Situation Normal, All Trucked Up
Notes on the "Freedom Convoy" movement metastasizing around the globe
The first thing that strikes me about the “Freedom Convoy” chats on Telegram is how big they are.
This isn’t my first sally into the far-right’s favorite messaging platform—far from it—and the chat groups usually number in the dozens of members, the biggest a modest few thousand. These channels, on the other hand, are comparatively enormous—“Truckers For Freedom” has ninety thousand members, mostly anonymous, consuming its public content; “Convoy to Ottawa 2022” thirty thousand, “Freedom Convoy Uncensored” thirty thousand; “Global Freedom Convoy” twenty thousand. Within each group are nested others, like matryoshka dolls: links to local groups in a dizzying array of provinces, states and countries, convoy planners gathering online to plan out protests worldwide.
It’s easy to shorthand these shambolic yet menacing gatherings as “anti-vaccine-mandate”—and they are, glancingly, the way the movie Robocop is about a robot cop, or Animal Farm is a study in zoology. The weeks-long occupation underway in Ottawa—its big rigs symbolizing the distilled essence of “white working class” mythology that cloaks these protests, nominally against vaccine mandates and coronavirus safety protocols, but in actuality accruing a vast baggage train of right-wing grievances and conspiracies—has become a memetic form, to be eagerly adopted and copied, as far as possible, all over the world. It’s worth noting that as vocal as they are, this is an extreme political minority: Canada’s population has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, at 80% fully vaccinated, and among truckers, the rate is even higher, at nearly 90%. As with any large-scale right-wing protest, the police have reacted with a profound lassitude that is tantamount to complicity, and it takes the most wide-eyed cop-boostering stance of centrist faux-ignorance to pretend that this is not solidarity but incompetence. Police have allowed certain menaces—from open fires to public urination to noise complaints to road blockades—to continue unabated, in the name of the protesters’ free speech. “In Ottawa Protests, a Pressing Question: Where Were the Police?” read a comical New York Times headline, manufacturing consent with a frenetic both-hands jerkoff motion.
The question of “why the police seemingly abandoned the country’s seat of power,” as the Times put it, is a question that answers itself: law enforcement apparatuses are a law unto themselves, fed strength by a neoliberal state that needs them to enforce its deadly inequalities. No one is watching the watchmen as they cheer from the sidelines, and that’s true on both sides of the border. Though the police have cleared a smaller bridge blockade that stopped trade between the U.S. and Canada for days in Windsor, Ontario, and seized a cache of guns on the border in Alberta, the Ottawa protests continue apace. Given the laxity that thus far has allowed the protest to grow in Ottawa, gain notoriety, proffer real menace (and so many racist and antisemitic hate crimes a hotline was set up to report them), and issue unhinged proclamations unfettered, imitator protests have already arisen in Canberra, Italy, London, Wellington, Paris, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
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Naturally, U.S. right-wing shit-stirrers are enthusiastically supporting the cause, from Marjorie Taylor Greene stridently supporting their fundraising to Tucker Carlson’s primetime salivating over the movement; a shambolic if militant planned “Convoy to D.C.” in the offing, with plans to drive across the entire country starting March 4, from California to the capital, although most local groups are still small and rudderless, and Facebook engagement with the cause is sparse. Anti-vaccine mandate protests seem especially ludicrous in the U.S., where the weakness of our governmental response has lead to one of the highest death rates in the world, but while Canada has fared somewhat better and issued somewhat more stringent restrictions (the immediate inspiration for this protest being the mid-January requirement for truckers to get vaccines on both sides of the U.S. border), it’s clear that this movement drifted long ago into a grab-bag of freeze-dried right-wing grievances. On Telegram, far-right extremists across the world gather, discuss logistics, issue a steady stream of propaganda, and altogether work themselves into a lather.
The second thing that strikes me about the chats is how very familiar they feel, despite their novel size.
As someone who’s hung out in anti-vaccine spaces, moseyed through QAnon chats, and generally kept an eye on the tenor of far-right chatter over the space of years, the chats feel remarkably canned; though rejuvenated by the new energy of those who want to participate in truck-based heroics, they are otherwise a pastiche of long-extant conspiracy theories, injected with novel urgency for a pandemic age. They’re all here, all the hoary old dog-whistles: the Rothschilds, the impeding One World Government and New World Order, the specter of Communist takeover, George Soros, the Illuminati, a cabal of pedophiles that rule the world, illicit cloning, 5G death rays, Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury about to be arrested for pharmaceutical trafficking, antisemitism explicit and implicit, et alius.
The unifying thread: the “truckers”—a nebulous group that is manifestly not limited to holders of commercial drivers’ licenses, but includes an array of far-right figures, livestreamers, opportunist grifters selling anti-electro magnetic field widgets, parasitical neo-Nazis seeking recruits, faux medical advisers with lines of supplements, and an eager, earnest audience soaking it all in.
They define themselves as “the people,” and themselves, in their whiteness, as the only authentic vox populi—never mind that the residents of Ottawa greatly outnumber the encampment, and seem to be generally annoyed by things like the blocking off of grocery stores, and attempted arson on an apartment building. In a sign of local opposition, a militantly but joyously perverse antifascist action snarled trucker-convoy communications over recent days, bombarding the unhappy ultranationalists with an explicit gay cowboy sex anthem and intercepting strategic communications. One glance at the chats suffices to reveal that these protests are—as always in the conspiratorial sphere of the far-right—orthogonal to reality as it is, and slavishly devoted to a darker, grimmer vision divorced from anything as banal as factuality.
In general, when evaluating any particular corner of social media, it’s always useful to search the word “Jews.” Among the repeated results for that query in the “truckers” chats, there was a theory that resurfaced—again and again—that demonstrates the warped thread of thought running through it: building on a previous conspiracy theory that Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, is the illegitimate son of Fidel Castro (Tucker Carlson said so on Fox News’ website!). If that weren’t far-fetched enough, the wild-eyed conspirators of “Global Freedom Convoy” and “Convoy to Ottawa 2022” would like you to know that Fidel Castro, Justin Trudeau’s fake dad, was also a Jew (he was not a Jew), because he was a Communist, and Communists are all Jews, and also a world-threatening menace.
Did that make your head hurt? Good. You’re starting to understand the mindset: it’s like being vaguely concussed, afflicted with schizotypal apophenia, and trembling with fear and hatred at all times. If they sold this mindset in distilled form it would be a bad acid trip in a jar, but it still abides, feeding on fear, on prejudice, on all the myriad failings and myriad losses and lonelinesses that make people want to grasp at anything that helps them make sense of a world in the grips of grossest entropy.
What these protests truly are is an assertion of authority: that those who define themselves as the “white working class” (despite the fact that, according to data released in a recent hack of Christian far-right fundraising site GiveSendGo, the largest donor to the Ottawa Freedom Convoy was Californian software billionaire Thomas Siebel), are the only legitimate voice of the people. They are asserting day by day that the police will not meaningfully oppose them, that any assertion of governmental authority is oppression to them specifically, that the world is governed by malicious Commie Jews and their proxies, that white genocide is happening invisibly all around us, like the 5G rays and electromagnetic fields coursing through our bodies. That anyone who opposes them is a slave of the Jews and the pedophile cabal or an evil Communist or both. They’re on the streets now, waving flags, honking their big rigs, feeling big, feeling strong, the heat of their passions sustaining them through the depths of winter, and coursing through the veins of the world, a rotten splurt of vitriol.
And meanwhile, in the real world, people keep dying and dying, dying of vaccine misinformation, dying of plague, dying of poverty, dying at gunpoint, fighting real and sapping and hideous forces, not phantoms of the mind. And every time groups like these ascend, human moths are drawn to that weirding light, which shines through their vulnerabilities to such propaganda. It’s no secret why this sort of propaganda gains purchase in these grim times, in this surge of collapse: the easiest threats to fight are ones that don’t exist, and the easiest to claim triumph over. But what the “truckers” fight for is not “freedom,” no matter how often they assert it: what they fight for is the desire to keep shadowboxing phantoms and cry victory, rather than to gaze into the dark red maw of a cruel, decaying world. It is hard to do the latter, achingly hard in the bones, as hard as it is necessary, a duty shirked by many more than those who take it up, and it is this plaintive and relentless and unwavering truth that even the sound of a ten thousand truck horns raised up at once cannot drown out.