GREENVILLE — There’s not a lot in common philosophically between Republican candidate for governor Harrison Musselwhite and Democratic Statehouse hopeful Daniel Duncan.
Both come from working-class roots, and both consider themselves soldiers on the front lines of capitalism driving commercial trucks across the state to make their livings.
That’s where the similarities mostly end.
“I’m gonna have my body armor on,” Musselwhite — who will be listed on the ballot as “Trucker Bob” — told supporters at a recent rally.
“I’m going to have my fully stocked AR-15 on, locked and loaded. I’m going to have my Smith and Wesson .40 locked and loaded at my side. And I’m gonna look ‘em dead in the eye for us, we the people, and say ‘Gates of hell, no!’ ”
Duncan, who is running in conservative Laurens County, considers himself a progressive Democrat running on a platform centered on the state’s working class. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy, for South Carolina to expand Medicaid and for increased incentives to spur investment in renewable energy.
“My entire adult life I’ve worked long hours at crap jobs for low pay, so I’m used to being exploited for my labor,” he wrote in an email exchange with The Post and Courier.
The two candidates’ backgrounds and politics — while vastly different — demonstrate a visible divergence in the populist wings of conservative and liberal politics, painting a picture of America’s economic discontent as truck drivers have become front and center amid a pandemic and the supply chain breakdown that’s resulted.
Some say economic conditions are just now helping them arise as influencers.
“Truck drivers are of course absolutely essential to the functioning of the modern economy,” said Shane Hamilton, a professor of international business at the University of York and author of “Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy.”
“They are in many ways the glue that holds global supply chains together,” he added, before cautioning “certainly truck drivers have a loud political voice when they block traffic and blare their horns, though a key question is who is listening?”
Musselwhite calls himself a constitutional conservative who has worked as an activist in the movement since his childhood in Virginia, where he followed his mother canvassing for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Today, he describes the COVID-19 vaccine as “poison.” He’s called for the abolition of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, and lodged baseless allegations that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were “installed” by deep state actors.
Duncan sees the world a little differently. The son of a Walmart employee, he left graduate school after realizing he could make more money managing a Waffle House. Eventually, he realized life on the road could be marginally better and applied for a job on the bottom rung with aspirations of owning his own truck and avoiding the exploitation of working for a corporate carrier.
“I needed a decent-paying job, and I knew truckers were legally required to be allowed to sleep,” he said. “My previous job running a Waffle House had me on call 24 hours a day, and I couldn’t stand that anymore.”
The road ain’t easy
Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S. economy, shortages of qualified drivers in the industry hit historic highs, exacerbating supply chain bottlenecks throughout the nation.
Sharp and persistent increases in fuel prices have decreased driver’s margins. Threats of vaccine mandates have also exacerbated tensions: The nation’s largest trucking association recently released a survey that showed more than one-third of truckers would leave their jobs over vaccine mandates, prompting international protests that prompted a number of Republicans in the U.S. Senate to sponsor a bill to block mandates called the “Trucker Act.”
The grievances of truckers — often faceless cogs in the machinery of commerce — are visible ones. A sweeping poll from software firm Oracle in September said a majority of consumers — 87 percent — have felt supply chain issues throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ipsos polling in April showed heightened gas prices have caused financial hardship for more than half of all Americans. And largely, those grievances have been appropriated by the conservative movement.
Protests over vaccine mandates in Canada earlier this winter have blossomed into recurring “Freedom Convoy” protests across the nation that have since become a nebulous embodiment of right-wing ideology. At an April 30 rally on the S.C. Statehouse grounds, the list of complaints included hormone therapy for U.S. soldiers, vaccine and mask mandates, critical race theory, Facebook fact-checkers, a decline of the “alpha male,” inflation, a stolen election, the perceived rampant sexualization of America’s youth and the creeping threat of socialism.
“There are no TVs in the gulags, but I hear the rice is fantastic,” one speaker, known only as “The Battle Axe,” told the several dozen attendees.
It’s within this audience that Musselwhite — a long shot candidate against Gov. Henry McMaster in this June’s primaries — has found his base.
Musselwhite once found success as the owner of a number of furniture stores but lost his business after his wife fell severely ill at the height of the Great Recession. Within three months, he went from making a quarter-million dollars a year to driving a truck, making $36,000, he said.
Musselwhite’s views remained conservative, rooted in a belief in people overcoming adversity to define their destiny. But he is also a nationalist, and once led protests in Greenville over then-South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis’ decisive vote to expand an international trade agreement that public watchdogs believed would gut the Upstate’s struggling textiles industry. Ultimately, he just wants a fair shake.
“Truck drivers are very independent, fiercely independent,” Musselwhite said in an interview. “That’s why we can stay in a truck for two weeks at a time by ourselves and get the job done. We’re also self-motivated. There have been thousands of times I had to get up at 4 a.m. when I did not want to get up at 4 a.m. But I knew I had a job I had to do.”
Historically, individuals like Musselwhite have come to define the politics of truckers. However, that history is complicated.
In Hamilton’s research, truckers throughout the mid-20th century had a complex political brand of populism defined by anti-statism and an anti-big business sentiment he said “could lean either left or right.”
Though a majority of truck drivers in mid-20th century America were unionized, their union was the Teamsters, which was often criticized by more left-leaning unionists for striking deals that failed to broadly advocate working-class interests. But they borrowed tactics from the greater labor movement.
While trucking culture is defined in a mythic, rugged individualism, truckers would occasionally leverage political grievances with collective action, culminating in a series of violent blockades in the late 1970s. (Today’s “Freedom Convoy” movement has also been pockmarked by spurts of violence.)
Today, however, the politics have changed.
“In contemporary populism, ‘freedom’ is defined in terms of ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to,’ and thus focuses on individual rights and privileges rather than social or collective rights,” Hamilton said.
Trish Lazarin, a Summerville-area activist who has organized several “Freedom Convoy” events around the state, says the symbolism of the truck driver is what has helped build appeal among conservatives.
“What happened in Ottawa, I think, was really eye opening,” she said. “It told us, ‘Hey, wait a minute, we are important and our voices do matter.’ There’s more of us than there are of them, you know, the common person versus the establishment, particularly the establishment politicians who live there for decades and have no idea what their rules do to the people on the ground because they don’t live by the rules that they make.”
The truck driver has become increasingly present in politics on both sides of the aisle. New Jersey Republican Edward Durr, a truck driver for a furniture company, famously unseated a powerful Democratic incumbent there in 2020. In Wyoming, Aaron Nab, a Republican, is running a long shot bid for governor. Joshua Collins, a truck driver and a socialist, gained national attention for his run for Congress in 2020. Robert Gray, another truck driver, became the Democrats’ nominee for governor in Mississippi in 2015. Pennsylvania had a pair of truck drivers run for statehouse seats in 2020: Republicans Brad Witmer and Jed Nessinger.
Duncan acknowledges the economic grievances of the freedom movement are real. But he also believes the thrust of the movement is a misguided one, particularly as the funding sources of America’s freedom convoys have been revealed to have come from right-wing sources.
“I find the economic populism angle to be a smoke screen,” he said. “While some of the convoy members are downtrodden workers, even owning your equipment is a level of economic success that is out of reach for most workers.”
“I think this is just another example of well-funded right-wing groups using working-class language to smuggle in their ideology,” he added.