What do these convoy protesters even want anymore?

I truly can’t believe this thing is still going on. Don’t you guys need a snack and a nap?

What do these convoy protesters even want anymore?
Trucks towing other trucks. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons by Adam850, CC BY-SA 3.0.

A convoy of truckers and their supporters left California for Washington, DC last month to demand that mask and vaccine mandates be ended once and for all. As they traveled across the nation for a week and a half, most remaining mandates in the US were lifted and the world’s focus turned to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Undeterred, the group has continued to burn rubber and diesel fuel doing laps on the Beltway (and elsewhere in the DC region), apparently with no end in sight.

If, like me, you find yourself asking what it is these people think they’re doing, it’s useful to remember that accomplishing a clear task is hardly the point now. It may never have been the point to begin with. Perhaps it makes more sense to understand the convoy as a sort of Gathering of the Juggalos for grandparents and uncles who’ve had their brains turned to taffy by Facebook.

I’ve been tracking this convoy protest on and off at my day job since the idea was first floated in Facebook groups sympathetic to convoy protests in Canada earlier this year. North of the border, those protests produced the kinds of headaches for government officials and city-dwellers that right-wing audiences here in the US often fantasize about inflicting on Democrats. US right-wingers sent gobs of cash to fund Canadian protesters—enough that questions of foreign influence were directed at the money.

As I noted in a prior newsletter, right-wing hucksters crawled out of the woodwork to try to re-direct all that money, uh, enthusiasm to something similar that they could more easily glom onto. Like the Canadian protest, but more American-y. (That means number one, baby!) The planning I wrote about in that newsletter eventually led to an offline action by like-minded conservatives: the month-long-and-counting protest being conducted by a group at a small-town racetrack in Hagerstown, Md., about an hour away from DC.

Republican officials have rubbed shoulders with the protest’s leaders, and right-wing media gave the group an initial blast of positive press coverage. But as it drags on, the convoy has gotten less interesting, even to the most sympathetic networks and audiences. Now that Republicans are grandstanding about President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, there’s not as much attention on the little convoy that never quite could.

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And so the nation has started to move on, even though the convoy is still there. In what I assume are organizers’ latest bids for attention—although they also probably indicate restlessness on the part of participants who thought they’d be bigger news by now—the convoy has slowly encroached on the highways to downtown DC. Participants there have been driving around the city aimlessly, honking horns and yelling at residents who tell them to go home. There is no apparent plan. After a bit of honking and wandering, the groups drive back to Hagerstown and get enough rest to repeat the tedious exercise again the next day.

Though some disagreements have bubbled up among convoy participants and supporters, the group has remained intact for more than a month now. Organizers have denied suggestions that their protest has failed; rather, they claim they have already been successful in their (extremely vague) goals. They’ve been acknowledged, after all, by Republican officials including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green.

What I suspect has kept this convoy together, more than any perceived successes, is a sense of community and common cause. Last year, when I interviewed Amanda Moore for SH!TPOST, she described anti-vaccine communities for all their faults to be warm, inviting spaces where people who’d decided COVID-19 was part of a vast conspiracy could mingle, laugh and commiserate in a time of uncertainty and isolation. That community, Moore said, was a part of what made these movements so lasting and effective. It was the very same initially loose community that has brought convoy participants to Hagerstown, which now hosts a sort of half-baked festival.

In many ways, the “protest” has transmuted into a giant happy hour for loosely connected branches of the modern right wing. This isn’t new: The 2020 “Stop the Steal” movement provided real-life gathering places for a wide variety of right-wingers, including extremists, who could make common cause around election conspiracy theories.

Going whole hog on conspiracy theories and hyper-partisan media is often an isolating experience. True believers can lose friends, fall out of touch with family, and generally earn reputations as cranks who can’t talk about anything else. As a result, opportunities to shoot the breeze with fellow travelers can be particularly appealing to these folks.

Even if this convoy dissipates without incident, it has established itself as the most recent iteration of a new social movement with the ability to direct sustained cash flow and people-power toward its causes of choice. Given the conspiratorial and hyper-partisan shared ground on which the crowd in Hagerstown congregates, it’s not hard to imagine a day where that network is leveraged in a more nefarious, violent way.

The convoy also has a lot of money to play with. Organizers raised $1.7 million in cash according to a ticker on their website, and supporters have given the group a whole host of supplies, including food and fuel. Running these vehicles around the DC area is expensive, especially as gas prices climb, but so far that hasn’t stopped the convoy. It’s unclear how much money they have already spent, or when we can expect their checks to start bouncing.

The participants in this convoy protest and the people cheering them on don’t live in the same reality as many (hopefully most) of us. They are the protagonists of reality and all of the universe happens to them, rather than in spite of them. The media in this ecosystem is a hall of funhouse mirrors, and after enough time inside it, consumers of that media start to see the outside world as warped instead.

The convoy can be a success in that parallel world, no matter what anyone on the outside says. They don’t even look at the news, and certainly not this newsletter. I ran a count of all the hyperlinks in the main convoy group chat on Telegram the other day and found that supporters of the convoy are directing each other to other social media posts more than anything else.

Leadership of the convoy is slowly losing its grip. Molly Conger observed that the Proud Boys fascist street gang appeared to be amassing more influence in Hagerstown. Convoy participants are reportedly getting sick. There are questions about where donated money is going. A permit application for a National Mall rally flopped. One driver allegedly hit a pedestrian. Several participants have been seen with firearms and shopping at gun stores.

So nobody knows how this will end. As the normies who trekked out to Hagerstown to make friends and drink beers slowly evaporate back to their normal lives, those left behind are an ever-intensifying assembly with no defined goal in sight. But maybe there doesn’t have to be one. Maybe that’s not the point. Whatever the point is, it probably won’t be made here.

Sara Aniano put it succinctly in her latest for Logically:

[T]here is no reason to assume that this all ends with the convoy. What drives the movement, more than anything, is the community of people who keep it alive.

Edited by Sam Thielman