In March we stockpiled toilet paper and Pop-Tarts, because we didn’t know how else to prepare for a public health crisis. Now, we’re equally confused about how to ready ourselves for a political crisis. So last week, freaked out by Donald Trump’s statements suggesting that he doesn’t plan to leave office after the election, I logged in, with hundreds of other Americans, to a training on a matter that’s been on the minds of many progressives: How to stop a coup.
The training, led by veteran civil rights activist George Lakey, was part of a project called Choose Democracy, inspired by Trump’s comments and by an alarming analysis from Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks for the Transition Integrity Project, which argued that there are good reasons to fear an attempted coup. Brooks, in cooperation with dozens of government officials, gamed out various scenarios and found that mass streets protests could be a decisive factor in whether Trump leaves office. Brooks seemed to show that demonstrating public commitment to a democratic outcome could harden the resolve of Democratic officials to fight for a transition.
The purpose of the training is to convince participants that nonviolent resistance can stop a coup. Before I attended, I spoke with Choose Democracy organizer Joshua Kahn Russell, who told me that the history of coups shows that “people power frequently works.” Drawing on Lakey and other activists’ experiences, as well as international relations scholar Stephen Zunes’s work on the subject, Choose Democracy points to successful nonviolent resistance to coups in Germany, Thailand, Burma, Argentina, and elsewhere. In 1920, for instance, protests in Germany prompted government workers to go on strike, making it impossible for the illegitimate government to operate. Hundreds of thousands in the streets during a coup in the Soviet Union in 1991 convinced soldiers to desert their posts, and the attempted putsch collapsed in three days.
Choose Democracy’s anti-coup trainings attract anywhere from 500 to 2,000 participants every night, and as of this writing more than 37,000 people have signed Choose Democracy’s pledge, which commits signatories to voting, refusing to accept the results until every vote is counted, and resisting nonviolently in the case of an illegal power grab. Lakey’s training addresses this last promise.
On the call I attended on October 21, there were people from the places and organizations one expects to find at a meeting presided over by a bearded pacifist in a cardigan. Groups included Palo Alto Friends and hometowns included hippie outposts like Ashland, Ore., and Sebastopol, Calif. But there were also people from less predictable progressive groups, like SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), Detroit DSA, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and less expected locales, like Dundee, Mich.; Lowell, Mass.; Denton, Tex.; Duluth, Minn.; Ripon, Wis.; and Sylvania, Ohio, among others. Though there were no breakout sessions, people eagerly connected with neighboring would-be coup stoppers in the chat, a process that continued in a Facebook group formed for alumni of the training.
Dictators, of course, cannot be unseated by Sebastopol alone. Indeed, Choose Democracy’s trainers argue that a coup must be stopped by the mainstream of society. Defeating it requires mass participation in the streets—not just the leftists who always show up—and winning over the institutional pillars of society: politicians, businesspeople, the military, and others. “There is a narrative that will play out in our divided media ecosystems about legitimacy and illegitimacy,” Russell said. Popular support, he emphasized, helps the anti-coup forces “demonstrate legitimacy.”
For the Choose Democracy organizers, nonviolence is a crucial weapon in the battle to control the narrative. According to their logic, nonviolence is effective when your enemies have done something illegitimate—like refusing to leave office after losing an election—because it is the best way to convince mainstream society that your side can help return the country to relative calm. (Brooks’s report found that Trump’s street supporters would try to turn peaceful protests violent in order to cement the right-wing associations of Democrats with “mob rule.”) Russell explained, “Our strategy is built around the understanding that we will be in a contest for legitimacy, and in order to hold onto basic core democratic values, we will need to maintain that high ground.”
The two-hour “training” is less about how to do civil disobedience or nonviolence than about persuading us that it can work. Along with Lakey, the meeting was cohosted by Diana González, a beatific Vermont legislator with gray hair and perfect skin (even on Zoom). Perhaps the most joyful person I’ve encountered virtually or otherwise, Gonzalez gave the sincere impression that preparing for a right-wing coup was the most delightful way she could imagine spending a Wednesday night. “Wonderful!” she kept exclaiming, as the almost equally cheerful Lakey worked through his slides.
I signed the pledge and am glad I did. But the happy peace talk worried me. “I’m afraid people will die,” I told Russell in our interview, asking if it’s wise to commit to nonviolence when facing off with armed Nazis and Trump-sympathizing cops. Participants in the training asked many versions of this question in the chat. Many were especially worried that people of color would be targets of racist violence in these protests. Choose Democracy’s organizers were ready with answers. We should de-escalate conflicts with right-wing counterprotesters, and Choose Democracy offers separate workshops on how to do this. The Proud Boys will be spoiling for a fight, Lakey emphasized, and we should not give them what they want. We should not hold rallies in obvious places where the far right plans to gather. Protest instead in politicians’ offices. Protect ourselves (from Nazis and Covid-19!) by protesting in car caravans. Bring religious leaders, whose moral capital might discourage troublemakers. Lakey also advises that if you see violence brewing, leave; he referenced a Bruce Lee quote that became a central tactic of the Hong Kong protests: “Be like water, move.”
At the same time Choose Democracy often gives the disturbing impression that demonstrators are potential cannon fodder in a media war. While offering ways to prevent far right violence, Lakey and his people sometimes seem to welcome it, arguing that the optics of Nazis attacking peaceful protesters favor the peaceful, helping Trump to alienate the center and the people with institutional power.
This logic doesn’t make me want to send the link to my mom. But is it tactically sound?
Not everyone thinks so.
“I had to turn it off,” said Spencer Sunshine of Lakey’s Zoom training. A scholar and activist who has spent the last 15 years studying the far right, Sunshine is the author of 40 Ways to Fight Fascists: Street-Legal Tactics for Community Activists. While Sunshine agrees with Choose Democracy that mass nonviolent action is “probably a good way to go in case of a coup,” he said he worries that a dogmatic adherence to the tactic could backfire. If it results in fascists’ killing defenseless pacificists, he said, it could end up scaring all but the most hardcore street fighters from showing up. When Sunshine tuned into the Choose Democracy call, he said, Lakey told a story about civil rights icon Andrew Young diffusing racist violence in the South by taking a few comrades and going out to a Ku Klux Klan gathering in the woods—where they talked with the white supremacists face-to-face in pairs. (The night I attended, Lakey omitted that anecdote, but it is a favorite of his.) “He’s putting people in danger by telling this story!” Sunshine told me. “That is not a suggested tactic at all.” Sunshine agrees with Choose Democracy that the center will side with the winner, but doubts that such an extreme commitment to nonviolence is the way to win. In 40 Ways, Sunshine observes that at times protesters need to engage in self-defense against the far right, and does not rule out carrying a gun, if you know how to use it and are protesting in a state where this is legal.
Whatever happens on November 3, we will need a sustained movement to oppose the far right. “It’s wonderful for the American public to affirm that it won’t stand for a coup,” said Marcie Smith, author of an exhaustive study of the late Gene Sharp, who was Lakey’s mentor and a revered theorist of tactical nonviolence. But she thinks that the legitimate power that Trump and the far right have attained is the bigger problem. “So while it’s good insurance to consider what to do in the event of a ‘coup,’” she said, “I hope we are spending at least as much time considering and training for the multigenerational project required to turn back the almost entirely legal six-decades-long global ruling-class incursion under which we have been living.”
These tactics of mass nonviolent protest might help make sure Trump leaves office, Smith said, but because they’re unable to challenge capital or build working-class power, they can’t beat Trumpism or rectify the diseased society that produced it. Russell appreciates Smith’s critique and likens coup preparedness to treating a heart attack: You need to go to the hospital before you treat the underlying causes. “Certain measures need to be taken so I don’t die,” he said. “After I don’t die, we should talk about how I need to lay off these burgers.”
Then again, Choose Democracy isn’t the only group organizing to fight Trump’s dirty post-election tricks. It’s joined by many grassroots organizations, including the Movement for Black Lives, the Working Families Party, and a coalition called Protect the Results, who are also working on voter turnout and against vote suppression. Some labor leaders and unions, including Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, the Rochester Central Labor Council, and the Seattle Educators, are even talking about a general strike in case of a Trump coup. Choose Democracy’s approach might win over the military or the elites—but in the long run, this growing, diverse mobilization could do something just as urgent: build a more robust left, one that could help our democracy avoid future near-death experiences.