At the Extremes: The 2020 Election and American Extremism | Part 1

September 24, 2020

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) Center on Extremism in conjunction with ADL’s Center for Technology and Society is releasing a series of news briefs on topics of concern regarding the role extremists and extremism more broadly are playing in our current political environment.

Here's Part 1:

From the Right, Accusations of a Planned Democratic Coup Emerge

Who/What: Some Trump supporters are accusing political opponents of planning a coup to overthrow the President.

Why it matters: Claims that undermine the legitimacy of elections can incite anger, distrust and even violence.

In an already tense and highly polarized presidential election season—in which partisans on the left and right each regularly accuse the other side of election-related misdeeds, and more people are willing to discuss the prospect of mass civil conflict— right-wing voices have added more fuel to the political fire with claims that Democrats are planning a “coup” to steal the election from President Trump. 

Coup accusations primarily center around an August 2020 report by the Transition Integrity Project (TIP), a group of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans, which laid out a number of problematic post-election scenarios, most involving postulated efforts by President Trump to “contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power.”  Right-wing ideologues have responded by claiming the TIP report is evidence of plans for a left-wing coup. John Daniel Davidson of The Federalist claimed the left is “threatening to tear the country apart if Trump wins” by taking to the streets while contesting the election:  “The same left-wing groups that have been fomenting riots and street violence will again mobilize, only this time they won’t be calling for the abolishment of the police but…an end to our constitutional system.”    

Julie Kelly, writing for the website American Greatness, claimed that a “post-election civil war of sorts” was being funded by “Trump-hating billionaires” such as George Soros. Michael Anton, on the American Mind website, described it as “Democrats and their ruling class masters openly talking about staging a coup.” Raheem Kassam, on the National Pulse site, claiming links between TIP, George Soros and the Chinese Communist Party, asserted that TIP is “accusing Trump of trying to steal an election that they themselves are trying to steal.” 

It appears such articles and videos are designed to incite passion and fuel anger among Trump supporters.

Further, an analysis of extremist activity on Facebook showed that the conversation around this topic that was taking place was inciting people to anger and violence. “The leftists…will stop at nothing, including civil insurrection,” claimed one Facebook user in response to one coup article. “The Dems are going to keep the riots going and try to pull a coup if Biden loses!” warned another user. The paranoid rhetoric has spurred talk of violence.  “That’s why we have gun rights,” claimed one person in response to a Breitbart “coup” article, “But damned few conservatives have balls enough to use them. We need far more Kyle Rittenhouse’s [sic].”  

One Facebook user called for the “immediate death” of those found guilty of treason: “The rivers will flow red with the blood of Americans.”  Another claimed that “I might be an old vet, 54, but I still have very good sniper skills.  Dems won’t last very long, and there are a million more like me.” 

Activists on the left have made their own accusations about ostensible coup plans by President Trump and his supporters, claims that increased after September 23, when Trump, in an interview, declined to commit to a peaceful transition of power after Election Day. However, an ADL analysis of tweets containing the word “coup” in the month of September show that a significant portion of the conversation around “coup” was related to the incendiary articles about TIP and a purported left-wing coup. (see chart below)

coup chart