As US voters prepare to cast their ballots in the upcoming US presidential elections, a nightmare scenario has been looming large: what would happen if incumbent US President Donald Trump loses to challenger Joe Biden but refuses to accept the results? Would armed militias take to the streets of US cities to protest against the election results and protect Trump through potentially violent confrontations with the police, counter-protesters and unarmed civilians?
Such a scenario is unlikely, but it is not a complete fiction. When asked if he would concede if he lost the elections, Trump would not answer. Traditionally, the loser in a US presidential election concedes defeat as soon as media projections give his rival a credible edge. But in the 2000 elections, Democratic Party candidate Al Gore contested the results in the state of Florida that had given his Republican Party rival George W Bush 500 more votes, and, with them, the presidency. Gore wanted a recount of the Florida votes, but the situation was resolved through the court system instead. The US Supreme Court upheld the results, and Bush became the 41st president of the United States.
The situation today is more serious than it was in 2000. Trump has predicted widespread fraud in the elections and has claimed that voting by mail, expected to surge because of the Covid-19 pandemic, would be subject to manipulation, with the results also potentially not being known for months. His Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden has warned Trump about the consequences of any failure immediately to concede defeat, should that happen, adding that the US military would escort him out of the White House if he refused to leave in a peaceful transition of power. Such a scenario would be reminiscent of what happens in un-democratic nations and would violate 244 years of constitutional traditions in the United States.
The roots of this potential constitutional crisis go back to day one of Trump’s tenure as president. The minute he entered the Oval Office on 20 January 2017, US white supremacists, who had endorsed Trump as candidate for president, became more visible on the streets of US cities. Trump had campaigned on expelling illegal migrants from the US, stopping Muslims from certain countries entering the country, and calling for a wall to be built along the border with Mexico. He told Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg in January 2018 that her fellow citizens, mostly white Europeans, would be “welcome” to move to the US unlike people from “s***hole countries” such as Haiti or the African nations.
Throughout this summer heavily armed militia groups have been appearing in the streets of US cities and at various protests, claiming that their presence deters possible violence. Militias in the US are organised paramilitary groups that typically believe they are the last line of defence against a tyrannical federal government. Almost all belong to the “patriot movement,” a broad coalition of organisations that share a general sense of resentment against the US government. It can be difficult to make sense of this loose movement because of its tangled web of conflicting ideologies and alliances, including its relationship with Trump, though these armed groups had never been seen publicly before the election of Trump as president.
Throughout their history, they have rarely shot or killed anybody. They are predominantly male, white and right-wing, and they often end up at events also attended by racist groups. Despite their denial that they are hate groups, after Trump’s election as president there was an uptick in these groups’ anti-Muslim and anti-Latino activity in the US, let alone their targeting of African-American groups such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. All these ethnic groups have also been targeted by Trump.
The heavily armed militia groups are not the only people carrying arms in American society today, as there are also armed individuals. One of these was a white supporter of Trump. Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was recently charged with murder after shooting two protesters in the US state of Wisconsin, has claimed that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution gives him the right to keep and bear arms, which he did when he travelled 20 miles from his home to a different state in a self-described quest to protect life and property during a recent protest.
The Second Amendment is fiercely defended by Trump, even though it was adopted in the 18th century when much of the US was still a wilderness and the country did not have a capable police force. The amendment says that “a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” In 2008 the US Supreme Court held that individuals have the right to keep and bear arms for personal and non-militia uses under the Second Amendment, which means that US citizens can protect their homes and property by keeping arms, though nothing in the ruling allows armed vigilantism.
Even after the 2008 Supreme Court ruling, different states, as well as US gun-rights activists, interpreted the ruling differently. Some states ban armed groups completely, while others allow individuals to carry concealed guns themselves or in their cars. Others still allow individuals and groups to carry guns openly. In some states, a person can carry a firearm having had absolutely no training in how to use it.
Three inter-related factors appear to be at work here. First, the politics of the Second Amendment have outpaced the law of the Second Amendment. Second, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) continues to lobby the US Congress and donate millions of dollars to American legislators to make sure that no real controls are placed on the possession or use of firearms. Third, social media has made it easier for people to organise quickly and easily. One simple tweet from Trump, for example, to the effect that he rejects the election results in November could have the streets filled with armed individuals and groups in minutes.
The threat comes not only from armed right-wing groups, but also from unarmed left-wing ones such as Antifa. After recent demonstrations across the country protesting against the police killing of African-American men, Trump said that he planned to declare Antifa a domestic terrorist organisation. While he did not do so because of various legal hurdles and definitions of what a terrorist organisation was, members of Antifa have nevertheless set fire to police cars, looted stores and damaged property in several places.
Antifa, as its name indicates, is short for “antifascist” and is an antifascist protest movement that gained prominence in the US after the re-emergence of white supremacist groups following the election of Trump in 2016. There have been several instances where encounters between Antifa and the far-right have turned violent. The group’s ideology is rooted in the idea that the Nazi Party would never have been able to come to power in Germany in the 1930s had the people fought it more aggressively.
The movement began in Europe in the 1960s and had reached the US by the end of the 1970s. The current political climate in the US has increased the chance of violent confrontations at protests and rallies, and Antifa has expanded its definition of fascism to include not just white supremacists and other right-wing extremist groups, but also many conservatives and supporters of Trump. While armed groups and individuals carry and use firearms, members of Antifa carry and use crowbars, slingshots and metal chains. They have also thrown projectiles and used noxious gases.
As the US elections approach, Trump has been repeatedly asked whether he will commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses on 3 November. “We are going to have to see what happens,” Trump said recently. If he continues to refuse to commit to the traditional peaceful transition of power, given the explosive mix of armed groups, individuals and extremists from the right and left of the political spectrum, the cornerstones of American democracy could be set on fire.
The writer is a Washington-based lecturer and journalist.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.