The mix of symbols adorning the trucks that paralysed Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is familiar to anyone who has been watching the international far right: swastikas, Confederate flags, QAnon merchandise and scrawled placards demanding “freedom” and accusing the government of treason. But not enough people have been watching.
When thousands of truckers and their supporters descended on the Canadian capital at the end of January, paralysing commerce in a city of a million people, harassing minorities and haranguing those who dared to question them, the police did nothing. Those who blocked a crucial international border crossing were hugged by police officers.
The federal government – whose prime minister Justin Trudeau is the main target for the protesters’ hatred – made polite fulminations but for three weeks sat on its hands. Only when Ottawans began peacefully to counter-demonstrate, through a coalition of community groups and trade unions, did Trudeau invoke the country’s Emergencies Act. Ottawa’s police chief promptly resigned. As I write, the critical moments lie ahead for Ottawa’s law enforcement, but the lessons of the episode should be clear.
The problem Western democracies face is not, simply, that a minority of far-right-led conspiracists can threaten democracy and paralyse society by taking direct action. It is not simply that they have the passive support of some non-college educated working-class people. It is that neither liberalism, nor the state, understand what they’re up against.
The Canadian trucker convoy was sparked – like similar protests in the UK, in France and in Australia – by tough vaccine mandates: in this case the requirement for cross-border truckers to be vaccinated. This created the ideal victim group: male, manual workers, often self-employed and with a legitimate reason to draw support – and millions of dollars – from the right in the US.
But it was no spontaneous movement. Its leader, James Bauder is a QAnon and Covid-19 conspiracy theorist, who previously organised a similar convoy to protest against measures to reduce carbon emissions.
Other leading figures who have emerged as spokespeople for the movement are associated with homophobic, anti-Islam and anti-immigration movements. Jason LaFace, for example, one of the convoy’s organisers, has been pictured clothed in the regalia of the far-right vigilante group Soldiers of Odin.
The protesters drew up a memorandum of understanding, calling on the senate and the governor general to overthrow Canada’s elected Liberal government. Pat King, the Alberta organiser, told followers of his livestream that “the only way this is going to be solved is with bullets”. Throughout the protests, though they have shrunk from joining in, numerous conservative politicians have either posed for photographs with the truckers, or issued overt statements of support.
There is no mystery as to what kind of movement this is: it is 21st-century fascism. It is the mobilisation of racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes and science deniers around one issue after another: first carbon pricing, then lockdowns, then masks, then vaccine mandates, then the legitimacy of one of the most socially liberal governments in the world.
Nor can there be any mystery about why numerous conservative politicians have dog-whistled their support. The same thing happened, writ large, in the US on 6 January 2021 on Capitol Hill, and it happened in the UK during the 2021 European Championship over Black Lives Matter and the taking of the knee. Fascism is, as Hannah Arendt warned us, always the “temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”.
The mystery, to me, is why the mainstream media and the liberal establishment in a country such as Canada failed to understand this. The Canadian media is not, like its US counterpart, completely swamped with far-right disinformation channels, which form a professionally resourced echo chamber for the swamp of fascist propaganda on Telegram and the /chans. Yet for weeks, its default response to the convoy was to run neutral “who are they and what do they want?”-style features on them.
In the same vein, Trudeau’s government – normally competent and technocratic – has been paralysed, and even now does not seem able to convince Canada’s state governors to enforce the Emergencies Act.
So let’s spell it out. We are, this year, commemorating the centenary of Benito Mussolini’s march to power. It began with the eradication of a peasant socialist movement; moved to the successive occupation of left-wing towns and cities; reached its climax in August as the blackshirts smashed a nationwide general strike; and its denouement in the March on Rome in October 1922, which put Mussolini into power.
The key technologies that enabled the fascist insurrection were, as reported at the time, “truck and telephone”. The fascist squads moved from place to place by truck and warned off the local cops by telephone, while the civil authorities stood either powerless or actively sympathetic. In the final phase, the king did to the elected cabinet exactly what the Canadian truckers want the governor general to do to Trudeau.
Fascism succeeds by creating the illusion of chaos, by intimidating parts of civil society that oppose it, by exploiting the passivity and sympathy of police forces. It creates in people’s minds the sudden realisation that liberal democratic structures are weak, and could be destroyed with one firm kick at the door. And then it kicks the door.
Where fascism was defeated in the 1930s, it was through the mobilisation of the progressive majority in society around the labour movement, and because mainstream liberal and conservative governments adopted tactics that the jurist Karl Loewenstein called “militant democracy”.
If fascism is an all-pervasive idea, said Loewenstein, a German lawyer who fled to the US, then democracy is doomed. But if it’s just a series of clever tactics, exploiting the weaknesses of liberal democratic institutions, that can be remedied. We need simply to realise that the job of democracy is not to facilitate the rise of fascism but to crush fascism.
Loewenstein’s list of counter-tactics is remarkably relevant to the Canadian trucker convoy. First of all, use the existing laws that outlaw incitement to violence and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Next, outlaw fascist uniforms and symbols; ban anti-democratic political parties; ban parties and movements that question the legitimacy or territorial integrity of the state; ban individuals who incite violence from holding public office.
You need to track and terminate the cross-border funding of far-right groups, said Loewenstein. And you need to proactively police the police and armed forces, banning and weeding out fascist activism.
What you end up with is not pretty. It is a democracy that has become illiberal towards the far right. The Germans – because of bitter experience – have a name for it: wehrhafte demokratie – armed, self-defensive democracy.
Most liberals have so far shied away from these solutions. Few on the left want to make the existing police force more powerful. Many progressives fear that the state has become so corrupted by corporate influence and nepotism that it cannot be safely used to repress creeping fascism.
In the coming days, Justin Trudeau, the global poster boy for liberalism, has the chance to prove that wrong.