The way to defeat authoritarian power grabs is mass mobilisation

Anti coup protest in Bolivia.

The protests and occupation of the United States Capitol on January 6 are a small taste of the kind of brazenly undemocratic power grabs the authoritarian right has executed in countries like Bolivia.

Regardless of what actions Donald Trump and his supporters take to cling to power, the response of the Left, labour, and the millions of anti-fascists across the US and world should be the same: mass, ongoing mobilisations opposing them.

The first night following the US election, the major right-wing candidate declared a premature victory over his opponent, while the votes were still being counted across the crucial electoral battlegrounds. The proclamations of victory were followed almost immediately with anxious, paranoia-laced warnings of an incoming “fraud”, disappearing ballots, and accusations of attempts by the opposing side to “steal the election”. Calls for the country’s legal institutions to intervene soon followed. Eventually, this process culminated in a violent riot in the nation’s capital and attempts to seize public institutions with the support, or active passivity, of the police force.

While millions across the world have just witnessed this in the US, I experienced a case of a déjà vu, as I remembered the dark pattern of similar right-wing revolts against legitimate left victories across Latin America.

No two countries or electoral processes can be compared with complete certainty. But the pattern developed by the right-wing and the far-right political forces across Latin America when dealing with imminent electoral defeat appears to have reached US shores. The strategy has long been a crucial part of the Venezuelan right-wing opposition’s arsenal, featuring prominently in each major election and electoral process since the 2013 presidential contest.

Its first major proponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, was so convinced that Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory with just 50.6% of the vote was a product of massive fraud that in the days following the announcement of the results, he called upon his supporters to “vent their rage on the streets”.

The opposition’s resulting riots and violent protests led to eleven deaths (most of them Chavistas), and set the stage for the opposition’s long-term game of attempting to topple Maduro’s government through various direct and indirect means, never again recognising the Venezuelan government’s legitimacy. Juan Guaidó also proclaimed himself as the country’s “interim” president with absolutely no legitimacy or legality.

The tactic of crying fraud was copied and later deployed by the main right-wing opposition candidate, Guillermo Lasso, during the second round of Ecuador’s presidential election, similarly claiming that Ecuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE) skewed the final result toward the then-candidate of the Alianza Pais (Country Alliance) party, Lenin Moreno.

The most recent and prominent example, however, is that of Bolivia’s October 2019 election. Much like Trump, various Bolivian political figures, particularly the main right-wing candidate Carlos Mesa and key coup leader Luis Fernando Camacho, raised the spectre of fraud during the months leading up to the election, adding further pressure on the presence of “independent” electoral observers such as the Organization of the American States (OAS). Similarly, the months after the US election have been marked by Trump’s claims that voter fraud is well-nigh inevitable. Once the first official results became known, the pattern of reaction from Trump and his Bolivian counterparts was nearly identical.

Taking advantage of the slow process of vote counting, in the US due to COVID-19 and in Bolivia due to rural votes arriving late, both Trump and the Bolivian pro-coup leaders Mesa and Camacho, took centre stage to proclaim their respective “victories” and warn both their supporters and the international media that there would be an attempt to “steal” the election.

These proclamations, together with ongoing speculation of the likelihood of fraud spread across social media by various groups backing them, sparked the powder keg of protests in both countries. While in Bolivia the target of the protesters was the government of Evo Morales and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the pro-Trump crowds began gathering in key battleground states of Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia in order to stop the process of counting votes.

Armed militias have also begun to make their appearance at those protests in a parallel to the emergence of the Resistencia Juvenil Cochala (RJC) and the intervention of the Falangist youth group Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (UCJ) in Bolivia. Meanwhile, various religious sects and groups have begun giving out warnings of the “Satanic” plot to steal the election from Trump — similar to the mass gatherings of evangelical Christians in the city of Santa Cruz led by far-right leader Camacho on the eve of the coup.

As this pattern of constantly crying “fraud” continued, we witnessed the pro-Trump protests morph into a violent insurrection attempt in the Capitol building, breaking through the barricades with the assistance of militias and armed groups, all while the police and the armed forces stood by and stood down. The police have a well-documented history of impunity and indirect encouragement of violence perpetrated by white supremacist and far-right groups across the US, so they would be unlikely to deter the Right’s further mobilisation.

Some key differences should be noted between these two cases, of course. Trump, unlike the Bolivian opposition leaders Mesa and Camacho, has earned the loathing of a major part of the US economic elite, while at the same time has divided support from the country’s major private media companies. And unlike in Mesa’s case, Trump does not have a major international organisation like the OAS to verify or reject his claims of fraud. And despite the ongoing obsession of the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media with the absurd “Russiagate” scandal, the US does not face the prospect of a serious foreign intervention, the likes of which its own government has imposed upon the countries of the Global South.

The reaction of the upper echelons of the army and the police to Joe Biden’s victory and Trump’s attempts to sow chaos from now until Biden’s inauguration is also yet to be seen. No signs show any danger that the military would back some kind of Trump putsch — quite the contrary. Much discussion has taken place about the military “escorting” Trump from the White House if he keeps his promise of refusing to “exit peacefully”. Such a response would be unprecedented in the last two centuries of US politics and would risk armed conflict between Trump’s supporters, the military establishment, and the anti-fascist street movement.

The response of the Left, the labour movement, and the millions of anti-fascists across the US and the world should be the same regardless of what actions Trump and his supporters take to cling onto power: mass, ongoing mobilisations. If there is one lesson from the coup in Bolivia that the left around the world must learn, it’s that inaction in the face of an authoritarian grab for power paves the way for a regime more repressive, violent, and fanatical than anything they could have possibly imagined.

[This article first appeared in Jacobin. Reposted with permission of the author.]

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