In late November 2000, hundreds of mostly middle-aged male protesters, dressed in off-the-peg suits and cautious ties, descended on the Miami-Dade polling headquarters in Florida. Shouting, jostling, and punching, they demanded that a recount of ballots for the presidential election be stopped.
The protesters, many of whom were paid Republican operatives, succeeded. A recount of ballots in Florida was abandoned. What became known as the Brooks Brothers riot went down in infamy, and George W Bush became president after a supreme court decision.
In 2020, fears are growing that the US could see an unwanted sequel to the Brooks Brothers debacle – but with more violent participants.
After a year in which armed Donald Trump supporters have besieged state houses across the country and shot and killed Black Lives Matter protesters – and in which Trump has said he will only lose if the election is rigged – a 2020 reboot of the Brooks Brothers stunt could be dangerous.
“Everything is far more amplified or exaggerated than it was 20 years ago,” said Joe Lowndes, professor of political science at the University of Oregon and co-author of Producers, Parasites, Patriots, a book about the changing role of race in rightwing politics.
“In terms of party polarizations, in terms of the Republican shift to the far right and in terms of the Republican party’s open relationship with and courting of far-right groups. This puts us on entirely different grounds.”
Trump supporters have been fed a “steady diet” of misinformation that the election is likely to be stolen by Democrats, Lowndes said. Trump has encouraged supporters to go to voting places to act as “poll watchers”, and on Sunday a group of Trump supporters intimidated early voters at a polling location in Fairfax, Virginia.
“You’ve got thousands of armed vigilantes on the streets this summer, first around these reopen demands [protests clamoring for coronavirus lockdown restrictions to be lifted] at state capitols.”
“Then after that many more of these vigilante far right groups, who are declaring themselves as pro-Trump groups, come out to confront and sometimes menace Black Lives Matter protesters and in a couple of cases kill them,” Lowndes said.
“You can imagine them showing up at election sites or where votes are being counted in election districts in contested states in Michigan, or Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida or wherever else.”
The “Brooks Brothers” moniker for the 2000 agitators came from the sober clothing chain that has clad US presidents. The mostly white, mostly male protesters punched and kicked those in their way, including some Democrats, as they fought to stop the recount in Miami-Dade.
“These were brownshirt tactics,” the Miami-Dade Democratic chairman, Joe Geller, told Time magazine in the days following the riot.
The Miami-Dade county canvassing board shut down its hand recount of presidential election ballots, with at least one of the board’s three members attributing his decision to stop to the Brooks Brothers riots, the New York Times reported.
The Republicans, many of whom had been flown to Florida from Washington, had succeeded. A number of participants were rewarded with jobs at the top levels of Republican politics. Matt Schlapp went on to serve as White House political director under Bush. Garry Malphrus became associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Rory Cooper picked up numerous roles within the Bush administration. Some are still active within GOP politics.
The kinds of Trump supporters who have traveled to protests and statehouses, and might respond to the president’s calls to monitor polling stations, may not enjoy future careers in politics – although there may be some similarities.
“The 2020 version of the Brooks Brothers could potentially be white men, ages between 18 and 40, who are staunch Trump supporters,” said Emmitt Riley, a political scientist and director of the Africana Studies Program at DePauw university.
Riley added: “I think these are the individuals who are warm toward Confederate imagery, toward images like the Confederate flag. These are individuals who are highly racially resentful and individuals who also see whiteness as being under attack.”
The winner of November’s election may not be clear on the night of the vote, given what is expected to be a vast number of postal ballots, adding to what Riley said could be a “perfect storm”.
The 2013 repeal of part of the Voting Rights Act – a historic law designed to eliminate racial discrimination in elections – combined with a president “who continues to undermine the principles of American democracy”, all adds up to a dangerous scenario for the election and the days thereafter, Riley said.
“As a political scientist, I am sounding the alarm that America’s political institutions are at their weakest point that I have ever seen or read about in my life,” he said.
“In the backdrop of not having the protections of the Voting Rights Act, it is highly conceivable that armed militias show up at polling stations in an effort to eliminate voting.”
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, an elections watchdog group, said she believes disruption of the voting process is unlikely, but she shared the concerns of others that the counting process could be at risk.
“There are strong laws on voter intimidation,” said Albert. “Counting comes into regular laws around disturbing the police or being in a group; there’s nothing specific on that issue. That’s not to say laws don’t cover it, they do – various laws cover being a nuisance but how that’s interpreted in the situation is going to vary by location.”
Albert stressed that she did not believe it was probable there would be altercations at vote-counting sites, but she said: “I’m fearful of violence in a way that I was not in 2000.”
“We have seen that the rhetoric on the right, both from the president and Republican lawmakers, has encouraged people to take up arms. And whether directly or indirectly, encouraged violence. And that was not happening from George Bush.”