Many images symbolize the rise of new American fascism: a rifle strapped to a young man’s chest, the explosion of tactical gear marketed to middle-aged men who imagine themselves as Chris Kyle or perhaps the virulent spread of the Punisher skull as a logo of the far right. But perhaps none are more powerful than the bloated American pickup truck, commandeered by right-wing men who love to wave flags and brandish their arms.
Again and again, we’ve seen these trucks form the violent centerpiece of so many protests. In Portland, right-wing men shot paintballs and pepper-spray while driving through a crowd of anti-fascist protesters, nearly running multiple pedestrians over in the process. In Texas, a “Trump train” of pickups cornered a Biden campaign bus on the highway and tried to run it off the road, causing a crash. In an Ohio “rolling rally” for Trump, a 58-year-old man in a black Ford pickup ended up shooting into the cab of a semi-truck on the freeway — all because the driver flipped him off.
And of course, there was the January 6th riot in Washington, D.C., which began with a massive caravan of trucks and ended with disturbing news about a GMC pickup that was loaded with homemade napalm, devised by an Alabama man who was also illegally carrying firearms.
Pickup trucks have long been viewed as a trope of American conservatives, but much like the latter, these vehicles have evolved into something more explicitly symbolic of violence and oppression. Nowadays, if there’s right-wing action somewhere, you can bet your ass you’ll spot a squadron of Hulk-sized modern pickups — perhaps painted in all black, or just subtly adorned with a Three-Percenter sticker.
Melissa Lewis, a journalist and videographer who has extensively covered protests in Oregon, has witnessed this intimidation up close. Truck occupants attack with everything from hate speech to paintballs to small explosive devices, one of which was even tossed near her at a Portland housing protest in December. She’s also been tailed by large pickup trucks after protests, which is becoming a common tactic.
“There’s only so many times those things can happen before you start making an association and you get afraid of the vehicle itself,” Lewis tells me. “It seems that, since trucks are a symbol of the working class, they’re very drawn to this idea of right-wing Republicans being the working class. But as we see insurrectionists get arrested and revealed, we’re finding out that a lot of them aren’t poor or working-class. It’s about an image.”
New pickups are now more expensive than ever — $50,000 on average, with the cost skyrocketing once you start loading on modifications and accessories. And it’s not your imagination: Truck bloat is real, with a steady increase in dimensions over the last three decades. The zenith of this phenomenon is the rise of the lifted luxury truck, sticking out like a $90,000 monolith amid a protest caravan.
It’s not that swaths of American men have suddenly discovered the practical uses of a lifted truck and taken jobs hauling logs out of muddy forests. The trend is largely an aesthetic one, especially given that for the vast majority of drivers, spending thousands to lift a pickup creates noticeable problems — lower fuel mileage, a higher risk of tipping over, less stability while towing and even wonky off-road performance. Instead, the value to suburbanite buyers has been the powerful aesthetic of a big honkin’ truck, marketed under the guise of safety and comfort. (Ironically, the massive SUV and truck boom has led to a startling increase in pedestrian deaths, which experts link to tall hoods and wall-like grilles of the vehicles.)
Can we really be surprised, when pickup marketing has long emphasized the vehicle’s link to power, presence and masculine excellence? I can’t help but think about how Ford described its Super Duty truck back in 2001: “Do people rely on you to come to their rescue? If so, you need a truck that’s able to tackle every challenge with unyielding grace,” the copy croons. “The new 2001 Super Duty trucks have the kind of power and style you need to pull off a heroic and happy ending every time.”
Add in the fact that truck owners really do feel a greater sense of duty and responsibility, and believe their vehicles allow them to help others more frequently, and you have a perfect storm of culture, self-empowerment and radical action. Thus lies the contradiction of the fascist luxury pickup: Its DNA lies in humble working-class Americana, yet its modern symbolism relies on a look-at-me excess made further explicit by the fact that actual poor, disenfranchised white people can only dream of buying a tricked-out F-250 Super Duty.
“As guys, we’re taught to make up our own minds and use our individual judgement, and we’re taught that success provides a certain amount of authority. Driving that expensive truck is a way to simultaneously identify with a group while also saying that you’ve achieved a fair amount of success,” notes Andrew Smiler, a therapist, author and expert on masculinity.
We’ve seen truck-owning conservative men rally around abusive, dangerous acts like “coal-rolling,” in which you tweak your exhaust so that you can spew black diesel smoke toward people and cars you don’t like (namely, liberals and their Toyota Priuses). But 2020 formalized a fascist aesthetic, which the artist and writer Nate Powell describes as “straight out of Blackwater or The Handmaid’s Tale.”
It’s not a coincidence, after all, that right-wing extremists align their outfits at protests, leaning heavily into paramilitary looks with their choice of facial hair, tactical gear and dark sunglasses. “There’s a surface masculinization to every detail and accessory — unknowable, devoid of identifying characteristics, a man-child’s extension of unaccountable power,” as Powell puts it.
To some degree, righteous truck owners who spend a lot of money on their vehicles would agree that there’s childlike joy in playing with all kinds of adult “toys,” regardless of whether it’s a big new truck or a Porsche 911. But I also can’t shake the undercurrent of violence and insecurity at play when we see belligerent men leveraging their trucks for offense. It reminds me of men who spend tens of thousands of dollars hoarding firearms, accessories and ammunition for “fun.”
The problem is that for every man-child, there’s a committed extremist working to lead by example, recruiting from like-minded people who sport the same symbols and tools as they do. And in the case of right-wing organizing, the oversized pickup is a tool of both support and assault, signaling a safe space for some and a terrorizing force to others. It reminds me of what Lewis, the journalist, observed with a sigh: “There’s hardly a few days that go by in Portland before a protester, a journalist or a medic says, ‘I’m never going to be comfortable around a truck driven by a white man ever again, whether it has stickers or not.’”
And although the lifted, blacked-out fascist pickup feels like an idiosyncrasy of Trump-era extremism, it really is just an old symbol, born anew. Even in the early 20th century, right-wing men grabbed flags and guns and took to their black trucks to attack anti-fascists.
The difference is that now, it’s a much more vulgar display of power.