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Conservatives Are Morphing into the Party of Doomsday Preppers

The ominous prophecies of government tyranny, financial meltdown and violent anarchy featured on "Preppers" inform more than just the survivalist movement circa 2013.

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Because today’s preppers share so many personal characteristics with the modern-day right-wing populists, it’s not unexpected that the former’s doomsday narratives would gain exposure to and a foothold among the latter. (It should be noted that Mitchell also documented a long, if much less prevalent, tradition of left-wing survivalist retreats and communes, which was touched upon in a Season One episode of  Doomsday Preppers that featured “Calamity Janet” Spencer, a left-wing survivalist who plans on feeding 1,000 post-apocalyptic survivors in her “Armageddon Inn.”) Nowhere is this give and take more apparent than on the issue of guns. As it is with much of the American right-wing, gun ownership is of fundamental importance to survivalism. Mitchell found that, by far, the most popular step in crisis preparation—taken by nearly 64 percent of survivalists—was to acquire firearms.

Arming oneself becomes a necessity for survivalists who game out the aftermath of societal collapse, explains Coates in  Armed and Dangerous. “The most important question, after stockpiling food, water, clothing, machine guns and other gear,” he writes, “is protecting these treasures from the hordes of the less foresighted who are likely to start streaming out of the cities.” This compulsion for a well-stocked arsenal to defend against urban (read: non-white) marauders can have unforeseen and tragic consequences, however.

The violent potential for this intersection of guns and survivalism became tragically apparent last December, after the infamous school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was revealed that the military-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the killings was stolen from his mother Nancy, whom he shot and killed first to start his rampage. “Nancy had a survivalist philosophy which is why she was stockpiling guns,” said her former sister-in-law, Marsha Lanza. “We talked about preppers and preparing for the economy collapsing.” Not long after, an unstable survivalist in Alabama stormed a school bus and killed the driver before holding a five-year-old boy hostage for a week in his  well-stocked, homemade underground bunker. (Law enforcement authorities eventually stormed the bunker, killed the man and rescued the boy.)

The Newtown massacre rightly shocked the larger national conscience and prompted a renewed awareness about the toll of gun violence. However, the counter-narrative crafted by the gun industry’s main lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association, quickly resorted to sounding survivalist-style alarms to justify the group’s intransigence. NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre raised the specter of sinister motives behind the Obama administration’s plan for universal background checks—a measure supported by  nine in ten Americans, incidentally. He claimed that the plan was a precursor to an ominous  “universal registry of law-abiding people” that could lead to government confiscation of all guns. In February, LaPierre conjured up even more paranoid fantasies in an op-ed for a right-wing opinion website. “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe,” La Pierre wrote. “It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival.” By March, a right-wing website was hawking LaPierre’s  336-page, hardcover “survival guide” that he’d originally authored back in 2010.

LaPierre is not alone in leveraging survivalist imagery in service of stopping new gun control legislation. Not long after President Obama unveiled a commonsense package of reforms in mid-January, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sent out an  incendiary fundraising email chock full of similarly paranoid allusions. In it, he stoked conservatives’ fears and talked of them being “literally surrounded,” where “freedom is under direct assault,” due to Obama’s “attempt to gut our Constitution.”

These statements are provocative, to be sure, and to see them enjoy the imprimatur of such prominent public figures is even more unsettling. Still, it would be a mistake to think of this rhetoric as the source code of doomsday myths. “Those who are on the fringe don’t get their ideas from Mitch McConnell,” Mitchell remarks. “They’re going to turn to Glenn Beck or Laura Ingraham or Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly.” Though these and other right-wing media personalities act independently through their respective TV, radio and Internet platforms, they form a powerful chorus that picks out, rearranges and amplifies tales of impending chaos or looming oppression in an ever-churning feedback loop. To see this vicious cycle in action, look no further than the  months-long campaign organized around the lie that Obama’s healthcare reform law would set up unaccountable government “death panels” that could deny coverage, encourage suicide and even institute euthanasia.

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