The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada’s Trumpian trucker protests show the global radicalization of anti-vaxxers

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In Canada — yes, Canada — the confederacy of anti-vaxxers came out of the shadows for “Freedom Convoy 2022,” a protest of angry truckers that snowballed in the Ottawa winter to include a wider class of the governmentally aggrieved. At their worst, demonstrators have urinated on the National War Memorial and danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But despite the lack of widespread violence, the diverse alliance of outraged citizens — from Confederate flag wavers to dancing libertarian hipsters — appear to share common purpose: shutting down the Canadian capital on a quest to end vaccine mandates.

In the United States, Republican glee at the spreading, city-paralyzing protests in “liberal Canada” came under fire from Canadian officials, who insist they won’t budge on the spark that lit the demonstrations — a vaccination mandate for truckers transiting the U.S.-Canadian border. But as the convoy gains international traction — from social media to European and Australian streets — Canada is becoming an unlikely symbol of the radicalization of the anti-vaccination movement in the West that shares more than a few similarities with the militancy of Trump Republicans.

The seemingly endless pandemic has brought together diverse civic forces furious over perceived government overreach. They’ve protested mandates and lockdowns as well as vaguer notions of encroachment into public life. But the scope, nature and tactics of such protests are escalating, becoming increasingly uncivil and more aggressive around the world. They include outbursts of anger and violent threats against specific politicians, far-right imagery at demonstrations, violent melees with police and, in the surprising case of Canada, the shutting down of entire cities.

Death threats, mock hangings and a used condom: Anti-vaxxers target Australian politicians

Parallels to the Jan. 6 insurrection may be limited in Ottawa — protesters are not knocking down the doors of Parliament. But anti-government slogans flooding Ottawa’s streets suggest similar grievances, even as their trucks serve as a flashback to the Trump caravans that menaced U.S. highways during the 2020 campaign.

The absence of widespread violence in Ottawa also does not mean residents of the Canadian capital don’t feel threatened.

“They’re also seeing the images that we’re all seeing, of very right-wing extremist messages: the flags that display the swastika, Confederate flags, images of a prime minister being lynched,” Catherine McKenney, an Ottawa councilor, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m not sure that I would continue to call this peaceful.”

Elsewhere, the mob rule spirit of Jan. 6 lives on in the transformation of anti-vaxxers into menacing bands of aggressive harassers. On Monday in Britain, anti-vaccine protesters surrounded Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, accusing him of everything from being a “traitor” (a common slur hurled by the Trumpian right) to supporting coronavirus vaccines and also “protecting pedophiles.” Police had to come to his aid.

“One witness said a protester carried a hangman’s noose prop, which another protester had joked was for Starmer,” the Guardian reported.

Major U.S.-Canada border crossing obstructed as ‘Freedom Convoy’ trucker protest escalates

Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has positioned himself as a global Pied Piper for the unmasked masses. In a statement Friday, he dubbed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — a target of the Ottawa protesters — a “far left lunatic,” picking at the wound of Canadian divisions by decrying the country’s “insane covid mandates.”

Eco-leftists, musicians, Marvel movie stars, hairdressers and gay rights activists — some of them even vaccinated, but still opposed to government mandates — have marched, paraded and howled across the West. They share a certain brand of unapologetic individualism, as well as a distrust of the “establishment” and, often, science.

But globally, conspiracy theorists and the radical right — largely part of Trump’s flock in the United States — are increasingly co-opting the anti-vax movement. Last month, Omar Haijawi-Pirchner, Austria’s head of domestic intelligence, told the AFP news service that “foreign activists” — he said they came from Germany and Switzerland — have been traveling to Austria to join local demonstrations against Europe’s broadest vaccine mandate, as well as holding “network meetings” with “right-wing extremists.”

In the German state of Saxony — the epicenter of the country’s anti-vax movement, where some 50,000 people a week are protesting mandates — officials from the state’s domestic intelligence agency said the “mobilization machine” on the ground is the Free Saxons, a group it classified as a right-wing extremist movement.

“The right-wing extremists know exactly how to capitalize on these conspiracy ideologies to stir up fear,” Annalena Schmidt, a former city councilor in Saxony, told The Washington Post.

In New Zealand — in some ways the Canada of Oceania — local politicians have had to “beef up security after a slew of death threats” from anti-vaxxers, the Economist reported. In the Australian state of Victoria, authorities brought charges against a man who encouraged protesters to “bring out rifles and shotguns” and shoot the state’s premier over mandates. Two men in Western Australia were charged after allegedly threatening to behead its premier.

“Protesters are taking inspiration from America’s far right. … Some wave flags featuring Donald Trump, wear red hats and threaten journalists,” the Economist reported. “They have started calling politicians ‘traitors’ and calling for lynchings. Placards mentioning QAnon, an incoherent conspiracy theory which is taking off in the Antipodes, are increasingly common.”

The confederacy of anti-vaxxers is racking up wins in the West — while leaving a dangerous gap for coronavirus mutations to attack otherwise widely vaccinated populations. Earlier this month, Quebec Premier François Legault, citing fears of social division, abandoned a threat to tax the unvaccinated. In the Netherlands, where protests have included running battles with police using live fire, a government under pressure eased lockdown restrictions last month despite soaring infections.

The movements are nationally focused but internationally linked through symbolism, the Internet and like-minded operatives.

Now there’s a new source of inspiration: the Canadian truckers.

The Toronto Star tracked dozens of new Facebook and Telegram groups inspired by the Canadian truckers strike, from Cyprus to Argentina. But Canada’s anti-vax moment is stirring the global pot in more than just the virtual space. In Europe, similar convoys are being planned in “all 27 European Union countries,” with organizers using the unmonitored social media app Telegram for planning and coordination.

Hundreds of protesters inspired by the Canadian truckers descended on the Australian capital Monday, waving “Australian flags, military insignia and campaign banners for former U.S. president Donald Trump,” according to Bloomberg News.

As Australian protesters waved signs saying “GENOCIDE” and “FREEDOM” in front of Parliament, The Post reported, the American-born Australian senator Kristina Keneally warned that the crowd contained “individuals that our national security agencies are worried about,” citing the arrest of one protest organizer last week after police allegedly found a gun in his car.

“Some of these protesters actually want to undermine and overturn democracy,” Keneally said.

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