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Ten Things to Know About Stopping a Coup

Our president has openly said he might not respect the outcome of our election. Is it a sign of things to come, or just tough talk? Either way, it’s good to plan ahead.

I’m part of an effort called Choose Democracy, which is preparing people to stop a coup attempt — or prevent one altogether. These guidelines are drawn from the many countries that have experienced a coup since World War II.

Don’t expect results on election night.

Many mail-in ballots may not be counted until days or weeks after Election Day.

Wayward state officials may try to exclude these ballots. We may even see governors or state legislatures try to send different results to the Electoral College than their voters chose.

As election results start coming in, the message needs to come through loud and clear: Count all the votes and honor the result.

Call it a coup.

One reason to use the language of a coup is that people know it’s wrong.

We know it’s a coup if the government stops counting votes, declares a winner who didn’t get the most votes, or allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election. These are sensible red lines that people can grasp right away.

Know that coups have been stopped by regular folks.

Most coup attempts have failed — especially when there is an active citizenry. The moments after a coup are moments for heroism amongst the general population. It’s how we make democracy real.

Be ready to act quickly — and not alone.

People who stop coups rarely get a warning that one is coming. This time, we do. To start preparing, talk to at least five people who would go into the streets with you. Get yourself ready to act.

Focus on widely shared democratic values.

Don’t just go out with a list of grievances against a vilified leader. Instead, exalt our widely shared core democratic values. This invites people who wouldn’t normally join movement causes into the process.

Convince people not to just go along.

In all the research on preventing coups, there’s one common theme: People stop doing what the coup plotters tell them to do. They refuse orders, go on strike, and close airports and shops until the coup ends.

Commit to nonviolence.

The uncertain center has to be convinced that “we” represent stability and “the coup plotters” represent hostility to the democratic norms of elections and voting.

It’s a contest of who can be the most legitimate. Historically, whichever side resorts to violence the most tends to lose.

Yes, a coup can happen in the United States.

Unfortunately, it can happen here. In 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, white racists organized a violent coup against newly elected Black officials, with white squads killing 30 to 300 people.

Center in calm, not fear.

Fearful people are less likely to make good decisions. Breathe deeply. Play out scenarios, but don’t become captured by them. We’re doing this to prepare, just in case.

Prepare to deter a coup before the election.

Get people into the mindset of taking action so they don’t freeze. Sign and circulate a pledge saying “If it comes to this bad thing, then I’ll act.” Here’s ours:

1) We will vote.

2) We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.

3) We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.

4) If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

You can sign the pledge at ChooseDemocracy.us. These public commitments ahead of time increase the political cost of attempting a coup — because the best way to stop a coup is to deter it.

Daniel Hunter is a trainer and organizer with Training for Change. 

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