Talking about Trump's "Coup" the Right Way

We have the power to stop Trump from stealing the election

Last week, Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election. These comments greatly alarmed Democrats concerned about our rapidly fraying democracy, while Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to do anything beyond subtweeting the President. Many in the media covered this historically unprecedented statement as just another wacky utterance from the reality TV President. This story has been percolating for days and driving a lot of Democrats to preemptively panic.

Donald Trump has the strategic sense of a sea cucumber, so I highly doubt his comments are part of some master plan. In fact, if Trump really was an effective authoritarian plotting a coup, he probably wouldn’t announce it in advance. I’m not an expert in coups, but the element of surprise seems like a pretty key ingredient. However, just because Trump may be too stupid to successfully execute an authoritarian takeover doesn’t mean we should ignore it or move onto the next outrage du jour.

We have to talk about Trump’s attempts to shred our democracy, but how we talk about them matters a lot. If it we talk about Trump in the wrong way, we risk doing his bidding by convincing our voters that their vote doesn’t matter.

What the Hell is Trump Doing?

The most important thing to remember when trying to analyze this campaign is the following:

Democrats and Republicans have very different paths to the White House. Democrats depend on turning out new and less frequent voters. Republicans want lower overall turnout because their base is smaller but has more reliably frequent voter.

Republicans do not want you to vote. All of this talk about coups, votes not counting, lawsuits, and rigged Supreme Courts is designed to convince people that their votes won’t count and their voices won’t be heard. It is all about sowing cynicism, because cynicism is the ally of conservatism.

Democrats need people who are naturally skeptical of politics to have enough faith in the system to vote. Convincing them to do so is hard in normal times where the biggest concerns are traffic, long lines, and bureaucratic hassles. The hurdles to participation are that much higher when voting can mean potential exposure to a deadly virus.

Trump’s words matter. They can impact the election, but our words matter more.

How Do We Talk About It?

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a messaging expert with some of the most incisive insights I have encountered in a very long time. I was introduced to her work by The WildernessJon Favreau’s very excellent podcast about the Democratic Party. Since then I have followed her work very closely and interviewed her on my YouTube series on political ads and on a recent episode of Pod Save America. Anat recently wrote a very important memo about how we talk about voting in this election that has been making the rounds in the Democratic Party. Read the whole thing here and share it with your fellow tweeters and talkers. Here’s the key passage:

As Trump does all he can to sow chaos, stoke fear, and fuel division in the midst of this election, we must deliver a credible and energizing antidote: a unifying story grounded in who we are and the future we will deliver. And we must repeat it relentlessly. While this message must address Trump’s reckless escalations and violent outbursts, we cannot and should not repeat nor lend credence to his claims. Instead, we must take pains to not merely describe his actions (the what) but ascribe motivations to them (the why) within a frame that reinforces our values, our story of how the world works, and our power to create positive change.

Here are some additional thoughts from me — inspired and informed by Anat’s thinking and expanding on the conversation that Jon and I had on Pod Save America last week.

  • Trump is a Weak Loser: So much of the conversation around Trump’s authoritarian act inadvertently reinforces the idea that Trump is strong. Too often, Democrats talk about Trump as someone with superpowers who is immune to the rules of political gravity and he can take whatever he wants whenever he wants it. I have no doubt this is how Trump sees himself and how he desperately wants to be seen, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Donald Trump is a pathetic loser. He is one of the least popular and least successful Presidents in American history. He could fuck up a one car funeral. Trump isn’t a dictator. He is a weak man that is too cowed to stand up to actual dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un. As Michelle Obama so memorably said in her convention speech: Trump is “clearly in over his head.” Public opinion and political science research shows that the accurate image of Trump as a weak loser is more politically effective than sowing fears about his willingness to shred democracy. Calling Trump a “weak loser” is also fun and if there is one thing that we could use more of in 2020 it is fun.

  • Trump is a Weak Loser that is Losing: The most effective messaging ascribes motivation to political actions. In this case, it is absolutely critical that we explain why Trump is contemplating refusing to leave office and rigging the election. Trump needs to do these things, because he is losing. Trump has been behind Biden in the polls since before Biden was the nominee. None of his attacks, his tweets, or his extra-legal shenanigans have yet changed that dynamic. He is a desperate candidate trying desperate things. He is operating from a position of tremendous weakness. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

  • Our Power > Trump’s Power: We need to stop talking about Trump’s power to rig the election and start talking about OUR power to stop him from rigging the election. Voting is an expression of political power and there are a lot more people that oppose Trump than support him. If we turn out to vote in big enough numbers, none of Trump’s dictatorial fever dreams will matter. The best way to stop Trump from stealing the election is not to panic, it’s to beat him by a large enough margin in enough states that nothing he says or does can sow doubt or chaos. That is something that is fully in our control.

  • Make the Chaos Constructive: Whenever Trump creates one of these firestorms around stealing the election, it is an opportunity to leverage a moment of hyper-attention to communicate constructive information to the public about voting. The giant flare up around Trump’s politicization of the postal service helped educate millions of voters about ways to ensure their vote is counted. There was a spike in ballot requests and a ton of discussion about the merits of voting early as well as the opportunity to drop one’s ballot off in person at a voting center or drop box. For example. If you know people in Pennsylvania where there is a big concern about an overly complicated mail in ballot process that could invalidate tens of thousands of votes, utilize the heightened concern of this moment to educate them about how to vote by mail. Send them this video from the DNC.

I am not telling anyone not to be afraid. An American President — even a weak loser — holding out the possibility of refusing to leave office after losing an election is unprecedented and alarming. The stakes have never been higher. But the question isn’t whether we should be worried. The question is what we do with that worry. Do we give up hope or do we channel that anxiety into activism. We can win this election. We beat Trump in 2017, 2018, and we can do it again in 2020.