Feb 10, 2022

The Ottawa trucker protest.

The Ottawa trucker protest.

What is the protest really about?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

A breakdown of the "Freedom Convoy" in Canada. Plus, a question about good books on Biden and a preview of what's coming tomorrow.

Image: WikiCommons
Image: WikiCommons

Tomorrow.

I'll be explaining the different ways media bias works, how it impacts coverage of major political issues, and why I believe the format of Tangle addresses many of these problems. Ever since I started Tangle, readers have been asking me to do more media criticism, or write more about how "the sausage is made," but I'm truly more interested in covering major policy issues, cultural debates, and divisions in the country. Still, I thought it would be fun to finally put down my "manifesto" of sorts — and to explain what I see when I look across the media landscape.


Trump & fascism.

Yesterday, I responded to a reader's question about Trump and fascism. It generated a lot of responses, but one of the best included a link to this piece debating the very question I answered. It's hard to provide the kind of nuance and historical perspective necessary in a reader question, but I think John Ganz does it well in his breakdown of the Trump-fascism question. Notably, he also lands at a different conclusion than I do, writing that Trump represents a "qualitative shift to another register of politics with serious points of resonance with fascism." If you're looking for a good deep dive, and an opposing perspective to my own, check it out.


Quick hits.

  1. The Consumer Price Index rose 7.5% in January, higher than estimates of 7.2%. It's the highest annual rate of inflation since 1982. (The numbers)
  2. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Financial Times that pandemic restrictions could end "soon" in the U.S. (The comments)
  3. House and Senate leaders said they had reached a deal on a "framework" for a 2022 spending bill compromise. (The deal)
  4. Iran unveiled a new missile with a 900-mile range that it says can strike U.S. bases in Israel. (The missile)
  5. President Biden unveiled a $5 billion deal to help expand electric vehicle charging stations. (The funding)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The Ottawa trucker protest. Two weeks ago, a so-called "Freedom Convoy" of truckers began a trip across Canada. Their goal was to demonstrate against the Covid-19 vaccine mandates and other restrictions that have been put in place by the Canadian government, an effort led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The protesters’ destination was Ottawa, the nation's capital, and since arriving they have gathered throughout the city, blocking off streets, blaring their horns and demanding an end to the pandemic restrictions.

Since its inception as an anti-mandate protest, the group has evolved more into a protest against the Trudeau government and leaders in Ottawa. On Sunday, Ottawa's mayor declared a state of emergency. Trudeau has accused members of the protesting group of "desecrating war memorials, wielding Nazi symbols, spreading disinformation and stealing food from the homeless," according to The New York Times. He has also framed them as a fringe minority, though the group has amassed as many as 3,000 trucks and 15,000 protesters.

Leaders of the protest have said they are seeking an end to pandemic restrictions like vaccine mandates and rules requiring masks. Identifiable leaders of the group span the political spectrum, though most are opposition groups to Trudeau's liberal government, with some right-of-center and others more far-right. Polls in Canada show strong support for the public health measures, and 90% of Canada's truckers have been vaccinated while 90% of all Canadians have received at least one vaccine dose. While 64% of Canadians say they don’t support the protesters, 32% of Canadians recently said they had "a lot in common" with the way the Ottawa protesters see things, and a majority — 54% — of Canadians now say they want all restrictions to end, according to a survey from January 31st.

The protests have also been rife with controversial stories. A GoFundMe campaign for the protesters that reached $7.8 million went awry after GoFundMe only turned over $1 million to the organizers and then shut the campaign down and decided to refund the money to donors, citing "violence and other unlawful activity." Meanwhile, Canadian Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has said citizens on the ground are reporting harassment, saying they have "heard about threatening and intimidation and the spread of hate. We've seen Confederate flags and swastikas flying on Parliament Hill." (Some have pointed out that the swastikas were allegedly being drawn on Canadian flags as a criticism of the government.)

Along with the protests in Ottawa, more truckers protesting Covid-19 mandates are now blocking the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit. They briefly allowed the bridge to reopen Tuesday morning, but began blocking it again shortly thereafter. Between 50 and 75 trucks are now blocking the bridge, which carries 25% of all trade between the U.S. and Canada. Toyota and Ford both had to suspend production at their plants as a result.

While the protests unfold, the truckers and supporters have also gotten approving nods from some American onlookers. Former President Donald Trump expressed support for the convoy repeatedly, as have many conservative pundits in the U.S.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary on the convoy from the right and left, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left criticizes the protests, saying they are not representative of Canadian sentiment in general and put Ottawa residents in danger.
  • Many believe conservatives in the U.S. misunderstand the protesters’ true motives.
  • Some say they represent a threat to the world at large, and could be a foreshadowing of what is coming.

Canadian journalist Andrew Cohen says the trucker protesters aren't who Americans might think they are.

"[Tucker] Carlson, [Donald] Trump and [Elon] Musk see something monumental here. They're wrong," Cohen wrote. "Whatever the facile comparisons, familiar symbols and fearful words, this Canadian protest isn't a grassroots revolt or even a Prairie brushfire. More likely, it's a winter carnival, ephemeral, a flaring of anger -- and one that is very, very Canadian. What unites them is their opposition to lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates. Some, [a reporter] found, distanced themselves from the more militant truckers who oppose vaccination outright, spread misinformation and traffic in hatred. Some 90% of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, and their umbrella association has disowned the protestors.

"Canadians have embraced restrictive measures -- wearing masks, closing schools, shops, gyms, offices -- their governments have imposed, particularly measures targeting the unvaccinated. The reason Canadians generally obey their government is not because we are 'better people,' as one Canadian mocks his country's penchant for sanctimony. We do it because we are prudent, cautious and moderate, given to compromise and accommodation, sometimes to a fault," Cohen wrote. "Canada is a progressive place of little social unrest where issues that remain contentious in the US -- abortion, same-sex rights, voting rights, immigration -- are settled. The national consensus prefers a loss of liberty over a loss of life. As a society, Canada is less willing to accept the staggering number of deaths from the virus as the United States (which has some three times those in Canada, adjusted for differences in population)."

In The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi said the "whole world should be worried about the siege of Ottawa."

"Members of the so-called 'Freedom Truck Convoy' have been blaring horns, desecrating war memorials and setting off fireworks. Residents are being driven to distraction. The police chief has called the situation a 'siege'; the Ontario premier called it 'an occupation.' On Monday, the city’s mayor, Jim Watson, declared a state of emergency... What’s unfolding in Ottawa is not a grassroots protest that has spontaneously erupted out of the frustration of local lorry drivers," she wrote. "Rather, it’s an astroturfed movement – one that creates an impression of widespread grassroots support where little exists – funded by a global network of highly organized far-right groups and amplified by Facebook’s misinformation machine. The drama may be centered in Canada, but what is unfolding has repercussions for us all.

"They may be a fringe minority, but that doesn’t mean you should (as Trudeau seems to be doing) downplay or dismiss them," Mahdawi said. "For one, they have a lot of powerful supporters. The usual crowd of rightwing politicians in the US, including Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have been cheering them on. They have also been getting millions of dollars in funding across crowdfunding sites from international donors... Another reason why you should take the Ottawa protests seriously? Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, fringe groups can have an outsize influence.”

In The Washington Post, Philip Bump said the American right is importing right-wing fury to Canada.

"In demonstrating loud, incessant opposition to a vaccine requirement implemented by a leftist politician, the truckers have become heroes to the American political right. And that has meant the concomitant appearance of misinformation, political posturing — and frustration for the Canadian government," Bump said. "The energy on the political right has led to the spread of false claims about the protest on social media. CNN’s Daniel Dale documented several, including the assertion that 50,000 trucks had participated in the protest. That would constitute a line of trucks more than 500 miles long, which obviously didn’t happen."

"Support for the protest, particularly from the United States, constitutes something akin to foreign interference in the country’s domestic politics," he added. "If you imagine a scenario in which D.C. was rendered partially immobile by an anti-gun protest funded heavily by a concerted campaign led by prominent Chinese officials, you can get an understanding of the frustration that Canadian officials feel."


What the right is saying.

  • The right supports the protesters, saying they represent a working-class movement that is exhausted by Covid-19 restrictions.
  • Many say they are right to be fed up, and that it is time to end mask and vaccine mandates.
  • They praise the protesters for being a diverse group and for being non-violent.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the truckers are sending a message that cannot be ignored.

"This latest act in a week-long show of civil disobedience is more akin to political life in France or the U.S. That it happened in restrained Canada is a signal to the political class across the West: Large swaths of humanity are done with Covid-19 restrictions, mandates and excessive meddling in their lives. They want to go back to making their own health-risk assessments," the board wrote. "The Ambassador Bridge, which carries some $323 million in goods daily in cross-border trade and an estimated $137 billion last year, reopened Tuesday morning. Yet truckers continue their protest in Ottawa, which is disturbing the peace and worse in that usually peaceable Canadian capital.

"The truckers should be prosecuted if they break the law, as we argued for Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters protesters on the left," the board wrote. "But as the Omicron virus shows itself to be less lethal and positive test rates fall, the truckers are sending a message to democratic governments that it’s time for the pandemic emergency orders to end... The lesson for the Covid-19 police is that when you’ve lost even Canadians, arguably the most law-abiding people on the planet, you’ve lost the political plot."

In Common Sense, Rupa Subramanya, who lives in Ottawa and spent 10 days interviewing the protesters, said what is happening is "far bigger than the vaccine mandates."

"They are a city inside a city whose inhabitants—there are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000—were outraged with a country that seemed to have forgotten they existed. This past Sunday, as if to confirm that suspicion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has yet to meet with Freedom Convoy leaders, took a personal day. On Monday, during an emergency debate at the House of Commons, he called them 'a few people shouting and waving swastikas.' ... I have spoken to close to 100 protesters, truckers and other folks, and not one of them sounded like an insurrectionist, white supremacist, racist or misogynist.

"Ostensibly, the truckers are against a new rule mandating that, when they re-enter Canada from the United States, they have to be vaccinated," Subramanya wrote. "But that’s not really it. The mandate is a moot point: The Americans have a similar requirement, and, anyway, 'the vast majority' of Canadian truckers, according to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, are vaccinated. (The CTA represents about 4,500 truckers nationwide.) So it’s about something else. Or many things: a sense that things will never go back to normal, a sense that they are being ganged up on by the government, the media, Big Tech, Big Pharma... The convoy is spearheaded by truckers, but its message of opposition to life under government control has brought onto the icy streets countless, once-voiceless people declaring that they are done being ignored. That the elites—the people who have Zoomed their way through the pandemic—had better start paying attention to the fentanyl overdoses, the suicides, the crime, the despair. Or else."

In The New York Post, Glenn Reynolds said we're finally seeing a working class protest, and "the left hates it."

"For more than a century, lefties have talked about such a revolt. But if you really paid attention, the actual role of the working class in their working-class revolution was not to call the shots — it was to do what it was told by the 'intellectual vanguard' of the left. A working-class revolution led by the working class is the left’s worst nightmare because the working class doesn’t want what the left wants," Reynolds said. "The working class wants jobs, a stable economy, safe streets, low inflation, schools that teach things and a conservative, non-adventurous foreign policy that won’t get a lot of working-class people killed. It’s not excited about gender fluidity, critical race theory, 'modern monetary theory,' foreign adventures and defunding police.

"That’s why, even as they legitimize and valorize outright rioting and violence by leftist groups, lefties vilify every working-class protest movement, going back before the Tea Party," he wrote. "In Canada, the press even tried to pretend that the thousands of truckers driving to the capital city of Ottawa were actually Russian agents. When that failed, it fell back on its old standard, calling them fascists, Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists."


My take.

I'm fascinated by the entire scene.

First off, I think the truckers are due some credit here. The American version of "occupying" a city has traditionally involved brandishing weapons, breaking glass or storming past police and security. In Portland, it has involved lighting federal buildings on fire and clashes with police. On Jan. 6th, it involved hundreds of injuries, criminal indictments, and — whether the fault of police or the rioters or pre-existing health conditions — the deaths of five people.

So far, the Freedom Convoy has managed to "shut down" the capital with no discernible violence, no weapons, and little more than their trucks and their horns. Yes, some prominent members of the protest seem a little too interested in Muslims and the Anglo-Saxon race. But folks on the left should be well acquainted with the way protesters get smeared as violent, extremist, or otherwise unworthy of support when they are mischaracterized due to the actions of a few people, and I'm not going to participate in that game here. The vast majority of the protesters seem like normal working class Canadians, even if they are in the minority on vaccines, and as far I can tell there have been no confirmed reports of violence.

That's not to say there aren't reasonable areas of criticism. For one, the protest seems strongly centered on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which — to a lot of observers — gives away the game. Covid-19 mandates are provincially enforced in Canada, meaning the real gripe should be with leaders of the provinces, not the prime minister (unless this is all a lot more political than about vaccine mandates).

It's also true that, for many citizens of Ottawa, the protests seem to be a nightmare. Businesses have had to shut down, roads are closed, truck horns are blaring all hours of the day, and the very presence of protesters has left many people feeling unsafe and on edge. One Ottawa resident told me their daughter's daycare has been closed since the start of the protest. Of course, protests aren't supposed to be convenient, but for a group of people frustrated by the government "shutting down" a country to then go shutdown an entire downtown area could rightly be described as a bit hypocritical.

Canadian journalist Matt Gurney described the scene in even harsher terms, explaining that protesters have built infrastructure inside Ottawa, are setting up tent cities and cranes, and are taking control of much of the center city. Gurney categorized the non-violence as a "lucky break" given that Ottawa had lost control of the city center. The government "can't get it back without a confrontation, and it isn't confident it would win that confrontation," he tweeted. "Our government doesn't have control of the capital city. Super... I think we are in deep, deep shit."

Other reports are more disturbing. A homeless shelter guard said he was assaulted and protesters yelled racial slurs at him. A gay couple with a Pride flag outside says they fled their home after someone allegedly defecated outside their door. Protesters have reportedly urinated on war memorials and police are setting up a hotline after reports of assaults (Again: best I can tell, none of those reports have yet been confirmed).

Gurney would know better than I do where things are headed, but I have a hard time being worried from where I'm sitting in New York. I don't think “the world needs to be worried" or that this is the beginning of some dangerous global uprising. I think we've been asking ourselves for a long time when the pandemic would start breaking people, and we are now seeing — in uncanny synchronization — that breaking point coming to a head.

We've reported in Tangle how the dam is breaking in Democratic-led states, which are now announcing the end to Covid-19 restrictions. These decisions are being driven both by science — vaccine rates are high, natural immunity is high, infections are falling — and politics. The people are, increasingly, just done.

After two years, many are ready to begin living with the virus rather than doing everything they can to avoid it. Outside of urban areas in the U.S., most people already are. Inside urban areas, and especially among people I know, having gotten Covid-19 or the latest Omicron variant is increasingly being seen as a "gift" the same way getting the vaccine was. I've heard elderly Americans say they wish they would get it just to get it over with, knowing their risk of death or serious illness is low if they are vaccinated, and their protection is increased post-infection.

That is the mood for millions of Americans here in the U.S., and it's clearly the mood of the many protesters in Ottawa. They are, by every indication, a minority in Canada. But exhaustion with Covid-19 restrictions is an easy thing to empathize with, and it's a global phenomenon. If there is a larger message to take from Ottawa, it's that the citizenry is hitting a breaking point — and the rising tide of public opinion is picking up speed.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I'd like to read a good book about the Biden family. Any suggestions?

— Angela, Miami, Florida

Tangle: I'm taking an easier question today because our newsletter ran long. The best book I've read is pretty new: It's The Bidens by Politico's Ben Schreckinger. The book goes deep on Biden's rise to power, how his family operates, the real story behind Hunter's laptop, and the Ukraine "controversy," and it spares no one. It pissed off everyone from the Bidens to folks like Rudy Giuliani, all without any corrections or reporting being knocked down, which is a good indication it was an excellent piece of work. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Online gambling is now coming for kids. Global downloads of "social gambling" apps, where no real money is exchanged but kids can gamble against each other, soared from 33 million in 2012 to 1.39 billion in 2020, Axios's Erica Pandey reports. As gambling becomes legal (and normalized) across the U.S., some experts are warning that games like this could lead kids to the real thing. "Younger generations tend to view sports betting as a game of skill, rather than gambling, which has a more negative connotation," Axios sports editor Kendall Baker said. "From TV commercials to in-stadium sports books, betting has fully infiltrated the fan experience for all ages, making it feel mainstream and casual."


Numbers.

  • 65%. The percentage of Canadians who said the Freedom Convoy represented a small minority of selfish Canadians.
  • 32%. The percentage of Canadians who said they supported the convoy.
  • 54%. The percentage of Canadians who said they want all Covid-19 restrictions to end, according to one late-January survey.
  • +15. The percentage point increase in Canadians saying they want all Covid-19 restrictions to end between early and late January.
  • 40%. The percentage of Canadians who disagree that it is time to end Covid-19 restrictions.

Have a nice day.

16 years after blowing a gold medal at the Olympics, Lindsey Jacobellis is finally bringing one home. In 2006, then 20-year-old Jacobellis was on her first Olympic outing. With the finish line in sight, she was about to bring home a gold medal, and used the moment to begin showing off. But instead, Jacobellis fell — allowing Switzerland's Tanja Frienden to pass her and steal the gold. It took 16 years of perseverance, but Jacobellis finally got her gold medal. "It finally all came together. All the stars aligned and in this sport, that can be rare," Jacobellis told BBC Sport.


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