The Memo

The Memo: Americans brace for Canada-style COVID-19 protests

The trucker-led protest against COVID-19 restrictions in Canada is spreading — and American political observers of all stripes believe something similar is bound to take hold in the United States.

If that happens, it will add one more fractious clash to the American debate over COVID-19, which is already so bitter and polarized.

It will also come at a point when President Biden is in a tricky political spot.

The public is impatient to return to some semblance of normalcy and Democratic-led states are lifting mask mandates, but Biden is adhering to the more cautious positions advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Tentative plans are taking shape for an American equivalent to the Canadian “Freedom Convoy” that was initially centered on Ottawa but has expanded to three border crossings.

The most prominent American plan, though still unconfirmed, is for a “People’s Convoy” that would travel from California to Washington, perhaps in early March.

The Canadian protest began as a reaction to a requirement for truckers to be vaccinated in order to cross the U.S. border. But it has grown into a much larger cause, pushing back against COVID-19 restrictions writ large.

Republican politicians, including former President Trump, have expressed support for the Canadian truckers, whose actions have also become a rallying point among conservative media personalities in the U.S.

“We are all truckers now,” Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots group, told this column. “The truckers in that convoy are working to end mandates across their entire country. It is not just about what happened to them, it is about health care professionals, and kids in masks and the whole gamut.”

Martin added, “It is time to do the exact same thing here in America — lift every single emergency order.”

Yet even as American conservatives enthuse about the events north of the border, U.S. liberals are more likely to take their lead from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other members of his government who have painted the protesters as far-right extremists.

One Canadian government minister has cast the truckers as a minority “putting their foot on the throat” of the majority. Businesses in Ottawa have complained of having to close, many residents are annoyed at the disruption and at least one trucking association has said the protesters are unrepresentative of the views of its members.

Americans who have become accustomed to being on high alert for political radicalism are eying the Canadian protests warily.

Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told this column that on right-leaning social media platforms, “the chatter around the Canadian truck convoy had accelerated rapidly and it has got pretty ugly — there have been death threats against Trudeau … and almost like an American anti-government style [of rhetoric].”

Beirich acknowledged that it was hard to precisely define the degree of involvement by radical activists in the Canadian protests.

But, she added, “We have seen with every movement, extremists move into them and attempt to capture them.”

The Canadian protest has become potent in the U.S. in part because it has encompassed so many interlinked issues.

An initial money-raising effort for the protesters on GoFundMe was pulled down after it had raised millions of dollars. The platform cited “police reports of violence and other unlawful activity.”

But conservatives lashed out at what they saw as another display of liberal bias by Big Tech.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) suggested GoFundMe could face investigation because of its decision. Both men are potential 2024 presidential contenders.

The politics around the protest are delicate and sometimes unpredictable.

Several major automakers have had to idle plants in recent days as the Canadian protests have spread to the famous Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, disrupting supply chains. Around 25 percent of each day’s U.S.-Canada trade passes across the bridge. The protest has also snarled traffic near Port Huron, Mich.

The obvious downsides to those disruptions would appear to pose dangers to U.S. conservatives who have backed the protests. But at least one prominent Democrat is also treading gingerly.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who is facing a competitive reelection fight this year, released a statement Thursday in which she called on Canadian authorities to “de-escalate” the situation — and conspicuously leveled no criticism at the protest itself.

Later in the day, however, the mayor of Windsor said Whitmer had offered heavy equipment to enable the Canadian authorities to move the trucks off the Ambassador Bridge.

The situation is inherently unpredictable. On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security warned of possible truck-led disruptions to Sunday’s Super Bowl, which is to take place in Los Angeles.

But many conservatives were skeptical of that claim, noting that most plans for a U.S. convoy were not slated to go into action nearly so soon. In any event, disrupting the Super Bowl would seem a bad idea for any group hoping to bring public opinion to its side.

When it comes to the broader debate over COVID-19, even some Democrats acknowledge the turbulent waters that are being roiled further by the protests in Canada.

New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said that the maintenance of serious COVID-19 restrictions was becoming “politically untenable.”

“It’s like war,” Sheinkopf added. “People are fatigued from the COVID war and they want a break and they are acting rebelliously.”

There was, he acknowledged, almost no chance that the Canadian protests could be confined to the northern side of the border.

“These days, borders can be immediately penetrated by social media,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Canada Canada trucker protests coronavirus restrictions COVID-19 Donald Trump Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden Justin Trudeau Michigan Ron DeSantis Ted Cruz US-Canada border

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