The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sixty years late, right-wingers join the counterculture

Trucks block streets in Ottawa during a protest against covid-19 measures on Feb. 14. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/AP)
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The times, they are a-changin’.

Last month, when antiabortion activists and anti-vaccine protesters staged mass protests in the capital, speakers at both rallies quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Today, we are going to reclaim Martin’s dream!” the first speaker at the anti-vaccine rally, Kevin Jenkins, declared from the Lincoln Memorial, the site of King’s immortal speech. “Are we ready to reclaim the dream?”

“Yeah!” shouted back the overwhelmingly White crowd.

“Martin is alive!” Jenkins told them. “We are here today fighting for the same thing he fought for.”

The crowd rejoiced at this discovery that King, like them, had battled for the right to take deworming medication instead of highly effective vaccines.

We shall overcome … mask mandates?

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At the same time, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been making a strong bid to become the Hanoi Jane of the Ukraine conflict, calling for kumbaya with Russia. Night after night, he has been taking Vladimir Putin’s side and parroting Kremlin propaganda in the standoff against NATO and the United States. (Poor Putin’s just trying “to keep his western borders secure.”)

Carlson’s flower-child viewers have been calling lawmakers with a message that would have enraged Republicans just a few years ago: Give appeasement a chance.

Now, truckers are staging mass civil disobedience to occupy Ottawa and shut down border crossings with the United States in protest of public health rules. And Republican officials say: Right on, man.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) hailed the truckers as modern-day Freedom Riders, “heroes” who are “marching for your freedom and for my freedom,” while Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said they want only “what God gave them: freedom.”

“Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in our country, from slavery to civil rights,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. “Peaceful protest, clog things up, make people think about the mandates.”

Stick it to the man — by, um, refusing to take a jab.

Just how far will this new New Right go in flattering the New Left with imitation? Well, they aren’t burning bras and draft cards — but they have been known to burn face masks. As Politico’s Jack Shafer argued last week, the truckers’ takeover of Ottawa streets is an “occupation”-style protest popularized by the left with 1930s labor sit-ins, the 1968 student occupation of the Columbia University president’s office and the Occupy Wall Street movement of about a decade ago.

“The American Right Hits Its Hippie Phase” was the headline atop a July article in National Review by Kevin D. Williamson. Like the leftist radicals of the 1960s, he wrote, “the contemporary Right also hates the government, the business establishment, much of organized religion, compromise, etc., but instead of LSD and Transcendental Meditation it has hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin, absurd mask politics, election trutherism, anti-vaccine activism, 1,001 conspiracy theories, and QAnon.”

Turn on, tune in — and drop your sense of irony.

Covering the hypocrisy of the Trump right is a full-time beat these days. “Law and order” Republicans now embrace insurrectionists. Those who decried “cancel culture” now ban books and history lessons. Conservatives who supported “tort reform” now enshrine the rights of private citizens to sue one another. A party that welcomed libertarians now has officials incentivizing people to report on their neighbors. Onetime Cold Warriors now sympathize with Putin.

The inconsistency over street protests is particularly black and white.

When a convoy of White people in trucks promotes chaos and lawlessness on the northern border, Republican officials call them heroes, and former president Donald Trump invites them to the United States. When a caravan of Brown people on foot posed a remote chance of chaos and lawlessness on the southern border in 2018, Trump called in the military to protect against the “MANY CRIMINALS.”

When (predominantly White) crowds protest for the right to ignore public health rules in mostly peaceful but occasionally violent and highly disruptive actions, Republican officials hail the glory of civil disobedience. When (heavily Black) crowds protested for racial justice in mostly peaceful but occasionally violent and highly disruptive actions, Trump called them “rioters, looters and anarchists” not to mention “terrorists,” “arsonists” and “violent mobs.”

“I’m old enough to remember when Black Lives Matter shut down highways and the right responded with laws making it easier to run protesters over — and get away with it!” conservative Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Beast. It’s true: Last year, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a law granting civil immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a street. Texas, Oklahoma and other states enacted similar laws.

Now, Republican officials are lending rhetorical support and financial protection to the White men blocking the streets of Ottawa? This isn’t “reclaiming the dream.” It’s a bad acid trip.

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