Column: American reactions to Canada’s trucker protests shows how much our politics have changed
I’ve remained quietly fascinated by the trucker protests in Canada. Quietly, because I’ve struggled to figure out what I think about them, fascinated because they are a window on the political transformations on both sides of the 49th parallel.
The protests began as a revolt against a new and ill-advised vaccine mandate in January that required unvaccinated truckers to get the jab or isolate for two weeks each time they crossed the U.S. border. While I think not getting vaccinated is largely ridiculous, the rule made little sense in an 80% vaccinated country or for an occupation that involves almost no human interaction. Truckers aren’t nurses or schoolteachers. Solitude comes with the job. And nearly 90% of Canadian truckers are already vaccinated.
Of course, the protesters’ passion came from the built-up frustration with two years of lockdowns and mandates. And, as often happens with mass protests, the demands metastasized over time. Now they want Justin Trudeau’s government to dissolve and hold new elections. The demand is impractical, and illegally blockading streets and bridges to force it is also unjustifiable — whether it’s Canadian truckers or Black Lives Matter protesters or any other group. These folks may think of their actions as civil disobedience, yet when governments impose economic blockades, it’s literally an act of war. On Monday, Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act, which gives the federal government broad authority to restore order.
The chaos in Canada’s capital and beyond isn’t just about anti-vax protests. It’s a melting pot for a variety of grievances and antisocial beliefs.
What truly fascinates me is the reactions to the Canadian protests here in the U.S. They highlight the way the coalitions that make up the left and right have changed profoundly, and how their attitudes and ideas are changing as a result.
If I were to describe these protests to a left-winger 50 — or 150 years — ago they would sound great. Proletarian laborers spontaneously using their class-power to monkey-wrench the wheels of global capitalism to press their grievances! This was once the stuff of heroic socialist agitation. The fact that tow truck drivers refused to help remove the blockade would be seen as the very soul of worker solidarity. Now, when GoFundMe announced it would cut off donations to the truckers, liberals shrugged or cheered.
One explanation for the reaction is that the pandemic has been subsumed into the pre-existing culture war fight. That’s why Trudeau, who is squarely on the liberal side of that divide, reflexively deployed every woke accusation imaginable at the largely peaceful strikers. Picking out a smattering of ugly signs — and one Confederate flag — Trudeau tried to tar the whole bunch with guilt-by-association. The truckers aren’t merely racists and Nazi sympathizers, he claimed, but also showed signs of “transphobia” too. Rather than meet with the protesters, he chose scorn: “Hate can never be the answer,” he insisted.
This points to a larger explanation. The old prism of class has been supplanted by the prism of identity politics. As the Democratic Party is increasingly dominated by people with college and graduate degrees, the white working-class core of the old FDR coalition has steadily migrated rightward (and there are early signs of a nonwhite working class migration as well). Leading Democrats speak the language of “intersectionality,” using phrases like Latinx that leave many Latinos cold. In the early days of the pandemic, mass protests in violation of lockdowns were acceptable — even laudatory — when done in the name of racial justice. But protests from truckers — or parents — who just want to return to normal? They’re derided as anti-science or worse.
Ottawa has become the center of a global populist backlash against vaccine mandates and, more broadly, liberal governments.
Meanwhile conservatives, traditionally the champions of law and order, never mind the free flow of commerce, fell in love with the truckers and their disobedience. Anti-mandate absolutism is, again, part of the story. But many on the right in the U.S. have also convinced themselves that the Republican Party must become a nationalistic “workers party.” The condescending liberal elites, undemocratic technocratic experts and woke globalists running the Democratic Party have made the GOP the natural home of the working stiff, they argue. This stuff can be exaggerated of course, but there’s an underlying truth to it as well. Regardless, one result has been the emergence of new right-wing emphasis on worker solidarity as a cultural imperative.
These domestic tectonic cultural changes turned the Ottawa protesters into a kind of Rashomon story or Spanish Civil War — a foreign conflict that illuminates how culture war combatants see the fight at home.
It’s a confusing transition and neither side has quite figured out how to adapt to their new coalitional imperatives, never mind adopt public policies that fit them. Perhaps to compensate for this fact, the rhetoric has outstripped the reality. Each side glibly accuses the other of being an existential threat, pitting transphobic Nazis according to one side against totalitarians according to the other.
Neither side is right about the other, but it’s unlikely the two will realize that any time soon.
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