The trucker convoy is scary, but not for the reason you think

by Anita Chabria

Donny Thomas and I agreed on many things when we spoke at the California Capitol last week. That’s alarming when you consider he’s part of the so-called People’s Convoy that has crisscrossed the nation in recent days protesting coronavirus health measures and serving as a echo chamber of conspiracy theories and propaganda.

Standing next to his silver BMW 550i, with “free your body and mind” scrawled in pink and yellow on the rear window, he and I concurred that we are fooling ourselves if we think billionaires have the best interests of society at heart. We also both believe there are bad politicians in both parties. As Donny put it, they’re “two wings of one bird. It’s a lot of bird poop.”

No, I’m not here to convince you the far right is righteous. But writing off the many people who are orbiting extremism — not quite there but rubbing shoulders with those who are — as hateful and hate-filled (or even just stupid or gullible) is too simplistic.

Thomas — who says he’s not political, right or left — was reasonable and reasoned, congenial and engaging, at least on the surface, a guy you could have a drink with if you avoid drilling down into the details of his beliefs.

He’s the kind of ordinary person we are missing when we talk about the Republican Party marching into the darkness of the very tyranny they proclaim to be fighting. And for those who care about democracy, we ignore them at our own peril.

When media have covered the People’s Convoy, and the increasingly far-right Republican Party, it’s often in terms of Donald Trump and the anger he feeds and feeds upon. We see rallies with his supporters waving all kinds of flags that in one way or another symbolize rollbacks of civil rights or a claiming of patriotism as a conservative Christian value that the “libs” know nothing about.

A handful of truckers and hangers-on driving circles around the Washington, D.C., Beltway seems more tiresome than worrying, so it’s easy to dismiss much of it as either extremism or comical theatrics or both — a minority vein of unhinged fear mongering that is given oxygen only by our notice.

But that doesn’t take into account the Donnys of the movement, and there are a lot of them. They are the foot soldiers who genuinely believe they are in a fight of good versus evil, isolated by their abilities to see the true dangers facing America and therefore the nation’s only possible saviors.

Many of the truckers and their allies see themselves coming from a place of goodness, not discrimination or division. They seem firmly convinced of the lies that bind them together — the global cabal seeking world domination, the rings of pedophiles, the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines for a pandemic that they say was nothing more than the flu.

That is the power of misinformation and disinformation. At its worst, it undermines reality. If you believed what they believe, you would probably be in the convoy too.

In Sacramento, Thomas passed out fliers warning of the dangers of 10 bills the convoy deems tyrannical. He pointed out Senate Bill 1390 by Dr. Richard Pan, a much-hated figure in anti-vaxxer circles, which the pamphlet contends would prohibit “any person/entity from making statements the government deems untrue or misleading by any means including on internets/ads.”

I suggested he look up the bill himself, because that’s not what it says. He shrugged, clearly unconvinced by my take on it.

I let it go with that because, well, Donny isn’t the first Donny I’ve spoken to. I’ve met lots of people with his misguided conviction and determination these past two years. What I’ve learned is that there is no common ground to find when it comes to the big issues. We may agree on some things, but ultimately, Thomas believes he’s been freed from the “Matrix,” as he puts it, and sees truths I can’t.

I believe he’s been lied to and manipulated by those seeking political and financial gain. It’s not that I think he’s a bad person or has ill intent. I liked Donny. I just think he’s not functioning in reality, the same way he thinks I’m not.

It’s the energy of that alternative belief system that should concern us all. Trump isn’t the center holding these believers together anymore. As much as many still love Trump and will rally to a 2024 campaign, their focus is also on school boards and election offices and health departments, even as the rest of us pay little attention to the institutions of everyday life they are trying to transform.

The protections of Roe vs. Wade will almost certainly end in a few months. Laws against LGBTQ+ rights are sadly common across the country, chipping away civil rights from people who only recently won them. Such malevolent statutes will embolden more rollbacks if they are not challenged. Teachers are under attack, pilloried for any comment that touches on race or gender identity. Books are being banned. Elections are coming, and those who oversee them are being driven out of office.

My daughter is reading “Fahrenheit 451” for school, and last night we came across this passage about how its authoritarian regime began: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Ray Bradbury wrote 70 years ago. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.”

That trinity of forces is more relevant than ever, yet in the United States, Bradbury’s dystopian vision has not come to pass.

But he understood how easily it could, if the many ignore a powerful few.

Anita Chabria is a California columnist for the Los Angeles Times, based in Sacramento.