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America's trucker convoy is a liberal punchline. But it shouldn't be.

I spent four hours walking around the convoy’s Maryland encampment. Make no mistake: The "People’s Convoy" has been a great success for the far-right.
Image: People's Convoy in Hagerstown, Maryland
The "People's Convoy" arrives in Hagerstown, Maryland, on March 4, 2022.Mark Peterson / Redux Pictures

It’s hard to take the "People’s Convoy" trucker caravan seriously. Starting as a protest against Covid mask and vaccine restrictions, it launched after most mandates had been lifted. Many of the convoy’s big rigs, pickups and SUVs are covered with QAnon conspiracy references. Convoy organizers promised to shut down Washington D.C. Instead, they parked their trucks at a stock-car racetrack in western Maryland and then did a few gaffe-filled laps around the D.C. Beltway. The convoy has been lampooned in late-night talk show monologues and newspaper op-eds, and parodied in countless memes. The consensus is that it has been a complete failure.

That’s the wrong conclusion. I spent four hours walking around the convoy’s Hagerstown, Maryland, encampment last Saturday. Make no mistake: the "People’s Convoy" has been a great success as a movement-building event for the far-right. And it should be taken seriously, despite its absurdities.

The far-right was well represented at the convoy. Members of white supremacist and anti-government groups that were at the center of the Capitol insurrection have been heavily involved in its planning. Erik Rohde, a national leader of Three Percenters, was a “consultant” to the "People’s Convoy." (In return the "People’s Convoy" official Telegram account urged supporters to donate to a protest march on the Washington state capitol that Rohde was organizing). Three Percenter and Proud Boy Telegram channels have organized support and raised money for the "People’s Convoy." In Wisconsin, convoy organizers called on the Oath Keepers to provide security.

The Hagerstown encampment soft-pedaled the hate and the convoy’s far-right ties, dressing them up in a carnival-like atmosphere.

When I visited the Hagerstown encampment, numerous people wore Proud Boys sweatshirts or had Three Percenter patches on their jackets. I was told that other members of both groups were there in street clothes. One guy I spoke to claimed to have entered the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Hagerstown encampment soft-pedaled the hate and the convoy’s far-right ties, camouflaging them in a carnival-like atmosphere that drew thousands of people from the surrounding region. Entire families turned out to see the trucks and walk around the giant Speedway parking lot. There was free food and drinks, DJs, a band, quality fireworks, a ceremony with headlights and giant flags. Drivers let kids pull their horns, rev their engines and sign trucks with Sharpies. There was even funnel cake.

Image: Truckers and their supporters form a convoy bound for the nation's capital
Supporters wave flags and watch the passage of a convoy bound for the nation's capital in Casey, Ill., on March 1, 2022.Cheney Orr / Reuters file

The convoy’s entire journey has had a similar festive feel, drawing large crowds across the heartland. People flocked to overpasses to hold signs and wave as the convoys passed. Homeschooling mothers brought their kids as part of civics lessons. Convoy stops were often mobbed with visitors and were inundated with food and drink donations.

Meanwhile, membership in dozens of public and private Convoy Facebook groups and Telegram channels has exploded. Convoy drivers upload reports, sometimes with videos shot as their trucks pass cheering crowds. Supporters post pictures and video taken from overpasses and roadsides along the route. Most people just write messages of support and thanks.

This is how social movements are built. The glue that binds people together is events just like the convoy, where strangers unite through a shared sense of belonging and purpose. They reinforce commitments and forge new bonds as people talk, share contact information, network and recruit. The man I spoke to who claimed to have entered the Capitol became emotional just talking about the convoy’s arrival in Hagerstown, comparing it to a joyous July Fourth parade.

Politicians on the right have also been moved — at least enough to get their pictures taken with the truckers. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita spoke at a large convoy rally. The main convoy organizers met with members of Congress and Sens. Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson. Cruz later went to the Hagerstown Speedway, flanked by national media, and rode in the passenger seat of the lead truck, giving convoy organizers exactly the media win they wanted.

Image: Sen. Cruz Holds A Press Conference With The Freedom Convoy
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to the media with members of the "People's Convoy" at the Capitol on March 10, 2022.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

All this has apparently been a huge boon for far-right organizing. A Twitter account claiming to belong to Erik Rohde (it posted video from the Washington state protest Rohde organized) announced “Huge new membership spikes coast to coast” as a result of “all the work we did on the People’s Convoy.” Rohde cited a tongue-in-cheek 1776 percent “increase in new applications” (followed by the “OK” hand emoji the far right has adopted as a symbol of white power).

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the convoy gets politicians in Washington, D.C., to do anything at all. The real payoff was getting millions of supporters more comfortable with far-right white supremacist and anti-government ideas, organizations and personalities.

By that standard, the "People’s Convoy" has been a clear and frightening success.