Paxton: Trucker protest — some warning signs from the US

Although the convoy has currently not descended into the kind of violence that defined the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, we should not dismiss it simply as ‘public frustration’ with pandemic policies.

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Like most Americans, I remember where I was when the Jan. 6, 2021 attack occurred. It was two days into a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and I was sitting on the couch of my girlfriend’s apartment in Montreal watching with horror as rioters took up arms against the physical institutions of the American government. Yet, despite being horrified, angered, and even saddened by the event, I was not shocked.

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The sad truth about Jan. 6 was that America had long been building towards a violent and disruptive event. As a PhD student who studies the differences between Canada and the United States, my thoughts turned quickly that day towards the possibility of such an event occurring in Canada. At the moment, it seemed that Canadian politics was shielded from the same vitriolic divisions and political attitudes that cripple the US

Canada has long been viewed as the foil to American political culture — and visa-versa. The pandemic has only furthered the belief that “cultural divergence” between the two countries is growing. The re-election of Justin Trudeau, high vaccination rates and continued commitment to strong social welfare and public goods programs are envied by the American left and punished by the American right. And for Canadians, the Trump administration was evidence of a political system moving further away from its own.

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Yet, considering the ongoing “Freedom convoy” in Ottawa, we (both Americans and Canadians) must re-evaluate those ideas which are dangerously being shared on both sides of, and across, our border. Although the convoy has currently not descended into violence and insurrection like Jan. 6 did, we should not be quick to dismiss it as “public frustration” with pandemic policies, nor should we explain away the “fringe” right-wing elements within it.

In a recent interview with Slate, Canadian novelist and journalist Stephen Marche argued that the convoy is “quite, quite different” from the Jan. 6 insurrection. Citing the convoy as both publicly unpopular and numerically smaller than American protests, the Marche dismissed the possibility of it reaching the same heights as the insurrection in the States.

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While I agree with Marche that the convoy is a far cry from Jan. 6, I worry that a pre-occupation with the physical act of insurrection and its subsequent destruction obscures a greater danger: the legitimation of political distrust. This is not to say that the events of Jan. 6 produced political distrust; in fact, distrust of the state is as American as apple pie. However, it did legitimize a certain vein of distrust in the state and civil society that was previously considered “fringe,” and it challenged the authority and efficacy of the democratic process.

It is to this point that I urge my Canadian friends to hear the warning signs from your basement. However unpopular the convoy may be with the greater number of Canadians, its long-range impact has yet to be seen; and, as we Americans have experienced first-hand, “fringe” groups, candidates and ideals can quickly seize momentum when political trust is eroded.

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Chief among the warning signs should be the interest and influence of the American far right in the convoy. The support of American conservatives such as Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and Franklin Graham feels less like a nod to anti-vaxxers and more like a calculated move on a “new frontier” (or target) for the American conservative project. The building of international illiberal and far-right networks is unsettling, and it has quietly become one of the largest ventures of the American right (look no further than the investment made in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary).

It is important that the political implications of the convoy are not buried under the very real feelings of pandemic frustration. To dismiss the potential for the convoy to embolden or catalyze a sustained movement of political distrust is unwise. While it is true that not all in the convoy can be placed neatly on the political fringes, it is also true that ideological unity is not necessary for illiberal and right-wing actors to seize momentum from a movement. In the context of COVID alone, far-right movements have been sustained, and in some cases propelled into the mainstream, by co-opting vaccine anxiety and pandemic frustration.

Canadians, I fear that the ills of American political distrust are not so distant.

Gabriel Paxton is a PhD student of Religion in Philosophy, Politics and Society at Boston University.

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