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Opinion The ‘Freedom Convoy’ may be in Canada, but it’s a creature of the U.S. right

Protesters block the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ontario, on Feb. 9. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
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The “Freedom Convoy” protest of Canadian truckers angry over a requirement that they be vaccinated to cross the U.S. border has taken a consequential turn. It has become nothing less than an attack on the economies of two countries.

And while you might have thought this was a mildly interesting story of the ordinarily polite world of Canadian politics becoming momentarily more contentious, in truth, this is fundamentally a story about the United States.

That’s because the primary base of support for the protesters — who themselves are different from what you’ve been told — is the American right. We’re seeing an attempt by Fox News, other conservative media outlets, Republican politicians, and conservative activists to call attention to the Canadian protests — and build, expand and spread those protests as far as possible.

In the past couple of days, the protest has increased its focus on the border, in an attempt to sabotage the flow of trade between the U.S. and Canada. Protesters have essentially shut down the Ambassador Bridge, which links Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, over which 25 percent of all trade between the two countries travels, as well as other border crossings. Auto plants are already closing because they can’t obtain the parts that normally come from across the border.

Just imagine what conservatives would be saying about the limits of legitimate protest if Black Lives Matter activists mounted that kind of an economic attack. I’m pretty sure they’d be calling for the protesters to be crushed with as much violence as possible.

But now, the same politicians who promoted bills to provide immunity to people who run over protesters blocking traffic when such protests were coming from the left are championing the Freedom Convoy.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much of a cause celebre this has become on the right, as conservatives use every megaphone at their disposal to promote and cheer on the protest. Fox News has devoted hours of airtime to the protesters, who, in the words of Sean Hannity, “are taking a stand for freedom, human dignity and autonomy.”

But this isn’t just about people fed up with covid restrictions. As Canadian journalist Justin Ling notes, the protest “was the brainchild of James Bauder, an admitted conspiracy theorist who has endorsed the QAnon movement and called Covid-19 ‘the biggest political scam in history.’”

While some participants just want to drive across the border without being vaccinated, the protest is a hodgepodge of ordinary truckers, anti-vax crazies, and a bunch of far-right organizations imagining about implanted microchips and secret concentration camps. It includes Holocaust deniers, Islamophobes, and people demanding the arrest of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Rather than a spontaneous upsurge of anger at policy, this is more about Canadian far-right activists who suddenly found the right vehicle to promote fringe anti-governmental views that had not gotten a foothold before.

What those activists now have that they didn’t have before is a full-court press of promotion from the American right, especially its powerful media outlets.

Embracing far-right activists who are extreme in both their views and their tactics is nothing new for Fox News and the rest of the conservative media. They regularly make heroes out people like Cliven Bundy, who gained fame for his refusal to pay for his use of government resources. Wherever there’s an armed standoff involving a handful of right-wing extremists, it’s a good bet that conservative media will lionize the lawbreakers.

But they have a particular interest at moments such as this one. Conservative media are an incubator, promoter and participant in right-wing social movements that emerge in response to the election of a Democratic president.

When there’s a Democrat in the White House, chaos becomes the order of the day in conservative media. They hype angry protests, outbreaks of violence, shutdowns of economic activity — whatever contributes to the sense that noble champions of freedom are rising up against the government, which is portrayed as simultaneously brutal in its tyranny and too weak to maintain order.

With the Canadian rightists, Fox News and the other conservative media are creating the same kind of feedback loop they did with the tea party when Barack Obama was president: The protesters are encouraged by those outlets to believe their cause is righteous and the people are behind them, so they ramp up the extremism of their demands and their tactics, an acceleration that is in turn cheered in the right-wing media, and the cycle continues.

The next phase is to bring the same tactics here to the United States. A collection of anti-governmental activists is now trying to organize a similar convoy to drive to Washington to protest vaccine and mask mandates. Likewise, it’s being promoted on Fox News.

So when you see the Canadian protests being trumpeted in conservative media as an organic expression of regular people motivated by nothing more than their love of liberty, don’t be fooled. It’s something more threatening — or at least that’s what the American right is trying to turn it into.