In the following analysis, Peter Gelderloos explores the motivations and capabilities of the various factions that are likely to participate in the forthcoming conflict over the outcome of the 2020 election, describes how this figures in right-wing efforts to establish a revamped white supremacy in the context of the existing democratic system, and reviews what we can hope to accomplish by resisting.
Of course, it’s far from certain what will happen starting in November, especially with Donald Trump now in the hospital. But we should never underestimate Trump’s ability to bounce back. Though he has failed to implement much of his agenda thus far, nothing has yet halted his efforts.
As our colleagues have explored, Trump’s strategy of voter intimidation draws on a long heritage in the United States, extending back to the “plug uglies” and other gangs that employed violence to systematically rig the outcome of elections. But Trump’s plan extends far beyond the voting process, as explored in the Atlantic.
Every possible outcome of the struggle over the 2020 election involves considerable risks. No matter how it occurs, a Trump victory would further polarize the country, radicalizing many liberals and leftists, but it would also likely lead to a tremendous amount of bloodshed and repression. If Biden wins the election in a landslide without significant resistance from Trump’s supporters, he will surely crack down on radicals and introduce policies that are oppressive to poor, Black, brown, indigenous, and undocumented people in order to placate the right-wing forces with whom he hopes to re-establish a truce. If Biden ends up in office thanks chiefly to the efforts of social movements in the street, it could discourage him from immediately cracking down on them, but this path involves passing through a very dangerous period of open conflict in which victory is by no means guaranteed.
And regardless of what happens between now and January, social polarization in the United States will continue to deepen. A large segment of the Republican Party is openly and perhaps irrevocably committed to a program of brute force, and they will still be pursuing this strategy regardless of who holds power in February.
As usual, we will get out of the coming crisis what we are able to accomplish for ourselves on the basis of our own capabilities and efforts, nothing more. No one is coming to save us. The outcome of the Egyptian revolution shows us how badly things could go awry if we count on the military and Silicon Valley corporate executives to resolve a crisis, as many Democrats do. Rather than just scrambling to respond to the immediate threat of Trump seizing power, participants in social movements should strategize for a long-term struggle, evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches according to whether they deepen grassroots relationships and collective power. This will hardly be the last battle.
Finally, we urge those who are speaking in general terms about a general strike to study the example of the November 2 general strike at the high point of Occupy Oakland.1 In an era when so many of us are out of work or fill inessential roles in the service industry, it is not enough simply to walk out on the job; one must be proactive, interrupting business as usual.
Preparing for Electoral Unrest and a Right-Wing Power Grab
It is vital that anarchist strategy be situated: that we see strategy not as a chessboard from above, as in the authoritarian worldview, but as a perspective on the situation we inhabit, looking outward with our own eyes.
Nonetheless, we should not make the mistake of assuming that everyone we see on the other side of the barricades, those we are fighting against, are on the same side or want the same thing. In the conflict that is building up pressure around the US elections, combative fascist organizations want a victory in the streets, whereas the Republican Party wants a victory in the courts. They each see the other as a naïve ally but also as a means to an end. They will each try to pull the conflict into their chosen terrain. Of course, the conflict will occur in both terrains simultaneously, but which one is dominant, the relative degree of their strength, will have a huge effect on events.
What follows is a brief approximation of the strength of the different sectors that will be on the other side of the barricades, and the direction they will try to pull in. I will try to use an evidence-based approach that assumes grand social machinations leave a footprint, in contrast to conspiracy theory thinking that assumes the motivations and conniving of important sectors of society can be entirely hidden from view.
The military brass generally dislike Trump and they roundly oppose an interventionist domestic politics. Historically, military coups are rarely airtight secrets in their preparatory phase, and over the last four years the military has shown itself willing to leak information that is harmful to Trump. In this case, we can read the lack of evidence of coup preparations as evidence that no such preparations are taking place.
On its face, this means that a coup is not in the cards, if we are going to use that word with any precision. Without the military, and with existing paramilitary organizations lacking anything near the level of strength and coordination they would need pull something like that off, we have to turn our attention to other kinds of power plays that can be equally dangerous but that function in completely different ways.
The neutrality of the military, however, bears examining, as many in the center Left have already misinterpreted it. Many Democrats have predicted that the military will frog march Trump out of office if he tries to seize another term, but this is a grave misunderstanding, both of how the military view their neutrality and of exactly what kind of power grab Trump is planning. The brass have openly stated that they will make no interventions into the electoral process, and in this case I think we can believe them. And as we shall see shortly, it is actually the Democrats’ strategy, and not Trump’s, that relies more on a military intervention.
The main terrain in which the military actually comes into play is in street conflicts. In a settler democracy, the only time the military is systematically used against the citizenry is to put down anti-racist, particularly Black and Indigenous, rebellions. However, throughout the George Floyd uprising, there has been significant resistance to the deployment of the military against the protests.
In unrest around the elections, they will be similarly resistant to deployment against protests, while they will gladly accede to deployment against an uprising that appears to threaten democratic continuity. The threshold between protest and uprising is subjective and contextual. To us, the outpouring of anger and solidarity after George Floyd was murdered was an uprising, because it was aimed at the heart of power in Amerikkka. To progressives and centrists, it was a protest movement, because they were convinced they could discipline the movement to adhere to watered-down demands that could be integrated into the present system. For the military to accept that it was an uprising, and thus a valid target for their violence, they would have had to accept that all those millions of people had already cast off allegiance to the state. Obviously, they do not use a revolutionary criterion to determine whether something is an uprising. Rather, their criterion is: Can this rebellion be reincorporated into the dominant system? And do we want it to be reincorporated?
Other factors play a role in this determination: how multi-racial the movement is and how much social support it has, how lethal the street conflict is and the extent of material damage it causes. They will prefer to view any unrest arising in the sensitive period of an election as a civic demand for a properly functioning democracy that obeys its own rules. An uprising, in their eyes, will be when the crowds decide to kick out their current rulers by any means necessary.
Because our institutions see white people as citizens and always doubt the civic status of Black people, the fascists and the militia movement enjoy a much higher threshold before the military is used against them. And their modus operandi is for lone wolves to carry out the most violent actions, meaning their movement can effectively escalate towards conditions of civil war without collectively reaping the repression or the full force of military pacification.
The anti-racist movement, on the other hand, will be the target of military pacification if the level of conflict goes beyond the subjective line between violent protest and incipient civil war. And this is problematic, because the police, the fascists, and the Democratic Party will probably have a greater influence over the level of conflict than the anti-racist movement. It should also be pointed out that military pacification involves multiple thresholds, encompassing the mobilization of the National Guard for symbolic effect and logistical support, the use of the military for patrolling streets, and green-lighting the military to use lethal force in the epicenters of conflict.
In the most violent scenario, the military take action in the streets to squelch an incipient civil war and restore the constitutional order, which in effect would mean defending the prerogative of the courts and legislatures to decide a contested election (a legal contest Trump has an advantage in). This action would set a dangerous precedent and most of the casualties would be radicals and people on the far left. However, it is unlikely that this would change the military and political culture enough for Trump to stay in power beyond the legally limited eight years. We might recall that the military has been used against the US population multiple times over the last half century without changing the constitutional order.
It should be noted that the military today are at a twenty-year high in the amount of social legitimacy they enjoy, thanks primarily to the Democrats. After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the military’s involvement in atrocities was widely known. By favoring troop draw-downs and shifting lethal force to the more impersonal drone strikes, Obama facilitated a narrative in which military brutality was political in character, and thus a property of Bush administration excesses rather than the military itself. Under Trump, Democrats have gone even further, fawning over the military and holding them up as the gold standard of a democratic institution (which, historically, they are—though people who use “democracy” as a synonym for liberty fail to understand that). And because Trump has been a decidedly un-hawkish president, the movement has not had as many opportunities to spread critical awareness about what sorts of things the military trains people to do.
The lack of effective organizing among veterans becomes apparent at times like these, when we have few or no channels of communication with soldiers. Revolutionary movements are usually only able to withstand military levels of repression by sparking mutinies. At least in the short-term, we are faced with a conflict with high risks and not a lot to gain. As such, we should probably focus on what negative outcomes we might be able to prevent, and what sorts of partial victories we might accomplish, given that the meaning of the movement at this point will be watered down to simple opposition to Trump. Creating revolutionary relationships and spreading non-reformist visions starting in 2021 might be the most we can win at this point.
The police, in contrast to the military, are at an all-time low in terms of their social legitimacy, thanks to the George Floyd uprising as well as social movements before and since. However, policing is a constant activity, and the more criticism and contempt they receive, the more they double down.
On election day, it is likely police will play a role in some of the disturbances. Long-simmering tensions will boil over in response to the voter suppression efforts that are already being planned in racialized neighborhoods. Cops will be called in to pacify subjects who are angry about their vote being denied because they don’t have the right ID or for some other excuse, or, most likely, in the case of people defending themselves from right-wing harassment. The cops will do as they do. People will film it, and something might even kick off on site, in front of all the frustrated people waiting to vote. With a riot on their hands, the police may close down the polling station. More gasoline for the fire.
As we shall see, the most significant conflicts are likely to happen after Election Day. In these, we will witness an already familiar pattern. Police, often in concert with right-wingers, will attack anti-racist protestors who are in the streets to show their opposition to Trump, the racist suppression of votes, other acts of police brutality, and the system as a whole. Many city governments will attempt to stage-manage large peaceful protests in coordination with the Democratic Party, but in at least some cases, the police will sabotage these spectacles of peaceful citizenry, starting police riots. And in places where people decide to riot for their own good reasons, plenty of “citizen journalists” will spread the conspiracy theory that police provocateurs started it. Such conspiracy theorists delegitimize people fighting back, and they obscure the fact that true police riots are impossible to miss: the pigs bull rush the crowd, laying out left and right, with no provocation.
Results will vary from city to city. In some places, police brutality will pacify the movement, but elsewhere it will provoke more people to come out into the streets, or to move from protest to revolt. In general, police will help create an impasse that cannot be resolved by police action alone.
Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are Trump’s favored police force, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is probably the segment of the government bureaucracy that is most loyal to him, though a large portion of career bureaucrats in the middle levels of the Department—between the jackbooted cops on the bottom and the appointees at the very top—are still not in his camp.
An honest evaluation shows that Trump does not have a high degree of control. The Atlantic accurately refers to him as a “weak authoritarian.” He clearly has authoritarian impulses and an authoritarian effect on any organization he manages to dominate (e.g., the Republican Party), but most of his attempts to translate his will into policy have actually failed. The CBP distinctly represents a force he can use to make strategic interventions.
In post-electoral unrest, he is likely to send his federal police to epicenters of unrest and revolt to provide a level of force superior to the local police but short of the military. In July, CBP and other federal officers were not able to neutralize the revolt in Portland, and no matter what agency uses them, riot policing tactics will be unlikely to pacify the movement across the board. However, the CBP does possess the military force of a mid-sized army, though their experience and training for deployment in urban settings—not as cops but as a military—is an open question. If they were instructed to use a level of force consistent with a military intervention, it is very possible the movement would be unable to withstand them. Such an intervention would cause an immense amount of political blowback, but Trump has been able to weather most of the blowback he has provoked so far, having to walk himself back only a couple times in his whole presidency. His current view is certainly that he can get away with almost anything.
When Barr and Trump declared several cities “anarchist jurisdictions,” it was widely seen as an attempt to justify federal intervention, and at the time, the President and his AG were without a doubt already thinking about the elections. Those cities are probably the most likely sites for a brutal federal police intervention. However, none of them are in the key swing states. What would the relation be between a CBP assault in those cities and Trump’s shady electoral campaign?
For starters, Trump obviously hates the anti-racist movement. When people protest against him, he wants his supporters to “rough them up.” The right tends to favor strategies of breaking the resistance rather than recuperating it. This never works in the long run, but it can definitely work in the short run.
Going beyond his authoritarian personality to questions of strategy, Trump is most intelligent—and this is one of the few regards in which that word can be applied to him—at working the media spectacle. His recipe for victory has always relied on having an extremely motivated base, even though that base has always been a minority. Unleashing extreme police violence against the anti-racist movement is guaranteed crowd pleaser for his voters, especially the millions of cops who will see the repressive campaigns as an inspiring call of duty, a nod to the paramilitary mobilizations that resolve the crisis of whiteness, as I describe in Diagnostic of the Future.
On another level, such a strategy would create spectacles of chaos and lawlessness in Democratic cities that could serve as a further rallying cry to frightened white voters and to the militia movement. This was Trump’s strategy throughout the George Floyd rebellion, and though the CBP intervention in Portland emboldened people in the street rather than pacifying them, the way the media portrayed the unrest decreased support for the Black Lives Matter movement among white people likely to vote Republican, the only demographic to considerably withdraw support from the movement after June.
Used again after the elections, this strategy would have the added bonus of distracting media attention from the legal maneuvers in battleground states where Republican lawyers were trying to disqualify votes, creating a bloody spectacle in which the most militaristic scenes are associated with Democratic states.
In view of this possibility, it’s noteworthy that the chief long-term impact of the September 26 Proud Boys rally in Portland—which many feared would involve considerable violence in revenge for the shooting death of a member of Patriot Prayer a month earlier—was that Portland police officers were designated as federal marshals for the remainder of 2020. It often turns out that the greatest threat fascists pose is in what they enable the state to do, rather than what they can do by themselves.
The capitalists who support the right-wing populism that has taken hold in several of the world’s most powerful countries are a small minority. Most capitalists, especially those who are significantly higher up the ladder than mid-grade investors and real estate developers, are strongly opposed to a second Trump term.
However, they know they can profit under either president, and the global capitalist economy is currently in a situation that favors short-term strategies, due to the grave uncertainties around long-term growth. Far from being a president who has increased government interventionism, Trump has represented a politics of extreme deregulation that has provided a windfall to capitalists in extractive and financial industries. The fossil fuel sector makes for a great example. They are among the most conservative of capitalists, but nearly all of the ones who are higher up understand that fossil fuels have no future. Stalwarts like Exxon have been losing considerable ground to companies like BP that got on the energy transition bandwagon years ago. They all know that they need progressive policies, they need something like a Green New Deal to get government funding to pay for a transition to so-called green energy infrastructure. But because longer-term investments are so uncertain—in no small part because of a lack of political will to fund the energy transition—the nature of their trade compels them to stick their faces in the trough of short-term profit.
From the World Economic Forum to the Milken Conference, capitalism’s smartest planners, innovators, and technocrats are warning that the chief dangers to the future of their system are climate change, right-wing populism, and trade wars, with Christine Lagarde, one of the most important technocrats in the world, warning that capitalism might not exist anymore in just 20 years because of these dangers. All of these dangers are caused by or exacerbated by the right, whereas the left is the only sector currently offering proposals that might save capitalism.
So yes, a majority of mid-level capitalists and the overwhelming majority of high-level capitalists prefer Biden. However, even greater is their preference for stability—for a relatively smooth election that most people will accept as valid. They do not want tanks in the street of the country that, for the most part, is still the center of global capitalism, and certainly not on an occasion as routine as an election.
Yet they face an unprecedented problem. The development of technocratic governing structures has not kept pace with the rise in social conflict and the crisis of democracy, so at a moment of considerable instability, capitalists find themselves with less fine-tuned control over government.
In a way, this indicates the demise of the political-economic system created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which has served as the basis for the so-called American Century. FDR’s rise to power was effectively a coup of Washington over Wall Street. Capitalists accepted this relative loss of power because they saw that an extremely powerful, interventionist government pursuing the best conditions for capital accumulation on a global scale would be better for them than a regime of less regulated markets, less interventionism, no central planning, and more competition. Subsequently, all major political parties were united in seeking the best conditions for capital accumulation. That situation has come to a crashing end, with isolationist Trump coming to power in the US and the pro-Brexit Tories in the UK. Neoliberal capitalists are still unsure how to respond. In the short-term, a number of billionaires are making sure Biden is the better funded candidate, and some are even financing voter registration in Florida, but we will probably see their more salient, forceful interventions after the election is resolved.
Another question concerns the new technologies at the cutting edge of the capitalist economy, specifically social network technologies. It is well known that Facebook enabled Trump’s 2016 victory and that Facebook has specific algorithms that favor divisiveness—divisiveness is more attention grabbing, and attention is what represents value to advertisers. This provided the far right with a huge platform. It is equally well known that Silicon Valley as a whole, one of the most important sectors of global capitalism, tends to oppose the far right and the policies they espouse, and it is evident that the growth of the far right has created a social polarization that undermines social consensus and perhaps even the possibility of democracy itself.
Can all this instability be explained as the result of the myopic obsession of a Harvard man-child seeking to maintain his company’s dominant share of the advertising market in an environment of fierce competition, to hell with the consequences? Can any of it be chalked up to the concealed racism of the Silicon Valley elite, or the religious mystique that the advertising industry invests in their ability to make the masses believe anything they want? It wouldn’t be the first time the powerful undermined themselves through a narcissistic fascination with their own power. In this case, that means figuring out exactly which lies they can best sell to which people, based on purchasing history, and exploiting it to the maximum, as Cambridge Analytica did with Facebook data.
Facebook is relaxing fact-checking standards in an election year, and they already know such policies helped Trump win in 2016. Insider accounts reveal the highest levels of the company are sensitive to politicized right-wing accusations about liberal bias: Facebook has recognized that Trump’s base is a highly profitable, niche clientele for them. It is probably relevant that Facebook has been losing market share for years now, most dramatically in the US, but that this July its stocks shot up as it managed to beat a trend of slumping revenue growth.
However we interpret the current allegiances of Silicon Valley, the fact that capitalists are realizing their unrivaled wealth does not currently enable them to buy certainty in their efforts to exert control over the future will likely motivate them to support a rational reorganization of society and government once the dust settles. As soon as they close the next deal…
Fascists, Militias, and the Like
The far right is a hodgepodge that runs the gamut from Constitutionalist militias to neo-Nazi gangs, with plenty of crypto-fascist umbrella organizations and Western chauvinists in between. Two things have become clear over the last few years. First, they have the capacity and the willingness to murder significant numbers of people in oppressed communities and anti-racist protests. Second, they do not have the power to stand up to large social movements—and even against just the most radical sectors, primarily organized anarchists, they often cannot hold their own.
Anti-fascist strategies of the last few years have proven very effective at limiting the spread of fascist and racist discourses and preventing the growth of the far right movement itself. With no easy victories and more than a few resounding defeats, the far right has crumbled into frequent infighting, snitching, and equivocation. Most of its individual members and constituent groups are still out there, but they are much weaker than they would be if not for all the anti-fascist activity.
Because of this disorganization and sense of frustration, one of the ways they will take action is through lone wolf attacks. Such attacks may be the main cause of deaths related to electoral unrest, but they will not be effective at stopping the anti-racist movement. In the month that remains, anarchists and other anti-fascists would do well to consider what the most likely targets for such attacks are and take measures to defend them, while also reaching out to spaces we might not have affinity with, such as churches and nightclubs, to make sure they are thinking about these possibilities.
Lone wolf attacks from the far right sometimes include attacks against police. While such attacks may make it more difficult for the police to work together with the far right, that may be too charitable a view, as it assumes that police will act rationally to protect their own interests.
The far right has signaled that they want a civil war, spreading the idea that they’re just waiting for the moment that the gloves come off. But Trump has not formally integrated the far right in any organizational way. There is no command structure like the one that was central to historical fascist movements or more recently to Golden Dawn in Greece.
This does not make the far right any less dangerous, or any less capable of murdering our comrades and loved ones. It does mean that they will not be able to play the role of a paramilitary force backing a coup attempt, which I’ve argued the Republicans aren’t planning anyway. It also means that some of the things they do during electoral unrest may clash with Republican strategies—for example, killing cops, giving their power grab the appearance of a racist coup, or suppressing votes in a way that cannot be defended in court.
In a settler state like the US, paramilitaries work in a diffuse, decentralized manner. Their job has been to attack social enemies on their own initiative. Historically, this has meant enslaved people and their descendants, indigenous people, and anti-capitalist movements. Their historical role has not included major maneuvers in the political sphere such as coups (understanding politics in the alienated sense as the poleis)—and it has been more than a century since the organized brawls that used to decide elections in the 19th century. Such maneuvers require operational coordination across the board.
There have recently been key moments when far-right forces have developed a certain level of operational coordination with specific police forces—on the Mexican border and more recently in Portland and Kenosha, for example. They may try to achieve an even greater level of coordination around the elections, which could include protests and attacks on state houses in battleground states where the governors or legislatures are Democrat-controlled and are trying to appoint electors for Biden. But the majority of far-right forces around the country will be uncoordinated, attacking any institution or group Trump might name in his tweets, definitely attacking the anti-racist movement, and quite possibly also attacking judges, media organizations, Black churches, synagogues, and other spaces.
Even as they work together with the police, some of their actions will actually cause the protest movement to grow—and as we have seen throughout 2020, they will frequently not be able to win control of the streets.
In any case, it will be a moment of truth for the far right, and we should be able to see how much of their rhetoric and self-image is bluster and how much they have actually prepared themselves, psychologically and physically, to attempt to eliminate anarchists and the left. The fallout from this conflict might well define the relationship between the far right and the Republican Party for years to come.
One of the best ways to minimize the harm they will cause is for every community to think about what strategies local militias and street fascists will try to take, how to respond when they attack protests, and how to respond if they attempt more symbolic actions like taking over government buildings. Rather than putting themselves in needlessly dangerous situations, people should evaluate on a case-by-base basis what is to be gained from attempting to eject the far right from a specific place.
In very general terms, I think the most important place to be is protecting the anti-racist movement, which is currently the most radical expression of struggle. Protecting polling places should probably be left to progressive de-escalation activists, both to give them the opportunity to see if they actually have the organizational capacity to make their own chosen strategies viable rather than just attacking real social movement participants for being “violent,” and because of the certainty that if anarchists are present at any polling place where there is unrest, the Democrats will try to pin the blame on us.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party is attempting to win the election through legal, semi-legal, and extralegal means. Donald Trump is not preparing a coup attempt in any traditional understanding of the term. This needs to be emphasized so we can prepare effective strategies for November and beyond. In the previous section, we have seen the fruits of an effectively deployed anti-fascist strategy. Every strategy has its advantages and disadvantages, and one of the risks of focusing chiefly on fighting fascism is that it can reinforce democracy—and with it, capitalism and the state.
Stealing elections is how democracy works. It’s how it has always worked. If you legitimize a monopoly on coercive force and authority by claiming to represent the will of the people, then obviously subsequent power struggles will focus on defining which people constitute “the People,” giving a bullhorn to the ones in your camp and silencing the others. When we discuss the specific ways the Republicans are planning to steal this election, let’s not encourage the ahistorical naïveté that this is somehow shocking or unprecedented.
Granted, this year the theft will be a little more crass—though we only have to go back to the Civil Rights era to find even more extreme examples. Electoral manipulation is completely in line with Trump’s psychology, unlike a coup. Normally, the psychology of a candidate would not have a huge impact on the functioning of a large institution, but in the case of the Republican Party, Trump has effectively tamed it—only, of course, through his effective use of equally powerful institutions like Twitter, Facebook, and Fox News. Many Republicans dislike and disagree with Trump, but they recognize that he can cause them to lose re-election, so they focus on maintaining the strength of the Party and hoping they’ll be rid of him in another four years.
As a real estate magnate, Trump prefers and understands the battlefield of lawsuits and legal loopholes. It is also abundantly clear that Trump is a cowardly person, and though flirting with a fascist fan base stokes his authoritarian ego, in questions of policy he avoids open conflict and militaristic disputes.
Over the last 20 to 40 years, strategies for stealing elections have differed markedly between the two parties. Nowadays, Republicans win elections through voter suppression. In elections with high turnout, they lose; in elections with low turnout, they win. They accomplish voter suppression by making it harder to register, by purging felons from voter rolls, by harassing people and making it harder to vote the day of the elections, and by installing vote-counting machines with lower accuracy rates in poor and racialized districts so that a higher percentage of ballots will be thrown out.
All of the evidence suggests that Republican efforts to win this election focus on legal measures. Their front line soldiers are lawyers. Aside from the maneuver to gut the Post Office, they are trying to make it easier to challenge voters at the polls, to create long lines so that the polls close before everyone can vote, to throw out mail-in ballots, and to mount legal challenges the day of the election and immediately afterward to stop or delay vote counting.
Trump’s calls for supporters to show up at polling places and harass “suspicious” voters is not the main thrust of the Party’s strategy. In some cases, it may even create legal headaches for Republicans—though it could also provoke riots, which is as good an excuse as any for police to close down polling places.
However, it’s possible that this friction between Trump’s populism and the bureaucratic efficiency of the Republican Party machine represents a sort of growing pain. Trump is probably too much of an amoral opportunist to be understood as an ideologue, but he is undoubtedly an enthusiastic white supremacist—and as such, he has been instrumental to an ideological shift in the Republican Party from genteel good ol’ boys to avowed white nationalists like Stephen Miller. These are both modes of reactionary white supremacists (as opposed to the progressive white supremacists of the Democratic Party), but Trump’s violating of taboos has enabled white nationalists to gain ground and move in the open.
One of the ways they are doing this is to encourage white militias and spread the conspiracy theory that the left wants to start a civil war, so that when the right carries out paramilitary actions, they can pretend to be victims acting in self-defense. It also seems clear that these white nationalists, still a minority even in Trump’s camp, have not thought out the consequences of their own strategy; they are acting in response to the crisis of whiteness, promoting white mobilization as a good thing, without fully understanding how to integrate it in the existing system. However, there are plenty of precedents for them to choose from.
An article in the Intercept argues that Trump is enacting a fascistic pattern, starting out by calling attention to an external danger—immigrants—and then turning on an internal enemy, antifascists and anarchists. While this is certainly true, what his team is aiming for is a common occurrence in US history, contrary to the progressives who see Trump as an aberration. We can call it patrician democracy: the longstanding, classical idea that only the “right sort” of people ought to vote, including their loyal dependents if necessary. Through much of the 20th century, KKK terrorism was designed to limit the political participation of the racialized lower classes, as well as to attack the Jewish communist bogeyman who supposedly came to stir them up.
It is fully compatible with the Republican imaginary to project a democracy ruled by upstanding middle- and upper-class citizens, protected from any threats by mobilized white patriots. Most of US history has looked something like this. Whether they can actually reinstitute that state of affairs now is doubtful, and many veteran Republican pollsters have been sounding the alarm that catering to reactionary whites is a losing strategy in the mid-term, centering as it does on a demographic that is steady shrinking. But the fact that they are trying is itself a real enough danger.
Republicans had faced an uphill battle for winning this election, but Democrats have handed them an opportunity to stay in the game. By unilaterally encouraging mail-in voting instead of favoring bipartisan proposals to encourage hygienic protections for the elections, Democrats have created an unprecedented situation in which a solid majority of mail-in votes will be Democrat. This is a golden opportunity for voter suppression. In the primaries, 2% of mail-in votes were thrown out, and the number appears to be even higher for BIPOC voters. Excuses for throwing out a vote can include a change in address or a change in signature—and how fluid someone’s signature looks is definitely related to class. By contrast, standard voting machines throw out between 1% and a fraction of a percent of the votes. Now Republican lawyers in battleground states are working on legal changes to make it even easier to throw out mail-in ballots—and they will also rely on their specially trained “poll watchers,” the “Trump army,” to make in-person voting more difficult for certain people. The Democrats have voluntarily created a situation in which they have to win battleground states by margins of 2-5%.
The Democrats have given up the defensive advantage they held, wrapped it up in a bow, and gifted it to the Republicans. Previously, Republicans would have had to find a way to make a significant number of votes disappear while exit polls were announcing a crushing Biden win. But because mail-in votes take longer to count, Trump will probably be ahead in the polls on election night, which is when the public and a frenetic news cycle expect to be able to announce the winner. Trump will declare victory, claim that Democrats are trying to steal the vote, and Republican lawyers will step in to stop the counting of votes wherever they can, with multiple cases likely to end up before the Supreme Court.
An explanation of how contested election results must be resolved can be found here.
The Democratic Party
Democratic strategies for electoral manipulation center on suppressing and delegitimizing third parties while convincing demographics who Democratic politicians spend the rest of the year betraying that the Democratic Party is still their best bet. Though it has been clear since at least the 1990s that Republicans are only able to win many elections via voter suppression, Democrats have not undertaken a concerted push to prohibit these tactics, to make voting rights universal and automatic, or to abolish the electoral college. There was a consent decree in place to prevent voter intimidation, which federal judges recently allowed to expire, but that decree did not prevent more typical kinds of voter suppression, like the unequal distribution of polling machines that won Florida for Bush in 2000, or the standard practice of poll watchers demanding more rigorous proofs of identification in poor and racialized neighborhoods, and other methods for creating long lines so not everyone gets a chance to vote. The consent decree didn’t even prevent Trump from calling for supporters to go to polling places as vigilantes in the 2016 election, and of course it did not change the electoral college system that allows someone who loses the popular vote to win the election.
Democrats had a chance to make all these changes, not just as a court order with an expiration date but as established law or even a Constitutional reform, when they held the majority during Obama’s first term. Why didn’t they?
For once, it’s not because they’re stupid—it’s because they hate and fear racialized people and poor people, and they recognize that universal voting would give control of the Party to its progressive wing. History has already showed us that the political center prefers the far right to the far left. Recently, the Labor Party in the UK intentionally sabotaged their own election campaign in order to force out Jeremy Corbyn, the progressive party leader. Likewise, in 2016, the Democrats rigged internal party votes to block Bernie Sanders, even at a time when polling showed that Sanders had a better chance of winning than Hillary Clinton. Earlier, during Obama’s first term, Democrats were careful to lavish their attention on the investor class rather than promoting policies tailored to the needs of most Black people. Making sure that everyone was automatically registered to vote and could get their votes counted would have seemed downright radical —likewise, introducing punishments for voter suppression.
So though Democrats are indeed stupid, not everything they do is an effect of their stupidity. If we take a calm view of the situation, they actually constitute one of the most dangerous sectors in the upcoming electoral unrest, and they are probably the group that most anti-fascists have thought about least. This is another chief disadvantage of prioritizing the framework of anti-fascism: it often means privileging the left and obscuring its true historical role.
Actively or reluctantly, Democrats will encourage a peaceful, symbolic protest movement in response to Republican machinations to steal the election. Such a movement will represent an explicit break with the tactical intelligence and collective self-defense that has repeatedly overcome the police and the far right over the past few months. That experience of revolt—that know-how, determination, and solidarity—is one of the only things that can keep people safe through the coming turmoil. It’s also one of the only things that can change the outcome of the crisis. In specific cities, people can kick out the far right—and just as the George Floyd rebellion forced the state to begin dismissing and even arresting police officers, similar actions might stop courts and legislatures from throwing out uncounted votes. Generalized unrest might compel large segments of the government to conclude that Trump and his Party are just not worth so much destabilization.
To be clear, I am not advocating riots in order to make sure votes are counted. In the coming situation, riots are likely regardless of how anarchists feel about the election. People who are fed up with being delegitimized and stolen from constantly in everyday life may very well pick this highly symbolic opportunity to pour out all their anger. This is one of the implicit dangers of the situation: a social conflict that revolves around a contested election.
Incidentally, I am referring to the movement that might contest far right power grabs as “anti-racist” rather than as “left.” There is no emancipatory horizon that focuses on electoral results. The historic role of the left is to institutionalize and thus strangle emancipatory movements. This only works because so many people in the rank and file of the left are sincere in their desire for change—but all the same, they are roped into a chain of co-optation that stretches from the center to the margins. The movement will be strongest if it understands itself as a continuation of the Black-led, anti-police rebellion that broke out once more after the murder of George Floyd. Even though elections will not free anyone, voter suppression is part of the arsenal of white supremacy, and far-right power grabs pose a threat to all of us. Centering anti-racism allows us to aim at the foundation of the United States. It also gives us more possibilities of linking up with an international movement.
Democrats will do everything they can to foreclose all these possible connections. By calling for a peaceful protest movement, they will attempt to leave people exposed to far-right attacks and police violence, and they will blame anarchists for the disturbances, leaving us exposed to repression and vigilante attacks. If things go poorly for them, they may try to blame anarchists for giving Trump another four years, and they will spend those years trying to discipline social movements and impose authoritarian control over the ideas and practices of anti-racism, climate activism, housing struggle, and other points of mobilization.
My experience over the last five years, both in the United States and adjacent to the Catalan independence movement, leads me to believe that anarchists fatally underestimate the force that center-left parties can have in the streets. This is because we have experienced amazing, communal moments when we win in the streets and state forces flee, and because there aren’t many Democratic Party canvassers and similar types in the important protests. The Party machine, however, possesses immense resources that give it levers of influence that pass through the mainstream media, labor unions, NGOs, churches, academics, alternative media, and far-left groups, allowing it important opportunities to enforce nonviolence or to render a movement isolated and vulnerable.
The significant growth of authoritarian left groups under the umbrella of anti-fascism only facilitates this trend, as authoritarian leftists, in such moments, tend to attack anarchists and the anti-authoritarian left, lining up in a facile popular front with the forces of moderation.
Remember, it was not the far right that finally tamped down the George Floyd rebellion or the Ferguson uprising in 2014. It was the left, working in an unbroken chain from the center to the activist margin.
To pull a victory out of this election, the Democrats probably have to win back the Senate—which will give them a decisive advantage in the final stage for resolving electoral disputes—but this only matters so much. They have already made abundantly clear their support for the police and antagonism to social movements. Whatever happens, democracy will not resolve its crisis of legitimacy. Society will remain polarized.
Anything other than a Democratic victory and a relatively smooth transition of power will only accelerate the erosion of the status of the United States as global leader. Absent a powerful, international, revolutionary movement, all that means is that there will be more systemic chaos as other equally unsavory governments try to fill the void.
A Trump victory with a high incidence of voter suppression will encourage autocratic tendencies and a tolerance for dictatorship in other countries around the world. It will also spark a renewed reform movement, another reiteration of the snake oil of “real democracy.” How capitalists respond to these movements and where they find the best investment opportunities will probably play a major role in deciding which tendency is dominant. At the moment, progressive capitalists have all the best long-term plans, but they suffer a major disconnect when it comes to translating those plans into government action.
How It Might Play Out
As detailed in the aforementioned article in the Atlantic, there are several dates spread throughout November, December, and January that mark the official choosing of the President. Each of these dates offers an opportunity for Republican and Democratic lawyers to battle it out while contesting the vote—and as voter suppression maneuvers become public, there will also be protests to try to sway the outcome. The Democrats will try to keep these protests peaceful, and the streets will be the site of a polygonal battle between cops, fascists, leftist organizers, and uncontrollable elements. These will be dangerous moments, and the combined force of the police and the fascists will not be enough to get people off the streets, whereas Democratic pacification will be effective in many places.
The Democrats might win the legal maneuvers, given that they will almost certainly win the popular vote and should be able to carry enough critical states. The current Supreme Court remains untested on the question of whether all votes must be counted. They are likely to respect states’ rights to determine their own criteria for counting or disqualifying votes, but they will also favor the processing of all votes rather than closing the tally after election day. If there is severe rioting and instability sparked by flagrant attempts to suppress voting, they might be moved to favor the popular vote in order to preserve an appearance of democratic legitimacy.
If anti-racist uprisings are complemented by labor strikes and interruptions in the flow of commodities, that could significantly change the equation. Such a multifaceted movement would be harder for police, fascists, and even the military to suppress, and it could make it harder for Democrats to co-opt the movement via a watered down anti-racism, insofar as economic disruption could introduce a more explicitly anti-capitalist agenda. Unrest that triggers a wildcat workers’ movement in the US will certainly make courts and legislatures afraid and more likely to favor an outcome that promises to restore stability—i.e., a Democratic victory. However, if the movement were strong enough, centrist Democrats would remove all support and might come to favor a Trump victory if that could mean an end to the instability.
The specific outcome, and which institution plays the decisive role in determining it, will influence what kind of reformist discourses flourish in January. A Democratic victory will be followed by concessions to the center right and possibly some tepid reforms for ethical government and voting rights, as well as some extremely inadequate legislation related to police training, healthcare, and the environment. A divided government with Trump still in office will mean four more years of political spectacle and destabilized governance, as well as a reconfiguration of the relationship between the far right and the Republican Party. This could mean the Party taking more distance from the far right or creating a closer, more coordinated relationship with it, depending on the role it plays in the election unrest and the effectiveness of public backlash.
In either case, we can expect a new wave of repression against anarchists—and a continued need for anarchist and other radical initiatives for mutual aid, healthcare, housing defense, and land defense. Countless people have done an amazing job so far of dealing with extremely difficult circumstances including the rise of the far right, a series of rebellions, police repression, a pandemic, a major recession and staggering unemployment, out-of-control climate change including hurricanes and wildfires, and the loss of comrades and loved ones. This is a global movement; many more amazing moments of struggle and community lie before us. At this juncture, two opposed strategies for the continuation of capitalism are battling for the right to determine our future. The whole world is watching. When the time comes, we will all be in the streets.
Already in 1907, Errico Malatesta emphasized that simply ceasing to work cannot itself exert much leverage on the authorities, nor bring about transformative social change, unless it is coupled with other measures. ↩