The anti-Covid mandate protests that started in Canada’s capital and spread to the US and Europe are reinvigorating right-wing populism.
Vaccine hesitancy and frustration over Covid-19 restrictions have erupted into a growing movement tied to white supremacist groups with many journalists and analysts linking this convergence to the rise of right-wing populism.
The “Freedom Convoy” movement started in Canada in response to a vaccine mandate affecting truck drivers and grew into a larger fight against government-imposed Covid restrictions and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself. The movement sparked similar protests in the US, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
While it is true that vaccine skepticism and anger over the handling of the pandemic does exist across different communities, the “Freedom Convoy” has become a rallying cry for the far-right in particular, co-opted to unite growing white nationalist frustrations.
Some of the main organisers of the expanded protests in Canada have no connection to the trucking industry or the concerns of its workers, but are instead linked to white nationalist movements.
Among the listed organisers are: James Bauder, an admitted conspiracy theorist who has endorsed the American far-right political QAnon movement; leader of the “Wexit” movement, pushing for the independence of Canada’s western provinces, Tamara Lich; former Conservative Party Candidate Benjamin J. Dichter, who has warned of the “growing Islamisation of Canada”; and Pat King, who has repeatedly called for Trudeau to be arrested.
In a Facebook live broadcast, Bauder instructed his supporters to “stop talking about the vaccine” and instead stick to a message of “freedom” - a message likely to resonate with more people dissatisfied with the current government.
Who is funding the 'Freedom Convoy' protests in Canada? pic.twitter.com/kwU2leJ85F— TRT World (@trtworld) February 16, 2022
Freedom under the far-right
Growing frustrations among the far-right from North America to Europe are not only about strict pandemic measures. They’re also very much about a sense of lost identity - a white, Christian identity that sees immigration and multiculturalism as a constant growing threat to its dominance.
In Canada, neo-Nazi and Conferderate flags were seen flying among QAnon logos at the “Freedom Convoy” protests and people were heard yelling racial slurs.
Among the crowd of protesters at Washington’s own” Defeat the Mandates Rally” was a group of men wearing symbols of the Proud Boys - a white supremacist organisation closely associated with the storming of Capitol Hill after President Donald Trump’s election defeat and a designated terrorist group by Public Safety Canada.
Across Europe, protesters were seen holding yellow stars - Holocaust imagery comparing the Nazi-regime to current government measures to contain the pandemic.
Far-right politicians have not only endorsed the protests, but have also contributed to stirring them up.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) capitalised on the anti-vaccine movement to draw in new voters. PPC leader Maxime Bernier is a founding member of the "End the Lockdown Caucus" and has publicly opposed pandemic health measures, calling them “tyrannical” and “Orwellian”.
The PPC opposes the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, saying that Canada's government should not help immigrants preserve their cultural heritage. The party believes in eliminating “all funding to promote multiculturalism". It also supports Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans religious symbolism in the public sector.
Donald Trump praised the “Freedom Convoy” in Canada for “doing more to defend American freedom than our own leaders by far.”
Washington’s “Defeat the Mandates Rally” was promoted on Joe Rogan’s podcast, the most popular show on Spotify, as well as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
Proponent of the anti-vax movement and leader of the right-wing United Australia Party Craig Kelly is also anti-immigration and a climate change denier. The party’s current slogan is “Make Australia Great”, inspired by Trump’s former campaign.
The protests that started in Canada’s capital have been likened to the US Capitol Hill attack - a spill-over of white nationalist frustrations emboldened by the divisive, right-wing populist Donald Trump.
Right-wing populism and the cross-class alliance
Some analysts have linked the protests to a rise in right-wing populism. At the core of right-wing populism is an “us” vs “them” message - “the people” vs “the corrupt elite”, “the white majority” vs “the job-stealing immigrants.”
According to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism, the true populist leader claims to represent the unified "will of the people". He/she stands in opposition to an enemy, often represented by the current political systems and tends to centre a message of anti-immigrant nativism.
Anti-immigration messages in particular are rather easy to focus on as the refugee crisis continues to grow and migrants seek safety at Western borders.
Populist leaders tend to allude to a “golden age” where racial and religious superiority were uncontested.
This message appeals to a large base of voters whose political alliances are often rooted in racial identity rather than in social issues.
This political strategy is often referred to as the “cross-class alliance”.
According to Ben Brucato, contributing writer to the collection of essays “Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?”, the cross-class alliance has fragmented the working class by race, creating an alliance between the white working class and the ruling class.
He focuses on the US as an example, saying that the “American bourgeoisie has historically depended on white workers acting against their class interests and instead on the basis of their racial interests”.
The protests have been called a fringe movement, but it’s also a growing movement of right-wing grievances that could become a defining moment for the future course of right-wing politics.