How Likely Is a Violent Transition of Power This Election?

As the election cycle reaches its peak in turbulence, it's hard to cast our minds past Election Day, or tomorrow, for that matter, but a crucial question hangs in the air.  Will the transition of power — or preservation of power — be peaceful?  Even though both parties are prepared for legal battles over the results, the dispute may — and likely will — not remain strictly legal.  And even though the Constitution and federal law ensure that even if the election is contested in court, the country will have a president on Inauguration Day, how can we rest assured that there will be no "peaceful protests" involving riots and violence?

The political climate is as hot as Californian summer, and it feels as if one spark may start a fire in that poorly managed political forest.  Many envision President Donald Trump's supporters using misinformation to mobilize vigilante militias to clash with leftist protesters.  Notably, there is no doubt that the Democrats won't cede the streets in the case of Trump's victory.  Others are rightfully concerned that violent left-wing groups will refuse to accept the results and mobilize, leading to violence and deaths across the country.  During the first presidential debate, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden voiced their concerns about political violence coming from the other side.  The risk is high, indeed.

Divided we stand

American politics has gotten extremely polarized.  According to a substantial PRRI study, "Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections" on the nation's culture wars and partisanship, Americans have diametrically different values and perspectives on America itself.  And it's not just a matter of different opinions on policy.  People have largely picked a side, and they really don't like the other one.  "Several decades ago or a generation ago, partisanship was something people took to the ballot box," notes Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO.  "Today, it's something we bring home and take to bed.  It's very personal, and it's very visceral."

The other side is viewed as an existential threat — not without the help of many politicians and the media.  Nearly half the country (48%) thinks the Republican Party has been taken over by racists, a view held by 80% of Democrats.  Similarly, 44% of Americans agree the Democrat party has been taken over by socialists — and 82% of Republicans share that opinion, as per the study.

This trend dangerously collides with the public's increasing justification of political violence.  A recently published study shows an upswing in the past few months in the number of Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — who said they think violence will be justified if their side loses the upcoming presidential election.

Certainly, expressing approval of partisan violence does not mean someone is ready to pick up a gun.  The authors of the study warn, however, that even a shift of 1 percent in their surveys would represent the views of over a million Americans.  Furthermore, there are findings suggesting that violent events tend to increase public approval of political violence — potentially creating a vicious cycle even if violence is sparked in only a few spots.

High expectations

Just as in 2016, nearly all political pundits predict a victory for the Democrat candidate.  The vast majority of MSM downplay any polls showing Trump leading the race and overplay the ones for Biden.  This bias toward the Democrat shapes the perception of the Democrat party (Republicans are mostly skeptical about those polls), setting false expectations for the Election Day results.  The pure-evil-fascist-Trump simply cannot be allowed to reign another term.  A wide array of the leftist groups is already coordinating efforts to ensure substantial public protests after the election to "defend the vote counting."  "If Trump tries to stop the counting of mail-in ballots after Election Day, or otherwise tries to short-circuit the results, the scale of protests would be that of "the BLM protests on steroids," they warn.

Heavily armed

Defunded and demoralized police in large liberal hubs along with spiked violent crime and explicit threats to challenge Trump-favoring election results left people no choice but to rely on themselves.  God helps those who help themselves, so people of all political affiliations arm.  Firearm sales skyrocketed in recent months.  The estimated 15 million guns sold this year have already exceeded 2019's total and added 5 million new gun-owners.  Forty percent of those who purchased a gun were first-time buyers, with 40 percent of those new gun-owners being women.  Fifty-eight percent of firearm purchases were among black Americans — the largest increase of any demographic group.  People do need law and order, and gun ownership may be viewed as a mitigating factor in the upcoming protests.

At the same time, if people come to the protests armed, both protesters and counter-protesters, tensions may escalate rapidly.  The chance of provocateurs who — as we could clearly see in protests-ravaged cities — are willing to do anything to promote their agenda is high, especially when the left-wing politicians have been supporting and whitewashing the chaos and crime for months.  The president is right: it is Antifa and its ilk who are a real threat, while the right-wing groups are the equal and opposite social reaction, to use Newton's terms, to counter the leftist violence in times when the police are paralyzed and the protection is needed right here and right now.  The main difference between the leftist and rightist extremists is that the Proud Boys and their like will not go and burn neighborhoods in the case of Biden's victory.  But if Trump wins, Antifa will.

Preventing violence

As combustible as the situation is, there are some reassuring factors to consider.  First, strong political institutions are especially effective in reducing the risk of violence.  As one of the world's longest enduring democracies, the United States and its democratic institutions have proven their capacity to maintain order through crises.  Even if uncertainty and chaos were to ensue in the wake of the election, the authority to decide a winner is vested in institutions such as the U.S. Supreme Court or the House of Representatives.

Second, research finds that mass political violence usually happens in countries that have no capacity to prevent it.  In the U.S., if any political leader calls for vigilantes to mobilize, both the federal government and states have the capacity to expeditiously eliminate this threat.  Mobs may be armed, but they are no match for a well trained National Guard or Army regiment.  This should help deter the risk of violence by vigilantes.  As the summer protests showed, Democrat-run states were in denial of illegitimate and illegal use of force by the protesters, so it may all easily happen again.  But as Vladimir Lenin taught, revolutions happen in capitals, and it is lucky for the U.S. that Washington, D.C. is a federal territory where the president may deploy the National Guard in case of civil disturbance.

So, yes, the post-election protests are expected, with high chances of sporadic violence in liberal states in case of Trump's victory.  However, the U.S. constitutional order will stand, even though the mobs will try hard to shake it.

Follow Veronika Kyrylenko, Ph.D. on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you experience technical problems, please write to