In the United States during 16 months in 2020 and 2021, vehicles rammed into groups of protesters at least 139 times, according to a Boston Globe analysis. Three victims died and at least 100 were injured. Consider that a new level of all-American barbarity, thanks to the growing toxicity of right-wing politics, empowered by its embrace of ever-larger, more menacing vehicles being cranked out by the auto industry.
And keep this in mind: attacks on street protests are just the most recent development in fossil-fuelized aggression. Especially in the red states of America, MAGA motorists have been driving our quality of life into the ground for years. My spouse Priti Gulati Cox and I live half a block south of Crawford Street, the central east-west artery in Salina, Kansas. Starting in the early Trump years, and ever more regularly during the pandemic, we’ve been plagued by the brain-rattling roar of diesel-powered pickup trucks as they peel out of side streets onto Crawford, spewing black exhaust and aiming to go from zero to sixty before reaching the traffic light at Broadway. By 2020, many of these drivers were regularly festooning their pickups, ISIS-style, with giant flags bearing slogans like “Trump 2020” and “Don’t Tread on Me,” as well as Confederate battle flags. Some still display them, often with “F*** Biden” flags as well.
If you live in flyover country as we do, you come to expect such performances. And don’t think that I’m just expressing my own personal annoyance about an aesthetic affront either. Fueled by diesel or gasoline, and supercharged by what political scientist Cara Daggett has labeled “petro-masculinity,” those men in big, loud vehicles serve as the shock troops for a white-right authoritarian movement that threatens to seize control of our political system. Recall the “Trump caravan” that tried to run a Biden campaign bus off the road in Texas just before Election Day 2020. Or the “Trump Trains” of pickups carrying men with paintball guns, one of which attacked Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon.
Long forgotten now by most of us, those hapless North American truck convoys, some of which converged on Washington, D.C., last spring, might as well have been scripted by the writers of Seinfeld. To all appearances, they were protests about nothing — other than a vague sense of grievance personified (or truckified). Still, the drivers did manage to cause serious mayhem, assaulting the residents of two capitals, Ottawa and Washington, with diesel fumes, daylong horn blasting, and bellicose conduct. They paralyzed downtown Ottawa for almost a month (and cost the government there more than $36 million). Some drivers in the cross-country U.S. convoys physically assaulted counter-protesters, cyclists, and motorists. There was one bright spot, though: one day, a man on a cargo bike got in front of a line of semi-cabs and pickups and slow-pedaled through Washington’s narrow side streets, leaving the invaders no alternative but to creep along behind him for what seemed like forever and a day.
The convoy truckers, however, paid little price for the havoc they caused. Indeed, vehicular aggression and violence increasingly goes unpunished. On June 24th in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man aimed his pickup truck at a group of women protesting that morning’s Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade. When his vehicle first came into contact with them, the women stood fast, and grabbed its bull bar — the steel armoring designed to protect the grille against livestock, but used more often these days to intimidate humans. With a yell, he plowed ahead, driving over one woman’s ankle and giving another a concussion. When the police arrived, they interviewed the driver, but they have yet to charge him or even identify him publicly. He was probably shielded by a law the Iowa legislature passed in 2020 immunizing drivers who run into or over protesters, if they simply claim to have been fleeing in fear. Ominously enough, Florida and Oklahoma have passed similar laws essentially encouraging such acts.
Are You What You Drive?
Here in the heartland, white nationalism feeds on gas, gunpowder, oil, and testosterone. Ranchers, wheat-growers, oilfield roughnecks, firefighters, loggers, hunters — in short, the very kinds of guys who populate today’s ads for pickup trucks — are widely viewed as the real Americans. Most pickups today, however, are found not out on the range but on city streets and Interstate highways, sporting empty beds and clean tires, with their drivers settled into cushy captain’s seats. For many of them, big pickups are no more than a non-utilitarian cultural statement and, in today’s culture, that means a political statement, too. (With so many luxury options on offer, a new truck can also be an extravagant statement, since their average price now exceeds $60,000.)
When I was reading High and Mighty, Keith Bradsher’s classic book on SUVs, in the early 2000s, there was as yet no correlation between the supersizing of personal vehicles and political preferences. It was mostly about armoring up against crashes and crime. A few years later, when even more bloated trucks and SUVs with abundant creature comforts started being advertised as “living rooms on wheels,” they still had no strong political associations. Over the past few years, however, manufacturers have begun capitalizing on MAGA-world belligerence by pumping up the road-ruling mystique of those vehicles. On this topic, I won’t even try to match the bracing prose of Angie Schmitt, the author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, who wrote for Bloomberg News last year:
“Pickup truck front ends have warped into scowling brick walls, billboards for outwardly directed hostility… [T]he height of the truck’s front end may reach a grown man’s shoulders or neck… That aesthetic can be detected not only in the raised ‘militarized’ grille height of pickup trucks, but also the popularity of aftermarket modifications like blacked-out windows and ‘bull bars’ affixed to the front end.”
Some pickups and full-size SUVs now approach the dimensions of World War II-era tanks and are advertised accordingly. Ford used the term “military-grade, aluminum-alloy” five times in a single press release for its F-150 pickup. This supersizing, as well as armoring, has had predictable results. For example, in another article, Schmitt observed that
“passenger and driver deaths have remained mostly stable over the past decade while pedestrian fatalities have risen by about 50 percent. From 2019 to 2020, pedestrian deaths per vehicle miles traveled increased a record 21 percent, for a total of 6,721 fatalities. This astonishing death toll has multiple causes, but the scale of the front end of many pickup trucks and SUVs is part of the problem, and that’s been obvious for quite a while.”
The politicization of big-box personal vehicles is now almost complete. By the 2020 election campaign season, few drivers, left or right, needed bumper stickers to tell the world which candidates they supported. A month before the election, Forbes summarized survey data illustrating the relationship between party affiliation and vehicle ownership. Of the models most disproportionately preferred by Democrats, liberals, and progressives, 14 were sedans or crossovers, three were trucks or full-size SUVs, and two were hybrid or electric vehicles. The Honda Civic sedan topped the list.
I’m sure at this point you won’t be surprised to learn that the vehicle preferences for Republicans and other conservatives were almost exactly the reverse of that. Of their top model preferences, 14 were trucks or full-size SUVs while only three were sedans or crossovers. None were hybrids or electric vehicles. Those with the strongest Republican/conservative associations were the Ford F-250 and Ram 2500 pickups, both weighing in at more than 6,000 pounds.
A couple of weeks before the 2020 election, Priti and I were cruising south along Santa Fe Avenue, the main street in downtown Salina. As we approached Crawford, we saw that a long, noisy Trump train was passing through the intersection, headed west. Decked out with flags, balloons, and other regalia, the parade of trucks stretched out of sight in both directions. When a temporary gap opened in the queue, we took a right turn toward home. In this way, our 2006 Civic hybrid (I know — too trite) involuntarily joined the procession. With a huge, flag-bedecked tailgate towering over our windshield, a five-foot-high bull bar looming in the rearview mirror, and a cacophony of horns drowning out our laughter, we crept home, where we bailed out of the parade. Though we faced no hostility ourselves, that was probably because the drivers on either side of us could barely see us.
Compared with many of the 2020 Trump trains, Salina’s version proved remarkably mild-mannered. But all such white-right parades, including the farcical “Boaters for Trump” regattas, also manage to do a remarkable job of making a relatively small number of Americans seem like a big crowd. There were far more people in Salina’s 2020 Black Lives Matter march than in that truck parade. But when you surround a modest number of people with tons of steel and aluminum propelled by loud internal-combustion engines, you’ve got an impressive spectacle in an ominous sort of way. The forests of flags only add to the fascist aura that surrounds the political use of such hulking vehicles.
Until James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his Dodge Challenger into a non-violent group of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, killing Heather Heyer, the tactic of crashing into crowds was best known as a terror tool used by Islamic State sympathizers, primarily in Europe. At the time, the means of aggression preferred by American pick-up drivers was something called “rollin’ coal.” It involved modifying a truck’s fuel system so that the driver could blast large clouds of thick, black diesel smoke from its tailpipes or smokestacks.
Often, coal-rollin’ was pure performance, a display of rebellion against anything in the culture that smacked of concern for climate change. It was, as Vocativ labeled it in 2014, “pollution porn.” But even then, under the surface was the potential for so much worse. In recent years, more aggressive drivers have taken that stunt to its logical conclusion by engulfing pedestrians, cyclists, electric vehicle or hybrid drivers, and other perceived enemies in toxic black clouds.
As Cara Daggett put it:
“A lot of things are attached to fossil fuel culture because they are symbolically a part of a certain way of life or an identity. It’s no longer possible to operate in the world and not understand that fossil fuels are violent. [Rollin’ coal is] a kind of spectacular performance of power.”
Psychology professor Joshua Nelson suggests that such an extravagant, showy combustion of fuel represents an attempt by white male drivers in particular to compensate for two new realities – that men like them can no longer feel they’re part of an all-powerful American clan and that what awaits us all, however hard it may be to express, however much they may want to repress the very idea, is impending doom from fossil fuels destroying this planet. As Nelson puts it: “There is nothing more possibly traumatizing (and requiring psychologically defensive operations) than potential global destruction and annihilation, especially when one is forced to consider [his] own role in this impending apocalyptic disaster.” Whether such “psychologically defensive operations” grow out of a sense of guilt, inadequacy, or something else entirely, they play out the same way — as aggression against the rest of us.
Standing up to the men in trucks
One characteristic news photo from the violent conflicts of recent times — whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Syria, or elsewhere — has been of pickup trucks loaded with armed men. The U.S. hasn’t made it there — not yet anyway. But it’s hard to doubt that (thank you, Donald Trump!) ever since January 6, 2021, when so many right-wing militia members broke into the Capitol, some of them armed, we’ve been living through an attempted takeover of our country by members of one of the two major parties. And in 2022, it will hardly surprise you to know that its supporters own more guns and trucks than the rest of us.
This fits with trends pointed out by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She’s studied the use of violence by a growing number of political parties in a wide range of countries and is now tracking America’s upsurge in militia activity, too. She recently wrote, “Even if Trump passes from the scene, the embrace of violence and intimidation as a political tactic by a faction of the GOP will cause violence of all types to rise — against all Americans.”
Ultra-MAGA elements in legislatures and the courts are already gutting our right to preserve a livable climate, ensure reproductive rights, and vote, even as they create new rights to own weapons of war and put them to deadly use. Usually, those weapons are AR-15s or other firearms, but they can also be tank-scale personal vehicles wrapped in military-grade alloy, with an armored front end.
Big trucks, aggressively driven, straddle the borderline between a democracy in crisis and a country (and world) facing a climate emergency of the first order. They guzzle fuel, spew pollution, and degrade our quality of life. With the paramilitary wing of the anti-democracy, anti-Earth GOP at the wheel, such vehicles portend even worse environmental harm to come. If the far right prevails, its politicos will choke off any state or federal efforts to phase out fossil fuels. If, using means legal or not, they consolidate their power over the Supreme Court, Congress in 2022, and the White House in 2024, they will be spewing the political version of rollin’ coal and are guaranteed to smother the possibility of climate action, probably long enough to make runaway global heating inevitable.
Keeping the anti-democracy party out of power will require massive get-out-the-vote efforts in 2022 and 2024, and record-breaking turnouts in the streets will undoubtedly be needed as well. In truth, there are many more of us than of the fascist wannabes in this country. Like the brave women in Cedar Rapids, we must neither surrender the public square to the extremists nor allow them to bestow rights on vehicles and fossil fuels while revoking rights that belong to us and to the rest of nature.