Sara Aniano is a graduate student in communication at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, where she studies the rhetoric of far-right groups on social media. That includes a lot of work tracking sentiment about the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory as well as discussion of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Recently, her attention has been focused on the trucker convoys that paralyzed Ottawa and traffic on the Ambassador Bridge between Michigan and Ontario earlier this year, and the subsequent copycat convoys in the US. One, the “People’s Convoy,” has been camped out in Hagerstown for almost two weeks, making increasingly annoying forays into the DC area.
Washingtonian spoke with Aniano, who tweets her findings daily, on Wednesday, the 12th day that the convoy had favored DC with its presence. After fruitless attempts to get attention by circling the Beltway, members this week shifted tactics and began traveling up 395 into DC, where police blocked exits. On Wednesday, several convoy participants took in some sights on the National Mall.
Washingtonian: What do we need to know about the evolution in the convoy’s tactics?
Sara Aniano: Gosh, to even call it tactics is giving it too much credit. I really think that they have been hoping for the best this whole time. That’s their tactic. The People’s Convoy left on February 23 from Adelanto, California, and on February 24 Russia invaded Ukraine. So there was obviously like a big timing issue that they were displeased with. They were very upset that the actual legitimate war occurring abroad was diverting attention away from what they consider to be this big patriotic revolution movement.
Another convoy organizer, Kyle Sefcik, had that kind of sad looking demonstration at the National Mall on March 1, and a lot of people thought it was kind of just laughable, like, “Oh, I guess that’s over.” But it actually wasn’t. On March 2, the People’s Convoy had this very large rally in Monrovia, Indiana, where you really saw the scope of how big it could be.
How have you followed this group? From your Twitter, I see you’re watching a lot of participants’ live streams.
They have been consistent in streaming. There’s maybe five or six streams that I go back and forth between, depending on who’s documenting what. I was initially looking at Telegram chats, but those do not seem to be a reliable place for information. There have been a number of other researchers also tracking things like Zello and CB radio that they use primarily to communicate while they’re on the route.
Those telegram chats have been interesting, because while the official one discourages people from discussing politics, a lot of the others were filled with conspiracy theory.
Yes, I mean, they can say that this is not political all they want. But, I mean, of course, it is. It’s absolutely saturated with anti-leftist rhetoric. There is a lot of anti-Biden and pro-Trump flags, although they don’t really talk about Trump that much. It’s almost like Trump and MAGA are just kind of like a symbol of this new Patriot revolution, whatever you want to call it. Brian Brase, the main organizer, his whole angle for the past week or so has been meeting with politicians and lawmakers, and shockingly, they’re all in the GOP.
You raise a really interesting point there, which is that their identification with Trump seems bigger than any political movement. The name and campaign colors of the former president at this point are almost tribal.
Yes. A Trump flag is just a symbol at this point, at least from what I see. I think that there’s more talk about election fraud than about Trump himself. There’s more calls to action about elections, that ballots are counted fairly and soundly. Which is why this convoy could end today and this movement will still continue, and it may be in a worrisome way, especially during the midterms.
There does seem to be an overwhelming sense that their country is being taken away from them.
Yeah, some people have compared it to the situation in Ukraine. There is a concern that we are losing our freedoms the same way that the Ukrainians are, which, of course, is ridiculous, because we are not actually being invaded by anybody. But this sentiment about tyranny is a really powerful tool that they use when talking about this stuff. And it’s weird, because some of them don’t even believe that what’s happening overseas is even real. Some of them think it’s false flags.
They’re comparing themselves to the Ukrainians? They’re saying anti-Covid measures are like the Russians invading?
Well, they’re not all saying that, but a lot of them will say that the establishment of mandates is a stepping stone for rendering the Constitution to be completely useless. Which, obviously, that’s not true.
Looks like one group of trucker convoy folks is backed up on the I395 bridge, grinding one lane of traffic to a halt. Stream I'm watching currently shows a truck with its driver door open and some guys wandering around on the shoulder. Just sitting and honking it up. pic.twitter.com/4blEahdYEE
— Jared Holt (@jaredlholt) March 16, 2022
I find that interesting, because I have two children and they have to get vaccines pretty much every year to go to school. Why do you reckon this vaccine has caused so much agitation?
I mean, it’s a Covid vaccine. Covid, from the beginning, was political. It shouldn’t have been. We saw it in other places, too, Brazil and in the UK to some degree. If a Democratic governor took more mandate measures, then that to these groups is symbolic of Democrats aligning with tyrannical measures. There’s a connection between Bill Gates and vaccines; people think that he’s trying to control the population. This anti-vaxx movement has been kind of in the making for some time, and I do think that Covid combined with the political climate that resulted from the Trump presidency, at least in America, obviously, did make Covid itself more politicized, and therefore, the vaccine followed. That’s not to say that all Republicans are unvaccinated. I mean, that’s obviously not true. It is this particular sect of people who have a really big problem with it.
It sounds like the existing anti-vaccine movement was kind of a vehicle ready to go for a lot of folks.
Yeah. It’s really all the same. It’s religious. It’s political. It’s about patriotism, and it’s always about “saving the children.” Those are the four main themes that I’ve noticed. They don’t actually talk about the vaccine all that much—it’s about the fact that they have to take it. Make no mistake: Biden being president has a lot to do with it, too.
The vaccines were actually developed under the Trump administration. If he had won reelection, do you think their tune would be different?
God, I can only imagine what it would be like now if Trump were still president. I mean, I don’t like to go too much into the what ifs, but so much of their rhetoric is similar to the J6 stuff. In their mind, this is a bipartisan protest and there’s a bunch of libs also traveling with them in the convoys. It just simply is not true.
Let’s chat about that. Does the language you’ve heard from these folks dovetail with other extremist movements, such as QAnon, or the pre-January 6 talk on the far right? I covered some of the latter, and the trucker convoy chatter reminded me of it as well.
There’s pretty direct QAnon references. “Where we go one, we go all” is one trope that you hear. That is directly from QAnon. Things like the “great awakening,” “hold the line,” those are kind of adjacent to QAnon. There was a woman who was in the Dallas, JFK Jr.’s coming back group who spoke to the convoy a few days ago. I would not say that they all subscribe to that. But they’re all kind of cut from the same cloth. As far as J6, I’ve always said that this feels like the culmination of all the tensions that have built since J6. I do think that some people really did think that Trump was going to come back, I do think that people thought that Covid was just going to be over by now, and that they wouldn’t impose vaccines on anybody. And neither of those things are the case. And they are very, very upset about that.
Late to an important doctor’s appointment because of a trucker convoy protest in NE DC. Driver said he would only let me by if I swore to him that my appointment wasn’t for an abortion.
— Rebecca Piazza (@rdpiazza) March 16, 2022
There also seems to be a lot of frustration about the lack of attention they’re getting. Jared Holt, another domestic extremism researcher, has written about how in their world, they are the world’s biggest news story, but they’re easily the least important factor in whether the US will lift its state of emergency over Covid. Plus, most vaccine mandates have been overturned or dropped, and most mask mandates are going away, even in this area, which is overwhelmingly liberal and largely pro-mask and pro-vaxx mandates. So what do they want now? What are they actually demonstrating about?
It’s definitely less about the masks than people realize. That is just one mandate that they are unhappy with that they probably never really had to abide to anyway. They probably were just the type to walk into the store without a mask anyway. If they were a trucker, they probably didn’t really even have to do that that much. That’s not to say that this movement is entirely truckers—in fact, it’s mostly not. Their actual, literal demand is they want all vaccine mandates to be lifted. So that includes things like for nurses, the testing protocols, all of that. And they want the national public health emergency that was put in place for the pandemic to be lifted as well. Those are the two main demands. At least on paper.
I’m not clear on how they hope to achieve those aims by annoying DC-area drivers. Ottawa was obviously very different—the protesters came downtown. Why are they so skittish about coming into DC itself?
The answer, according to them, is because they believe that if they go to DC it’s going to be a trap. They believe that Antifa is trying to incite violence with this group to make them look bad. The paranoia comes primarily from from post-J6. Now, to me, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because there was an anti-mandate protest at the end of January in DC, and it was ridiculous and ludicrous, in my opinion, but, you know, it was technically feasible. It doesn’t make any sense to me why they won’t just apply for a permit like regular people would and demonstrate—unless that’s not what they want. I just cannot figure out for the life of me what the actual endgame is, and we’ve all been trying to figure that out for a month.
What do you make of their meetings with politicians like Ted Cruz and Jim Jordan and Josh Hawley?
I guess it looks good for the movement that Brian said he would have meetings with politicians and he did. Is it effective? I don’t think so. The meetings consist of a lot of nodding and smiling and agreement, followed by, like, a handshake and a photo in front of the American flag, and then they leave. What they’ve been told when they have these meetings is that they should vote in the midterms, and then the primaries and the presidential election, and they should make their voices heard that way. But they don’t want to wait that long.
What are they saying about Washingtonians? Why are those of us who actually live and work here the ones they’re inconveniencing? It’s not the deep state whose windows they’re punching on I-395, it’s people on their way to work and to, like, doctor’s appointments.
A trucker with The People’s Convoy gets out of their truck and punches the window of a Beltway commuter. pic.twitter.com/x3XqkIRztR
— Zachary Petrizzo (@ZTPetrizzo) March 14, 2022
It’s a casualty of war. Remember that in their mind this is a battle. And if some people have to be inconvenienced for their greater good, honestly, they just don’t really care that much. They have way bigger fish to fry than upsetting a commuter on the Beltway. They see DC as a swamp and have compared it to the walls of Jericho. And if people have to miss their appointments or their jobs or whatever along the way, well, that’s what we get for living in a tyrannical America. Because nobody, in their mind, has been more inconvenienced than them.
Great, great. Do you have any idea when they might leave?
All I can say it’s from just like anecdotal, kind of whispering here and there from people that I know are following the convoy. It’s possible they might move locations. I don’t see that going all that well. I have heard that Saturday is the last day they’re supposed to have full access to the speedway. [The Hagerstown Speedway’s phone number is out of service, but its website indicates an event is planned for Friday.]
For people who claim to be representing working Americans, they seem to have a lot of time off of work.
That’s a big question I’ve gotten. Some of them do; some have had to go home. But a lot of people there will say that they have been, and I’m quoting, “mandated” out of their jobs. There was some kind of vaccine measure they had to take, and they didn’t do it. There’s definitely a lot of feeling like their private affairs are being used for political gain. And they would rather lose their jobs and their livelihoods because of their freedom, or whatever.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.