The past two months have seen a rise in doomsday what if’s regarding the 2020 general election. The scenarios each present, in an authoritative voice, a possibility that introduces a special thing and then dwells on that thing in length and detail, but without introducing probability or any suggestion that if the scenario happens, we can stop it. Thus, a could happen is sold to us as a will happen that we are helpless to prevent. All we can do is wait and see, and then live with the consequences.
Here are some common what if’s:
- What if Trump loses the election and refuses to leave?
- What if Trump loses the election and stages a coup d’etat?
- What if “faithless electors” steal the election?
- What if the Republicans “gaslight” us with disinformation to “steal” the election?
- What if “red states” rig the election for Trump?
- What if the new Postmaster General “steals” mail-in ballots?
- What if Russian hacks votes for Trump?
- What if China hacks votes for Trump?
To be fair and balanced, here are some common doomsday what if’s from the right:
- What if illegal immigrants steal the vote?
- What if Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff stage a coup d’etat?
- What if “faithless electors” steal the election?
- What if the “deep state” rigs the election?
- What if there is massive voter fraud with the mail-in ballot?
- What if Russia hacks the vote for Biden?
- What if China hacks the vote for Biden?
All the what if’s above are possibilities. Yes, it is possible that Donald Trump loses the election and decides that he isn’t going to leave. Yes, it is possible that “faithless electors” try to steal the election. Yes, it is possible that there is mail-in ballot voter fraud. Yes, it is possible that there is a mass disinformation campaign that somehow convinces people that hate Trump to vote for him. It is also possible that none of these things happen and we have an election as normal as can be under the country’s current conditions.
Possibilities are things that can happen, limited only by physical constraints and laws of nature. A lot of things are possible when exercising your imagination. Call it spit-balling or brainstorming, running through possibilities is an essential component of thought and creativity. However, when someone comes up with and dissects possibilities, they must be clear that they are examining only what is possible. Once possibilities enter the real world, probability must be introduced into the discussion, especially when it the topic is politics.
Probability is the mathematical measure of the likelihood of a possibility happening in real life. To determine the probability of a possibility we must do more than let our imagination run wild. We start by figuring out what is needed to make a possibility happen. Let’s take the fear of Donald Trump losing an election and staging a coup. To start, I will list what a person or group of people must have in place to stage a coup:
- A culture of authoritarianism. I do not mean a tendency towards authoritarianism, but a culture in which authoritarianism is unquestioned, unchallenged, and even seen as desirable, by those in power, in institutions, and in the general population.
- Control over and loyalty from the armed forces, police, secret service, intelligence agencies, and any instrument of armed state power, and a desire by these parties for a coup. (These groups are the original definition of the “deep state.”)
- Control or sway over the economic system, along with the support and loyalty of those who most influence those systems, as well as the desire of the economic elite for a coup.
- Control or sway over Congress and states and the loyalty of their leadership, as well as their desire for a coup.
- Control or sway over the courts, the loyalty of the legal elite, and their desire for a coup.
- Control or sway over all means of communication – the press, television, internet, social media, the telecom system, publishing, etc. – as well as buy-in by the communication elite, as well as their desire for a coup.
- A willingness to imprison, exile, or execute any person who belong to the institutions listed above if they are unwilling to assist or support a coup. The willingness to dissolve Congress, dismantle the courts, and invalidate or amend the Constitution.
- The creation of a strong team that not only includes experts in military, policing, communications, logistics, economics, and diplomacy, but also foreign allies that are willing to back the coup and recognize the government. It is especially important that neighboring countries – in this case Canada and Mexico – strongly support a coup.
- Careful planning, attention to detail, intelligence, follow-through, a long-attention span, a realistically honest view of the world, hard work, and secrecy.
These are the things that one must have in place to stage a coup. In order for a coup to be successful, this is what needs to happen:
- The coup must be executed flawlessly.
- The White House, Congressional buildings and offices, Supreme Court building, Pentagon, military bases, depots, armories, and training centers, state capitols, police stations, all television and radio stations, all internet providers, all social media companies, and all airports, ports, and train stations must be occupied and under state control.
- All potential opposition must be neutralized, preferably far ahead of the coup but certainly as the coup is happening.
- The pre-coup status quo must be returned to “normal” as quickly as possible. There must be little to no interruption to systems that provide food, shelter, healthcare, safety, energy, communication, entertainment, and any other thing that citizens take for granted. The quality of these systems cannot diminish, but must improve if the citizenship is to validate the coup.
Two lists: Preconditions for a coup to be staged, and outcomes for a coup to be successful. Subtract one precondition and the probability of an attempted coup progressing past idea stage is slim. Subtract any single precondition or outcome and the probability of a successful coup is minimal.
Now let’s introduce the person who must lead the coup: Donald Trump. Let’s go through the list of the skills and traits that Donald Trump must possess to make a successful (or even attempted) coup probable:
- The ability to carefully plan
- Attention to detail
- Tactical and strategic intelligence
- Flexibility and nimbleness
- A long-attention span
- A realistic view of the world
- The ability to take counsel
- Loyalty to others
- Hard work
- A willingness to engage in a fight when there is a risk of losing
- The ability to keep a secret
Trump must possess most if not all of these things for a coup to happen. The skills and traits that escape him can be supplemented by his “team,” though he must be willing to listen to his team and that team must be willing to die for him. Trump listens to the following people: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Melania Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Sean Hannity, Stephen Miller, Mike Pence, Paula White, Kellyanne Conway, Peter Navarro, and the My Pillow Guy.
How effective are Trump’s team in communicating to him? Thanks to behind-the-scenes exposes on the administration, we know that Trump often rejects counsel in favor of what his “gut” tells him. We know that few of Trump’s team act in concert with each other or even share a similar philosophical outlook or point of view. We also know that loyalty within the Trump administration is low. The only member of Trump’s team I can see willing to die for Trump is Don Jr.
Silence fears and honestly assess the information above:
- Knowing what you do about Trump, based on his actions and accomplishments, not his words, has Donald Trump actively engaged in anything as complex as a coup?
- Knowing what you do about Donald Trump and the last three years, is Donald Trump capable of staging a successful coup?
- If Trump was to attempt a coup, would it go any better than the construction of the wall, his fight in Congress against Obamacare, Infrastructure Week, Middle East peace, the Ukraine call, the coronavirus, his reaction to the murder of George Floyd?
- What in Trump’s life says “Success!”?
I understand the fear and concern about Trump staying in office. The possibility of four more years of Trump is not only frightening, it is fucking frightening. Given 2016 and the last 3+ years, it is reasonable to worry about the 2020 election going wrong. I worry at times, too. But I am careful to not let worry start to loop. When I feel worry coming on, I try to step away, clear my mind, and think things through. I use exercises, like the one above, that help clarify things. All of this helps.
What also helps is accepting that I don’t know what will happen and that I cannot predict the future. All I can do is work hard to try to shape the future and make what I want a reality. In that work, I find my power, something that eludes me when I am in a worry loop. By working for a future outcome, I reject helplessness and cynicism.
It’s funny, because on the surface it seems that asking what if is a powerful thing: It shows that we are intensely concerned about what might happen. And that might be the case when one asks a single what if to a specific problem or situation and then commits to exploring the question. However, in the social media age, what if’s are rarely framed as insightful inquiries into a single issue. Rather, they are cloaked objections, statements and not questions, challenges that read “Oh yeah? Well, what if…”
The what if objection also rarely stops with one what if. When someone takes on a what if with sincerity and answers the what if, the answer is followed by another what if and another and another. Repeated what if’s beat us down, as routine objection and the repetition of No! are wont to do. To escape the what if’s we give up or run away, and in those actions we become powerless.
Now, plenty of what if’s bounce around in our heads, prompted only by our imagination and insecurity. However, what if’s have long been used to make people question their own power. Here’s Commanding General, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Beaudette speaking to graduates of an Army Psychological Operation [PsyOps] Qualification Course:
For over 100 years…Psychological Operations have been sowing the seed of doubt, inciting fear, and disrupting the enemies of our Nation.
That quote is the essence of PsyOps, the practice of using psychology against your enemy in order to weaken them. Sowing doubt is basic PsyOps and it is very effective in undermining institutions, including leadership, and, importantly, creating doubt in the public’s ability to change things. What if’s are a great way to sow doubt. Pile on the what if’s and they soon become a wall too high to scale. Faced with this seemingly impossible obstacle, the public surrenders to cynicism or helplessness and apathy takes hold. The propagandist wins the fight without having to fight. They have used the public’s mind and emotions to make the public surrender without the public knowing that it is giving up.
PsyOps is not just used by the military against foreign enemies. PsyOps is also used by the government against its own citizens, political parties against their opponents, politicians against challengers, and private parties (business or political) against their foils.
Take voter suppression. We tend to focus on voter suppression as a nuts-and-bolts thing: A Black voter goes to the polls and is turned away because she don’t have proper ID, her signature doesn’t match what is on file, or she’s been purged from the system. The primary goal of voter suppression laws is to prevent certain people from casting a ballot at the polling place. The secondary goal is to get the targeted voters to see voting as an impossibility, so that they don’t just give up trying to vote: They give up on voting and any other participation in democracy.
What I just wrote is not controversial or conspiratorial. Republicans have long admitted that the aim of voter suppression is to suppress the vote. They know that the only way to win elections is by actively shrinking the electorate. They know that getting people to give up on themselves is more effective than passing voter suppression laws that can be struck down by the courts. They also know that it takes much longer for a person to regain confidence in themselves and to feel their own power than it does to strike down a law.
Earlier this week, I wrote on the Deplorables, a self-identified group of right-wing social media activists who were active during the 2016 election campaign. These people used Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other forums to disinform and misinform the public. Their goal was to pump up the vote for Trump, while suppressing the vote for Clinton. Because these were private citizens, their campaigns were wholly psychological. They were effective.
The Russians, particularly the Internet Research Agency, used PsyOps on Americans, applying many of the same tools as the Deplorables. They were effective.
Alone, the Deplorables and the Internet Research Agency would not have had the impact they did. Their message would have been launched into the howling universe of the internet, only to die from lack of oxygen. Instead, they used you to give their lies and misdirection life, hoping that you would share their crap, knowing that your friends and neighbors trust you much more than Jane or Joe Stock Photo.
I have a couple thousand Facebook “friends,” 95% of whom I have never met in real life. A few hundred who I haven’t met in person but have known for years through music or writing. Most of my “friends” are a mystery to me. I am pretty sure that some of these “people” are bots or trolls. I don’t know how they got there. Maybe it was something I wrote that someone with a bigger account shared, which got a bot-operator’s or a troll’s attention. The bot/troll sends me a friend request. I’m lazy about screening them and accept it.
I post something. The bot or troll comment on a post of mine. They refer to the “coup” Trump has planned. I respond. They respond. We start going back and forth about coups. It doesn’t matter how much sense I make or how bizarre they come off as, now “Trump coup” is a meme.
Or, the person who introduces coup to a post isn’t a bot or troll but a real-life person. They picked up on the coup talk elsewhere, from a troll or from someone who was trolled or from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who read something a bot posted on Reddit or Twitter. We might never know the origin, but we do know that by the time it gets to me, we are dealing with a contagion.
The coup contagion isn’t the only one we are battling. There are many others. It seems overwhelming, so overwhelming that we are tempted to give up. Yes, more PsyOps or just a typical day on the world wide web. Really, I don’t think it matters what’s up as long as we recognize the possibility of what’s happening, measure it against probability, and recognize that in that one action we have taken ownership of our mind and, thus, have claimed our power.