Last week, a coalition of leading progressive groups gathered on Zoom to begin organizing for what they envision as the post-Election Day political apocalypse scenario.
Put together by the Fight Back Table—an initiative launched after the 2016 election to get a constellation of lefty organizations to work more closely together—the meeting dealt with the operational demands expected if the November election ends without a clear outcome or with a Joe Biden win that Donald Trump refuses to recognize.
Sources familiar with the discussions described them as serious with a modestly panicked undertone. A smaller FBT session last fall had talked about post-election planning, but those discussions were tabled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time they were bringing the matter to the 50-plus organizations that make up the coalition. To formalize the effort, they gave it a name: the “Democracy Defense Nerve Center.”
Over the course of two hours, participants broached the question of what the progressive political ecosystem can functionally do in a series of election scenarios. They began charting out what it would take to stand up a multi-state communications arm to fight disinformation, a training program for nonviolent civil disobedience, and the underpinnings of what one official described as “mass public unrest.” And they pored over a report from the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group formed in 2019, that analyzed various election-season scenarios and made clear the type of ratfuckery, corruption, and chaos that potentially was ahead.
“The potential for violent conflict is high,” the report noted.
Some of the hurdles were straightforward: how you “occupy shit, hold space, and shut things down, not just on Election Day but for weeks,” explained one source familiar with the Democracy Defense Nerve Center operations. Others are more complicated, like what quick transportation options can be in place should poll locations mysteriously close. Others have been simply impossible to plan out.
“I don’t know what the strategy is when armed right-wing militia dudes show up in polling places,” the same source said. “This [Kyle] Rittenhouse guy is being lionized on the right, right now. If it is being unleashed that you can shoot people and be a hero, I don’t know what preparation we can possibly do for that.”
Those involved in the conversation say this wide an array of groups has never coordinated so closely on these matters before. And the fact that they were sitting down some two months in advance of the election, was a testament to how seriously they take the complications and threats Election Day poses.
“It is very obvious that Trump is laying the groundwork for claiming victory no matter what,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn, and a participant in the FBT call. “Progressive groups at the end of the day believe in our democracy and, while it is not perfect, believe in building upon it and strengthening it. And we will fight to protect it from what we truly see as a president who has gone off the rails and taking this country down an authoritarian fascist path.”
And yet, for those who have spent considerable time thinking about the civil and political unrest that could come this fall, last week’s call did not provide too much in the way of solace. The prep work, they worry, is not happening fast enough.
“I wish we were having these conversations six months ago,” said Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University. The co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, Brooks has conducted war games to play out the range of Election Day and post-Election Day scenarios. And virtually all the outcomes, save one—a Biden landslide—have ended up facilitating a nightmarish fallout.
“My fear,” she said, “is we are still behind the eight ball.”
Within Fight Back Table, there is disagreement over how secretive they should be about these talks. Those on the side of keeping plans under wraps felt it would be wise not to advertise their prep work. Those in favor of discussing it openly thought there was utility in the public knowing how bad things could actually get.
The latter camp was bolstered in their belief by a white paper from Brooks’ Transition Integrity Project titled “Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition.” The 22-page document—which Brooks summarized in The Washington Post and which was obtained by The Daily Beast—described four simulation exercises: a clear Biden win, a narrow Biden win, a murky result, and a Trump Electoral College win with popular vote loss. Those simulations were played out with 67 prominent public officials and academics role-playing on seven teams: the Trump campaign, the Biden campaign, Republican elected officials, Democratic elected officials, career federal government employees, the media, and the public.
The top line takeaways were red siren items. The election results would almost certainly be contested, and the transition process would likely be marred by tumult and corruption. The word “violence” was listed 15 times in the document; “chaos” nine times; and “crisis” a dozen times.
Below the surface, it was even more harrowing. In the simulations, the Trump campaign was “consistently more ruthless than Team Biden,” the authors wrote. The options that Team Trump had to use or misuse included manipulating classified information, selectively releasing “classified documents for political purposes, fueling manufactured rumors,” freezing “assets of individuals and groups the president determines to be a threat,” and restricting “internet communications in the name of national security.”
That was just the beginning. The report’s authors noted that Trump could also “rely on surrogates to embed operatives inside protests to encourage violent action” as well as “mobilize a range of law enforcement actors… who might, without proper training or if led by politicized actors, escalate matters.”
In some simulations, the Trump team “succeeded in invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active duty military troops into U.S. cities to ‘restore order,’ ‘protect’ voting places, or confiscate ‘fraudulent’ ballots.” In others, the team “had Attorney General Bill Barr order the seizure of mail-in ballots to ensure that vote counting would stop.” Those running the simulations said there was “quite a bit of speculation that Trump might himself initiate a foreign crisis shortly after the election or during the transition, perhaps to change the media narrative.”
Team Biden, for its part, had fewer tools with which to work. Under a simulation of a narrow Biden win that Trump contested, the Transition Integrity Project war game saw more than 4 million Americans take to the streets for the Democratic nominee.
“Violent skirmishes and vandalism took place during these demonstrations,” the authors wrote.
Beyond demonstrations, Team Biden was also able to recruit 1,000 influencers, all living presidents, moderate Republican governors, and, eventually, some Republican senators to denounce Trump’s refusal to keep counting ballots or to leave office. From there, more hardball tactics followed. The simulation saw Team Biden work with “local Democratic elected officials to call on the Adjutant General of the National Guard, along with representatives from the technology sector, to monitor vote counting.” They also attempted “a capital strike and a work stoppage as part of an overall effort to push corporate leaders to insist that all ballots be counted.”
But hardball tactics would bring more aggressive responses from the right. The simulation for a narrow Biden win saw a scenario in which “Infowars published a list of addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information of electors pledged to vote for Joe Biden.” The announcement “included spurious claims linking 88 of these electors to [George] Soros and 14 to child sex trafficking.”
In real life, former (now aggrieved) associates of the president have warned that he will use extraordinary means to hold on to power. And Biden himself has openly worried that Trump might move to contest the election results if they don’t go his way. Beyond that, there has been very little said about what plans the Democratic nominee or his team have in store. Under law, Biden is restricted from coordinating with outside groups like those involved with the Democracy Defense Nerve Center.
An aide to the campaign told The Daily Beast that they are “aware of the concerns expressed by many of these groups” and are “actively planning for all contingencies and scenarios.” They declined to comment further.
But while Biden is keeping his plans coy, other Democratic Party luminaries are beginning to make noise.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has become increasingly outspoken about the need to prepare for the possibility of Trump refusing to leave office even if he loses. One senior Democratic source said that the former presidential candidate recently had a discussion with Brooks about the role he and his robust supporter network could play if there is a need to mobilize.
Brooks declined to talk about private conversations. But the source said that Sanders “is certainly thinking about that role” and has also talked about it with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
There is no playbook for navigating the possibilities that await this election season. The Transition Integrity Project’s paper said the closest analogy could be the tensions of the 1876 election that resulted in the end of Reconstruction. But the group stated that the most relatable parallel would be what happened in 2000, when the final results remained in limbo for weeks amid a recount of votes in Florida.
What’s difficult to remember was just how ill-prepared everyone was for that moment. When Al Gore dispatched top campaign aides to Tallahassee, the presumption was that election officials would quickly find another box of ballots that would change the vote count in a way that left no ambiguity as to who won. Ron Klain, Gore’s top emissary in Florida, recalled telling his wife he’d be home by the coming Saturday.
The ordeal ended up lasting 36 days. And in looking back on it many years later, Klain said that the fundamental mistake Democrats made was treating it, primarily, as a legal fight.
“Vice President Gore believed very strongly that this should be a legal process, not a political process,” Klain recalled in an interview with the podcast Candidate Confessional in 2016. “I also think there was a political calculus that he just turned out to be wrong on, which was that if we played by a set of rules that elite opinion—The New York Times editorial board, The Washington Post editorial board—would weigh in against Bush and create a downdraft of Republicans then weighing in against Bush... That obviously failed badly.”
The progressive leaders helping spearhead the Democracy Defense Nerve Center harbor no such illusions. Though conversations have just now begun dealing with the operational details of how to navigate life after Election Day, few if any anticipate a scenario in which Trump bends to elite opinion. Instead, the larger game plan is to apply pressure through mass mobilization.
“We are not the forces of organized capital,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and a participant in the FBT discussions. “Ultimately, the thing we rely on is organizing people.”
The nominal point person for the FBT on these and other efforts, source say, is Deirdre Schifeling, a former top official at Planned Parenthood. Schifeling did not return a request for comment. The coalition includes labor groups, like SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers, social justice entities like Color of Change, and progressive movement outfits like Indivisible and MoveOn. It is also collaborating with mission ally Protect the Results, a group of 80-plus left-of-center and some NeverTrump entities that are also planning mass mobilization in more than 1,000 locations across the country.
“There are a lot of scary scenarios,” said Sean Eldridge, the former congressional candidate and Democratic activist who is running Protect the Results. “We have to be prepared to mobilize in unprecedented ways.”
While the sheer number of groups and volunteers involved in the effort has given organizers hope, there is some fear that they may not all be operating from the same playbook. Two sources involved with the FBT discussions said they worry Biden would concede a contested election too early, with an eye toward ensuring a peaceful transition of power. Inside the coalition, there is dispute over whether Biden should even concede if he wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College, à la Clinton in 2016 and Gore in 2000.
Under that scenario, Eldridge said, his organization would not support mass mobilization. “I support the national popular vote,” he explained. “Our organization does advocacy for the popular vote... Unfortunately, the Electoral College is the system that we have.”
But the Transition Integrity Project noted that there would be immense pressure on Biden to fight it out if, for the third time in 20 years, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote but didn’t take office. In a simulation they ran, Team Biden “encouraged Western states, particularly California but also Oregon and Washington, and collectively known as ‘Cascadia,’ to secede from the Union” unless structural reforms were made. In exchange for Trump getting the presidency, for instance, Republicans would need to agree to abolish the Electoral College, give Puerto Rico and D.C. statehood, and divide California into five states for better Senate representation.
A top official participating in the FBT discussions said the possibility of an Electoral College-popular vote split did come up and that there were mixed opinions over what to do.
“It’s the hardest scenario,” the source said. “It’s 2016. But it’s that plus all Trump has done on voter suppression. So I think there is a question but I think both sides are going to fight this till the very end.”
And what, we asked, was the very end?
“I don’t know,” the official replied.