This weekend, highways from Texas to Kentucky to New Jersey were overrun with Trump-supporting caravans. They tried to run a Joe Biden campaign bus off the road, held up traffic, shut down a bridge, and generally pissed people off and intimidated them. It’s perfectly emblematic of the Trump era, particularly the seamless blend of fossil fuels and toxic masculinity to preserve the status quo.
In the wake of the Trump highway takeovers, there were quite a few comparisons made to the Islamic State: The whole idea of armed people in trucks with identifying flags and regressive views certainly makes for an apt comparison. But there’s also something uniquely American about the rolling Trump rallies.
President Donald Trump’s rise has been predicated on the concept of returning the U.S. to some imagined former “greatness.” That period of so-called greatness coincides with rapid economic growth driven by fossil fuels as well as “traditional” values of white men holding power and calling the shots. Trump’s MAGA slurry incorporates many of these elements, and he pitches himself as a particular type of strong man, in fact the only one who can save the U.S. from its troubles and bring fossil fuels back. To reinforce that image, he regularly appears at events with coal miners and dudes in hard hats or uses heavy machinery as a backdrop. He has also, not coincidentally, fought to preserve institutions and ideology that ensure white supremacy.
It all reflects what Virginia Tech researcher Cara Daggett refers to as a “petro-masculinity,” the concept that fossil fuels are a central part of not just the economy, but also identity. Basically, fossil fuel use and extraction is emblematic of traditional values and America being great, synonymous with conservatism. The dependence of American society on fossil fuels is something that has been reinforced by the decisions of predominantly rich white men and has in turn helped uphold the status quo. While that puts us all in major danger due to climate change, giving it up poses a risk to those who have constructed their identity around petro-masculinity.
“If people cling so tenaciously to fossil fuels, even to the point of embarking upon authoritarianism, it is because fossil fuels also secure cultural meaning and political subjectivities,” Daggett wrote in a 2018 paper on the topic. “It is no coincidence that white, conservative American men—regardless of class—appear to be among the most vociferous climate deniers, as well as leading fossil fuel proponents in the West.”
Highways full of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs are a distillation of so much of the past four years, and indeed the entire fight over climate action. Vehicles have become one of the status symbols that define where you fit in the culture war, whether it’s a big, strong truck, a hybrid Prius, or a bike. This weekend’s trucks clogging the highway and needlessly polluting are a big middle finger to climate activists and others trying to draw down emissions to protect their and future generations. Transportation is also the largest chunk of U.S. carbon emissions. To get emissions under control will require major changes, including ending roadway expansion and turning toward public transit as well as banning the sale of gas-powered vehicles. It’s the antithesis of petro-masculinity.
It’s not just the means of protest that speaks to petro-masculinity, though; the location itself is also a strong symbol. The highway system is a reminder of that long-lost era of greatness, a network of roadways designed to help position weapons during the Cold War. It also served as a tool of segregation—literally separating communities by color and determining the outcomes of those who live there—and the impacts are still with us today. Many Black and brown communities bisected by highways have higher rates of air pollution and asthma, among other issues.
Trump supporters took highways over in caravans this weekend as a way to intimidate those looking for change, creating a dark symmetry with Black Lives Matters protesters this summer who took them over by foot this summer to protest racial injustice and police violence. While the Trump highway protests are to protect the way things have been, the Black Lives Matter highway protests are against the very forms of oppression tied up with highways, including racist policing, development, pollution, and the impacts of the climate crisis itself. After a previous wave of police violence and protests on highways in 2016, Rice Kinder Institute director Kyle Shelton, wrote that those protests were part of “wider-ranging debates about race, power, and decision-making in urban America.”
“It can be easy to see on a surface level how trucks correspond to an American notion of masculinity, but there is a deeper social structure behind that, too, which is attached to fossil fuel systems and a fossil fuel culture,” Daggett said in an email. “This is why climate change can be perceived as not just a threat to Big Oil interests, but also a threat to a way of life built around those fuels, what Trump has been calling the ‘Suburban Lifestyle Dream.’”
It’s not surprising, then, that rather than denounce the behavior of his supporters this weekend, Trump encouraged it. He approvingly shared a video of the Trump-flagged trucks harassing the Biden tour bus with an all-caps “I LOVE TEXAS!”, and in another tweet referred to people who tried to terrorize his opponent as “patriots” who “did nothing wrong.” It hearkens back to his “stand down and stand by” line at September’s presidential debate speaking to the Proud Boys. Trump’s support of hate groups, like his support of hordes of highway extremists, is wrapped up in the same toxic ideology.
“Men like this are the ones Trump has always depended on to remain in power,” Emily Atkin wrote of the Proud Boys and petro-masculinity in her newsletter, HEATED, at the time of the debate. “They just so happen to be the ones setting the planet on fire.”
Update: 11/2/20, 2:10 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from Cara Daggett.