Mere minutes after President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand by,” during the first presidential debate the group started posting merchandise and graphics online bearing the phrase. Based on their posts, the “western chauvinist” group that marched with the KKK at the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville riot in 2017 heard Trump’s call to action loud and clear: get ready to watch polling locations around the country.

Some viewers were shocked to hear Trump urge his supporters to “go into polls and watch very carefully,” implying members of groups like the Proud Boys should police and intimidate liberal voters at the polls. But experts on right-wing propaganda—and even citizens of authoritarian states—have seen this before, and say chaos and unrest during and after the election is more or less inevitable.

U.S. President Donald Trump flouts the Hatch Act and delivers his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House Aug. 27, 2020. Trump gave the speech in front of 1500 invited guests. Photo by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump flouts the Hatch Act and delivers his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House Aug. 27, 2020. Trump gave the speech in front of 1500 invited guests. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Where and when could violence happen?

According to experts, advocacy organization statements and election history, there are three main periods of time Tennesseeans could experience unrest and and even violence: during early voting and on Election Day, in the weeks between the election and Inauguration Day, and at protests.

Daniel Harper, right-wing extremism expert and co-host of the “I Don’t Speak German,” podcast, says that during early voting and on Election Day, “You can almost certainly expect poll watching.” Poll watching, simply put, is citizen effort to ensure voting security and fairness; it can be a good thing. But Trump’s version of poll watching is very different, and his encouragement of right-wing watchers means liberal and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voters may face intimidation tactics at the polls.

“They’re going to monitor mail-in drop-off locations for ‘nefarious people’ coming in, which always means people of color,” Harper says. “These pro-Trump groups that do on-the-ground activism, which is really just violence against Black people, will do anything to intimidate. Expect nasty stuff on Election Day.”

In September, a group of Trump supporters temporarily blocked the entrance to a voting location during early voting in Fairfax County, VA, making national headlines. County official Gary Scott told the Lookout “Some voters, and elections staff, did feel intimidated by the crowd and we did provide escorts past the group.”

Be prepared:

Johnny Vanderpool, Director of Vanderbilt University’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, offers tips to ensure you are ready for emergencies.

  • Charge all cell phones
  • Pack a ’72-hour’ kit, which should include shelf-stable food items, a couple of changes of clothes, medicine, vital paperwork and COVID-19 era essentials like masks, vinyl gloves and hand sanitizer.
  • Listen to local news. 

On Oct. 12th, the Washington Post published an FBI statement that the agency is preparing for the possibility of Election Day violence and voting disruptions. Another Post article covered illegal, unofficial ballot drop-off boxes installed by the California GOP they refuse to remove. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation responded to a request for comment about the FBI report saying, “We remain vigilant and prepared to assist our local, state, and federal partners… We do not focus on monitoring particular groups, but on identifying criminal acts that may be in the planning stages, regardless of who may be responsible.”

MNPD said in a statement that while they do not expect problems on Election Day, officers will respond to reports if they’re made. 

Play it safe during early voting and on Election Day

How can voters stay safe while voting early and on Election Day? Although confrontations like this could be sporadic and very localized, Harper advises voters to go in groups.

“[Trump’s statement] is giving them justification for all the voter suppression they want to do,” Harper said of groups like the 3 Percent, the Proud Boys and others.

Davidson County Election Administrator Jeff Roberts also reminded voters that the busiest days of the early voting period, Oct. 14th to Oct. 29th, are often the first and last days. By mid-day Wednesday the 14th, Roberts confirmed early voting records for 2016 had already been broken; videos of voters on the first day of early voting captured lines that wrapped around polling locations and hours-long wait times.

Roberts says the commission is preparing for a normal election but advised voters to report any suspicious activity or problems to poll officials, who are trained to contact local authorities. Roberts also says the commission established multiple safeguards to protect individuals from COVID-19 and reminded voters to remain at least six feet apart at the polls.

Election Day and beyond

While experts and advocacy organizations agree there’s a potential for violence during early voting and on Election Day, most are far more fearful of the aftermath. Tim Wise, a native Nashvillian, an authority on racism and author of “Dear White America,” says election safeguards, the process and security will likely quell chaos and conflict on the day, but the period after is less certain.

In recent weeks,  Trump has refused to say whether he will leave office if he loses the election, and has repeatedly painted mail-in ballots as fradudulent and rigged despite a lack of any evidence for his claims. Trump has said he’s “negotiating a third term.” A recent longform read in The Atlantic paints a frightening picture and confirms what the president said himself: a peaceful transfer of power in 2021 is unlikely. 

Wise says there are a few distinct possible outcomes. If Trump loses, far-right groups may say the election was rigged or stolen, taking their leader’s rhetoric to the streets. If he wins, they may be emboldened to act on his behalf. And in the most likely scenario, the outcome will be unclear for weeks as record numbers of mail-in ballots are counted and recorded.

“Any day after the election is a day somebody can do awful stuff,” Wise says. “There’s plenty of time to plan. It doesn’t have to happen right away.”

Wise says he is most concerned about “lone-wolf” violence, the kind of planning and hatred the government can’t prevent or detect because an individual isn’t part of a larger group or vocal about their plans. Wise says the majority of racism isn’t actually driven by hate groups but is largely a result of racial resentment the president is stoking. He says white anxiety about economic, geographic, political change could contribute to individuals committing random acts of violence or planning attacks following the election.

“I’ve never been as afraid of organized folks as individuals,” Wise, who like Harper receives regular death threats from militants and extremists, said. “They snap. It’s a lot harder to deter.”

If Trump loses, far-right groups may say the election was rigged or stolen, taking their leader’s rhetoric to the streets. If he wins, they may be emboldened to act on his behalf.

Similarly, Harper tracks and follows not the members of right-wing groups themselves, but “podcast types” who create and control propaganda. This propaganda—riddled with conspiracies like QAnon and anti-Semitic rhetoric—pushes people further right, dislocating them from reality and their own friends and families. It’s often the key to radicalizing them enough to take action. 

Radicalized individuals committing acts of violence will also be likely to crop up at protests, another place citizens could find themselves in danger. Wise says he’s concerned about protest conflict, saying, “We’re a culture against protest. We look at people who do that sideways.”

In June, Nashville saw unprecedented numbers at a peaceful Black Lives Matter march organized by a group of local teenagers. Days before, however, protests were more violent. Police pepper sprayed, tear-gassed and physically assaulted protestors, who retaliated and smashed police cars parked outside the precinct just off Broadway. The Davidson County Courthouse was set on fire, in part by a white male protestor with multiple previous convictions that included drug and child abuse. It is not clear if he was anything more than an outside instigator looking to raise the degree of protests and police retaliation. 

Nashville, Tenn. - A crowd outside Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse looks at fires inside the building. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville, Tenn. – A crowd outside Historic Metro Nashville Courthouse looks at fires inside the building. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Elsewhere in the country, protests have erupted in far bloodier riots. Conservative Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two protestors in Kenosha, WI. The GOP continues to applaud his efforts. The number of people ramming cars through groups of peaceful protestors is alarmingly high.

Wise says he expects to see more drivers attack protestors because of those individual, unplanned acts of violence in which a person’s hatred boils over. He encourages organizers to keep the dangers of conflict in mind when planning demonstrations. While he doesn’t think protests should stop blocking traffic completely, he says it’s important to remember that public sympathy isn’t always on the protestors’ sides.

The Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, echoes the same sentiments. In a statement, an organization rep said otherwise seemingly-normal people have committed terrible violent acts.

“In today’s highly inflamed and polarized environment, it is very easy for violence to emerge from a single spark, a single heated encounter,” the ADL said in a statement. 

These individual rage fits are far from hypothetical. As the ADL says, a sudden encounter can turn violent. Earlier this month, two members of Nashville-based rock band The Mavericks were beaten in a Franklin bar for speaking Spanish; racial violence, protest clashes and uprisings are already here.

Still, protestors should do their best to remain safe. Oregon resident Xan, who does not use his real name in order to protect his identity, has learned key safety tips and de-escalation techniques while online and at Portland protests. First and foremost, Xan recommends all protestors have an Individual First Aid Kit, or IFAK. An IFAK is essential in treating gunshot and trauma wounds on the spot, and can save lives by stopping bleeding or with the included chest seal to prevent air getting into stab- or gunshot-wounds. In a mass shooting or attack such as the one in Kenosha, an IFAK could be the difference between life and death. If a protestor has an IFAK they can also better help emergency responders treat themselves or others, according to Xan, who also says skimping on IFAKs from Amazon aren’t a good idea because they could contain off-brand or cheaply made parts.

Additionally, Xan has gotten attention for his work in de-escalating violent organizing online. His most-read post covered successful attempts to prevent an armed checkpoint, which armed right-wing conspiracy theorists set up to deter “antifa” arsonists they believed caused massive wildfires in the Northwest, despite reporting that those arrested were not politically motivated or the causes of the fires were unknown. With a simple Facebook account, Xan talked organizers out of setting an armed checkpoint near his home, which he was certain would result in violence against innocent civilians.

Xan, who plans to release additional posts about protest safety and de-escalation techniques, says online activism is just as important as on-the-street protesting, even if it’s not as glamorous or covered in the news.

“It’s not as glossy and attractive because it doesn’t contribute to some leftist resolution but it does help people prevent from radicalizing,” Xan says.

Emergency preparedness is key 

Both protest violence and extended unrest after Election Day could lead to families making difficult choices to stay safe. Even those who have never taken part in a protest could be affected by sporadic, local pockets of chaos. Johnny Vanderpool, Director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness at Vanderbilt University, says that while he does not necessarily expect Tennesseeans to be in danger there are some basic preparedness steps every family should take regardless of whether it’s an election year. In the event of evacuation, Vanderpool says it’s incredibly important to listen to guidance from local officials and authorities, which requires knowing where to get that information before an emergency arises. This could be making sure cell phones are charged, watching local news on the television or even driving down the street to talk to someone. 

Johnny Vanderpool, director of the Vanderbilt University Office of Emergency Preparedness. (Photo: Vanderbilt University)
Johnny Vanderpool, director of the Vanderbilt University Office of Emergency Preparedness. (Photo: Vanderbilt University)

However, in the event of dangerous protests Vanderpool says it’s far more likely families will want to shelter in place. Whether evacuating or not, Vanderpool says a 72-hour emergency kit is key. He says families often forget to include basic things like medication in their kits, and says that families on the Gulf Coast, for example, are more accustomed to prepping ahead of time.

For the first 72 hours you’re on your own,” Vanderpool says. “That’s a strong recommendation for all persons in this country. You should have supplies. After 72 hours incidents stabilize.”

Vanderpool says FEMA helped establish the 72-hour-rule years ago, as that’s how long it typically takes emergency or government agencies to set up and begin natural disaster or emergency response.

It couldn’t happen here…. Right?

While there are sure to be skeptics, the likelihood of violence and an unprecedented election is a growing concern for the ADL, Harper and Wise, and even citizens of other authoritarian states. In fact, there’s a podcast titled, “It Could Happen Here,” produced by journalist Robert Evans. He all but predicted the Rittenhouse event, down to the GOP’s positive reaction to the teenager killing two victims. Listening to the 10-episode show produced in 2019 feels eerily familiar because many of Evans’ warning signs of impending civil conflict and societal breakdown have already happened. Evans marked the sign posts and we’ve continued to drive past.

Citizens of countries like Turkey, though, are not surprised by the signs as much as Americans just waking up to them. Merve Yazicioglu, a Turkish citizen living in the Netherlands, says President Erdoğan bears a striking resemblance to Trump in many ways. The GOP often reminds her of religious politicians in her home country, which she left to attend college and find more opportunity, as well as to escape rampant femicide.

Yazicioglu says Erdoğan’s and Trump’s “speech style, the way they shout and try to command the room,” are much the same.

“They try to get into people’s heads,” Yazicioglu says. “They don’t even believe in what they are promoting. They’re using religion and traditional families, this perfect national life. That favors them because then they can get money and votes.”

She draws parallels between the United States’ immigration and border policies and Tukey’s animosity toward Kurdish citizens, the country’s largest ethnic minority. Yazicioglu also says the concept of poll watching is intimately familiar; her family and the news were a reminder during Turkey’s last election that Erdoğan supporters would cause conflict at polling sites and declare victory before votes were counted, “celebrating in the street.” These activities sound remarkably similar to some Trump suggests.

The problem, Yazicioglu says, is that religious and right-wing groups vote for the candidate that espouses their beliefs, but are burned in the end because businessmen and “jokesters” shouldn’t be in politics.

“In the end it’s going to affect everyone,” Yazicioglu says. “What affects one citizens affects the other.”

To sum up: the ADL expects right-wing violence. Two of the foremost experts on extremism and racism expect violence. Citizens of authoritarian states see the signs. Media around the country continues reporting on intimidation tactics and voter suppression. Voters are turning out in record numbers in person and via mail-in ballot. President Trump believes he should have at least three terms and has refused to leave the White House if he loses the election.

It may be hard to process or accept, but all signs point toward violence. Outright societal collapse and civil war? Maybe not, but pockets of temporarily dangerous conditions are highly likely, and given Tennessee’s Klan history and the long, long list of currently active hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center—according to the ADL, Patriot Front may be the most active hate group in Tennessee—it’s just as likely in our state as in any other.

“It’s gonna be real dangerous,” Harper says of Election Day and whatever comes after.

The best policy is for Tennesseans to prepare.

This story has been updated.