“Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.” – C.W. McCall
Ah, the “People’s Convoy,” or, as it was originally called, “Freedom Convoy USA 2022,” the American right-wing stunt inspired by the mob of Canadian truckers and far-right yahoos that turned Ottawa into a giant parking lot and clogged cross-border transit and trade. The American version was to be tens of thousands of truckers convoying to Washington D.C. to disrupt President Biden’s State of the Union address – or so the tale goes.
Needless to say, the threat of American far-right truckers taking over D.C. did not go over well with those who experienced January 6! The convoy organizers’ bluff was called by the Feds’ announcement that visitors would be welcome in D.C. but only if they didn’t try to shut the city down with their trucks.
The Feds’ announcement caused convoy organizers to change their D.C. permit request from 3,000 people to 500 (3,000 seems like a small number for a “major protest”). As it turned out, that 500 people were interested in protesting the State of the Union was a fantasy. Rally attendance was twelve people. Yes, twelve.
Part of the problem was that convoy leaders were having a very hard of a time getting truckers to participate, so they moved the convoy departure date to after the State of the Union. The new, improved convoy was to leave from several meeting points across the country, including Barstow, California, which was heavily covered by the media, with a stark difference in coverage from print and TV sources.
The TV news coverage was a lot of close focus, tightly framed shots with no mention of numbers. Print reporters pulled back and counted people. The Guardian pegged the Barstow crowd at “around a hundred cars and several dozen semi-trucks,” a number that disappointed organizers, who blamed Joe Biden and the invasion of Ukraine for their embarrassing turn out (“I’m not the only one that feels this way, but I feel like it’s a big fat smokescreen to keep everyone distracted on what is really going on in the world”).
That 150 or so vehicle convoy was about as good as it would get for the California contingent. According to the New York Times, by the time California’s Freedom Convoy USA 2022 hit Las Vegas (a 156-mile drive), there were “only five trucks within its ranks.” California covoy organizers promptly bailed on their invasion.
But others did make it to D.C. (March 5) from other parts of the country. “Freedom Convoy” a soiled moniker, they rebranded themselves the “People’s Convoy.” The tens of thousands that organizers threatened Biden with, turned out to be about 1,000 vehicles – one-third of semi-trucks, the rest cars, pickup trucks, and RVs.
As stupid as this thing is, I find the group dynamics and reasons for the convoy’s failure fascinating.
Not only did the People’s Convoy ditch their original name, they also changed their plans. Instead of swarming D.C. and living out of their vehicles like their Canadian brethren did, these American patriots parked their cars (and handful of trucks) at a Maryland race track, miles away from D.C. Maryland, they announced, would be home-base for their assault on the D.C. Beltway.
Have you ever driven the D.C. Beltway? It is one of the most frustrating stretches of road in the nation. Driving it is worse than trying to get out of the San Francisco Bay Area at rush hour. It rivals the worst Los Angeles commute. If slogs were proclaimed a toxic waste site, the Beltway would be at the top of the Superfund list, rush hour or not. To threaten to add 1,000 vehicles to the mix, one-third being big trucks is such an empty threat that locals were more amused with the naivety of these hayseeds than annoyed. Sure, attack the Beltway, you dopes.
And so, on Sunday the convoy went on a “freedom ride.” Some, not all, of the convoy’s cars, pickups, RVs, and semis hit the Beltway only to get swallowed up in Sunday’s (relatively mild) traffic. After one lap around DC, it was difficult to tell what was convoy and what was regular traffic. A few hours and gallons of gas later, the convoy retreated to Maryland and no one noticed that they were gone.
According to the Washington Post, the convoy’s 37-year-old leader – an Ohioan who has already gotten too much publicity so he shall remain nameless – was a bit let down by Sunday’s event. Monday, he said, would be different. On Monday, everyone in the convoy would turn on their emergency blinkers, that way people would know the convoy from the commuters. The Ohioan was also bummed that Sunday’s failure had led to grumbling within the ranks.
The Ohioan acknowledged that, among their ranks, there’s a “passionate faction” that want to abandon the Beltway for the streets of DC. His reply is, “A lot of people want me to say certain things and put this convoy into a certain direction. I’m not going to listen to all of them. I’m going to listen to the people.”
So, the Ohioan is going to “listen to the people” while not listening to “a lot of the people”! Oh, how Trumpian!
Also Trumpian: Infighting among the “a lot of the people” whom the Ohioan refuses to listen. No doubt, these people are saying, “Who made this guy leader? Who is he to tell us what to do? What does he know? He’s not on our side! He’s a RINO! Lock him up!” But it gets worse…for the convoy.
The Ohioan: “There were concerns about people trying to come in here who didn’t belong … If your intention is to come down here and cause harm, violence and disruption, and plain and simply cause division, then I’m sorry to say but you don’t belong here.”
Again, no surprise. When these dipsticks were rolling across the country, it was pretty easy to maintain the peace. Everyone had one goal, to make it to DC or thereabouts. The practicalities – food, fuel, rest – were not only easy, but, because everyone was traveling in their own island, individuals could figure out how to fulfill their needs independent of the group, if they wanted to. As long as they were rolling, no one was responsible for the community. Once they stopped, community mattered.
(Anarchists have been trying to figure the individual/community dynamic for nearly 200 years and, despite much study by very smart people, they still struggle to make sense of it, especially outside of theory.)
So, of course, once the circus went from parade to parade ground, the gossips and complainers would start whispering and the instigators would poke and prod. Once stationary, whatever home base the convoy established was guaranteed to be descended on by show-boaters, hangers-on, grifters, militants, and nutcases. No matter how concerned that the Ohioan is about the parasites, the parasites will come and they will spoil his fun by pushing their own agendas and advocating for the stupidest of stupid ideas. That’s how mobs work.
And, it is about to go from no fun to no hope. Sometime Tuesday, a second convoy of 500 vehicles (some semis, mostly other vehicles) will join the main group at the Maryland racetrack they call home. With the new convoy comes people who think that they should be in charge, especially the leader of the second convoy. More will not be merrier!
While rolling, the Ohioan and others were all “We are in this to the end!” They vowed that they would take to the Beltway every day until their “demands were met.” Those demands were not only modest, they are things that will inevitably happen or have already happened (Biden cancel Trump’s COVID State of Emergency and Congress hold hearing on the Feds’ pandemic response. Still, the convoy is rethinking their commitment. The Post reports, “The group plans to stay at the speedway until ‘at least’ Sunday, [the Ohioan] said, adding that he hopes ‘this is all over by Wednesday.'” “All over by Wednesday” are the words of someone who has seen reality and has decided, “Fuck it.”
The convoy’s plans for the next two to five days are meetings? Yes, meetings. The Ohioan says that “Ron Johnson has officially confirmed meeting with us and he’s working with Ted Cruz.” The Post says, “The offices of Sens. Johnson (R-Wis.) and Cruz (R-Texas) didn’t immediately confirm Monday that the lawmakers would meet with organizers.”
Whatever, it is not like a meeting with Ron Johnson matters to anyone not in the meeting. Hell, it probably doesn’t matter to Ron Johnson. Nor is it impressive if Ted Cruz picks up the phone. What is interesting is that the Ohioan didn’t name drop Taylor, Gaetz, Gozar, or the rest of the Sedition Caucus. I am also surprised none of them have showed up to grift.
The failure of the convoy and other right-wing spectacle is due to poor organization, a media tired of cheap spectacle, and the absence of Russian bots to create artificial controversy. It is a good thing the lazy tactic of creating shallow spectacle isn’t working (at least for the time being). However, it is not as if the right-wing has given up. Seasoned organizers have ditched the noise for quieter treachery.
ProPublica reports that Donald Trump endorsed a Steve Bannon/Oath Keepers-backed “precinct strategy,” an attempt by the far-right to gain power through Republican Party local committees, county commissions, and non-competitive regional elected positions like tax-assessor and water board member.
The precinct strategy is not a new strategy, nor is it specifically partisan. Civil Rights activists used this strategy in the 1960s and 70s. The Religious Right did the same thing in the 1980s and 90s. Criminal justice reformers and democratic radicals are doing it now in major cities, such as San Francisco. It is a smart strategy and one that works and is working for the left and the right.
After the February’s Texas primaries, the mainstream takeaway was that the Trump right didn’t do so well, a judgement based on how lousy some Trump-endorsed “heavyweights” – such as Louie Gohmert – did. The Post’s Dave Weigel – the nation’s journalistic expert on nearly every damn local political race in the country (subscribe to his newsletter The Trailer) – disagrees with the mainstream. He points out that the Trump right did well in local and party leadership races, the races that must be won for the “precinct strategy” to work.
So, there is balance here: Somethings are working for the right-wing, while other things are failing miserably. While we should pay attention to both the right’s successes and failures, we have to remind ourselves that this is politics and nothing in politics is permanent.
The “People’s Convoy” fiasco tells us two things: First, what worked yesterday, might not work today. Second, so much of political success and failure is predicated not just on what X does, but also what Y is or isn’t doing. Like much of the right-wing, the “People’s Convoy” needs Russian bots to generate the heat and controversy that attracts the media. Without that heat, the media – even Fox – won’t dwell on the Convoy’s antics. Instead of “The Story,” the Convoy gets the attention it deserves and becomes a case study of group dynamics and failure.
What is true for the “People’s Convoy” is also true of the “precinct strategy.” For the precinct strategy to work, organizers must have three things going for them. First, they need people willing to participate in their strategy, folks who will take on local party leadership roles, run for local office, and serve on commissions. Second, they must be quiet about their intentions. Third, they need little or no opposition, something that happens if the first and second needs are fulfilled.
If the public or political rivals – including those within their party – become aware of a group using the precinct strategy, they can successfully organize against it by presenting “reasonable” candidates for party leadership, public office, or commissions. Someone like Madison Cawthorn, who has abandoned his congressional district for celebrity politics, can be challenged by a conservative businessperson who points to the damage Cawthorn has done to his constituents. At every level, respected members of the community – no matter their politics – can disrupt the far right’s precinct strategy by simply showing up.
Too much of the talk about the “crisis of democracy” is about symptoms. We dwell on Trump, January 6, the assault on the voting rights, corporate domination, and so on. Those things are important, but they are not the root of the crisis. The crisis starts and ends with civic participation at the most basic level – not just voting, but showing up and participating in democratic self-rule.
The crisis is that we do not treat democracy with as much passion as our favorite band, the local watering hole, or the ratty t-shirt that we refuse to throw out. The right-wing does not have that problem. For all the misguidedness of the idiots who got in their cars and drove from California, Ohio, or Florida to Maryland to D.C. to fight the demons in their minds, one positive thing I can say about them is that they care enough about their distorted vision of democracy to show up and try to see their dreams become reality.