And the Violent Bear It Away? Disciplined Nonviolence and the Coming Election Emergency

An armed pro-Trump watches as peaceful march in Wyoming. Image: Emily Reed/WyoFile.

A few weeks back I reached out to around 60 friends and colleagues whom I’ve come to know and trust in various contexts: activists, faith leaders, attorneys, concerned academics, etc. to propose that we share information and insights via a closed email exchange in preparation for the strong possibility that Trump and his minions will not surrender the White House regardless of the actual outcome of the Nov. 3 vote. 

I suggested that all of the work that’s now being devoted to a Biden victory could be for naught if Trump gets away with using little-known presidential powers to declare a national emergency, revoke habeas corpus, sow confusion in the media, and unleash his rightwing mobs to storm local canvassing boards and state election commissions. As the Transition Integrity Project and similar groups make chillingly clear, the possibilities for mischief are endless. I told my friends that we need to be ready for anything and understand that we may need to struggle all the way through year’s end in order to prevent an effective coup d’etat. We are not as far from Belarus as we may think.

The group exchange exercise didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, but I do not regret making the attempt, because my sole preoccupation right now is to beat the drum as loudly as possible about the importance of Nov. 4 and 5—the days after the election—and the tumultuous and terrifying days that are almost sure to follow. At the very least, the people who joined me in this exercise came away with a heightened awareness of what might happen, none of it pretty.

After all, we can already feel the noose tightening, can we not? Consider not only the still-advancing demolition of the Postal Service, where auditors are now reporting that about one million primary election ballots weren’t delivered on time, but also recent White House decisions to push science aside and suppress actual information about coronavirus spread and to block in-person Congressional testimony from the intelligence services on the latest iterations of foreign election interference.

And now we also have the growing likelihood that Trump will cite civil unrest—unrest that he helps to foment—as grounds for restricting the vote in urban areas where people are overwhelmingly likely to vote against him. He will almost certainly try to claim victory based on early statewide vote tallies that show support from his unmasked in-person voters, as pro-Biden mail ballots are delayed and perhaps never counted at all. This is the Red Mirage scenario, and it will keep you up at night all by itself, never mind those secret presidential powers.

All of this commands our maximum attention, but here I want to focus mainly on what mobs in the streets portend—and here of course I’m referring to the armed Trump-loving mobs that increasingly show up in Kenosha and Portland and elsewhere with the specific intent of intimidating and provoking anti-racist activists.

Mobocracy is what we get when norms disappear. It’s how republics end as tyrants rise. Street mobs hastened the fall of the Roman Republic, after which emperors and would-be emperors always kept the pot boiling by maintaining the capacity to deploy their plebs as needed to maintain or achieve power. The Roman example partly explains why this country’s official founders were obsessed with the danger of mobs

It’s not just that the mobs they most feared were those demanding more democracy and more economic equality than the aristocratic Virginians who dominated the proceedings were inclined to grant; they feared all mobs because they understood that the government they were creating—”a machine that would go of itself,” as James Russell Lowell memorably described it—would surely break down once commonly accepted social and civic norms gave way to shouting and shooting. One hardly needs to mention the example of how Hitler’s brownshirts—the Sturmabteiling, or SA—facilitated his rise during the 1920s and 1930s. A badly polarized Weimar Republic found itself totally defenseless in the face of stormtrooper-incited chaos and crime.

Of course our official founders—those rich white men in wigs—chose to euphemize and sanitize what they knew full well would ultimately threaten the stability of their perfect machine: the unspeakable violence they authorized within the system of chattel slavery they wrote right into their consitution. Their system could contain the inevitable rising of the cruelly oppressed enslaved people, but the system could not maintain itself indefinitely, not even when it erected new regimes of racist domination following the official overthrow of slavery: the Black Codes, convict leasing, widespread lynching and white terrorism, Jim Crow segregation, and ostensibly “race neutral” 20th century approaches to policing and mass incarceration that are, in fact, saturated with anti-Black racism from top to bottom.

Every decent person understands how today’s challenges to every expression of white supremacy mark a long-delayed and long-suppressed surging of the human spirit. It is good news, the very best news, and I believe it presages an entirely different human future, both in this country and elsewhere.

But there’s also an element of great danger—and not just danger to white oppressors—whenever chickens come home to roost. We see before us the uncontainable rising of the Movement for Black Lives inadvertently becoming the backdrop to a dramatic and Trump-instigated mob reaction featuring inflamed and heavily armed white racists—including the many avowed racists embedded within law enforcement itself. 

They didn’t choose the role, of course, and they’re overwhelmingly nonviolent, but these days Black activists and their allies find themselves cast into the same designated role that Germany’s communists and anarchists played in relation to Hitler’s brownshirts. As civilian armies clash by night, the strongman promises to restore order and unity by absorbing the violence into an expressly racist state power. Already we see white support for B.L.M. begin to slide as Trump and his team openly cheer on the vigilantes.

And again, to be absolutely clear, what I call the mobocracy threat is all coming from Team Trump. Some of the Black Lives protests may be disorganized; that’s in the nature of a deliberately decentralized movement that relies on spontaneity. But to call these mobs, as Trump does, is a smear.

There is always the possibility that some on the progressive side will lapse into violence themselves, on the grounds of fighting fire with fire. A persuasive article by George Lakey notes that the most moralistic and most outraged activists are the ones most susceptible to this temptation. I do understand the rage that drives this kind of thinking, but I also understand how it could easily play into the hands of our homegrown tyrant-in-training. 

The answer is not to stand down, of course. And I am not saying that; far from it. We need more, not fewer, of “our” people in the streets and standing up to haters and vigilantes in every context. But I shudder at any suggestion that we “fight fire with fire.” The only way we can possibly win is through the consistent practice of radical nonviolence, even sacrificial nonviolence, in the spirit of Dr. King and Ella Baker and C.T. Vivian and James Lawson and Diane Nash and John Lewis.

Lakey makes the case that there are plenty of pragmatic reasons to choose nonviolence, apart from the principled reasons for preferring it. I agree, and I don’t think religious institutions have any kind of corner on the principles. But I would add that if ever there were a moment when our communities of faith and communities of conscience should step up and do their job in respect to teaching the principles and practices, this would be that time. A few are already stepping up, but the time is short and the need could not be more urgent.

Although there seems to be no end of confusion on this point within the Left, nonviolence is not powerlessness. It is rather, as the title a justly celebrated book and documentary film indicates, a force more powerful. No less a heavy hitter than Judith Butler agrees: we need to “reshape our rage,” she says, if we want to win the human future.

When Trump actually stages his coup there will be lawyers litigating and talking heads exploding and an unprecedented national handwringing. All well and good. But what we will then need most is a massive and disciplined public resistance, perhaps in the form of a national strike, infused and equipped with the unconquerable power of active nonviolence.

Nothing else will save us when the moment of truth arrives. This is no longer a machine that will go of itself.