When I got home from work on Wednesday, Jan. 6, before greeting my wife and Peruvian mother-in-law (who is staying with us), I switched their television to breaking news and updated them on all that had happened, on what was in fact still happening. The rioters are claiming Trump won, and are trying to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden.
“¿Con quién está la policía?” Suegra’s asked (Who are the police backing?).
For someone who has lived only in a precarious democracy, in a region of precarious democracies, where insurrections, coups and armed conflicts are not uncommon – that question is the most important. She didn’t even think, it was a reflex.
In Peru it would be the national police, in other countries the military. But when political leaders can’t agree who will govern, the security forces will decide. She has seen this movie many times, in Peru and in neighboring countries, and that is how it ends, if it gets that far.
In fact, the situation in the United States has not gone that far. Our political leaders do not disagree who will govern, there is no disagreement to speak of. In the final vote to certify the election, #StopTheSteal couldn’t even convince the Republicans. The best they mustered in the Senate was seven votes of 99 to dispute Pennsylvania’s electors, which is not even remotely close.
Since our political leaders do not disagree who will govern, there is no need for security forces to decide. But there is still a small but vocal slice of the population who do not agree with the political leaders. And that begs the question, what will they do now?
As an expat in South America, I watched in real time the efforts to dispute power both succeed and fail in Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Peru. I studied disputes in the Dominican Republic, Chile and Peru. In each case that worked, popular uprisings shook the security forces. That is the secret ingredient for disputes that have no political power behind them.
Protests and civil unrest, whether peaceful or not, grow so large and unmanageable that security forces step in, or the political leaders see the writing on the wall and preempt that. Is #StopTheSteal prepared to go there?
It seems they are. Protesters have gathered at state capitols in at least 11 states including Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Texas. However, like the certification votes in the Senate, they are not going to shake the security forces. They are too small. You may not have even known about them before reading this.
When you think of power disputes in Venezuela, you probably think of the massive uprisings in 2014 and 2017 which failed to remove Nicolas Maduro from power. But in fact, there was a successful movement in 2002. After a military coup removed Hugo Chavez from power, peaceful protests grew so large that the military reinstalled him.
As you can see, that was a big protest. According to Caracas Chronicles, estimates range between 500,000 and 800,000 people. #StopTheSteal could never muster that. They would be lucky to get that many people demonstrating throughout the country at the same time, much less in the same city.
The problem is there just aren’t that many #StopTheSteal believers among the American public. Polls show about three quarters of Republicans believe the election was stolen. In a population split between Republicans, Democrats and independents, that leaves you with somewhere between a quarter and a third of the public who believes the election was stolen.
For a quarter or a third of the public to believe that is substantial, historic even. But it’s not enough to get 800,000 people into the streets, because while that many will tell a pollster the election was rigged, the vast majority are content to just gripe about it at home on the couch while watching Fox News. They won’t get active.
How do you shake the security forces without massive numbers of people? This is where shit gets dark.
The small number of people who both believe the election was stolen and are willing to act need to make an outsize impact on the psyche of American security forces. Some have already begun to experiment with tactics. Protesters, sometimes armed, have stormed state capitols in Michigan, Oregon and Idaho to protest pandemic measures.
“I think it was John F. Kennedy who said the best: ‘Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolutions inevitable,’” Ammon Bundy told AP after leading protestors into the Idaho statehouse. Bundy gained notoriety for leading a 41-day armed occupation in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in which one militant was killed.
Last summer in Michigan, a paramilitary was arrested before executing a plan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, again over pandemic measures.
And of course, last Wednesday saw a historic first when a mob stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. Five people were killed, including a police officer. Pipe bombs were found outside the offices of the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee.
I doubt this has all been deliberate or part of some grand strategy. Rather, these people can see the political process isn’t going their way and they sense the need to start employing the kind of tactics that shake the public’s sense of security. And if that’s what’s happening, they’re right.
Examples of this strategy working in Latin America are Cuba and Nicaragua. In both cases, movements with little support overwhelmed security forces through direct attacks, in what were bona fide revolutions. Those movements grew their support with their military successes, but they started small. Similar movements in Peru and Colombia, the Shining Path and FARC, failed.
I don’t see #StopTheSteal going full revolution. An integral part of their ideology is reverence for police and military, which would be difficult to reconcile with direct attacks on the police and military. And of course many of them are ex-cops and war veterans themselves.
Even if they were willing to go for a hot war, I don’t think they want a revolution. They don’t want to change the system or rewrite the Constitution. They just want to put Donald Trump in the White House, and maybe flip a few seats in Congress while they’re at it. But it’s hard to motivate people to revolt without some lofty vision for governance.
In the Dominican Republic, a handful of military officers assassinated President Rafael Trujillo. Their plan to assume control of government failed, and Trujillo’s son succeeded him. I think it’s safe to discount that happening here, but it’s a great story. Check out my review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s fictionalized account.
So what will #StopTheSteal do next? They don’t have enough support to make a difference politically, or the organization and ideology to effect change through protests or violence. But there are enough true believers willing to take action that I am certain we will see attempts to roiling our sense of security. Armed occupations, shootings, pipe bombs and of course violent rallies.
I’d be delighted to be wrong, but that’s what I see coming.
The first few paragraphs of this post were taken from a Facebook post I shared the day after the insurrection at the U.S. Congress. See the original below.