Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell teaches in the political science department at Columbia University. His books include “The Color Revolutions” (Penn Press, 2012) Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
It’s hard for Americans to imagine that a president who lost a bid for re-election would refuse to leave office. But in recent weeks some analysts have done more than imagine it: they’ve begun to explore what can be done if Donald Trump does just that. What, they ask, if he claims that widespread election fraud marred the voting or rejects the result of a close race.
Remember, this is the President who, even after the Electoral College put him in the White House, kept insisting – despite all evidence to the contrary – that he’d beaten Hillary Clinton in the popular vote too.
I’ve long been among those concerned that Trump would not accept a Democratic victory in 2020. And I’m not the only one. Trump’s former confidant Michael Cohen has said he doesn’t expect the President to allow a peaceful transition of power. More pertinently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times she feared Trump would challenge the legitimacy of a narrow Democratic win. With the 2020 election just months away, other commentators also are warning that voters must be prepared for the possibility of Trump rejecting the November result.
Of course, this may not be a problem. Trump may win. Or he could lose so overwhelmingly that he couldn’t credibly challenge the outcome. And we can’t be certain about whether he’d indeed refuse to accept a narrow defeat. But given his litigious nature and his willingness to distort reality on issues like voter fraud, voting by mail, crowd sizes and the benefits of masks, we can’t pretend it may not happen.
Given US political culture, preparation by those who fear this prospect has mostly taken the form of crafting legal strategies and assembling coteries of lawyers. Some of these approaches, like exploring ways to prevent state legislatures from appointing people to the Electoral College who will vote for Trump against the will of the voters of their state or ensuring that voter suppression tactics are foiled, are undoubtedly helpful precautions.
However, it would be a mistake to think this would be sufficient. Similarly, although we can hope that if there is a contested election result the Supreme Court or the military would step in to ensure that the will of American voters prevails, it is foolish to assume this would happen. In 2000 the Supreme Court voted on ideological lines to essentially stop the vote counting in Florida and award the presidency to George W. Bush. And in recent weeks the military has made it clear that they are not interested in becoming involved in domestic politics. This is, on balance, a good thing, but should give pause to those who believe troops will somehow take up the task of enforcing an election outcome.
Confidence in these kinds of resolutions draws heavily on an implicit belief in American exceptionalism, but to understand Trump it is important to place him in the context of other populist and non-democratic leaders from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union or the Middle East.
I’ve taught and consulted on promoting democracy in former Soviet republics like Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania and Estonia. Leaders like Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych or even Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic did not rely simply on constitutional pyrotechnics to try to remain in power. They also used a ruling party that they controlled entirely, powerful state media, the threat of violence and a large and loyal base of support.
We must be prepared for the possibility that Trump could do the same. The 2020 presidential election result may be close, with narrow victories in a few states determining the winner. If Trump loses those states by small margins it will be easy for him to build a “stolen election” narrative based on the doubts he has already seeded about voting by mail and his frequent, and false, statements about widespread voting by non-citizens.
If Trump pursues this narrative and refuses to accept defeat, it can be reasonably assumed that he will mobilize his base around this belief. We cannot know what will happen next, but if most of the Republican Party leadership at the national level and in key states, as well as conservative media such as Fox News, support Trump’s claims, there will be political stalemate and potential for conflict.
Here’s where the US might be able to learn something from events like the Color Revolutions. A key component to strengthening democracy in those countries after disputed elections was peaceful demonstrations that were large enough in size and peaceful enough in nature to persuade the majority that democracy should be preserved.
My work in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine showed me that democratic breakthroughs were made possible because of these mobilizations. Huge and peaceful gatherings sent a message to the people, the security forces and the government that the embattled president no longer had any legitimacy and succeeded because of their size and non-violent nature.
Organizing mass mobilizations is difficult; organizing mass peaceful mobilizations even more so – especially during a pandemic. But I’ve seen for myself how they can stop an election result from being undermined and deal a blow for democracy.
The demonstrations against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd have shown that Americans are willing to take to the streets to make a statement. However, it’s essential that those who march remain scrupulously peaceful; that there is none of the looting and violence that marred some of the early protests over Floyd’s death.
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The best way to do this is with experienced organizers and through institutions like labor unions and other groups that have the ability to mobilize people and the structures needed to help maintain peace. The only way to ensure that these demonstrations do not lead to violence is to prepare in advance. Identifying march monitors, crafting strategies for dissuading people from committing acts of violence, minimizing the reach of provocateurs and even more quotidian things like ensuring enough portable bathrooms at demonstrations are all things that require preparation. Strategies like this helped keep the Color Revolutions peaceful and can be implemented here as well.
None of this would be easy, especially given fears of Covid-19. Yet the burden of ensuring democracy cannot rest solely on the shoulders of lawyers. It’s essential to find additional peaceful ways to strengthen US democracy. Accordingly, other leaders and organizers must be prepared for possible mobilization too.