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  1. Election 2024
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26 August 2020

The Democrats need a plan to stop Donald Trump from stealing the election

What would a mass, peaceful protest movement against the theft of an election look like? 

By Paul Mason

Donald Trump spoke, his son spoke, his son’s girlfriend spoke, his daughter spoke, another son spoke  – and that was only the first two days of the Republican National Convention. What they spoke was mainly lies, about Joe Biden and the Democrats.

Biden wants a “government takeover of healthcare”, said the former UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Not true. Biden wants to “abolish suburbs altogether”,  said Patricia McCloskey, referring to an Obama-era rule designed to stop racial segregation in housing. McCloskey is famous for pointing a gun at Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters as they passed her home – but you can’t point a gun at facts. 

And as one over-groomed and crimplene-suited person vacated the stand for another, the lies got bigger. Trump was “decisive” over Covd-19 while Democrats and the media “downplayed” it. The record shows Trump first claimed the virus was a Democrat-led “hoax” and then said it would “disappear” through a miracle.

On top of the lies was a layer of far-right code words and trigger points unprecedented in the history of official conservative politics. Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former prosecutor, attorney and TV personality who is dating Donald Trump Jr, delivered a primetime speech in which she called leading Democrats members of a “cosmopolitan elite”. She added: “They want to destroy this country… to steal your liberty, your freedom; they want to control what you see and think and believe, so that they can control how you live.”

In a classic example of the Big Lie technique, Trump accused the Democrats of preparing to rig the election via the postal service, justifying the wholesale shutdown of mail boxes and sorting offices – which just happens to be a way of preventing voters exercising their right to a postal ballot.

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After this week there should be no doubt what the Trump family is planning: a dynastic presidency, maintained in power by voter suppression, a strategy of tension and defiance of the coming result. Postal votes will be suppressed by shutting down the system. It is possible that on the day, in some disputed areas, voters will face – in addition to the routine long queues and legal challenges – the presence of armed militias.

On the night itself, if defeated, Trump looks likely to dispute the result, refuse to acknowledge Biden and invoke non-existent presidential powers to shut down any attempt to begin a transition process. All of these obstacles to a Democratic presidency are surmountable: through advance legal challenges, through election monitoring, and with a professionalised “Get Out the Vote” operation – so long as the legislature, executive and judiciary are prepared to uphold the US constitution.

But Americans need to prepare for what comes after, for what Trump has unleashed is an insurgency. His most rabid supporters are now organised at the grassroots not just in the party, and through “values voter” networks, but via the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that Trump is waging a secret war against a Democrat-led ring of paedophiles and cannibals.

Trump described QAnon followers as “people that love our country” and said, “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much.” According to analysts at the US organisation Media Matters, Trump has retweeted QAnon supporters at least 216 times.

There is already one Republican candidate for Congress who openly supports QAnon: Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia. Five others already on the ballot paper have made remarks supportive of the theory.

Though Trump claims not to know much about QAnon, his supporters have been staging local rallies against paedophilia branded “Save the Children”– holding placards denouncing the press for its focus on Black Lives Matter and Covid-19, while ignoring the “real pandemic”, which is alleged to be Satanic child abuse perpetrated by Democrats. Meanwhile, Trump’s party in Texas has rebranded its T-shirts, flyers and election material with the QAnon slogan: “We Are The Storm”. 

See also: Emily Tamkin on why Donald Trump could defy the polls and win a second term

QAnon, in short, has become for US conservatives and the far right what the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were for the Nazis, the populist right and the völkisch movements they recruited from. It’s the unifying mythology, the ideological lubricant that allows right-wing people to slip and slide between textual conservatism and subtextual fascism.

In addition, in response to BLM, the US state has begun to tolerate the widespread appearance of armed groups alongside law enforcement officers; the intimidation of protesters by mobs of bystanders; and the deployment of unidentified federal law enforcement groups overriding state-level law enforcement.

Anton Chekhov wrote that if a gun appears in act one of a drama, then by act three somebody is going to get shot. By the same logic, if a mass movement of racist bigots appears at the start of an election campaign whose result is designed to be disputed, then they are going to be the shock troops of a resistance movement to Joe Biden’s presidency from 4 November onwards.

American civil society is already long past the stage where there was a single information sphere, a single yardstick of truth. In this election, the divisions will deepen: speakers at the Republican National Convention used language that systematically otherised the Democrats, portraying them as a threat to national security, their supporters as alien, and their values as un-American.

While a thin patina of civility remains in the media and in business life, US society increasingly conforms to the description of America by the Ohio senator Benjamin Wade in the run-up to the Civil War: ”No two nations upon earth entertain feelings of more bitter rancour toward each other than these two nations of the Republic.” 

For the American left, and the wider progressive movement, a series of tactical decisions is overdue. The first tactical decision should be to actively campaign for Biden and Kamala Harris. Many supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are despondent at the fumbling, uninspirational style and politics of the Biden ticket. Some are unwilling to support Biden; others do so grudgingly. But what the left needs is its own vibrant, independent campaign to put Biden in the White House, mobilising the vast network of activists and technological tools accumulated over the past four years of resistance.

The second concerns protest. The Portland protest – which drew in and then expelled federal troops – is in its fourth month. Each night anti-racist protesters take to the streets, heroically enduring baton rounds, tear gas, random police violence and the danger of arbitrary arrest. Yet what the rest of the US sees is a blur of meaningless violence. If Trump was trying to script a “strategy of tension”, keeping the Portland protest going until polling day would be part of that strategy. 

The Kenosha protests in Wisconsin, meanwhile, are only in their third night. They were triggered by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a reportedly unarmed black man, in front of his three children. Images from the protest of anti-racists armed with assault rifles, surrounding a police station have gone viral. 

An election campaign soaked with violent imagery, triggering voters’ fears for their personal security and mobilising the Republican base, is a gift to Trump. In a swing state, if another Jacob Blake or George Floyd gets shot, giving right-wing militias an excuse to descend and leading to the imposition of local curfews, these would be ideal conditions for voter suppression and for disputing the election result. 

The point is not that legitimate protests should stop – they will not do so – but that the Democratic Party has to start taking responsibility for its direction and to show leadership. Yet – just as in Britain – the political class has stood above and apart from the actual protests: often ready to voice admiration and support for young people on the streets, but rarely actually there, facing the tear gas, and so incapable of coordinating the tempo and the tenor of the protests with the wider political campaign.

The third big question is: what to do at the moment when, if Biden wins, Trump claims victory and refuses to begin the transition? What would a mass, peaceful protest movement against the theft of an election look like? What would its grassroots tactics be? What would be its demands?

The labour and progressive movements of the US should be asking these questions now, and urgently. Asking them on the morning of 4 November will be too late. 

See also: Emily Tamkin on what would happen if Trump refused to accept defeat

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