INTERVIEW

The distorted "freedom" of the truck convoys: “A huge number of Americans want a dictatorship"

Salon talks to "The Next Civil War" author Stephen Marche about why Jan. 6 was like the first WTC bombing

By Chauncey DeVega

Published February 24, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Protesters hold a Canadian flag around Parliament Hill in support of the Freedom Convoy truck protest on February 5, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada.  Truckers continue their rally over the weekend near Parliament Hill in hopes of pressuring the government to roll back COVID-19 public health regulations and mandates. | Pro-Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Protesters hold a Canadian flag around Parliament Hill in support of the Freedom Convoy truck protest on February 5, 2022 in Ottawa, Canada. Truckers continue their rally over the weekend near Parliament Hill in hopes of pressuring the government to roll back COVID-19 public health regulations and mandates. | Pro-Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Republican-fascists and other "conservatives" have convinced themselves and their followers that freedom is the same thing as license.

Real freedom involves a sense of responsibility to others, obligation to the common good and respect for reason and the truth. Moreover, as historian Timothy Snyder presciently warned in 2017, "to abandon facts is to abandon freedom" and "post-truth is pre-fascism."

License is a belief that one can act without consequences — and that any attempts to limit that dangerous behavior and its negative impact on others is some type of "tyranny" or "dictatorship" or "oppression." This crude and debased version of "freedom" as embraced by fascists and other members of today's right wing and "conservative" movement also emphasizes the importance of force and the ability of the powerful to force their will on the less powerful with impunity.

Here social dominance behavior is taken as ultimate proof of the merits of one's freedom claims instead of as evidence of how anti-social and other anti-human behavior undermines and ultimately destroys the types of bonds, relationships and mutual respect for human rights and human dignity that are foundational for real freedom in a healthy polity.

Liberals, progressives, Democrats, "traditional" conservatives and others who believe in the liberal democratic tradition are committed to abstract principles and ideals. The Republican-fascists and other members of the global neofascist movement are goal-oriented nihilists and pragmatists who live in the realm of the here and now and where might ultimately makes everything right.

This is the focal point where the battle for the future of American and Western democracy is being fought. To this point, the Republican-fascists and the global right are winning. Their opponents are crying about "principles" and "the rules" and "the norms" while being bowled over.

In all, the Republican-fascists and other elements of the global right are involved in a revolutionary program of destruction where the language and rhetoric of "freedom" is being used to undermine and eventually destroy and then replace pluralistic multiracial democracy with white minority apartheid rule.

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The American neofascists and other elements of the global right are transparent and direct about their goals.

To wit.

Earlier this week, former Trump senior adviser and leading right-wing propagandist Stephen Bannon told the millions of people who listen to his podcast that, "We have a chance, once in our lifetime, to destroy the Democratic Party as an institution. We cannot let this slip from our grasp ...That is everyone's maniacal focus. We're in a war."

The American neofascist and larger "conservative" movement's attempt to overthrow the country's pluralistic multiracial democracy is not new; it is the result of a decades-long plan.

That poison fruit is being harvested all around us. Here are a few examples.

In America and elsewhere, the refusal to support vaccinations, wearing masks and other common sense public health measures are an attack on basic principles of human respect, human dignity, the common good and the general welfare. In reality, taking the necessary short-term steps in a responsible manner in a democratic society to end a lethal pandemic will expand the long-term possibilities for freedom and not limit them.

Trump's coup attempt and the Republican-fascists' and larger white-right's embrace and encouragement of terrorism and other forms of political violence is an attack on democratic norms, institutions, the future and progress, the rule of law, freedom, civil rights, human rights, safety and security, pluralism, prosperity and multiracial democracy.

Neofascist truck convoy(s) recently laid siege to Ottawa and Toronto, and also interfered with travel across the U.S. - Canada border. Similar convoys are now threatening to disrupt life in the United States and other countries as well. In total, these convoys are an attempt to stop freedom of movement.

As a practical matter, they will cause economic harm, disproportionately impacting Black, brown, poor, working class, the disabled, and other already vulnerable communities. They will also limit the ability of all people in a targeted community to enjoy equal access to public space. And because of the noise and spectacle and total chaos, the neofascist truck convoys will also have a negative impact on the emotional and physical health of the people who live in the cities and other locales that are besieged.  

Of note: these attempts at society-wide disruption are also acts of violence and intimidation modeled on the tactics of insurgency and asymmetrical warfare as seen in failing and failed democracies and other societies in crisis.

Semi-trucks can easily be made into deadly weapons; the threats of violence by these convoys are both explicit and implied. To that end, the convoys are part of a larger pattern of behavior where the Republican-fascists and the larger white right are encouraging their followers to deploy vehicles as weapons to injure and kill liberals, progressives, Democrats, and other members of "the left" (especially "Black Lives Matter" supporters and antifascists) who they deem to be "the enemy." Republican governors and other lawmakers are passing laws to that effect.

In a recent essay at The Atlantic, Stephen Marche described his experience in Toronto as it was besieged by the neofascist "anti-vaccine" "freedom" convoy.

He explained how:

Now the rage has come for me. The anti-vax trucker convoy has made it up close and personal.

Three weeks ago, truckers formed a convoy to protest the cross-border COVID-vaccine mandate. Last weekend, they rolled into my Toronto neighborhood, near Bloor Street and Avenue Road. I went down to bear witness to the spectacle. The scene was not surprising to me: The same sort of people I'd seen at Donald Trump rallies and prepper conventions were there, with their hollowed-out faces intimate with pain, and their perpetually misspelled signs, and their sense of belonging to a community of the excluded. I confess that they disgusted me. I found myself stopping several people on the street and telling them to go home, that they weren't wanted here.

The truckers want "freedom" from mandates and have called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resign. They won't achieve either of these goals, so what they're doing now amounts to disruption for disruption's sake….

Marche continued:

The truckers matter principally as an example of an American political proxy conflict spilling over our border, and as a harbinger of more such conflicts….This episode is no doubt just the beginning of the nightmare of living next to the United States in its time of breakdown. As American politics enters a state of complete toxicity, veering into insurgency, its violence and misinformation networks will inevitably spread across the border….

Stephen Marche is an essayist, cultural commentator, and author. His most recent book is, "The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future."

Marche's essays and other writing have also been featured in such leading publications as The New York Times, Esquire, and The New Yorker.

In this conversation Marche reflects on his experiences in Toronto with the neofascist truck convoy and how he managed to maintain his sympathy and human concern for a group of people he views as very lonely and in pain. Marche also shares how loneliness and pain and a desperate need for community and belonging motivate the American neofascists and others attracted to such politics.

Marche explains how America is on the brink of a second Civil War and why so many of the country's political elites — especially the pundit class and commentariat — are in deep denial about that fact and refuse to treat such an existential threat with the attention it merits because to confront such a reality would be too emotionally and intellectually painful for them.

At the end of this conversation, Marche warns that there are many Americans who, instead of enthusiastically opposing and resisting a Trumpian or other fascist dictatorship, actually are yearning for one.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You personally experienced the right-wing truck convoy that laid siege to Toronto. You have spent years talking with Trumpists, other white supremacists, right-wing militia types and related extremists. What are they looking for? What is their emotional journey? Those questions and answers are a very neglected part of the rise of American neofascism and the global right and these other illiberal forces.

I believe they are looking for what we are all looking for: Recognition of our pain. People talk about how difficult it is to sympathize with them. I never find it difficult to sympathize with them. They are in a quest for some type of what they see as freedom — but the freedom that they want is impossible. It's an inconceivable freedom, a messianic vision of freedom, that also comes out in its nastiest angle. It manifests as a feeling of impunity. That they are allowed to do whatever they want. To them real freedom is being allowed to do whatever you want to anybody.

Donald Trump is a pain entrepreneur. Fascists are experts at manipulating pain. In terms of the truckers you wrote about in The Atlantic essay, you express sympathy for them. You are remarkably humane in your approach to their behavior. Why? How did you manage that?

I believe that sympathy is a very good instinct to have all the time. I also believe that compassion is never wrong, but there is government and structure to society. They need to be preserved.

Again, I have a great deal of sympathy for these truckers. I think they're in a lot of pain, but they are going to have to be punished for their law-breaking.

If I were to describe with one word, the people in the trucker convoy I saw and likewise the people I met at prepper conventions and Trump rallies, that one word would be "lonely." These look like lonely people who do not have a lot of love in their lives. I don't think you're dressing up in a Canadian flag and driving to Toronto if you've got a lot going on.

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What are the roots of America's democracy crisis and this larger unsettling and disruption in Western democracies more generally?

The term I use in the book is a "complex cascading system." It's several things that are happening at once, and they feed into each other. The obvious variable is that there is a decline of faith in societal and governmental institutions. This decline is incredibly intense. I believe that we are now at a point where there may not be an election ever again in American history where both sides accept a winner. This is getting much worse and not better.


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That skews, of course, to rural, white, non-college educated men. America is also now what democracy experts describe as an "anocracy." This is not really autocracy; it's somewhere in between. This is when the threat of civil war is greatest. There are other elements as well such as hyper partisanship, social media misinformation and other crises and they all feed into each other. So many things are happening at once and it is an incredibly toxic brew.

What was your approach to balancing the fictional writing in "The Next Civil War" and the hard empirical facts and other research?

I did speak with certain experts where I couldn't sleep afterwards. The fiction element was really a way of giving meat to the bones of the dry abstract research. I did not put anything in the book that I could not footnote.

Charlottesville will play a large role in any history written about the Age of Trump and how America's democracy crisis escalated to where it is now with Jan. 6 and perhaps even a second American Civil War and right-wing insurgency. How are you making sense of that moment as a huge type of "what if?" in this unfolding American story?

Charlottesville was the moment where the Trump administration was shown to not be just a nastier version of Reagan. The Trump administration was actually involved in hard-right politics.

The United States is now being forced to confront not just racist, or not just so-called country club Republicans, but people who actively want a white state, to create something that is very different than what the United States of America currently is. January 6 as I see it was like the first World Trade Center bombing. It is a type of pre-echo of what's to come. On January 6 they were taken by surprise at their own success. The next time they will be much more organized and much better armed. I think all of these things are building into a blossoming hatred that is continuing to grow.

How are you processing the denial and other hostility being directed at your book and the work of others who are trying to sound the alarm about a second American Civil War?

The book grew out of a magazine article from a few years ago. At the time my editor said basically, "You're absolute out of your mind." Every step of the way, even the publisher was saying, "I don't think you're right." Then January 6 happens.

The book was released at a moment when people were finally starting to think, "OK, this might actually happen." To my eyes, the reaction to the book has not been full-on denial. It was more like, "You shouldn't actually say this stuff because you're going to make it happen." Such a response is crazy.

Clarity is required at these moments. What we need now more than anything else is actual clarity about what is going on in this country.

Again, I wouldn't say that I encountered a lot of denial. I would say it has been more of don't say those things, they're too ugly.

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What of the country's political class, and larger chattering class and commentariat, who are stuck in a state of denial about America's democracy crisis and the escalating disaster? They are part of a system that is collapsing, and they cannot admit it. So much of their writing and analysis describes an America and world that no longer exists.

It's genuine nostalgia. They have been taught their whole lives that America is the solution to history. And that its institutions are the greatest institutions the world has ever known. And that its politics is the definitive politics of the world. In Canada, we never believe that. In Europe, certainly, they never believe that. But in America, you meet a lot of people who really believe such a thing. To be specific I mean the New York Times commentary-type people.

And so, it's very hard under of those conditions to accept that America is just another country and one that has the same nightmares as other countries have. America is vulnerable to the same kind of crises that other countries are vulnerable to. There is definitely a large group of people who really genuinely worship American institutions. On a fundamental level, they just believe in them the way that a Catholic believes in the Church. For such people, the idea that their America is going to fall apart — and that is breaking apart — they can't accept it. They can't accept this truth even when they see it right in front of their eyes.

What will these members of the commentariat and larger political class do when the painful facts literally roll over them? What do they do when it all comes undone?

As T.S. Eliot said, "human beings cannot bear very much reality." But that's true for all of us. Nobody wants to face what's coming. It's very easy to look away from history even when it's staring you right in the face.

I receive many emails and other messages from readers of my essays and folks who listen to my podcasts where they say some version of "Please stop! You are scaring me!" You must receive many similar communications. Such people seem to believe that denying reality will save them. What do you tell such sad and desperate souls?

I'm in this business to say what I see. I don't come to fool anybody. I don't get cute. I don't want to play games. That's what I get out of this. That's what I owe my readers. That's what I owe myself. And I never apologize for saying things that are hard truths. We all need the hard truth.

America was perilously close to Donald Trump and his cabal's coup plot succeeding. They have not stopped their attempt to overthrow American democracy. If the Trump cabal had succeeded America would be under a state of military rule with him as a de facto fascist dictator. Yet, the American people and their mainstream media and other opinion leaders are largely still in denial of how close the country came — and is — to disaster. Is there anything that the alarm-sounders, the truth-tellers such as yourself can do to help the American people understand this dire reality?

As I see it, the basic problem is that a huge number of Americans want such a dictatorship. I think it could happen in 2024. People, like nations, actually make huge mistakes. And they do this while being fully informed. The important question is why does a huge portion of America want to end democracy? That is a very challenging answer. You don't get to feel good about yourself when you come up with an answer to that one.

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Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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