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MAD MAGA: BEYOND BELTWAY-DOME WAS HALF SHEEPHERDING GRIFT, HALF GROUNDWORK FOR THE NEXT J6

by LCRW STAFF

They were so close.

They had the trucks, the bodies, the money, the supplies. They had the fervor and the rhetoric. They had over a million and a half in funding.

In Hagerstown, Maryland, on the eve of March 5, the crowd filled the bleachers of the speedway. They hung onto every word from the leaders who had brought them on this wild journey. Some waved flags. Others yelled various outlandish things about COVID-19 vaccines. And it felt like everyone was livestreaming.

This was it—the moment they would finally be given marching orders from above.

That…did not happen.

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Trucker convoy activists hold a “flag parade” with their cell phone flashlights underneath a gigantic American flag in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Instead, the audience grew restless as speakers seemed to deliver conflicting messages about driving into D.C. proper. One pleaded with participants not to go, echoing chatter in the Telegram chats and Facebook groups LCRW had been tracking for weeks. Paranoia was rampant. Some feared they would be arrested just like the January 6 rioters. There was a chance some would go rogue and detach from the main convoy if they were determined enough to make a statement. But with most roads into the capitol blocked to trucks, there was no telling where a situation like that might go.

“We are not driving into Washington, D.C.,” said “The People’s Convoy” organizer Brian Brase.

A man in the stands stood up and thrust out his chest.

“I’m going into D.C.!” he shouted. The crowd cheered.

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A yelling man holding up the large U.S. flag.

The next morning, the plan became more clear. Organizers called for drivers to make two loops around the Capital Beltway, a massive 64-mile interstate that circles Washington, D.C. as it passes through Maryland and Virginia. It is known for its unforgiving traffic.

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A Montgomery County police officer in his vehicle gives the convoy a thumbs up.

Trucks began to line up at the entrance to the speedway. We raced back to the car and sped several miles ahead to the first overpass we could find packed with convoy supporters. The view from the overpass was alright, but not as good as it could be. So over the guardrail and down the side of the highway we scrambled, choosing instead to set up right along the interstate.

Soon, we saw them heading our way.

They came out strong, railing on their horns for the overpass supporters. And then they just kept coming. This was unlike the smaller convoys we had seen fall apart in recent weeks. They had organized hundreds—and hundreds—of vehicles.

“How many trucks have gone by? It’s been almost thirty minutes. That’s at least two hundred rigs, right?”

“Definitely.”

“We should go soon. We need to catch up.”

Before they even hit the beltway, things would begin falling apart.

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A green truck without a trailer, followed by other convoy vehicles decorated with flags, travels along the highway.

Several days prior, we had listened intently as rally leaders at a two-day stop in Monrovia, Indiana gave fiery speeches about defying tyranny. I barely slept those nights, instead tossing and turning as I ran over every potential upcoming scenario in my head. They had a mountain of supplies ready to endure a long-term occupation, and they were funded well enough to acquire more. It was crystal clear then—as it is now—that the crowd, primarily populated with the most extreme fringe QAnon and anti-vax believers, was prepared to follow leadership into the heart of battle, to suit up for the glory of God against a government they considered illegitimate.

But without that leadership, they would become utterly lost.

As we merged with the convoy on I-70 East, we noticed they were driving fairly fast. Far too fast to stay together in any sort of line. One driver, who kept throwing up the “OK” hand signal, weaved dangerously in and out of the caravan. Others struggled to keep up and change lanes in time to stick with other convoy vehicles.

For all the talk of community and teamwork we had heard all week, the collective act of driving together slowly simply proved to be too complicated for the patriots.

By the time we reached the I-495 interchange, the convoy had drifted apart significantly. There were barely any trucks in sight, and beltway drivers, who had places to be and could clearly not have cared less about a bunch of cars with flags, broke apart their lines even further. There was no fixing any of it. Some drivers would exit after the first loop, dejected and demoralized. The ones that persevered through both loops returned to Hagerstown frustrated that their protest had not had the impact they envisioned.

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Convoy supporters on an overpass with a banner that reads, “FIGHTING 4 FREEDOM NO RESTRICTIONS.”

“I know, it’s frustrating,” Josh Fulfer, a Fresno-area far-right livestreamer who LCRW readers may remember as “Cum Guy,” told his viewers. LCRW watched for 20 minutes or so as he looked for a bathroom in the big, mostly empty Dominion Raceway parking lot in Woodford, Virginia, where another convoy group had set up a rally. Fulfer had followed the convoy all the way from California.

People in convoy group chats on Telegram devolved into a maelstrom of bickering Sunday. As antifascist activist and journalist Molly Conger put it on Twitter, “some people are realizing they got grifted & the ones who still believe are lashing out at the threat to their delusion.”

“Where is the $$$ being spent? Who is in control of the $$$?” ‘Ginger Snap’ wrote in a convoy chat.

“That’s really not a question you should ask,” ‘Freedom Lovin’ Texan’ replied.

“My wife donated 5 thousand and was kicked off this site for asking why they weren’t going into D.C.,” Gary Mayer replied. “I think 5 grand gave her the rite[sic] and she’s a daughter of the American revolution.”

Mayer later clarified his wife wasn’t angry about being grifted—she was mad that organizers of the convoy welcomed “transgenders, gays, lesbians” at an Oklahoma rally.

“lmao you all got taken for a ride, the organizers raised 1.5 mil and dipped,” Bryson Clark wrote.

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A man in a shiny “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat holds his phone flashlight overhead.

“The People’s Convoy” raised over $1.6 million as of this writing. A post on their Telegram chat by Leslie Hanke claimed the convoy is eating $65,000 in fuel every day.

Meanwhile back in meatspace, the Woodford rally was drawing very few people. Conger said that the constant copyrighted music and covers from bands playing to the mostly empty stadium was even making it hard for livestreamers to post content.

“I’ve been talking to Santa Claus, and he’s on his way,” Alex Phillips of the Great American Patriot Project PAC said over the PA system around 4pm, pausing for laughter that probably didn’t come. He promised the truckers would be coming soon. Some did trickle in around 6pm.

“There’s not a lot to tell. Turnout was low, I’ve seen longer lines in the bathroom,” Kristopher Goad, an antifascist activist and journalist who goes by ‘Goad Gatsby’ on Twitter told LCRW.

Goad said there were “only about 20-30 trucks, a couple hundred in attendance after setting up a professional concert.” But when LCRW staff shared our concerns that—flop or not—the convoy campaign had set up infrastructure for later, more effective right-wing demonstrations, Goad agreed.

“They had the capacity to support a very large crowd and give them a staging area for serious direct action with the attempt to push the Overton window,” Goad said.

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A convoy supporter waves an American flag with tassels at the Hagerstown rally.

After most of the convoy returned to Hagerstown, organizer Brian Brace tried to spin the day’s lackluster performance.

“I’m not going to give out any important information tonight. I just wanted to get everybody here together and say ‘wow!’” he said, one hand fiddling with something or nothing in his pocket. “A lot of work was accomplished out on the Beltway. A powerful statement was made by so many of you.”

“What are they even protesting?” read dozens and dozens of comments on LCRW’s live reporting thread from the day.

“The media is trying to say that we fizzled out,” Brace continued. The camera panned sheepishly to a crowd in the dark of at least a hundred, maybe more. He said media like Fox News and CNN need to “come on down and see what’s really going on, because you’re starting to sound like the politicians.”

Brace then said there would be a “driver’s meeting” at 8am Monday to assess tactics and plan their next steps. There was a promise to do three loops around the Beltway Monday, four on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, and so on until their vague demands are met.

And after driving around and mostly giving up early on Monday, protesters did achieve one thing on Tuesday. Brase and other organizers had scored a roundtable meeting with GOP senators and congresspeople.

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The audience in Hagerstown, including a man holding a brown curly-haired dog on his lap.

“There were tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands and then it turned into millions,” one of the convoy delegation told senators Ted Cruz (R, TX) and Ron Johnson (R, WI).

If he was talking about the money their group raised, he was right. As we said, over one and a half million was raised for an organization whose director pleaded guilty to charges of felony fraud and exploitation in 2020. But if he was talking about people, he was lying through his teeth. The most we saw was a few thousand people at any of the convoy’s stops.

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A man in a black T-Shirt that reads, “MANDATES ARE NOT LAWS.”

Cruz, Johnson, Brase and company exchanged vague platitudes for most of the meeting. Pierre Kory of the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), rambled on about how COVID isn’t that serious a disease but also the life-saving treatments for it (he meant horse paste) aren’t being administered. The truckers' complaints? The pandemic was hard on them, just like it has been on the rest of us.

One thing to note on the issue of race as it related to the convoy: the only nonwhite person in the room was an eighteen-year-old black teenager in a cowboy hat. He sat at the very end of the table as far away from the senators as possible. He cried about how his dad served in the military, but he couldn’t make a living as a photographer in L.A. because he refused to get the vaccine. He also complained about being “canceled out” by other black people for his political views and getting called an “Uncle Tom”—a racist epithet for black people perceived as servile to white people.\

“As someone who’s got scars on himself from working with tractors, rode on horses, making sure somebody has a buffalo or some American angus to eat on their table, go to college, you know, I’m just normal,” he said.

“They see this and they think it’s all full of white supremacists,” he concluded. “I feel like because of my color, because of where I’m from—California—I’m breaking all these stereotypes…it’s not racist.”

He wasn’t the only example of crude tokenism in the convoy milieu. Josh Fulfer, the Fresno-area livestreamer, has a show that is called “Oreo Express” because his co-host is black.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the convoy’s attitude regarding race occurred when Mike Symonette of ‘BLACKS FOR TRUMP’ approached the correspondent for “Right Side Broadcasting” after a trucker town hall with neo-Nazi-linked congresspeople Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. Symonette handed the correspondent his card and asked him to cover a rally in South Carolina. The correspondent looked deeply uncomfortable.

“My new shirts are ‘whites for Trump,’” the correspondent’s previous interviewee said mockingly as Symonette turned away and left.

“Whites for Trump! That’s great!” the correspondent said, chuckling, before plugging “the great patriot Mike Lindell”’s pillow company and signing off.

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A convoy vehicle with Proud Boys inside and “Let’s Go Brandon” on the bumper flashes the “OK” hand signal, a white supremacist dog whistle.

In fact, the convoy was laced with ties to hate groups. As we covered earlier in the trip, there was a power struggle between a III% militia movement-affiliated convoy organizer (who once got pranked for a Borat movie) and neo-Nazi Ryan Sanchez. Sanchez was later kicked out of the group. III% militias provided armed security at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and affiliates firebombed a mosque. Also, after the meeting ended, Ted Cruz took a photo with a federally convicted hacker linked to the KKK who tagged along with the convoy.

Despite it all, Brian Brase seems to have gotten his win.

“I got what I was hoping for,” he told a reporter. “I got two respectable members of the Senate here and I got all the media to come in this room and start covering it.”

“That’s a win for me. That’s a win for ‘The People’s Convoy,'” he concluded, before promising to keep driving around the Beltway “until we achieve what our goals are.”

As of this writing, Brase and company are continuing their rounds. After the meeting, organizers regrouped with the remaining convoy in Hagerstown. Several hundred are still camped there, and losing numbers every day. On Wednesday, Brase, for now, has channeled everyone’s energy into weak demonstrations and electoral politics. We’ll see how long that lasts.

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Brian Brase, in shadow, on the rally stage in Hagerstown next to an American flag.

Did the convoy really “succeed?” Surely this depends on your definition of success.

Every gathering like this is fertile ground for the next round of leaders to establish a following, even if we don’t know yet who those new strongmen might be.

This is an era of flux. Kingpins come and go. Associations collapse. With so many January 6 rioters now facing potential criminal convictions, one can expect to see the groups responsible for coordinating the attack—namely, the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and QAnon—morph into new forms. They’ll craft new slogans, pick different colors for their gear, and use events like “The People’s Convoy” to recruit under the guise of “patriotism” and “freedom.” Some celebrated the decline of the alt-right in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, for example. Antifascist activists deserve credit for their relentless work there. But one only need take a look at how close rioters came to their professed goals of assassinating political leaders in January 2021 to see that we are still in crisis. Just ask your local school board.

Failing to make an impression in D.C. has taken the wind out of some sails. But weeks of organizing, collecting donations, and driving and camping together on the road had also given the group ample opportunity for networking and community building. While the convoy itself has been free of physical violence, their tacit tolerance for groups associated with far-right violence went largely unchecked. And through it all, GOP members voiced their support, platforming racist conspiracy theories and COVID-19 disinformation.

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Christian nationalism was a prominent theme along the convoy route. Here a large wooden cross is held in the crowd; diesel smoke clouds the background.

“Pssst, hey, over here!” a voice called out to me.

It was a couple sitting in their car, parked directly across from an RV with the words “NEGATIVE 48 USA” scrawled on the rear window—a reference to a numerology-obsessed, QAnon-derived cult. “Negative 48” formed from a select sect of QAnon believers who insist John F. Kennedy, Jr. survived a deadly plane crash and is in hiding somewhere. These cult members were at or near retirement age.

“Did you know JFK, Jr. is still alive?”

I braced myself for what was about to be a very strange encounter, and walked over to them.

“Oh wow, no, I haven’t heard that one,” I replied. “I don’t know if I believe that.”

They both whipped out their phones and started pulling up videos.

“Look at this,” he said, thrusting the phone my way. “Who does that look like? Do you know who Kayleigh McEnany is? She’s his granddaughter. Look at this. She looks just like him.”

“Ah, sure, yeah, I can…sort of see the resemblance,” I said.

“Do you know about Princess Diana?”

It would take an entire morning to unravel where they had started with all of this, how they fell down the rabbit hole of internet conspiracy videos and Telegram chats only to end up in a Maryland parking lot with a thousand other people who had just driven across the country. There was no hostilityon their part either—only a desperate longing to share. It wasn’t particularly funny and it never is. It’s just fucking sad.

“Oh yeah, I didn’t know she was still alive either,” I said. “The royal family was so mean to her!”

“Well, you know that’s because they’re demons,” the man replied sincerely. “Real demons.”

“Can I ask you guys why you came here today?”

The woman’s eyes widened.

“I don’t want the government telling me to get a jab,” she said. “My son lost his job, you know. Because he can’t wear a mask.”

Was it possible her son truly has a condition limiting him from wearing a mask? Maybe. I wasn’t about to argue.

Then came the words I was personally dreading—ones I knew may come up in conversation with anyone in the convoy.

“Do you know who started January 6th?”

I kept my voice steady.

“Oh, yeah, I was there,” I said, reaching for my own phone. “I was right there, I filmed it all.”

“Wow,” the man said. “What do you think happened?”

“Well, it was incredibly violent,” I replied calmly. “I can tell you it was very violent. I cover all sides of things and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

They stared at me for a second. I held my breath.

He pulled up another page on his phone and turned it my way.

“Did you know Elvis is still alive, too?”

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A recreational vehicle window in the Hagerstown Speedway parking lot. “NEGATIVE 48 USA” is written on the window in red.

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