By Brent Korson
If ever there were a time for journalists, news outlets and the media at large to not parse words, this is it. Election Day has finally arrived and the gravity and urgency of the situation seems to have fully landed across the media landscape, as well as the nation itself. Understandably, the unprecedented act of the first President in our country’s history to pre-announce a corrupt election process, ad nauseum, has been one of the most difficult stories for news outlets to cover in modern times. Yet, the last several months has yielded a cottage industry for an essential new category of news subject: the, “What Happens When Trump Declares Himself The Winner” article. Though many use the caveat “If”, we are now well into the “When” phase.
Despite the intensity in the ether, these last few months have been heartening when it comes to the media’s ability, albeit imperfectly, to convey the full and total danger Trump poses in the interregnum between Election Night and Inauguration Day. Equally affirming has been the months-long, semi-consistent coverage of the immediate danger that he poses, every single day, to the entire electoral process; from his wholesale attempts to delegitimize our faith in the final vote count to the ways he’s looking to spoil those results on Election Night itself.
We know the broad strokes of how at least one part of Election Day / Night will play out: Trump is going to prematurely declare himself the winner, reality be damned. This isn’t prediction business material; he’s told us all about it – a lot. He has warned us repeatedly – in public, on camera, in tweets – exactly how he’s going to do it; baselessly declare victory, refuse to concede and most importantly, sow division, chaos and issue violent directives. Those missives will be received loud and clear by his fanbase of boilerplate white supremacists, armed militias like Boogaloo (the “accelerationist” group bent on civil war by hastening the collapse of society), and the unpredictable danger posed by QAnon conspiracy theory believers.” All three groups have been designated by the FBI as posing domestic terrorism threats with director Chris Wray testifying in 2019 that “within the racially motivated violent extremist bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that.”
Since we have every reason to believe him, we must now prepare for the imminent aftermath of what America will look like after Election Day, when Trump unleashes that arsenal of calls for violence (both dog whistled and bull horned), calls for the Election to end now that he’s “won” before all votes have been counted, and calls for all his cronies, GOP elected officials and ever loyal base to help him taut lies, spread disinformation across social media and threaten all “enemies” by name.
So, what do we do, come November 4th?
Protect The Results
All summer long, while Trump blitzkrieged headlines with his poor-man’s-dictator plan for Election Night, progressive organizations have been working to protect the sanctity of the vote and ensure that every ballot has been counted in preparation for his attempt to steal the election. Months ago, Indivisible and Stand Up America came together to form a coalition called “Protect The Results”, picking up over 150 partner organizations along the way, including Vote Save America, MoveOn, Black Lives Matter, Greenpeace, NRDC, Planned Parenthood, Everytown For Gun Safety and Republicans For The Rule of Law.
The Protect The Results website, which launched on June 13th, lays out the post-November 3rd plan, if Trump refuses to accept the results, “We’re building a coalition of voters ready to mobilize if Trump undermines the results of the 2020 presidential election.” Below their M.O. is a plug in your zip-code event location map – “These events are tentative and dependent upon activation of the Protect the Results coalition if Trump takes action to undermine the results. For safety reasons, Protect the Results opposes any events beginning after dark or planned at ballot counting locations.”
The “Preventing a Constitutional Crisis” section outlines the in-plain-sight-need for this kind of previously unnecessary coalition, “In 2016, Trump repeatedly threatened to undermine the election results, and Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen has warned Congress that “given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Most recently, Trump even threatened to “deploy the United States military” against the American people to quash peaceful protests. There is no line he won’t cross.”
As Election Day has grown closer, the need to prepare for immediate peaceful protests as early as November 4th has finally entered mainstream territory with reports like Reuters’ October 30th headline, “Americans plan widespread protests if Trump interferes with election”, outlining the likelihood to “plan to hit the streets next week.”
On November 1st, Pod Save America’s all-things-Election-related organization, Vote Save America, signed on to Protect The Results, Instagram-ing, “We got each other. And we CAN win. We just need to run through the tape. And — we cannot stress this enough — we need to protect the result of our efforts. Join us in committing to protect the 2020 election results. That starts with being prepared. There are a lot of election scenarios you might have heard about, but one thing is for sure: Trump will not go quietly. So we’re working with more than 150 organizations to be ready to get to work should he try to undermine the election process: votesaveamerica.com/protect.”
On November 2nd, The Rachel Maddow Show covered the break glass in case of emergency plans, “Indivisible and other organizations have partnered under this banner of Protect The Results. They currently have more than 500 public rallies and protests planned all across the country for the day after the Election in the event that President Trump declares victory prematurely or refuses to accept the result that he has lost. The idea is to create a public show of support to protect the results, create a public pressure campaign that all votes must be counted everywhere, that there can be no short circuiting of this election by the President or anyone…We do not know what is going to happen tomorrow or the day after. This year, we as a country have had to prepare for all kinds of previously unthinkable things. But we can’t say we didn’t know what was coming when whatever comes, people have planned for every single eventuality. The next few days are going to be intense, no matter what.”
As of now, those 500 plus events planned in nearly all 50 states can only wait, like the rest of us, should activation be necessary. Their toolkit indicates that the likelihood of activation is high.
Transition Integrity Project
Protect The Results’ toolkit directly attributes part of what inspired their incentive to organize months before the first vote would even be counted (aside from Trump, himself): “In June 2020, the Transition Integrity Project gathered a bipartisan group of experts to explore scenarios that could play out between election day and inauguration day. Their conclusions serve as a stark reminder of why we need to prepare now to mobilize on November 4th and beyond.” Protect The Results goes on to quote Transition Integrity Project’s findings, “We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. We also assess that…President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means in an attempt to hold onto power.”
Though many have been sounding the alarm for the last four years, if one group deserves credit for pointing out the likely, if not outright inevitable, outcomes for post-Election Day chaos in the courts and violence on the streets, it’s Transition Integrity Project. They provided the country with an invaluable civic service: mainstreaming the conversation by explicitly stating the long promised national security threat of precisely how Trump could respond to the 2020 Election results. Specifically, they warned in the plainest possible terms and frightening clarity. Zoe Hudson, a former Open Society Foundation analyst who serves as the director of the project, told the New Yorker in August that the idea was to “socialize” potential risks. “Surprise doesn’t work for us,” she said. “We really need people to understand that this will be an unusual election year.”
Earlier this summer, Transition Integrity Project assembled a group of thought leaders to “war game” a contested 2020 Election that focused on the period between Election Day (November 3, 2020) itself and the 77 days until Inauguration Day (January 20, 2021). Their published results, in conjunction with a slow trickle of interviews by the co-founders, finally began to penetrate national discourse. Gradually, the media was pushed to focus on this story and speak the unspeakable, as opposed to an occasional Op-Ed every few months. That push can be traced to July 30th, when WNYC posted a four-minute interview with Rosa Brooks, the co-founder of Transition Integrity Project and Georgetown University Law Center professor who served in the Obama administration’s Defense Department as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009-2011.
Their mission statement is described as “a short-term project launched to conduct scenario-based exercises aimed at identifying potential risks to the integrity of the November 3, 2020 election and transition process. Our goal was to help ensure that the 2020 presidential election is free, fair and peaceful, in order to ensure that the outcome is accepted by all as legitimate. By identifying potential risks to the election and the transition, we hope to encourage actions that will shore up the integrity of the process. In June 2020 we ran a series of scenario simulations exploring what could possibly go wrong around the election, and what could be done to mitigate the identified risks.”
Brooks described the war games as akin to tabletop exercises that are used in the national security world, as well as private and other areas of government in the non-profit sectors. They went on to release the 22-page report summarizing their findings on August 3rd, about 100 days before the Election.
Also in July, Brooks did a 40-minute interview with another NPR station (WBUR) alongside Transition Integrity Project participant, Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary, while serving 31 years in the U.S. Army). Here, we learned much more about the painstaking results, as well as the possibility that what started as a private thought experiment quickly yielded the necessity to go public, share the names of the once-secret participants and begin acclimating Americans with the high likelihood that those stark directions would soon unfold.
Brooks convened a group of roughly 100 bipartisan experts to simulate what might happen the day after Election Day as they ran these political war game scenarios where veteran Democrats role-played as the Biden campaign and veteran Republicans acted as Team Trump. This was no minor effort – The GOP “players” included former RNC chairman Michael Steele, journalists David Frum and Bill Kristol, as well as former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. Democratic participants included John Podesta, Donna Brazile, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, Adam Jentleson, Deputy Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Vanita Gupta, former head of the Obama-era DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Other still-unnamed participants who preferred to remain anonymous included former members of Congress, political strategists, journalists, polling experts, election experts, tech and social media experts, and former career officials from the intelligence community, DOJ and DHS.
While it’s difficult to summarize such a complex report with so many variables, the four-scenario war games setup was straightforward: a decisive Biden win, a decisive Trump win, a narrow Biden win, and the fourth, a period of extended uncertainty similar to the 2000 Bush V Gore election.
This is the intro of the executive summary, “The results of all four table-top exercises were alarming. We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. The next one featured thesame quote that startled Indivisible, “We also assess that President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power.”
The report continued, “Recent events, including the President’s own unwillingness to commit to abiding by the results of the election, the Attorney General’s embrace of the President’s groundless electoral fraud claims, and the unprecedented deployment of federal agents to put down leftwing protests, underscore the extreme lengths to which President Trump may be willing to go in order to stay in office.”
Brooks pointed to a constant in all four exercises, “In each of our exercises, the Trump campaign team came right out of the gate, tried to stop the counting of mail-in ballots, tried to assert that they were fraudulent, in one case closed the post office to prevent additional ballots from reaching the ballot counters, in another case seized and tried to sequester the ballots to prevent additional counting.”
Other singular themes in all four exercises included, “In all exercises, Team Trump immediately adopted a strategy of casting doubt on the official election results, even in the one scenario where he later accepted a loss. Team Trump also encouraged chaos and violence in the streets and aimed to provoke Team Biden into subverting norms – even as Team Trump itself sabotaged traditional norms – so that Team Biden could be accused of hypocrisy or illegality.”
On the two most pressing takeaways: “Address the two biggest threats head on: lies about “voter fraud” and escalating violence. Voting fraud is virtually non-existent, but Trump lies about it to create a narrative designed to politically mobilize his base and to create the basis for contesting the results should he lose. The potential for violent conflict is high, particularly since Trump encourages his supporters to take up arms.”
Brooks has gone on to say, “One big takeaway is that leaders really need to know what exactly their powers are, and what the powers of others are, and think through some of these options in advance…Because if things go bad, they’ll go bad very quickly, and people will have to make decisions in an hour, not in a week.”
Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson on his own takeaways back in July, “Let me just say some of the things that we’re putting out there – among those things, one that is very important is the media, particularly the mainstream media. They cannot act as they usually act with regard to elections. They have to play a coup on election night. They can’t be declaring some state like Pennsylvania for one candidate or the other. When Pennsylvania probably has thousands upon thousands of votes yet to come in and count. So the media has to get its act in order and it has to act very differently than it normally does.”
Wilkerson went on to write in Transition Integrity Project’s white paper of social media’s role, “The exercises were not able to fully capture the ways in which the media will shape and drive public opinion, or how specific media outlets would cover events differently and drive increasingly parti-san responses. Social media in particular will undoubtedly play a heavy role in how the public perceives the outcome of the election. Political operatives, both domestic and foreign, will very likely attempt to use social media to sow discord and even move people to violence. Social media companies’ policy and enforcement decisions will be consequential, and this merits further exploration and consideration.”
Transition Integrity Project’s Ripple Effect
Throughout the summer, Brooks and the Transition Integrity Project findings slowly proliferated, whether it was an interview on Full Frontal with Sam Bee or her September 3rd Washington Post Op-Ed, with the eye-catching title, “What’s the worst that could happen? The election will likely spark violence — and a constitutional crisis.”
Though the Transition Integrity Project and Rosa Brooks may not be familiar names, history will hopefully remember them as trailblazers. Their report might be the most important thing you read this year, especially as we enter this post-Election Day cycle. It clearly inspired Barton Gellman, who interviewed Brooks for his Atlantic article gone viral, “The Election That Could Break America – If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?”
There are too many moving parts that can, and likely, will converge into the maelstrom beginning on November 3rd. Gellman and others have done stellar work documenting the potential for State Elector-related threats. Garrett Graff has been in a league of his own for some time when it comes to laying out the multitude of potential scenarios that could occur. And nearly every other story by The Atlantic. The fact that there are more journalists who have covered this Election threat matrix than can be properly acknowledged is a testament to the willingness of those in the media who were unafraid to sound the alarms. Not least of all, Protect The Results’ references to Transition Integrity Projects’ findings in its toolkit.
The Day After Election Day
Now that we are past hyperbole and (hopefully) in the accepting phase that the President has stated repeatedly that he will refuse to accept the results, it’s important to be very clear about how we talk about this precarious moment. It’s ok to articulate these “what if?” scenarios. It’s normal to talk with your friends and family about the likelihood for civil unrest and the potential for violence on and after Election Day. It’s a civic duty to not pretend that we should not be concerned and ready for a tumultuous couple of months. What makes this different from catastrophizing, is that the one person responsible for creating the chaos has been yelling from the rooftops for months that he is going to create chaos. To not heed the one time he is telling the truth would be a grave mistake.
There is, nonetheless, plenty of reason for hope. As institutions will be put through their ultimate stress tests, they are likelier than not to pull through and sustain democracy. Perhaps the biggest upside lies in the power of protest that will erupt if necessary. Despite the parade of horribles that Trump has foisted on this nation, his very existence as President unleashed an America that protests, once again, after years of hibernation. And not just a one-off protest, but dozens over the last four years (the annual Women’s Marches, Climate Marches, Marches For Our Lives) turning out millions. In the fallout of George Floyd’s murder, we saw the thousands of spontaneous marches in support of Black Lives Matter, eventually confirmed by scholars and crowd-counting experts as the largest movement in U.S. history, falling somewhere between 15-26 million people. We’ve done it before – now the marching and protesting peacefully may have to last longer than ever before.