A livestream of the “Take Our Border Back” protest convoy showed a few dozen vehicles in a Texas parking lot Thursday afternoon, where participants milled about, decrying the imprisonment of some Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol rioters and buying Donald Trump merchandize from vendors.

Just a few hours before a planned “pep rally” Thursday, the gathering appeared much smaller than organizers first touted, comprising personal vehicles instead of the semi-trailer trucks used in promotional videos for the event. Organizers spent the first two days of the convoy dispelling confusion about routes and the intended destination, which is a town 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, rather than the border itself.

The convoy has been the subject of mockery from late-show hosts and has battled unclear intentions, with some organizers advertising it as a peaceful assembly of prayer, while others claim they’re responding to a call from ousted Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson on X (formerly Twitter) to defend the border.

Leaders of the convoy, who have encouraged service members and veterans to join their cause, planned the roadtrip from Virginia to Texas this week — in addition to a series of rallies in Texas, Arizona and California — in response to a standoff between the Texas government and federal authorities over border security. As of Thursday afternoon, the group had raised nearly $160,000, which organizers said would be used for gas, permits and staging equipment.

While it was uncertain Thursday whether the planned events would meet the level of participation promised by organizers, the hype surrounding the movement was already proving to be a successful recruiting tool for fringe groups advocating for violence against migrants, multiple extremism experts said Thursday.

Experts from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, the Western States Center and Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights also warned that the attention garnered by the convoy was bringing tenets of the ”Great Replacement“ conspiracy theory into mainstream conversation.

The conspiracy contends that lenient immigration policies are being designed to replace the power and culture of white people in the U.S. The theory has been tied to multiple mass shootings over the past several years, including the 2022 killing of 10 people in Buffalo, New York, and a shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 23 people dead in 2019.

“We’ve seen the white supremacist Proud Boys group, neo-Nazi active clubs and the Aryan Freedom Network all taking advantage of the standoff to push their propaganda and recruit new members,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

In social media posts reviewed by Military Times, various chapters of the Proud Boys in Ohio, Texas, North Carolina and Rhode Island had shared information about the convoy and encouraged its members to get involved. One post on Telegram claimed that a “confrontation was imminent” and another read, “Let’s do this grab your guns n let’s party.”

The Proud Boys romanticize a traditional, male-dominated version of Western culture, and the group is rooted in white nationalism and misogyny, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Dozens of its members were defendants in criminal cases stemming from the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, and four of its leaders, three of whom have military backgrounds, were sentenced to 15 or more years in prison for their involvement in the riot.

Despite the online calls for violence, organizers of the “Take Our Border Back” convoy insisted this week that their group would remain peaceful. In an update about the pep rally planned for Thursday night, organizers told participants to avoid bringing weapons or tactical gear. Organizers also warned of “infiltrators and provocateurs” who might be planning to disrupt their efforts but claimed they were prepared to intervene with such individuals.

Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, described the convoy as a “stunt” and said he was more concerned with the long-term effects of the event, such as bringing a sense of normality to far-right ideas.

“It may not have an impact this week, but this type of rhetoric about an ‘invasion’ and another Civil War have longer, broader implications for us as a nation,” Burghart said. “We’ve witnessed the bitter fruit of this type of rhetoric far too many times in this country. It’s time for America to stand united against such threats.”

The spread of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory has an effect on communities of color, argued Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for immigration reform.

“It puts a target on people’s backs,” Cárdenas said.

To successfully counter the rhetoric about migrants, elected officials should publicly condemn vigilantism and pass legislation to improve the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, Burghart argued. As of Wednesday, Senate negotiators were struggling to finalize a bipartisan deal that included policy changes at the border. A key measure would allow the Department of Homeland Security to close the border if too many migrants were showing up with asylum claims. The bill faces opposition from House Republicans and Donald Trump.

The protest convoy arrived in Dripping Springs, Texas, on Wednesday night, where one organizer shared a photo of a small stage adorned with an “Appeal to Heaven” flag. The flag has been adopted in recent years by Christian Nationalists who see it as a rallying call to seek protection from God, rather than the government. The flag was present during the attack on the Capitol in 2021.

Organizers of the convoy planned to hold the pep rally Thursday night at a brewery in Dripping Springs. Next, the convoy is expected to travel on Friday morning to Quemado, where participants will hold a rally on Saturday.

This story was produced in partnership with Military Veterans in Journalism. Please send tips to MVJ-Tips@militarytimes.com.

Nikki Wentling covers disinformation and extremism for Military Times. She's reported on veterans and military communities for eight years and has also covered technology, politics, health care and crime. Her work has earned multiple honors from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and others.

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