How The Right Branded A Mock Election Exercise As A Dry Run For A Lefty Coup

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/09/03: Steve Bannon speaks with Trump supporters on Zoom at the Queens Village Republican Club meeting in Triple Crown Diner, Middle Village, Queens. (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/09/03: Steve Bannon speaks with Trump supporters on Zoom at the Queens Village Republican Club meeting in Triple Crown Diner, Middle Village, Queens. (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/L... NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/09/03: Steve Bannon speaks with Trump supporters on Zoom at the Queens Village Republican Club meeting in Triple Crown Diner, Middle Village, Queens. (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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September 25, 2020 5:59 p.m.

On the Sept. 3 episode of his show, The National Pulse, right-wing broadcaster Raheem Kassam acknowledged that he might be irritating his audience with his repeated references to a series of tabletop election simulations that happened in June.

“Transition Integrity Project: I know people are going to get bored of me saying that term between now and the election,” he said. “But this is everything right here, and it’s everything because they’ve given their playbook away.” 

Kassam was right about one thing: Conservative news consumers have been absolutely bombarded with content about the Transition Integrity Project, or TIP. 

In reality, TIP was basically Dungeons and Dragons for stressed out Beltway types: A series of election “war games” in which several bigshot politicos and media figures — including former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and former RNC chair Michael Steele — volunteered to game out what could happen in the event of various contested election scenarios. Instead of wizards and rogues, they played major presidential candidates, legislators, the media, the public and so on.

Why? Among other things, they were worried that the President would refuse to concede a failed campaign and instead cast any loss as fraudulent and invalid — as he has, in fact, since done repeatedly

But Kassam, an early adopter of the conspiracy theory that TIP represented a coup attempt, had begun telling his readers and viewers in early August that TIP was yet another “globalist front” full of A-list bogeymen. And rank-and-file right-wingers have responded to the conspiracy hype, threatening participants in the project and preparing their own responses to an imaginary Democratic coup attempt. 

In the extended universe of the emerging conspiracy theory, George Soros was represented because TIP co-founder Rosa Brooks, a law professor and former Pentagon official, used to serve as a board member at Soros’ Open Society Foundations. TIP’s other co-founder, Nils Gilman, is a vice president at the Berggruen Institute, and the organization’s focus on China makes it a target for the fever swamp. There were plenty of Bush and Obama administration staffers involved in the project as well, rounding out the group’s Deep State credentials. 

As Alex Jones’ site InfoWars — another early adopter of the conspiracy theory — asserted on Aug. 3, TIP was an effort “to formulate how to overthrow Donald Trump if he’s reelected.” Now, Trump’s recently indicted former campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, has picked up the thread as well, going so far as to launch a speaking tour promoting Democrats’ plan to steal the election. 

Their Own Tabletop Simulation

It’s an odd feeling, as several TIP participants described to TPM, to become part of the story. 

After all, the President has spent months calling mail-in ballots fraudulent and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in the event he loses his bid for reelection. In a recent video meant to recruit an “army” of poll watchers, Donald Trump Jr. lied about the pervasiveness of voter fraud and then told viewers, “We need you to help us watch them.” Now, Trump’s allies have turned their ire on participants in a project, which was aimed at highlighting these sorts of threats to the November election.

“The attack on the game is part of the attempt to delegitimize the election itself,” said Bill Kristol, the conservative writer and editor who played Trump in the TIP simulations. “If you’re going to try to corrupt the election, you need your allies to attack everyone who warns about corrupting the election.” 

“It’s pretty meta, isn’t it?” observed Trey Grayson, a Republican who participated in the project, and Kentucky’s former secretary of state.

Doubly so: In one of the TIP simulations, spelled out in the group’s 22-page white paper, Trump goaded Biden into ever more provocative actions in order to create “a broader narrative of the Democrats attempting to orchestrate an illegal coup.” 

“I think it was to be expected, and I fault myself for not expecting it earlier, that someone like [Steve] Bannon would re-enter the fray and become Trump’s frontman on developing any kind of story that he could around the opposition, particularly that’s funded, for example, by George Soros or any of the usual bugbears,” said Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, who was also involved in the project. “I don’t put anything past Bannon.” 

‘The First Rule Of The Coming Coup’

The purported coup plot, as described by right-wing media, was a curious one. First of all, it had broken what pro-Trump commentator Dan Bonigo called “the first rule of the coming coup”: “Don’t talk about the coming coup!” 

Participants in TIP have spoken freely to dozens of reporters about it. Some participants were journalists themselves, and provided early accounts of the proceedings in The Atlantic, the Financial Times and elsewhere. As early as July, accounts of the play-by-play appeared in the New York Times and Boston Globe. Eventually, Brooks wrote about the experience in the Washington Post. 

While some results of TIP’s experiment were legitimately alarming — in one scenario, for example, “Trump” invoked the Insurrection Act — others were outlandish. 

Does anyone really believe, for instance, that Joe Biden, having lost the Electoral College this November, will encourage western states to secede and form a new political entity, “Cascadia,” unless Republicans agree to grant statehood to Puerto Rico and D.C, divide California up five ways, abolish the Electoral College and institute a retirement age of 70 at the Supreme Court?

But right-wingers seized on such scenarios. The fringe attention started revving up in earnest after it caught the attention of Michael Anton, a nuke-obsessed former Trump National Security Council staffer who won fame in 2016 with an initially-anonymous essay comparing Democrats to 9/11 hijackers. 

After appearing on Kassam’s show on Sept. 4, Anton published his own take on the TIP simulations. Citing Machiavelli, Anton said TIP participants were talking about their coup attempt in a clever bit of reverse psychology. 

“So why are the Democrats — publicly — talking about the conspiracy? Because they know that, for it to succeed, it must not look like a conspiracy,” he wrote. “They need to plant the idea in the public mind, now, that their unlawful and illegitimate removal of President Trump from office will somehow be his fault.”

‘The Plot To Steal 2020’

Word has spread: Bannon, who hosts his own internet show with Kassam, has picked up the “coup” plot with gusto this month. 

While he initially teased his cohost about the number of bogeymen he’d squeezed into one story — “You’ve got multiple tinfoil hats on,” he said — less than a week later, Bannon said in an interview that the situation “couldn’t be any more serious.” 

“They intend to really have a coup and keep President Trump from taking the oath of office for a second term,” he warned. 

Last Thursday, Bannon appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show and said Democrats would try to “steal the election.” After Nov. 3, he added, “is when the real war starts.” 

This week, he launched a speaking tour he’s calling “The Plot To Steal 2020,” and highlighted the TIP simulations in an interview with the fringe TV network One America News. 

Some have taken things even further. An article shared on the website of the Oath Keepers, the armed group whose leader recently declared the beginning of a civil war, asserted: “The Left apparently has no intentions of allowing a peaceful solution and is determined to destroy our Republic at all costs.” 

And a few participants in the exercise told TPM they’d received threats after news emerged of their involvement. 

“That was actually my hint that it had gone viral on the extremist websites, was that I suddenly started receiving a lot of nasty emails from anonymous strangers,” one participant, who asked to remain nameless, recalled.

“They’re profane, they’re obscene, they call me every name in the book,” Wilkerson said. “On occasion, they say ‘my husband’s a Marine sniper’ or something like that.” 

“I usually just say, ‘Thank you for your interest in national security.’” 

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