Whether Ottawa or Kyiv, the false flag of liberty is used to justify attacks against deliberative democracy and open societies. Starting from the Swedish support of the Canadian ‘freedom convoy’, this article argues that global anti-corona protests and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are both united by four ideological positions: the rejection of an agreed legal framework of conflict resolution, a populist polarization of politics, a false conception of freedom and normative foundations informed by conspiracy theories.
Swedish support for ‘freedom convoys’
From Ottawa to Kyiv: convoys of trucks heading towards national capitals with the aim to overthrow or undermine democratically elected governments have become a familiar feature over the last weeks and months. Whether they come in the form of a foreign invasion or badly disguised domestic radicalization are just different forms of the same thing. The drivers of domestic unrest and the destabilization of international order are the same: the phantasm of positive ‘freedom’, direct, unchecked, without accountability and outside the framework of (international) law. Throw in the delusions of conspiracy theories and you have a toxic combination that glue their worldviews together.
On the day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, radical right Swedish Christian Democrat and MEP Sara Skyttedal published an op-ed in the tabloid Expressen, attacking Canadian PM Justin Trudeau for his measures during the crackdown against the ‘freedom convoy’ in Ottawa. Under the heading ‘The Left-Liberal Trudeau has Crossed All Borders’ she tried to make the point that PM Trudeau had gone far beyond what is justifiable for a democratic government. Moreover, she claimed that the alarmist left, normally criticizing authoritarian tendencies and threats against democracy, were now ‘tellingly silent’. Trudeau’s extended state of emergency and the use of anti-terrorist laws to freeze bank accounts of supporters of the ‘freedom convoy’ was described as a “disturbing infraction against views he disapproves of”. Short of openly supporting the ‘freedom convoy’ and its messages, Skyttedal instead claimed that “far-reaching restrictions and demands for vaccine passes during the covid pandemic – but also issues such as sky-high fuel prices – have created widespread dissatisfaction”, thus endorsing the imagined and real grievances powering populist protests. She further claimed that by calling for a state of emergency, Trudeau only managed to pour more oil on the fire of societal conflict. Even during earlier crises, such as when statues of UK royals were torn down during protests against the deaths of indigenous boarding students, this emergency law had not been used, so why now? The effect, Skyttedal claims, was that Trudeau had deepened polarization, for instance by freezing bank accounts of those who had donated money to the ‘freedom convoy’. Particularly outrageous, according to the Swedish politician, was that the Canadian PM had accused Jewish MP Lantsman of standing with ‘Swastika-wavers’ when criticizing governmental crackdowns. Skyttedal is of the opinion that: “one does not need to have the slightest sympathy for the protesters to realize that these are statements and measures that have gone far beyond the limits of what is justified, with potentially serious consequences for democracy and trust in Canada as a result.”
For Skyttedal the real scandal lies however in the double standards Trudeau’s alleged infringements have laid bare; what if a right-wing government would have acted the same way? She claims that “such threats against protesters had given rise to both swift debates and meters of newspaper columns on the threats to liberal democracy and the rule of law”. Thus, in the current climate of the debate, ‘the left’ abuses these double standards to its advantage.
It is not difficult to unpack Skyttedals dog-whistle rhetoric. She is well aware that global anti-corona protests whether in London, Berlin, Stockholm or Ottawa are fueled by conspiracy theories undermining societal trust and facilitating radicalization into violent extremism. Moreover, she is a living example of the global interconnections of new networks of the radical right. She could not openly display her support of the trucker convoy and its fuzzy ideas of unrestricted freedom and messages of overthrowing a democratically elected government. Instead, she places blame on the ‘double standards’ of the left (and media), which purportedly have silenced critique against the ‘left liberal’ Trudeau in the face of his handling of the most massive threat against political order in Canada in modern times. Her op-ed is full of ‘whatabaoutisms’ and rhetorical deflection strategies. She compared the toppling of statues during the protests against the shameful deaths of indigenous children, with the illegal blockade of downtown Ottawa and several US-Canadian border crossings by a minority of truck drivers. Thus, racially motivated structural and lethal violence against domestic minorities is equated with an irrational desire to not comply with democratically decided public health policies. Also, she recycled a trope accusing Swedish authorities of double standards, when BLM-demonstrations were organized without restrictions in the middle of the pandemic. Another rhetorical fallacy is to use the figure of ‘Judaeus ex machina’ claiming it is outrageous to call out a Jewish MP sympathizing with the far-right white supremacist ideology many of the convoy-supporters were displaying (2). The logic is: if a Jewish MP endorses the ‘Freedom Convoy’ it cannot be anti-Semitic. This is of course false, since participants in the protest openly and covertly expressed anti-Semitic sentiments.
Most appalling, considering the timing of the article, was that Skyttedal placed a democratically elected PM of a country in the same field as authoritarian dictators, moaning that if Pinochet had clamped down on protesters the global outcry would have been direct and swift. Thus, Skyttedal cunningly endorsed the association of Trudeau with authoritarian rule beyond the law, speaking to a segment of the global radical right using the term ‘democratorship’ to denigrate the current state of democratic governance (1). Many supporters of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ displayed exactly these sentiments and accused the Canadian PM of being an assassin of his own people, a Nazi dictator. A video posted on ‘Banned Video’ and titled “Trudeau Declares Himself Dictator!” on 15 February 2022 has been watched by about 250 000 people. It shows Trudeau dressed in a black Nazi uniform, a Swastika armlet and a Hitler-moustache, using the same background information as Skyttedal’s op-ed. Tucker Carlson endorsed this reading on Fox News and called it a “defining moment” in history.
Social media support for ‘New World Order’-fantasies
If the readers of the tabloid Expressen were perhaps unaware of the fabric of Skyttedal’s narrative, her 23K-followers on social media clearly appreciated it. A Facebook-post ahead of the op-ed publication, liked by almost 4000 and shared almost 500 times, repeated the arguments of the article, but the 300 plus comments reveal her followers to understand dog-whistle rhetoric all too well. Ulrika (and many others) hailed Skyttedal for her bravery to speak out: “how can a democratically elected leader [Trudeau] even think about doing this?” Leif replied: “We have the same situation in here in Sweden. These red leaders act no longer in the interest of the people and the country but only in the interest of big finance (‘storfinansen’)”. Glen wrote: “Trudeau should be condemned worldwide for his actions.” Agneta claimed that Trudeau was following orders, “now it is NWO [New World Order]”, he like all other leftwing leaders have to obey, read about ‘The Great Reset’” (a conspiracy theory claiming that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has created/taken advantage of COVID-19 to impose a global dictatorship and which was referred to in multiple comments). Ola was sure that “the Swedish people do not understand what this is about. Pure mafia methods by order of the globalists” and referred to a book by conspiracy theorist Nordangård about the ‘global coup d’état’. “It is scary in which direction free Canada has developed”, wrote Patrik.
Followers of Skyttedal were also convinced of Trudeau’s dealings with the WEF and acting as its puppet. Fred posted: “The answer is WEF and Klaus Schwab. Dig into it and you will be scared of the darkness.” Also, Elisabeth was sure that “after the Corona scare now looms war scare”. Yrsa provided the most comprehensive explanation to Trudeau’s actions: “Justin Trudeu [sic] is a member of ‘Young Global Leaders’ Created by the disgusting Klaus Shwab [sic], whose intention is to take over most things. Shwab [sic] is also behind the Global Economic Forum [sic], which wants to launch a circular economy where no one should be allowed to own anything except the very richest, everyone else should only be allowed to rent what they need.” And Anna replied: “they are all COMMUNISTS!” Bruce voiced the same opinion: “Let me remind you that most of the high-ranking ministers in the EU, including our own Prime Minister [Magdalena Andersson], are Claus Schwab’s followers of his political school WEF. Trudeau is also a so-called Young global leader and these rotten carcasses hold each other around the back”.
But this was not the only widely endorsed conspiracy theory voiced (and more than a week later not removed from Skyttedal’s account). ‘Piano troubadour’ Kenneth, who copies the style and outlook of Elton John, (it does not seem to be a fake account) shares on his FB-page the handle #StayAwake for Freedom and Civil Rights, used by supporters of various ‘freedom movements’ around the globe. He has recently added the Canadian flag. Kenneth has also liked the FB-page of the ‘Flat Earth Society’ and seems convinced that 5G kills bees. Already in 2014, he posted anti-vaxx imagery, was engaged against genetically modified food, Monsanto and electromagnetic radiation. He also believes that “ChemTrails are called the clouds that Americans create through spraying!”. As a comment to Sara Skyttedal’s FB-post, Kenneth now posted a text as an image (probably to evade detection by AI): “Putin is destroying the satanic bio-labs in the Ukraine. He is destroying their underground hiding places, their businesses, their child trafficking dens and their strong holds. Do not believe what mainstream media are reporting. Putin is fighting for the freedom of the human race.”
Of course, Sara Skyttedal can claim that followers of her official Facebook-account are allowed to express any opinion and that she has no responsibility for what is posted in support of her op-ed. Clearly, it is difficult to establish which accounts are real (such as Kenneth’s), and which are not. Maria commented with a photo of a map, with Ottawa highlighted as ‘The Real War’ and Ukraine as ‘Where the Deep State wants the War’. This points at the most recent rise of conspiracy fantasies, that the war is staged to divert attention from the agenda of the ‘freedom movements’ and as usual, the ongoing totalitarian power grab of sinister global elites. Yet it is a sign of naivety, if not hypocrisy, that Skyttedal, as an elected member of the European Parliament, tolerates poorly veiled anti-Semitic statements and outright conspiracy theories such as those about ‘globalists’ (shorthand of Jewish world dominance) and the ‘Great Reset’ orchestrated by the WEF. More dramatically, she has made her account a platform and mouthpiece of Russian disinformation and foreign influence campaigns. It was not only Kenneth displaying pro-Putin sentiments – which brings me to the conclusion that support for the Canadian ‘Freedom Convoy’ and the ‘Russian Freedom Convoy’ heading to Kyiv share several ideological positions, perhaps to be branded ‘international ideological symmetry’.
Convoys of Conspiracies
The devil is in the detail. The objective of both convoys was (and is) to overthrow a democratically elected government in a capital of a democratic state and bring liberation to the “oppressed”. But both Russian disinformation and supporters of Canadian ‘freedom truckers’ likened Trudeau and Zelensky to a “gang of Nazis and drug addicts”- just as Putin stated.
But there is also the more delusional component of outright conspiracy theories. Kenneth and the Russian foreign minister Lavrov share the view that the US operates secret biolabs in Ukraine, thus recycling the more recent Chinese lab-leak theory during the pandemic (itself harking back to the KGB-planted conspiracy theories about AIDS) – so prominent in the global radical right. Kiera Butler of Mother Jones has mapped how pro-Putin disinformation is now increasingly spread in online anti-vax groups and, as I have written elsewhere, the re-emergence of the lab-leak-theory has vitalized radical right mobilization on a global scale. Also, as with the ‘freedom convoy’ in Canada, conspiracy theories related to the WEF and Klaus Schwab have been recycled More outlandish are the fusion of pizzagate/paedophile-tropes with justification of Russian aggression, as Kenneth and many others in the orbit of QAnon have recently been engaged.
The psychological similarity between the ‘freedom convoy’ and the Russian invasion is also striking. As Fiona McDonald so aptly said about the Canadian protests, they are speaking to something much larger than vaccine mandates – ‘aggrieved entitlement’ – the perception “that the benefits and/or status you believe yourself entitled to have been wrongfully taken away from you by unforeseen forces.” True or imagined loss of status, fueled by multiple grievances can lead to “feelings of humiliation and, in turn, violence.” Anxieties and resentments related to changes of social (international) order are perceived as a threat to status, which explains ‘retrotopian’ (Bauman) longing back to Golden Ages of a radiant past. Western presence in Ukraine, the successful emergence of an independent national state coupled with unrealistic dreams about the reestablishment of the Soviet Union, or a pan-Slavic Orthodox empire has most likely triggered Putin to release his war of aggression, reinforced by Manichaean perceptions of world politics.
Moreover, historical denialism, revisionism and pseudo-legal language of justification are shared as a rationale behind the convoys to Ottawa and Kyiv . Nothing else than an accelerationist idea of grandiosity (and gross negligence of the rule of law) informs their political pathos. For Russia, violence is a necessary tool to unleash punishment on those who have corrupted the former state of might and privilege and to restore future glory. This is not about Ukrainian territory (or the Canadian Covid-mandates), it is a civilizational and apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil, a heroic mission for which it doesn’t matter how many are killed.
Delegitimizing democratic governance
What unites Canadian ‘trucker protests’ and freedom movements elsewhere globally is that they operate with a false concept of liberty. First of all, conspiratorial ideas about the alleged ‘democratorship’ of governments fighting a global pandemic through conventional public-health-measures is misguided. When agreed upon in democratic decision-making, any legal remedies for real or imagined wrongdoing must be sought within the institutional framework of law, not outside. The same applies of course to Russian foreign policy since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. International disputes are to be resolved by institutions like the International Court of Justice in The Hague, not by unilateral and violent wars of aggression. But it is here both populist and dictatorial fantasies start to diverge from reality – engaging in pseudo-legal language with the aim to justify extrajudicial actions such as wet dreams of ‘international tribunals’ against covid-politics or mock claims of humanitarian intervention to justify aggression against a neighboring country with a democratically elected government. Human rights are hijacked to support illiberal agendas.
The trope of accusing democratic governments of dictatorship – continuation or re-establishment of Nazi rule are particularly popular – serves the primary purpose to shift blame (from their own autocratic tendencies) and to de-legitimize lawful governance. Invasions as much as ‘freedom convoys’ can thus be styled as heroic acts of resistance against an evil dictatorship.
Populist polarization of politics
The second area of rhetorical mobilization is that of ‘the people’ against the ‘corrupt elites’. Global anti-corona ‘freedom’ movements as much as Putin’s delusional war rhetoric exaggerate the alleged corruption of democratically elected political elites not so much out of democratic spirit but rather with the aim of dismantling it. Trust is a primary asset in political communities that relies on representation in decision-making. By undermining trust, the gateways are opened for the tyrannies of direct-decision-making and authoritarianism alike, where responsibility is located in the arbitrary, ambiguous and unaccountable metaphysical ‘will of the people’ or their (self-)proclaimed leader, unmediated by political or legal institutions and lacking any accountability. One key element, at least for populist leaders like Putin, Bolsonaro and Trump is also to shift focus from their own kleptocracies and oligarchies and style themselves as saviors of the ‘ordinary man’. Trucker convoys and ‘freedom movements’ operate with the same logic – power is by definition corrupt (no matter what origin) – but we should trust their leaders with blind faith. Yet they will never tell us which means of decision-making and societal resource allocation will be more sustainable than our current ‘democratorship’. Most likely since their retrotopian alternatives are fantasies of ‘natural order’ in which ‘moral leaders’ take all decisions for ‘the best’ of ‘natural communities’ which include truckers, anti-vaxxers or the ‘Slavic people’. The stated aim of the ‘military special operation’ to Ukraine is to liberate the country and people from its corrupt leadership and it operates under the impression that Ukrainians truly wanted to be liberated by a totalitarian aggressor. Similarly, a Republican congresswomen called for the liberation of Canada saying: “We also have neighbors to the north who need freedom and who need to be liberated.”
The fallacy of false freedom
The third and largest fallacy is that of false ‘freedom’. Isaiah Berlin famously coined the distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedoms where the first entails the right to do what you want (for example to move anywhere) and the second what you can expect to be ‘free from’ (for instance free from infringements of privacy). Positive freedom, as tempting as it sounds, is complex in that it is not necessarily binding, is open to interpretation and is without clear obligation. It can easily end up in contradictions, for instance how my right to movement can be reconciled with others’ rights, even, paraphrasing Popper and the Roman law, leading to a ‘freedom paradox’, where ‘summa libertas, summa illiberalitas’ (the largest amount of freedom turns into the largest unfreedom). Negative freedom on the other hand does not operate from the vantage point of the absence, but the presence of restrictions of how far the infringements of my liberties can extend – both by other individuals and by the collective/state. By pointing out clear limits of infringements, negative freedom is far more committing and less open to ambiguous interpretations. Moreover, the limits of negative freedom are most likely overseen by the rule, authority, and institutions of law. They can be subject to legal review.
In light of recent anti-corona protests, leading German constitutional lawyer Voßkühler stated that “interventions into freedom are part of freedom itself”, to respect the freedom of others is to respect the rights of the self in a reciprocal recognition of justice. She also made it perfectly clear that it is part of a legal culture resting upon the separation of powers to seek legal remedies against real or perceived infringements of liberties. The recourse to independent courts has been in no way obstructed by the corona-pandemic, even if the outcome of some legal actions in many cases has frustrated various claimants, recent data suggests that of about 700 cases in German courts, about 90% were decided in favor of public authorities. The only way to address discontent related to such decisions of the courts is transparency and to explain principles of proportionality and balancing of fundamental rights against each other in a state of crisis. Asked whether constitutional courts were able to protect the ‘sphere of liberty’ (“Freiheitsraum”) of individuals, Voßkühler believed: “people seem to focus very much on their own sphere of liberty” whereas the willingness of accepting those of others appears to be limited, “since people are very preoccupied with themselves, also to engage in perceived grievances”. Unsurprisingly, the comments to the interview in German newspaper Die Welt confirm Voßkühler’s assessment and thus the picture that the COVID-19-pandemic has created a serious crisis for the rule of law as a hallmark of liberal democracy.
We witness the same crisis on an international level, not only in the globally organized anti-corona protest movement, but also in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. The framework of international law is rejected and with it, approaches in international relations referred to as ‘idealism’. Instead, the invasion of Ukraine proves how aggressive ‘realism’, propelled by authoritarian readings of world order prompts a return to (what in international relations is called) anarchy, the idea that political action is unbound, a ‘natural’ conflict of free will, raw power and opportunity. Very fittingly, many of the anti-corona-protests we have observed lately, operate under the pretence of unrestricted ‘freedom’, the idea that ‘freedom’ always is ‘positive’, a right to something, unbound, direct, unspecified, unaccountable and therefore a tool of totalitarian power rather than deliberative democracy with its clear separation of powers. While we see the aggressive attempts to the ‘anarchisation’ of European space unfold in front of our eyes, within European societies, conspiracy theories risk undermining established principles of political conversation as well. ‘My truth’, whether it is googled from unsolicited sources on the internet or not, is as valid as ‘your truth’, the claim goes – agreed and century-old modes of knowledge generation derailed, turned into a polysemic, floating information landscape without any maps or any skills to navigate it properly. This seems to be yet another parallel to the events at the Eastern borders of Europe: two different and diverging modes of perceiving geopolitics and its normative foundations, almost as if having to reconcile flat earthers and those who have accepted heliocentrism, gravity and the big bang as the legitimate result of five hundred years of astronomy on scientific grounds.
Four fields of freedom as a false flag
We have observed that in their version of freedom, agreed frameworks of legal conflict resolution (and their constitutional foundations) have no validity and are rejected. Instead, parallel, arbitrary, and unaccountable justice is preferred over centuries of legal tradition and institutions. The purpose is to delegitimize democratic governance.
Secondly, they peddle the idea that any form of ‘elites’ in democracies are an obstacle to societal resource allocation and decision-making processes for the benefit of the ‘people’. Power is to be enacted directly and spontaneously as the unmediated ‘will of the people’ or their leader, any intermediary institutions of representation are rejected.
Thirdly, they operate with false conceptions of freedom as positive and unlimited and do not engage in or explain how negative freedom can be safeguarded as a protection against infringements of others or the state. Thus, the function of independent institutions (e g for legal remedies or conflict mediation) is rejected.
The normative foundations of these three positions are lastly informed and nurtured by conspiracy theories which enable a Manichaean and dualist worldview. Existing institutions of conflict resolution are perceived as a compromised part of an evil elite conspiracy against the victims of the global plot. It is only if the power of these evil elites is broken by unmediated force (6 January, ‘freedom convoys’, ‘liberation’ of another country) that the pending apocalypse and world dictatorship can be averted. To provide fuel for this existential and millenarist struggle of ‘truth-tellers’ opposed to the lies of Satanic elite perpetrators in politics, media and academia, this heroic fight must be styled as a fight for ‘freedom’: But the question remains: what kind of freedom? And what kind of political communities will it shape?
- Önnerfors, A., “Moving the Mainstream: Radicalization of Political Language in the German PEGIDA-Movement” in “Expressions of Radicalization: Global Politics, Processes and Performances”, Palgrave, 2018.
- Wodak, R., “The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Discourses Mean”, SAGE, 2015.