The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once again, Fox News stokes a protest against a Democratic president

Ottawa citizens go to work as truckers block the streets near Parliament Hill. (Andre Pichette/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The story of the protests that have upended the Canadian capital of Ottawa is not yet fully written. That’s true in part because the protest — or, as authorities have called it, the occupation — is ongoing; it’s not yet clear how it ends. It’s also true because all of the details of its genesis have likely not yet emerged. How did it come about? Who was involved in planning and amplifying the idea? Such details often take months to come to light.

If, as seems likely, a similar truck-centered protest unfolds in the United States, that last question will have some obvious immediate answers. The American right has been very active in supporting the events in Ottawa and, often, in calling for something similar here. And when we talk about elements of the American right with a disproportionate ability to be heard, we’re talking about the hosts of Fox News’s prime-time programming.

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In the past month, Fox News has mentioned the truckers or Ottawa 2½ times as often as CNN and five times as often as MSNBC. Analysis by Matthew Gertz of the watchdog group Media Matters estimates that the network has spent more than 10 hours covering the story since the middle of January. The shows on which it has been mentioned the most, according to analysis of closed-captioning data? Those hosted by Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.

“It’s hard to overstate the historical significance of what we’re watching right here,” Carlson said on his program Thursday night. “The Canadian trucker convoy is the single most successful human rights protest in a generation.”

At another point, Carlson reported that American truckers were planning their own convoy. The graphic over his shoulder read, “Here It Comes.”

This was only part of the network’s obvious celebration of what’s underway in Canada.

You’ll notice that this is ostensibly predicated, in Carlson’s telling, on President Biden’s vaccine mandates. However, there is no private-sector mandate that would apply to most truck drivers. There is one that applies if they drive across the border from Canada, but there’s a much smaller percentage of American truckers crossing that border than Canadian drivers.

In reality, it’s about more than that, of course. A memo sent to law enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security recently noted that it had “received reports of truck drivers potentially planning to block roads in major metropolitan cities in the United States in protest of, among other things, vaccine mandates.”

“Among other things” of course carries a lot of weight: it’s shorthand for all of the other things besides mandates that don’t apply to many truckers.

It’s an indication that what’s being imported isn’t the movement but the tactic. The movement in Canada was specifically predicated on the mandate. The movement in the Lower 48 would likely be predicated largely on the protest.

This is not Fox News’s first such rodeo. The network played an active and even more direct role in amplifying the tea party protests that emerged in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency — and that quickly overwhelmed much of the national political conversation.

If you remember those protests, it’s likely you also remember that the first moment in which they were accelerated by cable-news fury was when, in February 2009, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli railed against a program aiding those having difficulty paying their mortgages. Santelli called for tea-party-like protests against Obama and the president’s purported socialism.

That idea gained traction and Fox News quickly amplified it: As April 15 approached, the tax deadline day on which many of the protests were focused, the network promoted its hosts’ appearances at rallies around the country under the tagline, “FNC TAX DAY TEA PARTIES.” In total, Media Matters counted 73 promotions of the rallies either during programs or during ad breaks.

And that doesn’t include the general advocacy for the underlying sentiment. One on-screen graphic from a week before the event celebrated the “growing revolution” that the movement represented.

In short order, the tea party movement grew past the boundaries of its ostensibly tax-focused advocacy. It became a significant right-wing force in the Republican Party, pushing the party to the right as the 2010 midterms approached. For a while, the party was able to maintain a tenuous hold over that energy, until Donald Trump arrived in 2015 and blew the whole thing up.

For Fox News hosts like Carlson and Hannity — whose face you likely spotted at the Atlanta “FNC TAX DAY TEA PARTY,” above — the utility of a protest is as obvious now as it was then. There’s an enormous amount of energy expressed in opposition to Biden, more so now than there was for Obama in early 2009. For a network whose own stars admit that they hope to see the political left fail, encouraging a protest aimed at potentially shutting down Washington or other big cities helps them to organize and retain viewers already predisposed toward disliking the administration. And, of course, there’s a relatively recent precedent for that activism to lead to long-term political organizing that benefits the right.

Such protests may not arise. What’s underway in Canada may wind down; that’s certainty the goal of Canadian authorities. But if there are caravans of trucks that organize in the United States during the next few weeks, we can once again attribute some of that to the network that can’t stop talking about it.