As November nears, the world waits on pins and needles for the results of the U.S. presidential election, not least because of a valid concern that there may not be a peaceful transfer of power. President Donald Trump has been casting doubt on the results with veiled warnings like, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” He panders to law enforcement at his rallies and has earned the endorsement of the largest police union in the country, causing worries that the president may be angling for their extralegal support on Election Day. During the first presidential debate, Trump spoke directly to the far right group the Proud Boys, telling them to “stand back and stand by,” and he encouraged his supporters to show up at the polls to keep “watch,” leading to anxieties about public intimidation or even violence at polling places. Add to this the right-wing demonization of the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-fascists, a global pandemic and looming economic crisis, and we have a powder keg of conditions that an authoritarian leader (like Trump) could exploit to remain in power should he not win at the ballot box.
The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leaving a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, has only raised further questions about the integrity of the 2020 election. With Trump-appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett newly sworn in, we will see a court split with six conservative-leaning and only three liberal-leaning justices. Our Constitution is ambiguous enough for bad actors to exploit in close races, as we saw in the 2000 presidential election, and the Electoral College only complicates matters. Trump could even persuade GOP-controlled state legislatures to submit separate slates of electors declaring him the winner, despite the certified popular vote.
Democrats are trying to combat some of these threats in advance of the election. On October 16, Senate Democrats offered a preview of their plan to counter tactics that may be deployed by Trump and the GOP with the release of a guide called “Counting Votes & What to Expect on Election Day,” which primarily serves to relay basic voting rights, with details about the final dates for vote counting in key battleground states. The guide also asks Americans to “be patient” and “reject misinformation” in the case that we do not have complete counts on November 3. Democrats are also pushing for a huge turnout to limit doubts about the winner, and will be working overtime to ensure that all votes are tallied. Legal strategy is being directed primarily by the Biden campaign, with support from Democratic National Committee counsel Marc Elias, whose focus has been on mail-in voting laws.
Another strategy two Democrats on the Armed Services Committee have employed is to make formal, on-the-record requests of Trump cabinet members, calling for their commitment to a peaceful transition of power if he were to lose the election. In a joint press release, Reps. Elissa Slotkin (Michigan) and Mikie Sherrill (New Jersey) lauded Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who responded that he does “not see the U.S. Military as part of this process.” Notably, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has dodged definitive answers on the issue, and Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have not responded to similar requests.
Across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made his “official” statement on the transition via tweet: “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.” Other Republicans have followed suit, but the question remains as to what the definition of “orderly” is to a party that has a track record defined by gridlock and cutthroat tactics made to advance their party.
Who Is on Our Side?
The “good” news is that much of the ruling class, outside of Trump’s inner circle, has been critical of Trump and seems to be preparing for his departure. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a U.S. nonprofit think tank and arguably the bipartisan political committee for the global ruling class, has published numerous articles slamming the president on everything from economics to foreign policy. Richard Haass, president of CFR, has called Trump’s presidency and style of governing a threat to “liberal world order,” “a liability for a great power” and “never strategically good,” and says what we need is “predictability, reliability and continuity.”
CFR’s attitude isn’t simply a part of a “global liberal conspiracy” as Trump would have his supporters believe. Trump’s presidency, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis, has been incredibly destabilizing for the economy and what the Council longingly refers to as “international world order.” Those whose goal it is to protect capital simply won’t have this. For a brief moment — and on this specific issue — the interests of poor and working-class Americans somewhat overlap with those of the ruling class. Both stand to benefit from a fair election that removes Trump and puts an end to his chaotic administration.
Fears of an unruly presidential transition within elite circles are highlighted by the recent formation of the Transition Integrity Project (TIP). This bipartisan group of former government and military officials, political operatives and academics organized four scenario exercises, “to identify risks to the rule of law or to the integrity of the democratic process in the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day.” In their final report, “Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition,” TIP was able to hypothesize a variety of potential disruptions to the democratic process and election integrity. The report strongly urges progressive, pro-democracy groups to prepare now for the mass mobilization that they believe may be necessary to ensure a fair and accurate count.
To that end, a coalition group organized by national nonprofit organizations Stand Up America and Indivisible is joining the action, calling themselves Protect the Results. Progressive organizations are beginning to mobilize, and even unions are talking about how to resist if Trump refuses to concede. A group of researchers, organizers and activists also assembled “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” a 55-page political education piece encouraging people to step up to take action and protect the vote.
There are many players involved in the effort to secure the results of this year’s election. But it will be important to pay attention to who continues fighting alongside us on January 21 and beyond, regardless of who is inaugurated. The ruling class and more moderate groups will only advance pro-democracy initiatives when they align with their interests. Voter suppression will no doubt persist even if Trump transitions out of power in 2021. What steps will be taken and strategies developed during off years and primary elections to combat this trend?
The Engineering of Consent
Like his other lies, gaslighting and media stunts, Trump’s repeated stoking of election fears has had a profound effect on the public’s consciousness. A recent poll shows that 47 percent of Americans are afraid that Trump may lose the election but refuse to concede, and that number jumps up to 75 percent among Biden voters. Is the threat of Trump not accepting the election results a form of voter suppression? According to a recent report, the number one obstacle to voter participation, regardless of one’s income level, are the beliefs that candidates are not speaking to their issues and that their vote will not matter. A candidate openly attesting that they may not honor election results is a signal to the public that their vote will not count. This obstacle becomes even greater to poor and low-income Americans, who are 20 percent less likely to vote in national elections than those with higher incomes.
Trump’s onslaught of lies distorts our “common sense” knowledge over time, normalizing extremist ideas or actions. When the public accepts or adheres to such manipulations, this is what master propagandist and public relations pioneer Edward Bernays termed “the engineering of consent.” If his propaganda can generate fear in the public, Trump may be counting on a U.S. too overwhelmed to participate or fight back.
Trump has been misdirecting the public with his negative rhetoric about mail-in voting, giving the impression that it may fraudulently benefit his opponent. But even before the pandemic, mail-in voting was gaining popularity among Democrats and Republicans alike. In 2018, 1 in 4 votes was cast by mail and “the prevalence of voting by mail has been increasing across a wide range of personal characteristics, and there is little difference in voting by mail according to income status.” In past elections, researchers at Stanford University found that there is little to no evidence that mail-in voting benefits one party or the other.
And Trump’s tactic may well backfire for him. Trump’s war on the U.S. Postal Service and voting by mail suppresses votes across the political spectrum, including members of his own older (and higher COVID-risk) base. Some of the “blue shift” we’re starting to see could be thanks to Trump’s politicization of the pandemic, with calls for his supporters to be at the polls on Election Day — both for intimidation purposes and to collect evidence of so-called “fraud.”
Given the current conditions and political climate, no one can accurately predict what may go down on Election Day. But those committed to ensuring that every ballot is counted will need to be flexible and ready to take action. Coups can be stopped when citizens reject misinformation, do not consent to illegal actions and when the people demonstrate their power. But this is just the first step.
The Long Game
Regardless of the outcome of this election, our nation faces intersecting crises of unemployment, housing and food insecurity, racial injustice, lack of adequate health care coverage, overwhelming debt and climate catastrophe. It’s not enough to mobilize voters and protect the polls for one election. We need to build a sustained movement that will enable the people power necessary to make electoral demands that meet people’s basic needs.
We must remember that voter suppression takes place when states are deliberately not organized to participate in elections. This means that those in power intend to benefit from a populace that is misinformed, has lost faith in their representatives and feels as though their votes won’t matter. We must begin to see political education, voter participation and collaboration as revolutionary acts and expressions of our collective power. Because the people, not the elite, should be the true arbiters of our democracy, it will be up to us to strategize and organize a future that secures our basic human rights and needs.
One movement working to expand democracy is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. For the past three years, we have been uniting the poor across racial and geographic divisions, recognizing that it will take more than “not Trump” to make long-term systemic change. Campaign Co-Chair Rev. William Barber recently stated, “People will have to risk their lives to stand in line to vote in the midst of this pandemic. Why did people in Selma risk their lives in 1965? Because they thought what they were risking their life for was worth it. We must give people that kind of policy agenda.” And the campaign does just that with a comprehensive Moral Agenda that takes on the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the false narrative of religious nationalism here in the U.S. The fusion of these key issues, along with the campaign’s non-partisan (but very political) stance, gives it the flexibility to bring a mass movement of organizers together for a sustained struggle, rather than isolating efforts in smaller, less impactful silos.
In addition to bringing people together around a progressive agenda, we must have a transformation in the way Americans think if we are to put a stop to Trumpism for good. Our economic conditions must be studied and our electoral system rehauled. We must recognize the tactics those in power use to divide us, and be willing to talk to people we don’t agree with. It will take discipline to change people’s minds on the “mental battlefield.” Expanding our democracy by securing our elections and ending voter suppression is just the initial foundation for the work ahead.