Before the election, activists around the country prepared for the possibility that President Donald Trump would refuse to concede and attempt to cling to power, even if he lost.
Groups including the Sunrise Movement, the Movement for Black Lives, and United We Dream Action PAC planned marches, strikes, and other actions if the president tried to stop the counting of votes or failed to accept the results of the election.
As it turned out, Trump didn’t stop states from counting ballots. But he has refused to accept the fact that President-elect Joe Biden won the election, and his allies in Congress have followed suit, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying in a speech on the Senate floor Monday that “President Trump is 100 percent within his rights” to investigate supposed “irregularities” in the election results. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised concerns about an orderly transfer of power during a press briefing Tuesday, when he said there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
Many have pointed out that what Trump and his allies are doing looks a lot like an attempted coup. But some activists say it’s not time to put their plans for a coup scenario into action — yet.
“Right now there’s a lot of talk from Donald Trump,” Stevie O’Hanlon, who coordinates campaign strategy for the Sunrise Movement, told Vox. “We’re looking to see whether he starts to cross those lines.”
Choose Democracy, a group formed ahead of the election to challenge a potential power grab by Trump, sounded a similar note of caution Wednesday in a statement posted to its website. Despite concerning statements by Trump and some Republicans, the group said, “Trump’s efforts aren’t building momentum in the institutions that determine the election outcome.” The group advised vigilance but said it “[doesn’t] believe this is the moment for activation in the streets.”
Overall, these activist groups are sending a message similar to that of leaders around the world: that the American people voted for Biden, not Trump, to be the next president of the United States. And while Trump’s behavior certainly bears watching in the coming weeks, it’s also time to start planning for the new administration, rather than giving the outgoing president the attention he constantly seeks.
Before the election, activists were ready for a Trump coup attempt
Trump has been falsely claiming for months that the election would be rigged in Biden’s favor, while also refusing to say whether he would accept the results. So groups like Choose Democracy, the Women’s March, the Movement for Black Lives, and Sunrise got ready in case Trump tried to interfere with the election.
Choose Democracy, part of a larger coalition called Protect the Results, called for marches on November 4 and 7 to ensure that all votes were counted. The Frontline — a campaign organized by the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project — organized a virtual town hall on November 4 to plan post-election actions. The youth coalition Count On Us, of which Sunrise is a part, called for a mass strike if Trump refused to give up power.
As states continued to tally votes last week, some of those plans took place as scheduled — Sunrise, for example, organized actions around the country on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Trump supporters protested at vote-counting facilities around the country, demanding that officials stop counting ballots (or in some cases, keep counting them, if that was potentially more favorable to Trump).
But officials just kept doing their jobs. And on Saturday, all the major networks — including Fox News — called the election for Biden.
Notably, Trump was unable to stop any of that from happening. Instead of interfering with the actual counting of votes (beyond tweeting things like “STOP THE COUNT”), he has tried to overturn the election after the fact, filing a series of lawsuits in swing states, apparently pressuring the Justice Department to investigate baseless allegations of fraud, and convincing McConnell and other high-ranking Republicans to go along with his claims and refuse to recognize Biden as president-elect.
The behavior has many liberals — and many advocates of democracy, regardless of their political persuasion — concerned. But it’s also not quite the coup that groups such as Choose Democracy were planning for. “What we have seen has been slow, poorly rolled out, and has none of the surprise elements associated with a traditional coup,” Choose Democracy’s statement read. Activists from that group and others say there are good reasons to wait and see, rather than jump into direct action.
Progressive groups are focused on Biden — for now
For example, even though some Republicans are acting as though Trump could still win, there is a general consensus across sectors of America that he can’t.
“Trump’s campaign is putting out a narrative, but it’s not being validated by mainstream media or election officials,” Choose Democracy wrote on its site. “While Trump continues to insist that there is massive voter fraud and that he has won the election, virtually every mainstream news outlet and election official remains unanimous in agreeing that the election has been conducted fairly and that Biden has been declared the winner.”
A majority of Americans also “see Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of this election,” O’Hanlon said. Indeed, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 79 percent of people, including six in 10 Republicans, believe Biden won.
Overall, “Trump’s efforts aren’t building momentum in the institutions that determine the election outcome,” Choose Democracy stated. “Consistent with the will of the voters, Biden appears fully on track to be this country’s President.”
Given this, the group is advising that Americans, instead of taking to the streets right now, write to their elected officials to ensure they continue supporting the certification of the election results and an orderly transfer of power. And, the group says, it’s also time to prepare for a Biden presidency: “This is a good time to consider what pressure will the Biden administration need to assert your values and repair the Democratic fabric that’s been ripped apart right now.”
Sunrise is taking a similar tack. “We’re watching what Donald Trump is doing and we’re ready to mobilize if needed,” O’Hanlon said. For example, if Trump begins pressuring state electors to change their Electoral College votes — a scenario outlined in more detail by Vox’s Andrew Prokop — the movement might renew its calls for direct action and protest.
But for now, “We can’t miss this opportunity to set the agenda for the Biden administration,” O’Hanlon said. For example, the group, together with the Justice Democrats, issued recommendations on Tuesday for progressive, climate-focused appointments to Biden’s cabinet, including Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) for secretary of the interior and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for secretary of the treasury.
The Frontline, meanwhile, will be holding an event Saturday — but not to protest Trump. “The people have already spoken, and no amount of tweets or frivolous lawsuits from failed politicians can change that,” Maurice Mitchell, a leader of the group and a strategist with the Movement for Black Lives, told Vox in a statement. “On Saturday, we’ll be coming together in community for a virtual rally about what our nation can look like post-Trump. That’s where we’re focusing our attention right now.”