First, they came for the mailboxes.

The once-fantastical notion of a political or military coup in the United States has long lingered in the American imagination. Older boomers might remember, for example, the book and movie Seven Days in May. It’s a riveting plotline because, in a nation with a 231-year tradition of peacefully transferring power, a coup was always something that Can’t Happen Here. Americans’ knowledge of how coups even work comes mostly from stories on NPR from faraway lands where soldiers seize a nation’s key chokepoints, as tanks roll onto the tarmac of the international airport and camouflaged men appear at the state TV station.

Now ... It’s Happening Here.

Donald Trump and his loyalists have seized control of a key American chokepoint: the U.S. Postal Service, a vital institution that’s existed in some form since before the Declaration of Independence and is shouted-out in the U.S. Constitution. It’s a brazenly opportunistic move, taking the good-natured — and only in hindsight, naive — intentions of state and local officials to make it easier to cast ballots in a pandemic by encouraging voting by mail, and diabolically turning the plan on its head. Just as past tyrants might have burned bridges or wheat fields, Trump and his designated henchman — his wealthy donor Louis DeJoy — are vandalizing the post office in plain sight with the election less than three months away, disappearing mailboxes and throwing expensive sorters into dumpsters.

“Mail is sitting for a week to 10 days before they’re even scanned to go out,” Nick Casselli, a postal workers’ union leader here in Philadelphia, told The Inquirer’s Ellie Rushing earlier this month. He has described local post offices with curtailed hours, workers barred from working overtime, and — most disturbingly — seven of those crucial sorters yanked out of a West Philadelphia facility. Some people in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods go days without a mail delivery.

Trump and DeJoy are arguably committing a felony in tampering with the U.S. mail for personal gain, in hoping to aid the president’s reelection. Like with any criminal racket, everyday citizens are getting caught in the crossfire. Sick people — especially veterans — are waiting on life-or-death medications, or disability checks are taking weeks to arrive. In a stressful year of coronavirus and double-digit unemployment, the mail problems are sending folks over the edge.

This is a nine-alarm fire for American democracy, and so I’m doing something here that I usually work hard to avoid — writing about the same topic twice in one week. Because it’s that damn important. The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan (buy her book) wrote this weekend, “if journalists don’t keep the pressure on Postal Service problems, they will be abdicating their duty” — and she’s right.

One reason to keep hammering on the issue is that the idea of politicians so brazenly hijacking USPS is such an alien notion to most Americans that people aren’t thinking clearly, proposing normal democracy solutions to a problem created by authoritarianism. It was only a few months ago that many folks — myself included — pleaded for the Trump administration to listen to Democrats in Congress and agree to a multibillion-dollar bailout of the financially troubled USPS. Now, that makes no sense. It seems that we could give DeJoy $1 trillion and he’d still be throwing letter sorters in the trash. Likewise, what’s up with folks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the perpetually “concerned” Sen. Susan Collins sending sternly worded letters to DeJoy, calmly making sure he’s aware of the premeditated crimes he’s committing in broad daylight?

Trump may be a narcissistic buffoon who’s wrong about nearly everything, but unfortunately, there is method to the madness of slowing down the mail. As of right now, even after a week of bold, negative headlines about what’s happening at USPS, a staggeringly high number of Americans plan to vote by mail in November — nearly half, according to some recent polls.

But like everything else in an America that’s now divided not just politically but culturally, mail voters are not created equally. Arguably, postal voting is becoming this fall’s version of masks. Like facial coverings, mail ballots have been embraced with a religious fervor by liberals who want to show good communal citizenship and that they take the coronavirus threat seriously. But conservatives have absorbed a bombardment of lies from Trump and his state media Fox News that vote-by-mail is prone to fraud by big-city Democrats.

The numbers are remarkable. A recent poll from the Economist/YouGov found that 59% of Joe Biden’s supporters currently plan to vote by mail, while the comparable number for Trump backers is only 18% (with 61% likely to vote the old-fashioned way: in person on Election Day, Nov. 3). This gives the president a couple of ways to thwart the will of the people, aided by USPS.

First of all, dramatically slowed-down mail creates a scenario where voters who request mail ballots receive them very late in the election season, and where incoming ballots might arrive too late, by law, for county officials to count them. During primary season, when the stakes were lower and the USPS problems not nearly as severe, tens of thousands of ballots from Pennsylvania to California were tossed out as too late. Imagine this happening in November when there are more ballots — the vast majority for Biden — and slower mail. That scenario would surely aid Trump in the key states he so narrowly won in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin.

The second possibility is more abstract but just as dangerous. Trump is trying to sow doubt in the minds of Americans about the integrity of the election so that he can discredit the result even if a final vote count sometime in November shows Biden as the apparent winner. Remember the poll: Trump has trained his voters to cast their ballots on Election Day — the results that will be tallied and released before most of the majority-for-Biden mail ballots are counted.

Even in a scenario where, say, 54% of the electorate backed Biden, Americans are likely to wake up on Nov. 4 with a partial result showing Trump ahead. If a wave of mail-in ballots then propels the Democrat into the lead, Trump and chorus on Fox News will declare it must be fraud — that urban Democratic machines somehow stuffed the mailboxes, or Russia or Iran, or that 400-pound guy in his bed intervened.

Rosemary King, right, holds a sign as a few dozen people gather in front of the U.S. Post Office on Rodd Street to protest recent changes to the USPS under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Aug. 11 in Midland, Mich.
Katy Kildee / AP
Rosemary King, right, holds a sign as a few dozen people gather in front of the U.S. Post Office on Rodd Street to protest recent changes to the USPS under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Aug. 11 in Midland, Mich.

What then? Welcome to Belarus. Thousands and possibly millions of Americans will flood the streets demanding that Trump concede the election. Those protesters will be met by the state security force that Trump, like any wannabe dictator, has forged, consisting of those Homeland Security goons we witnessed in Portland, Ore., and corrupt police unions that have shown their white supremacist colors by racing to endorse a neo-fascist president. It will be an American civil war, and even though I don’t see how Trump holds onto power (the military brass, after all, can’t stand him), the damage to our democracy will be profound.

(There’s also a third deeply troubling scenario circulating, which is that the Trump wants to curb mail voting — and the able-to-be-audited paper trail it creates — because he wants more electronic votes that can be hacked and manipulated. I won’t dive deep into those more complicated theories, but it’s important to consider.)

If throwing billions of dollars at the crooks Trump has installed at the top of USPS is a bad response to a coup that’s already in motion, waiting to be walloped in the head on Nov. 4 is even worse. The people of the United States need to respond right now, in ways that are both well-organized and massive on a scale we’ve not seen before. Here’s how:

  1. Congress, end your recess and investigate. With the pandemic still raging and economic benefits expiring, it was a very bad idea for both houses to pretend normalcy and take an August recess. This week’s revelations mean that a) House Democrats should race back to Washington with the urgency that a coup by the opposition party requires (as I wrote this on Sunday morning, there was promising news), b) abandon your illusions that the new problems at USPS are because of lack of funding, and c) hold immediate hearings, preferably in prime time. If DeJoy won’t appear, jail him for contempt. If evidence of criminality is revealed, impeach the postmaster general. The Constitution demands it.
  2. Leaders and activists, unite in an organized manner. The initial response to Trump’s coup has been scattershot and sometimes contradictory (many remain locked into May’s message that voting by Trump’s now-corrupted mail is safe). Form an emergency umbrella organization and give it a catchy name (how about the Committee of Concerned Citizens for the Post Office? — C3PO). Its goal? Educate the public on all of its voting options, and the best way to make sure ballots are counted in each jurisdiction. Create an infrastructure of mailings, texts, and hotlines to keep people informed and a “souls to the polls” operation for voters who need aid. Work with state and local governments to change laws and procedures to improve the vote counting.
  3. Citizens, hit the streets. On Saturday, a couple hundred folks rallied and chanted outside DeJoy’s D.C. apartment. Let’s keep building on that. If you wait until Nov. 4 to react to Trump’s plot against America, you’ll have waited far too long. Make a sign and stand in front of your post office today! People in Belarus are willing to be beaten for democracy, just as African Americans once were in Selma, Ala. How far will you go? And that’s not all. If more people feel it’s necessary to vote on Nov. 3, we need more good citizens to volunteer to work the polls. And if you don’t have a plan for how to ensure your vote counts, what are you waiting for?

Let’s be honest: As the so-called Greatest Generation fades away, most living Americans have never been tested as citizens — not in the way we’re likely to be tested over the next three-and-a-half months. Hoping for the best is no longer an option — not when Trump’s Seven Days in August scheme has already been initiated. Everyday citizens need to acknowledge this presidential coup, fight back, and keep remembering what the very first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, warned us — that America is only a republic if we can keep it.