Alarmed by President Donald Trump’s authoritarian words and actions in the weeks before the election, we urged our fellow citizens not just to vote but to make a plan to protest should the president refuse to accept defeat. “Barring an indisputable landslide on election night,” we wrote in an essay for the Globe, “Trump appears likely to contest the results. He will claim rampant voter fraud. He will demand that the courts and the Justice Department intercede on his behalf.”
Unfortunately, this is precisely what has transpired. As citizens, we now have a difficult decision to make. When is the right time to take to the streets?
We don’t think that time has come quite yet. State election officials from both parties are acting with integrity and rejecting claims of fraud out of hand, and more and more Republicans are recognizing President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. So protesting now could backfire, producing (possibly violent) countermobilizations and even greater polarization around the legitimacy of the election. We’d particularly caution against confronting Trump supporters who may take to the streets themselves.
But we also think there are clear red lines to watch out for in the weeks to come. If Trump and his Republican enablers cross any of these lines, we believe there will be no choice but to engage in sustained, nonviolent protest in defense of democracy.
The ongoing assault on our democratic norms and institutions should not be taken lightly. The president of the United States is actively attempting to overturn the results of an election that he lost. He has made false claims that widespread voter fraud cost him a second term — claims that many of his Republican allies have implicitly or explicitly endorsed. Attorney General William Barr has overturned Justice Department policy by authorizing federal prosecutors to take overt steps to investigate fraud allegations before the election is certified, prompting the department’s top lawyer for election crimes to resign in protest. And that’s not to mention the president’s many violations of the core tenets of our democracy over his four years in power.
The good news is that Trump’s efforts are unlikely to succeed in changing the outcome of the election. Still, his refusal to accept defeat can do serious lasting harm. We suspect many Americans are holding their breath, hoping that none of this will matter after Jan. 20. But that is a fantasy. Through his authoritarian rhetoric and deeds, Trump risks eroding Americans’ already diminished trust in the electoral process, emboldening armed militia groups, and normalizing resistance to the peaceful transfer of power. Imagine the same scenario playing out in a future election with closer margins, where control of the courts and other government institutions might just allow the incumbent to alter the result. We’ll have to reckon with the damage Trump has done to our democracy for years to come.
Fortunately, we’ve not yet arrived at the point where taking to the streets is necessary. What might change that? We suggest watching out for the following:
▪ Local election officials unilaterally discarding large numbers of votes without a court order or failing to certify the dutifully reported results.
▪ State legislators naming their own electors, citing unsubstantiated claims of rampant fraud.
▪ The Justice Department prosecuting (or threatening to prosecute) local election officials with dubious accusations of misconduct.
▪ Trump continuing to resist the peaceful transfer of power into December, even after the results have been certified.
We think any one of these events would provide a compelling reason for nonviolent mobilization on a massive scale. But we strongly suggest following the lead of organizations that have prepared for such scenarios — groups like Choose Democracy, Protect the Results, and Hold the Line. Coordinating through such groups helps ensure that protests remain organized and nonviolent. These groups also have the capacity to strategize, build community, coordinate with local law enforcement, promote COVID-related public health precautions, and sustain collective action over multiple days or weeks.
In the meantime, concerned citizens, especially in swing states, should write or call their elected representatives to praise them for recognizing the outcome of the election, or to pressure them if they have refused to do so. The point of such pressure — or protests, should it come to that — is not to stop the president from exhausting his legal options, as unfounded or irrelevant as his claims may be. It is to make clear that questioning the legitimacy of free and fair elections and rejecting the will of the voters is unacceptable. Trump himself may be immovable. But we need to send a strong signal to our elected leaders that attempts to overturn the results of this and future elections will not be tolerated.
Robert Blair is assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University and coordinator of the Democratic Erosion consortium. Steven Rosenzweig is assistant professor of political science at Boston University and a member of the consortium.