Will a Contested Election Lead to a Color Revolution?
With chaos in the streets, concern over the integrity of the election, arguments over how to conduct a peaceful transfer of power, some may believe that the media is breathlessly reporting about an election in Eastern Europe. Contested results, protests abounding, the candidate in power refusing to relinquish control; this all sounds too familiar. The pattern has played out recently in just the past twenty years as “color revolutions” occurring in Georgia, Egypt, Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine have led to national leaders being forced to resign or flee their country. While the American public may not grasp the full meaning of “color revolution”, they would generally understand it to mean a display of national unity, large peaceful protests, followed by the removal of a powerful leader. However, the harsh reality is that color revolutions signify a much deeper meaning.
To understand the current application of the term, it is important to examine the historical context and defining characteristics. There is no established expert on color revolution, but Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2011-2013 provides a clear picture. In an article titled, “Transitions From Postcommunism” written in 2005, McFaul describes seven important factors for a successful color revolution. He writes that first a semi-autocratic regime is necessary, which could be interpreted as a traditionally democratic state with a leader that has consolidated power and taken aggressive actions to silence his opponents. Secondly, an unpopular incumbent was a necessity. This could be measured by unfavorable polls, negative media coverage, loud opposition from key national figures, and general protests.
Thirdly, McFaul states that a “united and organized opposition” is essential. The opposition can consist of well-funded and organized groups that engage in protests, members of the opposition political party coordinating together, and news outlets willing to spread their message. Pausing for a moment, let’s note some similarities. The three factors bear a striking resemblance to the current situation. Many media figures, government officials, and DC establishment favorites have branded President Trump’s behavior as “narcissistic”, “authoritarian”, “dangerous”, and a “threat to the democracy”. Trump’s recent comments on mail-in voting and his many claims that voter fraud is rampant have led media commentators and political establishment figures to call him a “dictator” or somewhat close to being an authoritarian leader.
Regarding the second factor, President Trump has been widely portrayed as an unpopular incumbent. The metrics on determination can be ambiguous, but general election polling is important. Since March, Trump has spent most of the election cycle behind former Vice President Biden in the polls. The battleground states have equally been dismal, with Biden leading in Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. General approval ratings for Trump have hovered around 41-45% for a majority of his term, while facing a steady opposition from members of his own party, the military community, bureaucratic officials, and the mainstream media outlets.
Once again, the third factor, on facing a “united and organized opposition” is almost blatantly clear. Organizations and prominent individuals within the Democratic Party have close ties to the Black Lives Matter organization, Antifa, media corporations, and big tech oligarchs. The Democratic Party has multiple tools at their disposal to attack the Trump administration, with the recent Democratic Convention and the Biden campaign focused on a decidedly anti-Trump message.
McFaul’s next four factors are not presently in the picture. Fourth, he states that the opposition must possess the ability to spread information that the election results are falsified. Media outlets on election night would need to question the legitimacy of the results if the incumbent appeared to be winning in either a large manner or even a small lead. As McFaul has argued repeatedly, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was successful due to protests over the clearly fraudulent presidential election results. Fifth, independent media sources are necessary to tell the public that the results are fraudulent. As an extension of the fourth point, control of information is essential to drive the narrative, which would explain the heavy emphasis on media influence.
The sixth factor emphasizes the importance of an opposition movement quickly mobilizing to protest the election results. Creating chaos and division while the votes are still being counted will cast a cloud of illegitimacy over the winner. The playbook of coordinated opposition was a successful tool in all of the color revolutions, often leading to an aggressive response from the government in power. It happened during the Euromaidan protests in early 2014, as the world watched the brutal response from the Berkut, the Ukrainian government special police. Just look at the response from the Western media, it was entirely sympathetic with the protestors in Kyiv. This is not an insinuation that the government response was not violent and oppressive; the horrific deaths of dozens marching in the Maidan are evidence enough of the oppressive Yanukovych regime.
The larger issue at hand are the motivations of those coordinating the opposition. Revolutions can be organic, just examine the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Jasmine Revolution in China during this past decade. In Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests were initially viewed as an opportunity for a democratic movement to overthrow a semi-autocratic government. However, the playbook that McFaul describes can easily be harnessed for the benefit of outside actors. Darren Beattie, a former speechwriter for the Trump administration, described the movement as a vehicle for the Obama administration to design the government in a way that matched their interests. As he describes, under the guidance of Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, the State Department worked with local NGOs to support the Euromaidan protestors. The goal was to create enough political pressure to secure the overthrow of President Yanukovych, allowing Nuland to work with Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt and other State Department officials to usher in their preferred successor.
“What is relevant is that the State Department’s preferred candidate did not win, and the State Department, with the help of its constellation of friendly NGOs, helped to facilitate the overthrow of Yanukovych” -Darren Beattie, Revolver News
McFaul’s seventh factor encompasses one of the most damaging to a democratic institution. He describes it as “divisions among the regime’s coercive forces” or more precisely called the split between the state’s police, security, and military forces. During the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the leaders of the security forces abandoned their positions, denouncing President Shevardnadze and joining the opposition. In a surprising sense, the playbook is eerily similar to the subtle nuances of the Trump administration-military relationship.
The military has always strove to steer clear of any conversation regarding the integrity of a presidential election. After all, one of the safeguards for our democracy is the strictly apolitical nature of the armed forces. However, Michael Anton, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, viewed Trump’s mention of invoking the Insurrection Act over the summer as a warning sign. When the president mentioned the act as a way to restore order to the streets with the use of military force, current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper publicly disagreed with him, stating that the military would simply not comply with such an order. While the idea of active duty military members patrolling the streets of U.S. cities is controversial, it is important to pause on the gravity of Esper’s statement. The Secretary of Defense is warning Trump that there are lines that he should not cross as Commander-in-Chief, orders that will not be obeyed.
Esper is far from the first military official to disagree with Trump. Many of have successfully derided the president from within his own cabinet, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly come to mind. Both former military officials with weighty influence on the armed forces, Mattis and Kelly thought that their opinions should be more valued than the agenda that the president campaigned on in 2016. When it came to withdrawing troops from Syria and Iraq, they saw their role as protecting the president from making a decision that would interfere with their opinions of geopolitical strategy.
Terrifying as the prospect of a color revolution might be, McFaul’s factors serve as a reminder that no political system can be kept completely guarded from the influence of outside actors, both foreign and domestic. For better or worse, the U.S. State Department, the CIA, and other government agencies have employed color revolution tactics in unstable states around the world. It would be wise to understand the playbook that has been used by our government if in the unfortunate circumstance all safeguards of democracy fail.