I've always wondered what it must be like to live in a country trying to fight off a would-be or actual dictator--a place like Honduras in 2009 or Egypt in 2013, or Belarus in 2021... or the American colonies in 1776.
Now that I am living in the U.S. in the fall of 2020, I am beginning to understand what it's like to live in a country gripped by fears and rumors that the country's leadership might attempt to use force and/or extra-legal means to defy constitutionally mandated election results. I can imagine some readers arguing that I am getting carried away--we just carried out a peaceful election, the new president-elect is preparing to assume office January 20, and the military has shown no signs of wanting to insert itself in carrying out the election results. Still and all, the secretary of state has stated firmly for all the world to hear that he looks forward to a "second Trump administration." And the president has repeatedly tweeted his denial of the results, such as this one November 16: "The Radical Left Democrats, working with their partner, the Fake News Media, are trying to STEAL this Election. We won't let them!"
I find myself obsessively searching for reassurance, for someone to tell me that everything is going to be all right, that Joe Biden will be inaugurated President on January 20, and our democratic norms and institutions will remain in place.
Failing to find anything approaching certainty, I have resorted to comparing the tea leaves in news bites as they come out. Is the firing of Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense immediately after the election a signal that Trump is preparing to call out troops to enforce a crackdown on protesters of a coup? Esper, after all, had last spring voiced his discomfort with using troops to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests in Washington. Are the U.S. senators siding with Trump in his refusal to recognize Joe Biden as president-elect in sympathy with the president, or simply trying to humor him until he gives in and recognizes reality? Will Trump encourage street violence between his supporters and opponents?
I read NYTimes reporter Maggie Haberman, who quotes people close to Trump who say he knows it's over, and he's just trying to keep his supporters engaged. Then I read a Politico article, "Don't Bet Against Me" in which Trump is portrayed as determined to use every trick in the books to remain in office.
I've tried to prepare myself for the possibility that Americans may need to protest an attempted coup. I joined with 1,500 other worried citizens last month in an online workshop offered by the organization Choose Democracy on preparing for a coup. The key point I took from the two-hour session is that preventing a coup is possible, but citizens need to organize quickly and commit to nonviolence in the face of the wannabe dictator's moves toward grabbing power.
None of that has fully relieved the sense of foreboding I've carried through the election season. (Full disclosure: I have been on edge about Trump usurping dictatorial powers since his election in 2016, as I previously wrote.) As the clock ticks down toward January 20, I now feel confident of one thing: I know how citizens in other countries facing a possible forceful grab for power must feel: completely terrified.
It's clear that those among Trump supporters who cheer on his refusal to concede the election have little appreciation for the legal and practical no-man's land into which they are wandering. A coup is by its nature treasonous and often violent, and in many countries the politically connected can get themselves arrested and even executed for broaching the subject or taking sides. Yet a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, blithely tweeted Nov. 14: "The military is with the President."
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