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OPINION

A ‘color revolution’? Democrats are not planning one

By ELI LAKE | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: September 25, 2020

Donald Trump is the first American president to threaten not to abide by the results of an election. That’s what he did on Wednesday, when he declined to say whether he would commit to the peaceful transition of power no matter the outcome at the ballot, and what he did in 2016, during a debate with Hillary Clinton.

Every American should be horrified by this kind of talk. For the president’s biggest fans, however, the real danger is that Democrats are planning to overturn a legitimate Trump victory.

The case was first made in a series of posts by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie. Trump’s opponents, he says, are planning to wage a “color revolution” to deprive the president of his imminent victory. He cites the work of the Transition Integrity Project, a group of journalists and academics that convened over the summer to simulate four outcomes of a contested election, with participants role-playing officials on both campaigns.

This group of Democrats and Never-Trumpers is not simply analyzing how various scenarios might play out, Beattie argues. It is trying to mobilize mass protests to challenge the results if Trump wins. For example, in the event that Trump secures a victory, the team representing Joe Biden encourages Western states to secede from the union and persuades the House of Representatives to count pro-Biden electors to certify that he was the winner.

The plan, Beattie says, is to emulate the people-power movements that successfully ousted tyrants such as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich. The same national security establishment that pushed this strategy abroad, Beattie says, is now applying it at home. In the last few weeks, the theory of a pending “color revolution” in America has been amplified by Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson and Mike Huckabee.

It’s fair to point out that some Democrats have seeded the ground for contesting a Trump victory. In August, for example, Hillary Clinton urged Biden not to accept results on election night if it was close because she feared Trump would attack the legitimacy of absentee ballots. It’s also fair to note that many American progressives have wrapped themselves in the rhetoric and symbolism of historic dissident movements.

At the same time, Beattie doesn’t understand the color revolutions he is warning about, movements that helped bring down autocrats in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere in the early aughts. He insults the people who sacrificed for those democratic transitions by asserting that the color revolutions were orchestrated in Washington as opposed to Kyiv or Tbilisi. And he is parroting a long-standing dictator talking point.

While it’s true that the U.S. has invested billions of dollars to support civil society abroad through funding independent media or workshops on human-rights law, actual U.S. funding for so-called color revolutions is scant. In 2000, for example, the U.S. State Department funded a training session in nonviolent conflict for the Serbian opposition group known as Otpor. But these workshops were not responsible for the actual revolution.

Srdja Popovic, a founder of Otpor, told me his movement already had 20,000 members by the time the training sessions began. “This was not pivotal in building the movement,” he said. Saying otherwise “assumes that the Serbian people were sheep,” he said, adding that the decisions of Otpor to take to the streets after Milosevic claimed a fraudulent victory in the 2000 elections were made entirely by Serbs.

What Otpor and other color revolutionaries have in common is that they put into practice the theories of the late political scientist Gene Sharp. In his three-volume “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” he argues that grass-roots movements must persuade the public to deprive the dictator of their consent needed to rule. The key to a movement’s success is to get the military, police and security forces to disobey orders to use force against the public.

Peter Ackerman, the founder of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that trains democratic movements worldwide, told me that it was a fallacy to say that support from foreign governments is the deciding factor in whether a dictator topples. “Anyone who wants to tell a dissident how exactly to organize his movement is putting people at risk,” he said. The specific tactics and strategies differ from country to country.

And while outside powers can sanction government officials, express solidarity and offer an opposition movement diplomatic recognition — as Trump did in Venezuela — there is little outside governments can do to persuade a local cop or loyal general to disobey their superiors. Ultimately, this calculation hinges on whether the henchmen believe they will survive a democratic transition.

And this brings things back to the theory that a color revolution is being planned in the U.S. That argument concedes more than its proponents realize to Trump’s opponents. Sharp’s thesis applies when citizens have no meaningful avenue for participation in the political process. That is not the case in America, whatever one wants to say about mail-in voting.

Indeed, Trump’s opposition has thrived during his presidency. Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Trump’s own Justice Department appointed a special counsel to investigate whether he colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. Newspapers and magazines that have warned of Trump’s authoritarianism have seen their subscriptions rise. Republican pundits who oppose the president broadcast their opinions on cable news stations 24/7.

In other words, Trump is not an American Milosevic, and the Democratic Party is not an American Otpor. It’s a slander to the republic to pretend otherwise.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.