Donny Thomas and I agreed on many things when we spoke at the California Capitol this week. That's alarming when you consider he's part of the so-called People's Convoy that has crisscrossed the nation in recent days protesting coronavirus health measures and serving as a echo chamber of conspiracy theories and propaganda.
Standing next to his silver BMW 550i, with "free your body and mind" scrawled in pink and yellow on the rear window, he and I concurred that we are fooling ourselves if we think billionaires have the best interests of society at heart.
We also both believe there are bad politicians in both parties. As Donny put it, they're "two wings of one bird. It's a lot of bird poop."
As we watched about 100 of his compatriots gathered on the side stairs of the building, shouting through bullhorns about mandates that largely don't exist and the consequences of treason, we also both agreed the world needs more gardens, more hands in the earth, outdoorsy stuff to get us away from technology and social media. He'd like to see us turn football stadiums into community plots.
No, I'm not here to convince you the far right is righteous. But writing off the many people who are orbiting extremism — not quite there but rubbing shoulders with those who are — as hateful and hate-filled (or even just stupid or gullible) is too simplistic.
Thomas — who says he's not political, right or left — was reasonable and reasoned, congenial and engaging, at least on the surface, a guy you could have a drink with if you avoid drilling down into the details of his beliefs.
He's the kind of ordinary person we are missing when we talk about the Republican Party marching into the darkness of the very tyranny they proclaim to be fighting. And for those who care about democracy, we ignore them at our own peril.
When media have covered the People's Convoy, and the increasingly far-right Republican Party, it's often in terms of Donald Trump and the anger he feeds and feeds upon. We see rallies with his supporters waving all kinds of flags that in one way or another symbolize rollbacks of civil rights or a claiming of patriotism as a conservative Christian value that the "libs" know nothing about.
A handful of truckers and hangers-on driving circles around the Washington, D.C., Beltway seems more tiresome than worrying, so it's easy to dismiss much of it as either extremism or comical theatrics or both — a minority vein of unhinged fear mongering that is given oxygen only by our notice.
But that doesn't take into account the Donnys of the movement, and there are a lot of them. They are the foot soldiers who genuinely believe they are in a fight of good versus evil, isolated by their abilities to see the true dangers facing America and therefore the nation's only possible saviors.
Many of the truckers and their allies see themselves coming from a place of goodness, not discrimination or division. They seem firmly convinced of the lies that bind them together — the global cabal seeking world domination, the rings of pedophiles, the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines for a pandemic that they say was nothing more than the flu.
That is the power of misinformation and disinformation. At its worst, it undermines reality. If you believed what they believe, you would probably be in the convoy too.
Thomas was living in Santa Cruz, working as a heavy-machine operator before the pandemic, he told me. As are many construction workers in the cold months, he was out of work in the winter of 2019. When the lockdown hit, he went on unemployment and started questioning what was happening. He just didn't want to wear a mask, he said. The wives and girlfriends of some of his friends on social media were irked at his thoughts, he said. But he didn't seem to care much, and he never went back to work.
Instead, he moved back home to his parents' farm in Ohio for a while. It's 300 acres, and as a kid he had the choice between working on Sundays or going to Sunday school. He choose work, he said with a laugh. He took off his hat and closed his eyes at the rally when the crowd did a half-hearted verse of "Amazing Grace," but religion isn't really his thing.
But neither was Butler, the town where he grew up. Too many of his old friends had never left, he said. He couldn't fit in with them anymore. "I was the Cali boy now," he said. He lasted less then a year, then moved back to Santa Cruz.
By the time the Canadian trucker convoy was haranguing the streets of Ottawa in January, Thomas was ready for action. He has no mortgage, no kids, no ties to hold him down.
When he heard about the U.S. version of the north-of-the-border protest, he packed up the BMW, which he had just finished rebuilding and which has nearly 200,000 miles on it, and headed out to meet the like-minded in Kingman, Ariz., about 100 miles southeast of Las Vegas on Route 66.
And there he found his tribe, though there were some "bad actors" trying to derail the camaraderie, he said. He's traveled with the convoy for more than 12,000 miles in under 60 days. The leaders reimburse him for gas, and sometimes he shares a hotel room with fellow protesters. Mostly he sleeps in the car, or in a tent if they're stopping for a few days. The tent isn't worth it for an overnighter.
The convoy has had its ups and downs, and "it's not just cruising along," Thomas said. He's taken on the job of being the first car in line after the big rigs — running interference if strangers try to cut them off or get in their way, he said. He pulls up with his cellphone, letting the drivers know they're being filmed, license plates and all.
In D.C. he ran into trouble — literally. A woman accused him of bumping her with the BMW while he was stuck in traffic near Dupont Circle. It made the Daily Beast. Thomas said the woman lay down in front of his car. She told media he purposefully hit her and she broke her ankle. Police were called. I got the report and it says both Thomas and the woman declined medical services when the medics arrived, and the case is now "pending/inactive."
In Sacramento, Thomas passed out fliers warning of the dangers of 10 bills the convoy deems tyrannical. He pointed out Senate Bill 1390 by Dr. Richard Pan, a much-hated figure in anti-vaxxer circles, which the pamphlet contends would prohibit "any person/entity from making statements the government deems untrue or misleading by any means including on internets/ads."
I suggested he look up the bill himself, because that's not what it says. He shrugged, clearly unconvinced by my take on it.
I let it go with that because, well, Donny isn't the first Donny I've spoken to. I've met lots of people with his misguided conviction and determination these past two years. What I've learned is that there is no common ground to find when it comes to the big issues. We may agree on community gardens, but ultimately, Thomas believes he's been freed from the "Matrix," as he puts it, and sees truths I can't.
I believe he's been lied to and manipulated by those seeking political and financial gain. It's not that I think he's a bad person, or has ill intent. I liked Donny. I just think he's not functioning in reality, the same way he thinks I'm not.
But I don't think there's anything I can say that will make him reconsider these false "truths" he now holds dear. I've spoken to families desperate to pull their loved ones out of conspiracies such as QAnon, and reported on the intricacies and extremes that have taken ordinary people like Thomas and made them feel as if they are in an extraordinary moment.
It's the energy of that alternative belief system that should concern us all. Trump isn't the center holding these believers together anymore. As much as many still love Trump and will rally to a 2024 campaign, their focus is also on school boards and election offices and health departments, even as the rest of us pay little attention to the institutions of everyday life they are trying to transform.
The protections of Roe vs. Wade will almost certainly end in a few months. Laws against LGBTQ+ rights are sadly common across the country, chipping away civil rights from people who only recently won them. Such malevolent statutes will embolden more rollbacks if they are not challenged. Teachers are under attack, pilloried for any comment that touches on race or gender identity. Books are being banned. Elections are coming, and those who oversee them are being driven out of office.
My daughter is reading "Fahrenheit 451" for school, and last night we came across this passage about how its authoritarian regime began: “It didn’t come from the Government down," Ray Bradbury wrote 70 years ago. "There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.”
That trinity of forces is more relevant than ever, yet in the United States, Bradbury's dystopian vision has not come to pass.
But he understood how easily it could, if the many ignore a powerful few.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.