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We Must Be Prepared to Nonviolently Defend a Democratic Election in the Streets

Trump must go. And then the real work of democratic politics can continue.

President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church on June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church on June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. is suffering from numerous biological and human plagues. Trump is an autocrat whose role models are Putin, Bolsonaro, and Duterte. He is now doing everything in his power to obstruct a free and fair election in November, and there is great danger that he will refuse to leave office through constitutionally prescribed means.

It is likely that the election will generate many court challenges and political contestation involving governors,  state legislatures and Congress. We may also see civil violence fomented by Trump’s far-right supporters, many of whom are armed and dangerous and have already shown their willingness to brandish their weapons in public.

It is thus also likely that citizens who care about democracy will be called upon to defend it through their own direct action.

Two commentaries published in recent days warrant special attention.

The central point of Frances Fox Piven and Deepak Bhargava’s “What if Trump Won’t Leave?”  is encapsulated in this subtitle: “We must lay the groundwork now for the kind of mass action that defends democracy and evicts this despicable, racist, wannabe authoritarian from the White House.” This piece neatly outlines the kinds of challenges such preparations will involve and the reasons why they are necessary.

“’ . . . All Enemies Foreign and Domestic’: An Open Letter to Gen. Milley,”  co-authored by John Nagl and Paul Yingling—two highly respected retired U.S. Army Officers closely associated with the “Petraeus Brain Trust” during the Iraq war—is a very important piece that deserves wide circulation. No doubt speaking for many retired and current U.S. military officers, Nagl and Yingling outline the dangers that Trump poses to democracy, and then call on Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to defend the Constitution in the event that Trump refuses to leave office as required by law, and instead seeks to encourage his supporters to defend him, even by force of arms:

"As the senior military officer of the United States, the choice between these two options lies with you. In the Constitutional crisis described above, your duty is to give unambiguous orders directing U.S. military forces to support the Constitutional transfer of power. Should you remain silent, you will be complicit in a coup d’état. You were rightly criticized for your prior active complicity in the president’s use of force against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. Your passive complicity in an extralegal seizure of political power would be far worse. "

It is striking and indeed horrifying that such an open letter would need to be published, now, just as it is striking that retired General James Mattis and retired Admiral Mike Mullen only recently published similar warnings. We are at a moment of great peril, and whether the coercive power of the state will be deployed in constitutionally democratic ways is genuinely in question.

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Nagl and Yingling’s letter is the perfect complement to Piven and Bhargava’s powerful call, from the left, for preparations for mass street protest.

Piven and Bhargava present their strategy as a rebuke to establishment forces: “The professional communicators, technocrats, and lawyers in much of the mainstream Democratic Party and some in the media will be horrified by this call for a mass nonviolent uprising in response to the theft of an election.” I think the extraordinary BLM protests of this summer have “normalized” protest for many. I also think they exaggerate the radicalism of their proposal, which is essentially a strategy of demonstrating through nonviolent protest that Trump must be “evicted.” Their very nuanced piece does not call for the seizing of the White House. It envisions the use of protest and direct citizen action as a way of enforcing the law. This means convincing the state and its police and military forces to uphold the law and not to use violence against citizens in defense of a dictator.

No serious person imagines that we are on the cusp of a genuinely “revolutionary situation,” which would be an utter disaster along every imaginable dimension—including the fact that the “masses” who are armed and organized are right-wing militias not likely to support radical democracy. The point of taking to the streets, if this becomes necessary, is to work in tandem—a complex and agonistic collaboration to be sure--with professional politicians, communicators, lawyers, bureaucrats, and police and military officers to defend the rule of law.

And “in the last instance,” this means that the people at the top of the military command do exactly as Nagl and Yingling entreat them to do: say “no” to Trump,  evict him and his miserable ilk from the White House, and tell his angry mobs of supporters to obey the law and go home.

We thus need to prepare to defend the November election by all legal means necessary.

But first, we must do everything in our power to win it.

Trump must go. And then the real work of democratic politics can continue.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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