My Turn: Thinking about the unthinkable

For the Monitor
Published: 8/10/2020 6:20:14 AM

I hope on Inauguration Day 2021 readers will look back on this column and think that the author was an unnecessary alarmist. Right now, though, is a time to be alarmed, and to plan ahead.

When our democracy is threatened from within, we need a Plan B.

Many people I know here in New Hampshire carry around a nightmare thought: What if President Trump is defeated and won’t leave?

Trump cannot cancel the election, but he can continue to stoke divisions and misinformation and social unrest. What, then, if he declares martial law claiming “anarchy” and unleashes federal agents in key cities around the country in the name of “law and order”?

All this would have seemed unthinkable a few short years ago, but now we find unmarked, uninvited federal agents roaming several American cities beating protestors. We have – almost daily – unfounded claims of “massive voter fraud,” as New Hampshire, among many states, prepares for safe, large-scale mail-in voting. And we find the United States Postal Service, under the control of a Trump ally, warning of mail delays that could invalidate thousands of legitimate ballots. Plus we have ICE “Citizens Academies” inviting attendees to learn “firearms familiarization and targeted arrests,” creating the possibility of an armed federal agency being used to further a president’s unlawful ambitions.

Confusion, divisiveness, fear.

What if the previously unthinkable – a president who seizes power – happens? How to react? Can we prevent it?

First, we all need to know the authoritarian playbook and call it out: using violence to provoke violence so as to then institute a “law and order” crackdown. That seems to have been the goal in Lafayette Square, in Portland and in Seattle, where peaceful demonstrations became tense when heavily armed combat troops and federal agents appeared. This is a very old trick. The fascists used it in Germany when they burned down the Reichstag (legislature) and blamed it on the communists, frightening the moderate-center voters and seizing power in the name of “law and order.”

Closer to home, in 1968 Richard Nixon used a ginned up “law and order” campaign to win the election.

How to respond? The key is not to meet violence with violence, but rather to work to de-escalate the situation with nonviolence. The Lafayette Square “photo op” backfired on Trump because the protesters – in general – didn’t take the bait, and the country saw peaceful demonstrators beaten by heavily armed combat soldiers assisted by military helicopters. This did not play well with military leaders who value our Constitution. Among the more heartening news from Portland and Seattle was seeing the Wall of Moms, Leaf-Blower Dads, Wall of Vets – these are nonviolent moderate-center voters – working to restrain federal forces and protect peaceful demonstrators. Seeing this blunts Trump’s “law and order” strategy.

For this to happen moving forward, the center must hold. I have spoken with many Dems, Republicans, independents, and Libertarians who share common commitments to democracy, ethical leadership, and the rule of law. We have now N.H. Republicans endorsing Joe Biden. Progressives here in New Hampshire need to make common cause across the political spectrum, putting aside policy differences in a time of national emergency.

This means moving beyond our individual anxiety and worry and connecting with friends and neighbors who share concern for our democracy. Living room or backyard groups (socially distanced) can discuss different strategies and ways to get involved that fit their comfort level. What would you do if the unthinkable happens?

Living room groups might need to join up (virtually) with statewide organizations, who themselves should be forming alliances with other groups they don’t always ally with. It can’t just be progressive groups banding together, but progressive groups joining in common with moderate or conservative groups. And how about venerable civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters, business groups such as Rotary clubs, and others. What would each do if the unthinkable happens?

New Hampshire is a state with an active citizenry. Historically, mass protest has been extraordinarily effective in pushing back against authoritarian governments. Some training in nonviolent protest is essential and that is available right here in New Hampshire. There’s even a large database of real-life examples of nonviolent citizen involvement and action for groups to learn from.

Civil disobedience, general strikes, mass protest. These are not things the majority of Americans likely think of as part of their civic duty. Yet John Lewis, in his final posthumous essay, warned that “democracy is not a state, it is an act.” If we take our democracy for granted and don’t act to protect and strengthen it, we can lose it. What a terrible inheritance to leave for our children: living in an authoritarian country with a dictator for president.

Who wouldn’t be alarmed at that possibility?

(Sam Osherson lives in Nelson.)

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