Trump may try to steal the election. Americans may have to take to the streets.

Protesters walk during the Women’s March on Washington, with the US Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. 
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Trump has repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and he just had his third Supreme Court justice confirmed after saying he may need the Court to settle a disputed outcome. A Supreme Court decision this week on mail-in ballots in Wisconsin has raised worries among Democrats and analysts that the Court will do just that in Trump’s favor. And going back all the way to 2016, Trump has hinted that his supporters (“Second Amendment people”) might resort to violence if things go the wrong way.

These developments, and Trump’s general predisposition to authoritarianism, raise an important question: What should Americans do if he loses the election and refuses to accept the results?

Political analysts have already raised the prospect of mass protests erupting in the event of a contested election. But when to take the streets isn’t just a question for liberal activists. Even David Brooks, no radical, has suggested the US might need a “sustained campaign of civic action” to “rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy.”

For better or worse, this is where we are as a country. And the possibility that we might need a wave of nonviolent civil resistance leads to another question: When would people actually know that it’s time to take to the streets? The closer we get to November 3, the more urgent this question becomes.

To help me think through this, I reached out to Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth. An expert on nonviolent civil resistance, Chenoweth has studied mass movements for years, both domestically and globally. I asked them why they work and why they fail, how we’ll know we’ve reached the point for mass protests in November, and what happens if we’re facing the very real prospect of civil conflict.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What should Americans do if Trump loses and refuses to leave?

Erica Chenoweth

The honest answer is that I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone knows yet. I think there would be mass mobilization of the kind we haven’t seen in a long time. But the groups mobilizing would have to develop new strategies for how to affect appointed justices (rather than elected officials) and whose cooperation a movement would need in order to reverse a corrupt court ruling. Simply mobilizing without plans for different likely scenarios won’t be enough.

Sean Illing

How problematic is it that a considerable number of Trump supporters are likely to think he won even if he didn’t, both because Trump has been telling his base for months that it’s rigged and because right-wing news media will reinforce this narrative?

Erica Chenoweth

It’s a massive barrier. But awareness of that problem also contains within it a prescription for protest movements, which is to focus exactly on those necessary pillars of support. For example, it would be a big deal if there were people on Fox News who began to say, “Actually, I voted for Trump but I don’t think he won. We don’t need this chaos. We need to end it.” These are the sorts of visible defections you see at the peak of any mass mobilization movement.

Another potential pillar of support would be Republicans who backed Trump taking a stand against an illegal power grab. There are prominent people who might support Trump but aren’t necessarily authoritarian in their impulses, and the movement would need them to call for him to peacefully step down if he loses.

And then there’s the business community and various powerful corporate actors. One of the most curious aspects of how this might play out is predicting how they might respond in such a setting. If they throw in their lot with Trump, that could be very decisive in pushing things in his direction. But if they defect, that could be equally decisive in pushing it the other way. There are lots of cases around the world where the actions of business elites proved vital in the outcome of a campaign or dispute.

Trump 2020 flags fly in Columbus Circle during the Women’s March in Manhattan on January 19, 2019.
Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Sean Illing

In these types of situations, do business elites tend to side with power or the state?

Erica Chenoweth

It depends. Essentially, yes, unless it’s clear that the incumbent means instability and chaos. They want stability because that’s good for markets. So to the extent that mass mobilization can be disruptive enough, through a series of strikes or boycotts, that could have a really meaningful impact on whether they decide it’s in their own financial interest to support Trump. Ultimately, they don’t care who wins or loses. They care about whether the political situation is undermining their own prosperity and futures.

Sean Illing

Let’s just say that Trump loses and disputes the results. When will people know it’s time to take to the streets?

Erica Chenoweth

Nobody knows exactly because there are usually no bright lines, no clear point at which it’s time to mobilize. In fact, you could make the argument that if there is such a line, the US crossed it a long time ago. But the various groups [here and here] working now to coordinate efforts are coalescing around a clear plan and making some decision about when it would be time to mobilize.

The youth-led coalition Count on Us has been talking about two clear lines: Trump declares victory before votes are counted, or Trump loses but refuses to step down. Those would be about as clear as it gets. So it’s important to work to manage the public’s expectations around how soon we will know the winner of the election. And it’s encouraging that a lot of media outlets are reinforcing the message that we’re unlikely to know who won on election night and anyone who says otherwise is basically spreading false information.

Sean Illing

And what would make a protest of this kind successful?

Erica Chenoweth

Mass participation is the number one thing that is correlated with the success of movements. And when we talk about mass participation, we’re not just talking about large numbers of people. We’re also talking about a very diverse and representative cross-section of society as a whole. It’s not enough to just have Democrats in the streets. You’d want to see independents and Republicans and libertarians and people across the various partisan or cultural divides.

The second thing is that movements tend to succeed when they are able to bring about non-cooperation from within the opponent’s pillars of support. So in other words, civil servants walking out on the job, military leaders saying, “This is extraconstitutional and we can’t support it,” business elites taking a stand, religious authorities and others coming out and saying democracy is more important than a party or a single election.

Another thing that successful movements do is they are able to sustain mobilization over a long period. As repression escalates, successful movements have been able to innovate tactically so that they can maximize disruption and minimize exposure to repression. So in other words, not just marching in the streets but also organizing stay-at-home strikes and other low-cost actions that encourage widespread support without necessarily asking people to take on high levels of risk. Lots of people may not be willing to march, but if the movement offers other ways to participate, that can go a long way.

Sean Illing

What would undermine a mass movement of this kind? What tactics or strategies should be avoided at all costs?

Erica Chenoweth

The first thing that comes to mind is that it’s easy for movements to devolve into disarray when they are attacked, and it’s important to think through how this happens. A regime, if it wants to maintain control over a population, wants a movement to respond violently, because then the regime is able to draw on all kinds of narratives about the need to protect the people from the “criminals” and the “terrorists.” And that has been, unfortunately, a remarkably effective rhetorical and narrative device.

This is why movements really need to undertake some degree of preparation because nonviolent resistance doesn’t mean it’s going to be a nonviolent interaction. In most of the cases I have studied, activists are hurt and killed in these events around the world. Successful movements tend to expect and prepare for violence against them, and they know that when violence is being used against them, it’s because they’re genuinely threatening the state and the status quo.

A woman chants while attending the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sean Illing

You’ve argued that nonviolence works better than violence, especially against the state, because there’s an imbalance in power. If you’re a non-state actor protesting against the state, to take up violence is to fight on terms that are favorable to the state. But if we are talking about something more like civil conflict, with Trump-supporters clashing with pro-democracy protesters, where the imbalance is not quite as clear, why is nonviolence still the most reliable strategic weapon?

Erica Chenoweth

That’s a great question. The key thing to avoiding large-scale violence is to prevent the escalation of violence. And so responding to violence with violence is going to escalate it, especially if the government’s not stepping in and trying to suppress the initiating side, or if it’s ambiguous which side initiated or it’s deliberately made to be ambiguous or whatever.

There’s a tactical dimension and a strategic dimension. Tactically speaking, if people find themselves out there in an unexpected, active confrontation with armed groups, there are tools available: you can slow it down using conflict de-escalation techniques like separating the groups that are confronting and antagonizing one another, or a method called interpositioning, which is when people line up and get between groups and kind of separate them physically with their bodies without touching anybody. There are even groups that do full-time unarmed accompaniment, like Nonviolent Peaceforce or Christian Peacemaker Teams, whose impartial, unarmed peacekeeping has helped to de-escalate violence to the extent that communities can buy some time to deal with one another.

And then there are the options of simply leaving and switching from street protests to active noncooperation, like strikes or stay-at-homes. These types of actions have worked to reduce or keep communal violence in check in movements from Iran to Chile.

On a strategic level, if the idea is that Trump would declare himself the winner and that armed groups would further escalate their violence in communities on his behalf, then we would be seeing the sort of nightmare scenario that civil war and political violence scholars worry about, which is basically the formalization of state-aligned pro-government militias. And then there would be the full capacity of the state and these groups acting on behalf of it.

But even then, for a movement contesting that kind of power grab without wanting to see a mass atrocity or a civil war set on, the main task would be to not participate in the escalation of violence in a way that plays into those traps. There’s some pretty good research out there to suggest that finding a way to buy time and prevent violence from escalating against one’s community is a way to achieve both goals. There’s a book called Resisting War by Oliver Kaplan, who makes this very clear in the case of Colombia. And there are many other examples of this around the world.

And there are lots of everyday forms of resistance that people use in really violent settings against all armed actors, including the state and armed groups. If the community decides to pick up arms and try to fight it out in the streets, then it’s just going to escalate, and communal violence of that kind is very difficult to control. It takes on dynamics of its own. And most of the people who die aren’t even the people fighting. So the costs of meeting violence with violence are just way higher.

Sean Illing

My fear is that we get trapped in an escalating spiral of violence and retaliation, in which both sides are defined by their worst manifestations. If you get far enough down that road, it seems the potential for nonviolent resolution evaporates.

Erica Chenoweth

Well, I would say it doesn’t take much to be on that road and not be able to reverse course. So it’s not even going too far down that road. On the other hand, there’s nothing inevitable about violence escalating in this country. Jessica Maves Braithwaite wrote a great piece about this recently. It depends on us and what we choose to do.

Sean Illing

What’s your practical advice to ordinary citizens and to organizers preparing for these potential outcomes?

Erica Chenoweth

Never underestimate the power of nonviolent resistance to help achieve the effective changes that people are trying to achieve in their communities. Many people are wondering what they can do right now.

Number one is vote. Number two is encourage other eligible voters to vote and support their efforts to do so, in terms of giving them reminders or rides or whatever they may need.

But lastly, it’s also important to just stay connected with people in our communities right now and try to meet their immediate needs. We’re in a pandemic and lots of people are struggling and suffering with making ends meet. It can be very helpful for people to take care of one another and to find purpose and motivation in those types of actions. And these activities also build capacity for longer-term and more resilient collective action.

Number four is to attend a nonviolent direct action training or two, so that you are equipped with basic skills that will make you feel more prepared for various scenarios and the role that you might play in them.

And then the last thing I’d say is that it’s a really good time for people to feel connected to a political home, whether that political home is something they find in their faith community, among friends and family, among people who have similar affinities at work, or in a political party, a community organization, or whatnot. There are lots of bipartisan and nonpartisan groups that are organizing specifically around the election and its aftermath that folks can check out.

Because the most important thing for people to remember is that they’re never alone. If they decide that they’re called to act to protect the Constitution and use nonviolent resistance to do that, then they’re following the tradition of millions and millions of people in the US and around the world who have done and are continuing to do this as well.

They’re not alone.

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