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No. Seriously. What If Trump Wins Again?

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Stylized line drawing of the head of the Statue of Liberty lying on its side, with broken pieces around it and directional arrows coming out. Drawing is grayscale, background is magenta.

Choose Democracy just launched a set of online tools and strategy games to help us prepare emotionally and strategically for whatever might happen this November and after. The tools invite participants to explore their reactions and options, to plot their own route through uncharted territory.

In Fall 2020, the activists who formed Choose Democracy noticed that Donald Trump was saying regularly that he would not transfer power peacefully if he lost the election. This sounded to them like he was planning a coup—but most movement folks weren’t taking him seriously. Choose Democracy looked at the scant literature on resisting coups and talked to organizers who had experience doing so. They put together a training, shared it with some 20,000 people, and then folded. “We didn’t need another organization,” said Daniel Hunter, one of the founders.

Now, with January 6, 2021 still clear in the rearview mirror, and Trump being ever more explicit about his autocratic intentions, Choose Democracy is regrouping. It has launched an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure style tool for individuals, a 150-plus page book, and an interactive group role-playing game with a facilitation guide. All this is available at  whatiftrumpwins.org.

Choose Democracy’s Daniel Hunter and Katey Lauer joined Convergence Publisher Cayden Mak on the June 7 episode of our Block & Build podcast to talk about why they built these tools and how they hope they will help navigate the rough terrain ahead. In his day job, Hunter is global trainings director for 350.org. Katey Lauer is an organizer and trainer with WV Can’t Wait, based in southern West Virginia. This is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Cayden Mak: What is the nature of the project? What came first in the design decisions around it?

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Daniel Hunter: We started by running some internal scenario planning sessions. We created some strategy plans and then created and ran a strategy game where people played the roles of Trump and MAGA and a number of others to see some of the dimensions of how these things might unfold and to get a sense of our own reactions.

It was sobering. There was a lot of reactivity to Trump’s agenda, which is consistent with what we’ve seen. And we realized it’s not going to serve us particularly well to be in constant reaction after each proclamation and then go into the street. It exposes our weakness, it exposes the degree to which we haven’t organized, and it doesn’t actually set us up well to do what we need to do, which is to gain power in order to kick this man out.

So we realized we need some different kinds of resources. One was a group scenario game, which Katey ended up taking the lead on. And another was more interviews, like those we did last time, with people who’ve kicked out autocrats in their own country, since there is a good history of that around the globe.

And then the third, what might be called a “pick your own path” or “choose your own adventure” website and book that just allows people to imagine “what if,” to just enter into the realm of imagination without attempting to be prescriptive or foresee the future.

Cayden Mak: In the early 20-teens, I was in a grad school program where I was working on games and play as tools for popular education. I remember reading a lot about the way in which designing a game system often leads to deeper learning on the part of the designers, and then translating that learning to the people who then play the game or go through the scenarios can be a little challenging. How were you able to distill some of those learnings from your own scenario planning into this document?

Katey Lauer: I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read or headlines I’ve seen about a possible Trump presidency–how much thinking I and others have done about that potential future. But something happens differently when we, instead, immerse ourselves in a scenario and then get to see what comes up and notice what’s emergent.

In some of these pilots that Daniel was describing, there were a lot of surprises. I remember one of our co-players saying after the fact that it felt like some new pathway got opened up in his mind, because there was something about the immersion that was really helpful. Each of these tools does something immersive.

So the group scenario game lets that happen on a group level. And then the “choose your own adventure” game lets that happen on an individual level. And the spirit of both of them is, “Let’s just put ourselves in a situation and try it out, as opposed to thinking it through.”

Cayden Mak: That’s one of the things that we observed in going through some of the materials. There is such an emphasis on noticing, which is very clearly drawn from a lot of mindfulness practice. Especially when you think about the discourse online and the way that we talk about these things—being angry on Twitter.com is such a head experience, even though we think of it as an emotional experience because we’re mad. It’s not an embodied emotional experience in the way that you all are asking people to be vulnerable.

And it’s important to think about the kind of emotional preparedness that’s not just bracing, right? I’ll use “I” statements on this one, but when I think about these eventualities, I feel a lot of bracing in my body. I know that does not necessarily put me in the most creative, strategic, and responsive mindset if I’m literally locking myself down in body and mind. I’m curious about the thinking behind some of that mindfulness stuff and the discussions about the affective impact of gameplay.

Making space for choices

Daniel Hunter: Strategy is an art. It’s not an intellectual experience. It’s something that really comes through how we are moving through our entire body and our entire way of being. Rather than seeing it as something separate, a kind of intellectual activity, as Katey said, we got curious about how it’s about “What do you really want to do?”

The “choose your own adventure” website and book allows people to honor whatever’s true for them. I want to run away. Got it. Okay. Choose that. It doesn’t work out for us if the entire Left decides to just abandon itself and go to Canada, right?

But if that’s the instinct and it goes unacknowledged, then it doesn’t give a chance for people to just note it and then try the next thing. You can see what happens if you flee to Canada, and then you get offered a chance to try it again and to try a different choice and see how that goes and put on that thing. It’s a little bit like the lightness of trying on some different clothing.

The group scenario game that Katey created just allows people to try things on. And I think that invites some space, and space is the thing we need if we’re not going to just be braced.

That space allows us to reflect and consider more fully what kind of choices we want to make—and also to see how some of our own instincts may not serve us. We’re not attempting to tell you, “This is the way you have to fight this thing.” It’s more an exploration, because this is uncharted territory. It’s really an open invitation for people to find their strategy, their route, because fundamentally, Katey and I both share a belief that people can be very smart, and when given the right tools and space and opportunity they can be smart about their own situation.

Seeing the pitfalls of protest

Cayden Mak: Yes, I love that. Let’s talk through some of the scenarios that the project plays out, because I think there are some very obvious things that are instinctive.  “Oh, I’m going to leave the country. I’m going to hit the streets with all my comrades.” What are some of the scenarios that this has given you space to explore and that you’re excited to share with folks on the Left?

Daniel Hunter: One is about just continuing to march in the streets. So eight years ago, the Women’s March and various other marches began developing. Marches are fantastic opportunity for us to see who’s with us, to feel connected to other people, especially for those of us who are in isolated areas and pockets. They can be a chance to be part of a community where we might feel very isolated, particularly after an emotional loss like this. On the other hand, they’re not great power builders in a long-term strategy.

They’re not a threat to the opposition. In fact, one of the things that we learned as we were chatting with people who’ve fought autocracies is that it’s very common for autocracies to support their opposition showing up in concentrated places where they can then beat them up, oppress them, sow chaos.

In Serbia, for example, [Slobodan] Miloševic used to regularly order his paramilitaries to show up at the same place as protesters in order to create a chaotic scenario so that he could then walk in and say, “See, it’s chaos. This is why you need a strongman.”

So we can fall into a bunch of those traps. We could fall into the traps of just doing regular marches without some other power-building approaches, without identifying some other ways to exert our power that aren’t just concentrated moments in time in which we take a physical space, without expanding our vision of using strikes, wildcat strikes, using our symbolic acts of protest.

In Denmark they resisted the Nazis by wearing paper clips, a very non-confrontational, low-bar entry to a political resistance movement. You just put a paper clip on your lapel or on your shirt and that became a symbol. So we explore some of those different realms or options, because we have to expand our minds away from some of the trajectory that the Left has gotten a little hooked into.

Sitting in the tension

Cayden Mak: One of the things that we noticed going through the materials, especially the individual website version, is there are not a lot of end results that you might consider total defeat or victory. There’s a lot of ambiguity and there’s a lot of sitting in the tradeoffs of what certain choices lead to versus others. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of that and the thinking behind setting up these scenarios in ways that are certainly realistic, in the sense that total defeat or victory is not going to happen in the next 12 months, 18 months, 24 months. How did you negotiate that territory? And what is your thinking behind giving these end states that do have a little bit of push and a little bit of pull?

Daniel Hunter: It’s not a dire all or nothing moment. And in fact, I work closely with colleagues who work in autocracies, and they continue to live lives and their lives are filled with great joyous moments and sad defeats and moments of fear and moments they’re not scared.

Some of us have not yet had the experience of hanging out with people who have experienced autocracies. And in extremely repressive environments, we can catastrophize and catastrophizing is very much in the atmosphere. I work on climate change, so I certainly believe catastrophe is an option, but I think that as an instinct, catastrophizing doesn’t give us a huge advantage and it isn’t a great descriptor of what might come in 12 months, in 24 months.

People talk in large terms about democracy falling apart. And I agree that whatever wallpaper version of democracy that we have might in fact be falling apart. But I don’t think it necessarily means therefore X, Y, and Z, everything is falling apart—the civil war, constant chaos, etc.

I acknowledge it could go to some extremes, and there are some versions that are more extreme than others. But I think we’re in a moment of tension. That’s what we’re going to experience. So we have to gear up, not just for catastrophe. That’s the bracing. We have to gear ourselves up for tension, for ongoing polarization and politicization. Everything is going to get more politicized and there will be more tension and we just have to be able to sit in that fire.

Cayden Mak: This comes back to what you both said at the beginning about practice. One of the things I love about being at Convergence is that we are not in the catastrophizing kind of space generally, in the way that we choose to talk about things, the way that we’re thinking about things.

But then you go into the wider internet, and I think that, as you say, it’s in the air. And there’s something very human about going into the unknown and being frightened about it, but it does not necessarily serve us strategically.

Katey Lauer: And I think one reason it doesn’t serve us is because sometimes when we’re in that sort of heightened state, it can encourage us to look for one right answer, like what is the super-solution?

What is the one way? What’s the right way to respond to this moment? And these tools imply that there isn’t one.

When we’re in a vigilant state, a catastrophizing state, it can get us into more of that black-and-white, right or wrong, got-to-solve-it thinking. Instead of that, we’re rooting for the spaciousness that will allow us to move with more awareness so we can make the best choice that we can make in the moment, and then take a next action from that same place. We can be choiceful as opposed to attempting to be vigilant and right and just getting tighter and tighter.

Making relationships

Daniel Hunter: Another piece that is so helpful is what you’re saying, Katey, in terms of noticing the different roles out there in an anti-autocracy movement. Far more mainstream people than we’ve ever aligned with before are potential allies in the cause.

Liz Cheney is on the list of people who might get arrested by a Trump presidency. I’ve never imagined myself to be in a boat with Liz Cheney resisting together, but here we are, right? And she’ll resist in a different way than I will. And we have to get some alignment.

As a disobedience direct action person, I’m aware of having to wait and listen more carefully for whether more mainstream people are ready to go in and join, and to frame my actions in a way that invite more people into them. All of those are just noticing our role. That opens up space and what Katey’s talking about opens up our strategy.

Cayden Mak: We’re in deep alignment with you in thinking about this broad front against authoritarianism. It’s a complex ecosystem, and we also need to be prepared to figure out how we flank each other, and how we protect each other, and how we utilize those sorts of moments where people are drawn in who might not be the usual suspects, to then protect some of the usual suspects.

Some of us will be very vulnerable in a lot of these scenarios, organizationally as well as personally. A tool that helps us think through what participating in this kind of broad threat is also something that we need, because I think on the Left we lack we lack that practice as well.

It’s not just about the authoritarianism piece. I think there’s also a piece where we are just now getting into formation and trying to understand what united front practice might look like in the United States.

Daniel Hunter: That’s right. And so when Liz Cheney gets arrested, we may be in formation with her.

We also have a different expectation of allyship from others; when some of our more marginalized communities also get targeted, we’re going to need people in formation with that too. So it’s building those relationships.

And one reason we’re launching this, not in November, but ahead of time is because we do have tobe on the lookout and building these now. We’re trying to support that organizing, that instinct at local and regional and national levels to get in formation and get ready for what might be coming.

Cayden Mak: Is there anything else that either of you would like to share about the project, or do you have other reflections that you’d like people to think about?

Katey Lauer: I hope folks will check out the website now. These are great tools to use by yourself and with your groups this summer, especially before election season gets more underway than it is already. We think that some of the imagining and noticing work that can happen in the short term can really serve us in an ongoing way. This is the season to try some of this stuff on, and let it simmer too. And try it again in the fall.

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