There has already been a coup this year—not in the United States, but in Mali, where the military deposed the civilian government in August. You may not have heard about it, but this year Malians experienced what Sudanese and Bolivian people experienced in 2019; what the people of Honduras and Madagascar lived through in 2009; what the people of Argentina saw six different times in the 20th century; and what billions (yes, billions) of people around the world have also experienced: an illegal overthrow of their country’s government. A coup d’état.
Coups are widespread, and often brutal. They can mark a country’s transition away from democracy and into fascism and authoritarianism, like when Benito Mussolini took control of Italy in 1922; a coup can also ignite horrific civil war, as it did in El Salvador in 1979. But importantly, countless coup attempts have remained just that—attempts. Across the world, working class people have engaged in mass action to successfully prevent undemocratic takeovers. In the legacy of these struggles, experts say that regular people can learn certain tactics to struggle against coups, and can prepare to do what it takes to fight for a democracy.
This may all seem alarmist. This probably isn’t the first article you’ve seen warning about an irregular election this week, and it’s important to remember that, even if there’s delayed vote count, it’s still very possible that this election will proceed with a clear, democratically selected winner. However, experts in democratic mass-action say it’s never the wrong time to prepare for a coup because you often don’t see them coming. Most coups are plotted in secret and take a country by surprise. In fact, that’s what students of coups say is so different about the current situation in the United States.
“There’s never been a coup—that we could find—where it has been so signaled for so long, by the major potential leader of the coup, and a bunch of its coup plotters,” says Daniel Hunter, one of the co-founders of Choose Democracy, an organization dedicated to educating, organizing, and preparing communities to respond a potential attempt by President Donald Trump to illegally seize a second term.
Hunter says Trump’s own words and actions have necessitated organizing. Repeatedly, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power—something unprecedented in U.S. history. He’s threatened to arrest and imprison his political arrivals. Besides these declarations, the president has also laid the groundwork to disenfranchise millions of people: He’s cast unsubstantiated fears about mail-in voting and made the absurd arguments that votes that haven’t been tabulated by the night of the election shouldn’t be counted. And he’s made it clear he’s hoping the conservative-packed courts will find ways to throw votes out.
“In some ways, [the forewarning] is a gift,” Hunter says. “Argentina never got that, Russia never got that, Germany never got that.” To prepare to resist a Trump-led coup, Hunter and his team at Choose Democracy have been working with organizers across the country to plan events and actions for both before and after the election—first to unite and prepare, and then to mobilize.
Hunter has lived with and learned from democratic activists in indigenous regions in Burma, Sierra Leone, and northeast India. He says that, from those experiences—and from studying the wealth scholarship on coups—he’s located a toolkit for resistance.
One of the most important lessons concerns language. If it’s a coup, we need to call it a coup. Authoritarians profit off of confusion and disclarity. In 2000, when Slobodan Milošević attempted to push for a run-off in an election he had clearly lost in Serbia, his opposition was forceful and clear in accusing him of trying to steal the vote. Serbs took mass action, and Milošević was forced to resign.
Today, Hunter says Americans should not shy away from the word “coup” if it becomes appropriate. “A coup can happen in the United States,” he says. Hunter makes a point to say that Trump announcing victory prematurely on election night would be deeply disturbing—but not in itself a coup. “If Tuesday night Trump tweets claiming victory before the votes are done being counted, that in itself does not make it a coup,” he says. “What makes it a coup is if the government then attempts to follow through.” For instance, if Trump orders Pennsylvania officials to stop counting ballots, or sends federal agents to destroy uncounted votes, that’s when it’s time to call it a coup.
To help provide clarity, election watchers like Hunter have created a website: IsThisACoup.com. The site features a needle that moves from “Democracy” (Green) to “Preparing from a Coup” (Yellow) to “Attempted Coup” (Orange) to “Coup” red. It’s updated frequently. Right now, the needle is halfway through “Preparing for a Coup” territory. Recent events that have affected the needle have been “Trump states his intention to use courts to prevent votes from being counted after November 3” on Oct. 28 (which moved the needle in the negative direction, towards Attempted Coup) and “Pennsylvania House GOP drops planned “Election integrity” plan on Oct. 9 (which moved the needle in a positive direction, toward Democracy).
If a coup does happen (if the needle hits the red) civilians need to act decisively and immediately—but also strategically. Hunter says that while many peoples’ instinct might be to flood the streets in protest, mass mobilization requires going beyond protest and statement. Successful non-violent struggles against coups have mostly relied on one thing: Shutting down key parts of society.
“There are many ways to apply pressure, but the predominant version of our power comes from withdrawing our labor,” Hunter says.
Despite the power of its military and the size of its federal government, the United States, like every other country, rests entirely on the labor of working class people if it is to continue to function. In other countries, coups have been aborted and staved off by working class people refusing to work.
In Venezuela in 1958, a general strike (where workers in all different industries strike simultaneously) brought the country to standstill. The nation’s dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, fled into self-exile two days later. However, more targeted strikes have also worked. In Germany in 1920, the workers at printing presses refused to print anything for the illegitimate government, preventing the coup leaders from getting their message out. The coup attempt fizzled out.
The key to any strike is organizing, and Choose Democracy has advice for workers to organize; the group also advises that people follow the lead of large-scale organized labor when it comes to creating a general strike—for instance, taking heed of AFL-CIO of Rochester, New York, one of the first major regional unions to call for a general strike if Trump refuses to peacefully cede power.
Of course, not everyone works a job or is in the position to strike. Besides labor, our money also gives us power. Choose Democracy encourages consumer strikes—organized movements to stop spending, and paralyze business.
Fear, in times like these, is valid. And not everyone is able to engage in civil disobedience or mass organizing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help. Beyond specific actions, Hunter says that the most important thing to do in response is simple: “Do anything,” he says. Whether that’s calling five friends and making a plan together, or talking to neighbors about the severity of what’s happening, there’s a role for everyone to play.
In the event that all this planning and organizing is unnecessary for a coup—if Trump or Biden win clearly, and the loser concedes peacefully—Choose Democracy says that uniting in defense of a democracy is never a wasted endeavor. Indeed, civilians preparing to stop a coup is one of the key things that can stop it from happening in the first place.