Starting on November 3, Let’s Surround the White House and Reclaim It As Our Common Home
Part Victory Celebration, Part Vigil and Part Transformational Planning Process, a Sustained Presence in D.C., Across the Country and Around the World Would Launch an Era of Renewed Commitment to Democracy, Community and Cooperation
With President Trump’s prospects for re-election shaken by the burdens of his monumental mishandling of the pandemic, strong-armed response to protests and a cratering economy, attention has turned to a troubling but increasingly plausible scenario — that even if he loses the election he might refuse to leave the White House. He has already telegraphed his intentions in a torrent of tweets and public statements, including his July 26 rhetorical question about whether the election should be postponed till he deems it “safe” to hold it. While he has made many pronouncements that he ultimately forgets or fails to implement, this one is given greater credence by those who know him well. As his long-time fixer Michael Cohen warned Congress in 2019, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Facing the prospect of lawsuits and possible jail time once no longer granted immunity as a sitting president, Trump has every reason to try to extend his tenure as long as possible. His entire career has been a game of catch-me-if-you-can, the kind of caper that nearly always ends badly. Like a pyromaniac driven to tempt fate and defy the odds by setting fires here, there and everywhere, he denies responsibility and escapes under cover of night, blow-torching tweets in all directions as constitutional norms and institutions and the reputations of former lieutenants burn to ash behind him. But as he becomes ever more desperate at his looming loss — hubris turning to humiliation — Trump retreats into his own private Alamo, the psychic and strategic bunker he “inspected” while on the other side of its impenetrable walls thousands of protesters surrounded the White House.
The possibility of Trump refusing to accept the results of a lost election is being taken with such seriousness that former Pentagon officials, legal scholars and other experts are running scenarios of what to do if the president either tries to scuttle the election or to declare its results null and void. The Transition Integrity Project, spearheaded by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official, and Nils Gilman of the Berggruen Institute, engaged dozens of knowledgeable participants from a wide range of persuasions and disciplines — “members of both major political parties, former high-ranking government officials (including two former governors), senior political campaigners, nationally prominent journalists and communications professionals, social movement leaders, and experts on politics, national security, democratic reform, election law, and media.” The project designed four scenarios to test the robustness of the electoral system if Trump utilizes every weapon in both his legal and extra-legal arsenal as chief executive and commander-in-chief to obstruct and obfuscate a clear verdict on the winner or to declare victory despite the prevailing evidence. In each case, the President holds an incumbent’s access to key levers of power over any challenger, even before factoring in clandestine hacking by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as well as rogue individuals and criminal gangs. “As an incumbent unbounded by norms,” the report adds, “President Trump has a huge advantage.”
“In all the scenarios, Team Trump was consistently more ruthless than Team Biden — more willing to ignore existing democratic norms, to make use of disinformation, to deploy federal agencies to promote Trump’s personal and electoral interests, and to engage in intimidation campaigns. Team Biden generally felt constrained by a commitment to norms and a desire to tamp down violence and reduce instability.”
What if Trump proclaims victory immediately after the polls close as a pre-emptive strike on the truth and holds to that story regardless of the actual outcome? Given his party’s supine obeisance to his imperious will for the past four years, he might well be abetted in his chronic denial of reality by a cowering Republican establishment whose precarious fate is lashed like a Jonestown death pact to his own. Yet as he makes ever more preposterous statements regarding the election, even some of his chief enablers are starting to ignore them as if he never said them or they didn’t hear them when he did. When he recently floated the idea of postponing the vote for months or even years, it took just hours for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to swat the gambit aside like a pesky horsefly.
Surround Till He Comes Around: Evicting the Outlaw
Yet when all three branches of government have been so fatally compromised as to no longer exercise the essential checks and balances on which the American republic has so long relied, all that is left to defend democracy and reassert the rule of law is to take to the streets — not just any streets but those surrounding the White House — and the main streets and seats of power in thousands of other cities and towns across the country. Not only in this country but around the world, among peoples whose stakes in the continuation of Trump’s tyranny are nearly as great as our own. And not just for a day but for as long as it takes to summon our constituted authorities, civilian and military, to gather their collective will and evict him from the Oval Office.
We’ve been practicing for this moment for years now in leaderless, collectively directed demonstrations of 21st century worldwide people power. With no overarching organization to orchestrate thousands of simultaneous demonstrations across every continent, we first surprised ourselves with the breadth, depth and scale of gatherings at the global Women’s March the day after Trump’s 2016 election, then again in last year’s youth-led climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and most recently in this spring’s Black Lives Matters protests.
As a veteran of epochal demonstrations ranging from 1968’s Democratic National Convention and continuing through the 1999 Battle of Seattle and the autumn 2011 Occupy Wall Street vigil, I find today’s protests generally (though not always) more mature, better organized, more diverse and widely supported than anything we managed to put together in preceding decades of street activism. Yet in most cases these protests are being coordinated and sustained by youth half a generation younger than we college students who flocked to demonstrations back in the day. At an October 2019 climate strike demonstration in San Francisco I asked a startlingly effective fifteen-year-old march monitor how she came to be such an impressively self-assured leader. “Oh well,” she responded casually between issuing commands, “we teens are so much better organized than our parents.”
Fringe Festivals of Transformative Ideas
In recent years we’ve also been learning how to do more in our street demonstrations than simply protest. The Sixties social change movement lost momentum after 1968 in part because we hadn’t done the hard homework of thinking through practical plans for creating the essential components of the world we sought to bring into being. In their absence we became consumed by aimless anger, raging helplessly against the machinery of power with no clue about how to exercise it effectively ourselves. In Seattle we began to experiment with self-organized workshops off to the side of the main stage in a kind of fringe festival of transformative ideas. Often lacking the self-discipline to listen thoughtfully to one another and still unfamiliar with techniques to build constructively on each other’s suggestions, we sometimes exhausted ourselves in unproductive debates. One of the fatal weaknesses of past revolutionary movements is that the righteous indignation that fueled their inception lacked the pragmatism to turn visions and aspirations into plans and strategies. Instead they devolved into internecine ideological warfare, an intellectual hardening of the categories.
But in the years since, many of us have learned sophisticated meeting techniques that draw the best from each contributor in an iterative, deliberative design process. We can now apply these techniques to what could become a protracted presence outside the White House with plenty of time and optimal circumstances to think through the thorny questions about how to implement our ideas in practice across a broad range of issues. Given the chill of late fall and early winter weather we can’t expect to hold such planning and design sessions outdoors. Instead we can arrange to convene in socially distanced classrooms, church basements, school and college auditoriums, cafes and other heated indoor spaces throughout the city. What better use for them now that they’re mostly unoccupied than to plan and design the contours of our common future?
The best of our breakthrough ideas and innovations on cell phones and computers can be shared with others engaged in concurrent vigils and conclaves across the country and around the world through online design commons. The tools and technologies to create and manage these commons are readily available, waiting to archive our collective creativity. Instead of critiquing what we find lacking in each other’s thinking (the standard methodology of academic inquiry), we can access the problem-solving capabilities of our protean intelligences and instead build on one another’s unique contributions.
We can gain some sense of the impressive self-organizing capabilities of today’s youthful activists by observing what they did with their time while engaged in a sustained occupation of the public spaces outside New York’s City Hall in June 2020. In the run-up to the City Council’s vote on whether to take $1 billion from local police and reallocate it to mental health, social services for the poor and other non-coercive activities, as the New York Times reported during the occupation, “Hand-drawn art covers any semblance of government infrastructure: subway entrances, metal barricades and kiosks…Organizers built a library, community garden and even a hut for tea lovers. They gathered donations of prepared meals, water, hand sanitizer, blankets, vitamins and cigarettes. And they formed elaborate teams for safety, sanitation and food distribution. Orange armbands distinguish the de-escalation team from the medics, who wear a red cross emblem made from electric tape. By Saturday, organizers had installed internet service and set up a laundry schedule.”
Unfortunately, in the weeks following the encampment became a refuge for drifters and the early self-organizing devolved into the kind of squalor and misery one routinely witnesses beneath freeway bridges and all too many vacant lots in some of the country’s richest cities. Learning the discipline of self-governing and collective housekeeping in such spontaneous temporary enclaves will be a major challenge but an essential set of skills for citizen movements to cultivate in the years to come. Done well, it becomes a potent testament to the self-responsibility of participants; done poorly, it discredits the very notion that we citizens are capable of governing ourselves, the first excuse deployed by would-be tyrants to seize power to maintain order “on behalf of the people.”
Trump continues to characterize largely peaceful protesters as “killers, terrorists, arsonists, anarchists, thugs, hoodlums, [and] looters” and this spring,on the pretext of protecting monuments, began sending badgeless, unidentifiable Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security agents into Portland, Oregon and other cities. The challenge to future protest participants is to exercise a high degree of self-discipline, collective responsibility and mutual aid in the face of such deliberate provocation. To achieve such discipline as Gandhi’s nonviolent activists accomplished during the campaign for Indian independence requires rigorous planning and training prior to the actual events and assiduous self-monitoring by demonstrators themselves to prevent rogue elements, be they agents provocateurs planted by the authorities to sow mayhem, anarchist groups or simply unhinged individuals all too common these days in urban settings of anonymity and ubiquitous drug use.
A sustained and disciplined presence of thousands of ordinary citizens outside the seat of executive authority, and at similar sites of institutional power across the country and around the world, would convey that the White House doesn’t belong to any current or future occupant of its premises but to all Americans of every background or persuasion. It is “our common home,” not the “White” House but a Rainbow House belonging to all Americans regardless of class, race or color.
Celebrating VT Day: Victory Over Trump, Trauma and Tyranny
As a demonstration of our collective re-commitment to democracy and the rule of law, surrounding the White House in what are likely to be tumultuous days following the November election will be a passionate affirmation of our true allegiance to all that is best in the American Promise. If, despite all that the Trump campaign and foreign powers are doing in advance of the election to suppress and sway the vote, Democrats win a resounding victory, this turn of events would be worthy of a celebration equal in scale and significance to VJ Day at the end of World War II. Celebrating VT Day — Victory over Trump, Trauma and Tyranny — citizens not just in the U.S. but worldwide would experience the lifting of a curse that haunts our common future. A celebratory atmosphere could infuse both White House and national demonstrations with a confidence that would attract those of like mind and spirit, advance the narrative of triumph, and partially inhibit the violence that a grimmer demeanor would likely attract.
As one who participated in the 1967 Siege of the Pentagon, I passed poet Allen Ginsberg as he sat cross-legged on a platform seeking to “levitate the Pentagon.” We laughed at the time, our spirits leavened by his antics, and only recently did I hear that he and others had negotiated with the Pentagon over how many inches of liftoff were permissible. He asked them for eight feet. They accepted six inches. A confrontation that could have, and most likely would in today’s still more fraught politics, ended in Kent State-style shootings ended up levitating everyone’s spirits in what was in other respects a hugely consequential event. One can well imagine a release of creative street theater, song and dance as demonstrators express their exuberance and relief, emotions suppressed for the four interminable years of a deadly, deadening Trump regime.
Recent surveys reveal that on average more than three-quarters of citizens worldwide have negative views of this American president and that his reckless, contemptuous behavior over the past four years have caused most of them to lose trust in the United States as a positive presence in world affairs. As Americans we imagine that we are the ones most affected by Trump’s barbaric policies, but in many respects those from nations with fewer resources to fall back on when he arbitrarily excludes their citizens from entering this country or blocks trade with theirs are hit still harder than those privileged Americans who in their wealth are more insulated from their impacts. Trump’s fall would be welcomed by the great majority of humanity as a release from purgatory. Given that the stakes are not just national but global, this celebration of democracy’s rebirth will likely reach the remotest reaches of the globe. One can even imagine Arctic researchers raising chilled glasses to a cooler future at the planet’s poles, where unseasonable heat is rapidly melting the very ice on which their experiment stations stand.
Yet even if November’s elections turn into a historic repudiation of Donald Trump, in the unstable aftermath there will be pockets of fierce resistance incited by his fierce flailing to discredit the outcome. Some of it will likely be violent, incited by white supremacists, self-styled militias, and conspiracists whose chronic denial of reality may drive them to acts of sabotage. One can only hope the center holds, doing everything possible to make it so, and that law enforcement (yes, by those police, on whom despite everything we still depend to maintain civil order) and the National Guard remain loyal to the Constitution and its legal protocol concerning mandatory transitions of power.
Through an extended celebration on VT Day and beyond, we can affirm the will of the majority in defiance of all efforts by Trump and his enablers to efface and reverse the true outcome. History made in the streets rather than behind closed doors demonstrates distributed leadership, a lateral sharing of responsibility in place of the command-and-control hierarchies that still afflict too many nations today. Despite a few centuries of practice in history-changing movements, we Americans are still learning how to hold and handle this kind of shared responsibility, but we are learning. And it will be the youngest among us who will lead the way, spearheaded in many cases by youth of color who are the rising planetary majority. Whatever those among their elders do to thwart them, they demand a future worth living for and will not cease to insist on it until it is theirs.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead famously declared many years ago. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” True, and today we must never doubt what a majority of humanity is capable of achieving when we take our collective future in our hands entwined to guide our common destiny.
Mark Sommer is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist living in Northern California. He can be reached at email@example.com.