Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sunday Reading

How To Stop a Coup — Lizzie Widdiecombe in The New Yorker.

Ah, election season. There’s a patriotic buzz in the air. Bumper stickers and lawn signs all over the neighborhood. Now comes the time when we check the location of our polling places, make a plan to vote—and pack a “go bag” in case we need to take to the streets in sustained mass protest to protect the integrity of the vote count. That last one is not something you’d expect to be doing in the United States, but things are different in the Trump era. For months, the President has been warning that he might not concede the election in November if he loses, telling reporters who asked him to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.” It sounded ominous, although it was hard to imagine how he could make good on the threat to stick around no matter what. Then, media organizations began publishing pieces outlining the myriad ways in which the President and his allies might turn a narrow loss into a win. The possibilities include familiar tactics—contesting mail-in ballots and turning the process into Bush v. Gore on steroids—and others that sound straight out of a police state. For example, Trump could summon federal agents or his supporters to stop a recount or intimidate voters. According to some experts, this would constitute an autogolpe, or “self coup”: when a President who obtained power through constitutional means holds onto it through illegitimate ones, beginning the slide into authoritarianism.

O.K., then. Time to start getting ready. But how, exactly, do we do that? In September, a group of organizers and researchers published a fifty-five-page manual called “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy,” which has been downloaded more than eighteen thousand times. And the Indivisible Project, along with a coalition called Stand Up America, are preparing their members to take to the streets if Trump contests the election results. “I’ve been beating the drum on this particular cause since July, and I’m delighted to see so many people coming around to it,” the activist and sociologist George Lakey said recently. His own “Aha!” moment came when Trump sent federal agents in military fatigues to Portland, Oregon, to tangle with protesters. “It hit me, the way Trump is dealing with Portland, Oregon, that’s a test,” he said. He guessed that Trump was hoping to provoke a violent backlash from the protesters, so that he could lay the groundwork for not accepting the election results, under the pretense that the country had descended into violent chaos. “Trump can be underestimated by the left,” Lakey said. “He gets made fun of, but he’s shrewd.”

Lakey, who is eighty-two, is best known for his book “A Manual for Direct Action,” from 1964, which was often referred to as a bible for the participants of the civil-rights movement. Since then, he has trained activists in countries including South Africa, Thailand, and Sri Lanka in their struggles against repressive regimes. “In the U.S., we’re used to waiting for social change,” he said, referring to multiyear efforts like the civil-rights or women’s-rights movements. But defeating a coup is different. “Everything happens really fast. You’ve got sometimes three days, sometimes a week, sometimes three months to beat a coup.” The average American activist needed a new skill set. “This is the teen-ager who’s been playing excellent football, and now he wants to play baseball,” he said. “He can’t just walk on the field and be great. He needs to learn a new set of rules.”

In August, Lakey helped form a group called Choose Democracy that has been circulating a pledge committing people to “nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted,” which has more than thirty thousand signatures. And he began giving a series of training sessions via Zoom called “How To Beat an Election-Related Power Grab.” On a recent Thursday, at 7:30 P.M., more than five hundred concerned citizens tuned in. They exchanged greetings on the group chat:

Hello from “Bad things happen” in Philadelphia!

Please do more of these!!! I know lots of white suburban women who are interested.

Lakey, who has white hair and bushy white eyebrows, is a Quaker, and brings a cheerful, Sunday-school-style delivery to lessons about overthrowing authoritarian regimes. He began with the work of the political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has studied occasions when the citizens of a country managed to rise up and defeat a coup: Bolivia, in 1978; the Soviet Union, in 1991; Thailand, in 1992; and Burkina Faso, in 2015. According to Zunes, these movements had several things in common: they were nonviolent, and they drew from a broad cross-section of society. And they refused to compromise. So, Lakey emphasized, there could be no cutting a deal with Trump. “That is reeeeally important,” he said, citing a demand from the Choose Democracy pledge: “Every vote must be counted. And we refuse to accept the authority of someone who is practicing something different.” Another takeaway, for activists, is to focus “on the center of the political spectrum,” Lakey said. “We’re looking to influence them to tip the outcome of the struggle in our direction.” Will they side with the protesters or with Trump?

To illustrate, he told the story of the Kapp Putsch, in the Weimar Republic. In 1920, a group of soldiers, veterans, and civilians tried to seize control of Berlin, under the right-wing leadership of Wolfgang Kapp. The legitimate government fled, and Kapp proclaimed himself the country’s leader. “He walked into the capitol building ready to run the country,” Lakey said. “However, he found that the government workers had all gone on strike. There was nobody in the building except him.” He wanted to issue a proclamation that he was running the country, Lakey added, “But he didn’t know how to type. So, the next day, he had to bring his daughter to type out the manifesto.” The coup collapsed within days. Lakey said, “The magic in that situation was the rapid alliance that was built, over a weekend, between the left”—trade unions, Communists—“and the center. It could overcome the right wing, even though they had the Army.”

He said that his listeners should start to build similar alliances. “Go beyond the usual suspects: the progressives, the left.” One woman asked in the chat, “Who is the Center in the US these days? Dems? Church? Libertarians? Moderate Republicans? Ha. How to trust them?” Lakey assured his audience that, while the U.S. may feel extremely polarized, “the truth is we’re not nearly as polarized as we may become.” He said that centrists could be found everywhere from the business world to the medical establishment. “Bank presidents. People who manage schools or colleges . . . you name it, if it’s some kind of institution that expects to have a future.”

There were questions about tactics. 
“What does refusal to recognize illegitimate authority look like?
” one participant wrote. Mass protests? Lakey warned that, while marches may be useful, “in my opinion they are wayyyy overrated.” (It is hard to imagine a Trumpist regime being swayed by a mob of citizens in pussy hats.) Instead, he encouraged his audience to think strategically. He pulled up a slide titled “Pillars of Power,” which showed a classical edifice. The roof was labelled “Regime/Status Quo.” The pillars were labelled with the words Business, Politicians, Military, Media, Judiciary, Police, and Bureaucracies. “Obviously, the Trump family is not going to be able to run the government by itself,” he said. They’ll need institutional support. “The question is how do we, as activists, go after these pillars in such a way as to encourage them to buckle, and allow the Trump regime, or his attempted regime, to fall?” Participants in the chat then came up with politicians they might approach:

Last, Lakey clicked to a slide that said, “What about Violence?” This topic had been hovering over the proceedings. Zunes, the political scientist, had said in a recent interview, “The thing that scares me the most is, unlike all these other countries I’ve studied, this country has millions of people who have guns—and not just guns but semi-automatic weapons—that are loyal Trump supporters, and whom he can call out to suppress such a nonviolent uprising.” Several attendees had expressed concerns in the chat about groups like the Proud Boys and right-wing militias, writing things like, “
I have never been in a demonstration where some people are likely to have automatic weapons.”

Lakey acknowledged, “There are a lot of alarming things going on already in this country with regard to what I call Trump’s ‘irregulars.’ ” He said that protesters should plan their rallies for places where it would be difficult for violence to break out: in the lobby of an office building or in a car caravan. He told participants to imagine that they were Proud Boys looking to “rumble.” “Ask, ‘What would they welcome?’ And then not do that!” he said. One tip, from the civil-rights movement: “When in doubt, sit down. It’s counterintuitive. But it has been used in multiple cultures, and it works.” (Except with tear gas. Then, he said, “walking slowly would be best.”)

If things do get ugly, he noted, it could be useful for the cause. “Get your smartphone and expose what happened. Offer yourself for interviews,” he said. The key is to draw a contrast between the violent regime and the peaceful protesters. That’s what happened during Thailand’s military coup, in 1992, when soldiers shot into a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators. The public was horrified. “It brought a surge of people into the struggle that overthrew the coup plotters,” Lakey said. “What we’re teaching tonight is evidence-based. It’s how baseball is played.”

Frances Brokaw, a retired physician and Quaker in Hanover, New Hampshire, attended the Zoom training and came away feeling better about the coming weeks. “I found it helpful and hopeful,” she said. She’d written to New Hampshire’s secretary of state, a Democrat, and its governor, a Republican, asking them not certify the election results until all absentee ballots have been counted. The secretary of state’s office had responded affirmatively. “I haven’t heard back from the governor,” she said. But she plans to keep writing. And she will join in street protests if necessary, despite the spectre of election-related violence and the threat of the coronavirus. “If need be, I’m ready,” she said. “If we’re talking about the well-being and safety of millions of people in this country from this President—who is totally off the rails from what I’ve seen—yes, I’ll put myself on the line for that. I have a grandson who’s five months old, and I want the world to be safe for him.”

Cuba Goes For Trump? — Tim Golden in The New York Times.

With Florida again looking pivotal in the presidential race, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have found themselves revisiting a decades-old question that could decide a crucial share of votes: What to do about Cuba?

It’s a debate that many analysts thought was largely over. When President Barack Obama traveled to Havana in 2016 to “bury the Cold War” between the two countries, the tentative support of many Cuban-Americans surprised even hopeful Democrats. That fall, Hillary Clinton — who had called for ending the United States economic embargo against Cuba “once and for all” — won more Cuban votes in Florida than Mr. Obama had collected in 2012.

Four years later, the Cold War is decidedly back. In a sustained barrage of punitive measures, Mr. Trump has restricted travel to the island, blocked investment and withdrawn most American diplomats from Havana. Visas for Cubans to visit or join family in the United States have been cut sharply. The administration has even begun to limit the ways Cuban-Americans can send money to their relatives.

But while Cuban-Americans oppose many of those specific policies, according to a survey this summer by Florida International University, two-thirds broadly support Mr. Trump’s confrontational stance toward the island’s Communist government.

“Ultimately, most Cuban-Americans view logistical inconveniences as a small price to pay for freedom and accountability of a dictatorship that has oppressed its people for far too long,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a Cuban-American who served in the Trump White House and is a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.

Mr. Biden argues that the president’s tough line should be judged by the results, not the rhetoric. “The administration’s approach is not working,” he said on a visit to Miami this month. “Cuba is no closer to democracy than it was four years ago.”

Yet if recent polling holds, analysts said, Mr. Trump could win 60 percent of the Cuban-American vote — surpassing the estimated 50 percent to 54 percent he won in the 2016 election. “Trump has gone through the roof with the poll numbers from Hispanics,” the president told a group of Cuban-American supporters at the White House last month. “I guess they didn’t know I love you, but I do.”

Even as the race in Florida has tightened, it remains to be seen whether the Cuba issue is still potent enough, almost 62 years after the revolution, to help swing the state and its 29 electoral votes; along with New York, Florida has the third-largest number of electoral votes, after California and Texas. The two-thirds of Cuban-Americans who live in Florida account for only about 5 percent of its roughly 14 million voters. But their shifting views on American policy are again drawing outsize attention in a state that remains closely divided between the two parties.

“This clearly is a harder line” toward Cuba, said Guillermo Grenier, a sociologist at Florida International University who has overseen its surveys of Cuban-American opinion for nearly 30 years.

To Miami’s old guard, who fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution, Mr. Obama’s attempt to promote change through closer engagement was always dangerously naïve. By not conditioning his opening on human rights improvements, they argued, Mr. Obama threw then-President Raúl Castro an economic lifeline while demanding nothing in return. The regime’s continued repression of political critics thereafter was entirely predictable.

Still, Democrats were confident that Cuban-American demographics were shifting their way. Whatever the recalcitrance of Cuban elders, their children and grandchildren appeared less wedded to the coercive approach that had so long failed to bring meaningful change on the island. More recent immigrants — who were generally more skeptical that the government in Cuba could be dislodged and were more connected to relatives there — also supported freer travel and closer economic ties.

So, after years of growing Cuban-American support for the Democratic Party, one of the most striking results of the F.I.U. poll was the 76 percent of recent Cuban immigrants who reported having registered to vote as Republicans. Only 5 percent the respondents, who came to the United States between 2010 and 2015, said they had become Democrats; the rest described themselves as independents.

Even as the Democrats have gained ground, the Republican Party has been more active and better organized among Latinos in South Florida. Hard-liners on Cuba remain powerful across local Spanish-language media outlets. “For Republicans, it’s always a home game in Miami,” said Ana Sofía Pelaez, a leader of the Miami Freedom Project, a progressive Cuban group focused on social issues.

Younger, hipper Republican partisans have also begun to emerge. Among the more prominent is a kooky YouTube personality, Alexander Otaola, who left Cuba in 2003 and offers a comedic, reggaeton-infused alternative to the vitriolic talk radio that still echoes on local airwaves. Mr. Otaola has become a boisterous Trump evangelist, exhorting his audience to beware the Democrats’ “socialist” tendencies.

The biggest influencer has been Mr. Trump himself. His warnings that the Democrats will deliver America to socialism, while silly to some voters, have been repeated constantly in advertising and social-media posts that target Florida refugees from Venezuela and Nicaragua as well as Cuba. The purported threat of self-described democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a staple theme of that campaign, which has established at least a notional coherence between Mr. Trump’s domestic politics and his bellicose stance toward leftist regimes in Latin America.

“They have been relentless,” said Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat and Cuban-American state senator, of the “socialism” attack. “So relentless that it has been somewhat effective.”

Another big factor in Mr. Trump’s success with Cuban-American voters has been his willingness to show up. Mr. Trump was mocked by some critics last month when he recalled a “beautiful” award he said he had received from veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. (No such award is known to exist.) But he should hardly have to prove his loyalty to the cause. The very first stop on Mr. Trump’s first foray into presidential campaigning in 1999 was the two-room Bay of Pigs Library and Museum in Miami’s Little Havana, where he turned up with his then-girlfriend, Melania Knauss. “My policy,” he said then, “is you have to keep pressure on Castro.”

As president, Mr. Trump has tried to ratchet up that pressure. In addition to blocking tourism, investment and trade, he all but shuttered the American Embassy in Havana, citing mysterious suspected attacks on diplomats there. Visas for Cubans to visit the United States were cut to 10,167 last year from a high of 41,001 in 2014. His administration also suspended a family reunification program that had authorized more than 125,000 Cubans to join relatives in the United States since 2007, and it sharply increased the deportation of Cuban asylum seekers.

Cuban-Americans’ response to those measures has been contradictory. In the F.I.U. poll, 71 percent of the respondents said the United States’ long-running economic embargo against Cuba hasn’t worked, yet 60 percent said it should remain in place. Many of them also said Washington’s Cuba policy was less important to them than other issues, including the economy, health care, race relations and even China policy.

Florida Democrats admitted that they have had little success in trying to focus attention on the collateral damage to Cubans from Mr. Trump’s policies. The Democrats may have done even less to argue the Obama administration’s case that closer contact with the United States is the best way to push the Cuban government toward greater political and economic freedom for the island.

“I think a lot of Democrats have concluded that while there are strong intellectual arguments for those initiatives, politically they just don’t pay off,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Miami.

Ed. note: For those of you outside of South Florida, it should be noted that there are other Latin communities in Miami-Dade besides Cubans. It’s just that they’re the loudest, another quality they share with Trump. They also seem to have a love/hate relationship with dictators. The old guard who left after the revolution fled a dictator they hated because he overthrew a dictator they liked, and now they’re flocking to another one with authoritarian tendencies. One thing this election may show is that for all their noise and propaganda, their power is diminishing.

Doonesbury — Postal service.