is widely hated and despised, and because this is a time of radical mass activism on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. In this context, some anti-Trumpers will present the sectarian demand that any radical impulses be stifled in favor of lowest common denominator moderation. A better and more powerful organizing framework is the antifascist principle of “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we call Trump a fascist, the following passage from my Foreword to Shane Burley’s Fascism Today applies here:
“The fight against fascism has to be broad and allow space for people to act in different ways and with different politics. As Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about opposing our common enemy. Some approaches will involve direct physical confrontations with right-wing forces. Some will involve nonviolent protest, writing and speaking, legal or electoral initiatives, community organizing, or even engaging with people who are attracted to fascism to try to win them away from it. Although people often think of militant and non-militant approaches as mutually exclusive and in conflict, they work best when they complement and reinforce each other.”
However, making the mass resistance movement inclusive and dynamic is about more than tactics. It’s about ensuring that alongside the calls to “defend democracy” against Trump, there is also space to denounce the political, social, and economic order that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Voter suppression is real, but there are also millions of people in this country who don’t vote because they don’t see anyone worth voting for. Ultimately, a mass resistance movement needs to offer not just defensive holding actions, but also radical visions that speak to those for whom “Build Back Better” is a cruel joke.