People's Convoy: Inside Washington, D.C.'s Big-Rig Political Sideshow - Rolling Stone
×
×
Home Politics Politics Features

Fear and Slowing on the D.C. Beltway: Inside the People’s Convoy’s Big-Rig Political Sideshow

After a month in Ukraine, I wanted to see what the Right’s resistance movement was about. What I found was both a tragedy and a farce

2HWJRTM Hundreds of vehicles including 18-wheeler trucks, RVs and other cars depart the Hagerstown Speedway after some of them arrived as part of a convoy that traveled across the country headed to Washington D.C. to protest COVID-19 related mandates and other issues in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S., March 6, 2022. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith2HWJRTM Hundreds of vehicles including 18-wheeler trucks, RVs and other cars depart the Hagerstown Speedway after some of them arrived as part of a convoy that traveled across the country headed to Washington D.C. to protest COVID-19 related mandates and other issues in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S., March 6, 2022. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Hundreds of vehicles including 18-wheeler trucks, RVs and other cars depart the Hagerstown Speedway on March 6, 2022.

Stephanie Keith/Reuters/Alamy

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — All of the trucks are full. Brian Brase, the co-organizer of the People’s Convoy, has a lot going on, but he’s still determined to get me into a truck before the convoy takes off at 10 a.m. sharp, headed out from the Hagerstown Speedway on a trek to get the D.C. politicians to finally listen. But the trucks are full: with wives, with kids, with multiple small dogs, with other truckers who’ve decided to man the radio in another cab that day. But then we find Old Man Dan. 

“Oh here we go,” Brase says. “Let’s try Dan.” “DAN!” He shouts, over the noise of the engines. “I’ve got Rolling Stone magazine here. Can he ride with you?” 

“HOP ON IN!” Dan shouts. And then I’m in a truck. 

Dan — that’s “Daniel McElwain,” if you’re asking, “Dan,” if you’re familiar, and “Old Man Dan,” affectionately, to the other members of the Convoy — drives a 1989 Peterbilt, which is showing its age but still runs fine, kind of like Dan. He is 71. He’s spent his life as either a dairy farmer or a truck driver, depending on the decade. His hands, gripping the Peterbilt’s wheel, are so gnarled by years of hard work they look like he’s wearing gloves with golf balls stuffed in them. “Just mind the mirror a bit,” Dan tells me. The right side wing mirror is only tenuously connected to the truck. “I laid the truck over last Sunday. Cabin’s bulged in a bit by your head but they bumped it right back out,” he says. The cabin is indeed bulged in a bit by my head. I do a quick check to make sure there is a seatbelt – a sudden vision of returning from Eastern Ukraine, where I had just spent a month on the ground reporting from a warzone, only to die in a right-wing big rig pile up creeping into my head. 

The People’s Convoy, as it’s called, has been camped here in Hagerstown since March 4, turning the dirt-track Hagerstown Speedway into a small town of trucks, RVs, cars, tents, and trailers. Many of those vehicles have traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles, as several similarly-motivated convoys of cars and trucks merged over the past month in a cross-country trek that began in California, inspired by the similar but far more confrontational trucker protest in Canada earlier this year

A gathering at the Hagerstown Speedway in Maryland, which has become home base for the People’s Convoy.

Jack Crosbie

They have been called racists, fascists, conspiracy theorists and even insurrectionists. Whatever the terminology, it’s clear that the Trucker Protest is the right wing’s next big thing: a heavy metal show of power aimed at the nation’s capitol itself, in service of a nebulous set of goals that wrap executive powers, state and federal Coronavirus protections, fringe conspiracies, and general government skepticism into a catch-all movement for anyone who thinks Joe Biden is taking our country down an insufficiently star-spangled path. What it has lacked, thus far, is violence: and after spending the past month in a country torn apart by war, I was curious to see if any of the rage and pain present in a place where politics are now performed with guns and bombs was brewing in Hagerstown. What I found was both a tragedy and a farce — a welcoming community built on dangerous lies, and the undercurrents of a movement that could yet boil over again as America’s far right searches for support among the country’s alienated, disaffected, and deluded. To learn that, I had to ride with Old Man Dan. 

The Peterbilt is not a quiet truck. It’s warm in Maryland, and Dan and I take off with the windows down, engine roaring, 11th in line in a massive column of well over 100 big rigs and double that of cars, pickups, camper vans, and RVs, churning down the National Pike to the I-70, then the 270, and then to the 495, the Beltway that runs all the way around America’s capital city. As we go under overpasses dotted with flag-waving convoy fans, Dan hauls on the horn, let loose by two bare wires hanging down from the left hand side of the cab.

Dan tells me he is doing this for his children, to whom he gave his dairy farm. He wants his grandchildren to grow up in the same kind of world he did, where a dairy farmer and truck driver could build a life as a free and independent businessman. “I’m convinced we have about three months,” he says, until the Democrats take all of that away in some kind of America-ending event. And so Dan is on the road to prevent that. We move slowly — 40 miles per hour in many sections, as organizers struggle to keep the convoy together through the CB radio and a walkie-talkie app called Zello. Everyone is concerned with other vehicles interfering with the convoy, calling them “interlopers,” or “infiltrators.” Fears of “antifa” abound.  Dan tells me that the other day, two semis had to force a black mustang off the road that was trying to disrupt the convoy, blocking the infiltrator in and forcing it to pull into a service station where cops were waiting. “These cops – probably 98 percent of them are for us,” Dan says. “It’s their administrators who are all fucked up.” 

As we circle D.C. on the 495 a helicopter buzzes overhead. Metro police has every exit leading to the national mall or D.C. proper blocked off, a source of much frustration. Dan rolls down his window and shouts “Are you having fun?” to one of them. “Oh yeah,” the cop replies, laughing. Convoy participants are encouraged to report interfering cars to the police, and often welcome state troopers into their ranks for security, while simultaneously seeking to evade MPD’s consistent blockades. After attempting to double back on the 495 West of the city, the convoy can’t find a way through, and heads back to Hagerstown. I’m a bit confused as to the point of all this, so I ask Dan just how disruptive the convoy is trying to be. “We don’t want a 1/6 again,” he says. “In Canada, they really went in. That’s our last resort.” Instead, he says the convoy just wants to be seen — not to block traffic (it takes pains to stay in one lane), but just to be visible. It certainly accomplishes that: every car and truck is covered in flags, signs, stickers, and slogans. Some drivers of smaller vehicles have completely given their paint jobs over to the cause, allowing the convoy’s community to freely adorn their vehicles with everything from “Smoke more pot” to catchphrases and dog whistles for every possible corner of Q-Anon and anti-vaccine conspiracy theory imaginable. 

On the way home, we stop at a service station, where the big rigs line up to refuel their tanks, all expenses paid by the convoy’s flourishing cash and online donation pool. Dan’s truck has two 150-gallon tanks; with diesel hovering around $5 a gallon, he needs around $1,500 to fill his tanks. The convoy has raised well over a million dollars in online donations to the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom, a conservative dark money group that has also funded election challenges.  

Flags of all stripes at the Hagerstown Speedway basecamp.

Jack Crosbie

The Convoy’s camp at the Hagerstown speedway is genuinely one of the strangest and most interesting places I have been. All of the absurdist contradictions of the modern far-right are here: Thin Blue Line flags fly next to Don’t Tread On Me banners; the most common slogan is “FJB,” for “Fuck Joe Biden,” which often appears right next to “Let’s Go Brandon,” which has been popularized as a FCC-accepted way of saying “Fuck Joe Biden.” It seems to me a bit redundant to display both on the same flag, but then again, the camp has five different merch tents festooned with said flags that prove me wrong. In fact, the camp has pretty much everything: the Speedway’s dining facilities pump out two free meals a day, breakfast and dinner, for anyone who wants it. “Unko Irv’s” barbershop keeps hair and beards (there are many, many beards) looking trim and sharp. At night, groups strum guitars and drink beer around fires fed with donated wood, brought out by the cord a few nights back when the temperature dipped low. The camp has so much support, Dan told me, they’ve started donating some surplus items to local food banks and charities.

Each day begins with a morning meeting at 9 a.m., where Brase and various other convoy leaders take turns setting the agenda for the day and firing up the crowd with a mixture of jokes and political rhetoric. Brase is an excellent communicator: confident, passionate, and able to lead a crowd exactly where he wants them. The rest of the proceedings can be a bit more eccentric. On Wednesday, after the meeting, I watched a couple get married onstage by a minister wearing a reflective jacket. The groom looked a bit like Kurt Russell, if Kurt Russell had a Mike Tyson-esque face tattoo. I saw little signifiers of the far-right’s more militant members — despite the wide variety of banners on display, I didn’t see any Confederate battle flags. A few guys in Proud Boys colors wandered around and Three Percenter stickers weren’t uncommon on back windows, but the second amendment was supported more in theory than in practice – I didn’t see a single gun during my time at the camp. “It’s not a right issue or a left issue,” Brase says. “It’s an American issue.” When pressed, he admits that “people that believe in the constitution often tend to lean to the right.” There are Biden supporters here too, he says, they just keep silent. “But they whisper in my ear,” he says. 

The convoy’s overarching goals depend on who you ask, but the simplest answer often boils down to an end to the national emergency over Covid-19 first declared by Donald Trump in March 2020, and last month extended by Joe Biden. The emergency has been used to justify federal mask mandates, such as those still in place for commercial air travel and public transit, and vaccine mandates, like the mandate for federal workers that is currently being challenged in court. There are individuals, of course, who have different agendas. On Friday morning, after I had left the convoy, a speaker who belonged to a biker group claimed the convoy would “take back” D.C.’s Black Lives Matter plaza, saying “all that paint’s getting off that street.” He was met with cheers.

“Everybody here has a little bit of something different that they want to see happen,” Brase told me.

The people I met — even the ones who didn’t want to speak to me, a self-professed liberal journalist from a mainstream magazine — were overwhelmingly kind and welcoming. (I was very conscious, of course, that I looked like many of them — a large white man with oversized denim clothes and questionable facial hair.) I smiled at babies, I pet plenty of dogs. It was almost enough to make you forget the car with “Thank you Rittenhouse” chalked on its window, the omnipresent QAnon slogans, the co-option of the abortion rights slogan “My Body My Choice” to resist vaccinations, mask mandates, the simple reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Fauci lied, people died,” “Take off your mask, let us see your smile.” These are ordinary people who have built a supportive and loving community from nothing at a dirt racetrack in Maryland; they are also fervent believers in many of the most virulent and twisted conspiracy theories in American public discourse. The whiplash is, at times, surreal. When I mention my recent trip to Ukraine, they often express deep empathy for the people suffering there, and curiosity about my experiences. Then, almost always, they ask me about the biolabs

“I was all in support of Ukraine when this all started,” Dan tells me in the truck on Tuesday. “Then I saw George Soros come out and say ‘we must stand with Ukraine,’ and I thought woah, maybe Russia isn’t the bad guy.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks to the press after arriving with one truck from the Peoples Convoy at the U.S. Capitol March 10, 2022 in Washington, DC. Also pictured, at center next to Sen. Cruz, is Peoples Convoy organizer Brian Brase. The group of truckers are continuing to voice their frustrations with workplace COVID-19 mandates and other restrictions. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the press after arriving with the Peoples Convoy on March 10, 2022.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It is hard, then, to take many of these people seriously, despite their very obvious physical power. A big rig cab alone, without the trailer, weighs 16,000-18,000 pounds. D.C.’s MPD brings dump trucks, which weigh about the same, to block exits, an implicit reminder that if the truckers wanted to, they could smash regular cop cars aside like gnats. The mood at the camp, however, does not feel on the edge of violence. There is anger and frustration, fueled by delusional and dangerous conspiracies. But it does not seem like that anger has the direction or motivation for violence. Rather, the People’s Convoy seems to me to be another exercise in right-wing mass politics — various groups with similar motivations seeing what they can get away with. They want to see what the police, whom they support, will let them do. They want to see what their elected officials will support. It’s a mixed bag, but they like a lot of what they see. The convoy keeps a running list of elected officials they’ve met with in D.C., or who have come to them. Last week, Ted Cruz rode with the convoy, hopping in a truck and saying he was “proud to stand with them.” Brase tells me that he dreams of a “new renaissance based on our freedoms,” powered by “free thinkers” who will “hold their elected officials accountable.” “Remember, they work for us!” is the convoy’s loudest rallying cry. Brase encourages people watching on the dozens of livestreams to get involved in their local school boards right now — articulating a clear view of power-building at the local level that the right wing has excelled at in recent years. 

Still, at camp, there’s a sense that the convoy itself is losing a bit of steam. “We’re at a point where we need more people,” Brase says in an evening speech. “This is going to test your willpower, it’s going to test your pockets, it’s maybe even going to test your faith. But we made history here, and we’re just starting to fight.” The dumptrucks, however, are still an obstacle, and D.C. itself is largely truck-free. 

On Wednesday, the second day I’m with the convoy, Brase and other organizers try a different plan. They send a column of cars, led by two trucks and a CB operator who goes by Pappy, on a mission to get right onto the National Mall, reasoning that the smaller vehicles can take a more direct route into the city. “Once you’re there, play tourist,” Mike Landis, a convoy organizer, tells drivers at a morning strategy meeting before the drive. On the road, the mood is tactical, paranoid, excited. The walkie-talkie app crackles with constant chatter Pappy explains at length that people should keep their transmissions short, with only relevant info. There is a lengthy discussion on the identity of a silver GMC pickup truck, which is lagging behind and spacing out the convoy. As we approach the D.C. metro area, traffic gets heavier, and the convoy gets more and more concerned about “interlopers” — cars merging in and out of the convoy’s lane. Any one of them, the thinking goes, could be antifa. As we approach the turnoff to highway 66, an arterial road that leads straight to Constitution Avenue, the convoy breaks down — the exits are unclear, the convoy is spaced out. There are interlopers everywhere — laggers breaking up the convoy, brake-checking cars. The convoy fractures, some taking one exit, others getting lost trying to follow Pappy’s lead truck. Pappy implores everyone, if they have “Google capabilities,” to find their own route to the National Mall. He then chimes in: “Good job everyone, we’ve overcome an antifa setback!” 

Around this time, following the convoy in a rental car, I experience an antifa setback of my own, and end up on the 66 West instead of East. By the time I backtrack, the convoy has scattered. When I reach Constitution avenue, all that remains is a handful of cars and trucks, looking for metered parking, their drivers blinking in the spring sunshine and taking pictures on the sidewalk. Elsewhere, the rest of the convoy is still plagued by “antifa” vehicles. They get stuck in traffic again. One driver succumbs to road rage on his own livestream. On Thursday, while I was drafting this article, the convoy successfully got trucks into downtown D.C., where they honked their horns and were sworn at by local residents before retreating back to Hagerstown. 

I spend a lot of my time on the road — both in Dan’s cab and my own vehicle — thinking about what makes all of these people drive across the country in order to sit in D.C. traffic every day.

As night fell on Tuesday, I wandered over to where some kids were playing on top of an abandoned tanker truck, silhouetted against a floodlight across the parking lot. I asked their father if I could take a picture. His name is Stuart Seitter, a 45-year-old owner of an oil field service company in La Grange, Texas. “I’d been wanting to do something for the past two and a half years, but I didn’t know what,” Seitter says. “I just felt helpless.” 

I ask him what spurred his decision to pack the wife and kids into an RV and trailer. They’ve been on a massive road trip of all 48 states, and joined the convoy in Oklahoma. “For me, it’s the election fraud,” Seitter says. He told me he wasn’t sure if I’d be able to print that, as censorship is getting so bad. “The truth will eventually catch up,” he says. Seitter is warm and kind, listening to me patiently when I try to explain the perils of voter ID laws, responding politely, asking me to do more research into the Dominion voting machines. A firework goes off, and I half crouch, reflexively. I tell him about my last assignment, in Eastern Ukraine. He and his wife, who walks over, sympathize, asking me how I’m doing since I got back. I tell them I’m ok. The fireworks just aren’t as fun for me as they are for the kids these days. But when the booms and bangs stop, it’s clear the kids are getting bored. “Daddy, are we going home tomorrow?” one of his sons asks.The Seitters have been here a while; they were planning to leave on Thursday, but with the big plan to go to D.C., he figures he might stay one more day. As we saw last January, sometimes one day is all it takes. You never know when the next big moment might come.

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.