Fear itself, President Franklin Roosevelt famously observed in his First Inaugural Address, can present the greatest obstacle to progress. It can easily overwhelm our discourse, paralyze our politics, and splinter the social construct that binds us together as a people. Given enough time, this fear might even convince some that our democratic institutions are a lost cause, our shared problems obviously insurmountable, our collective solutions hopelessly inadequate. In this frightening world, then, the only safe bet worth making is on oneself.
To get a sense of how part of America is going all-in on this bet look no further than National Geographic Channel’s hit reality show Doomsday Preppers. Filmed in an unblinking documentary style, each show profiles a few individuals from the modern-day survivalist movement, all of whom have become convinced that the arrival of a stark, dystopian future is only a matter of when, not if. Though even FEMA believes we’d all be better off doing a little prepping, for these folks, not preparing for what they see as unavoidable disaster is a life-or-death gamble. And though the show often descends into caricature, dismissing the popularity of Doomsday Preppers as mere pop-cultural voyeurism would be a mistake.
That’s because the show is a microcosm of something else stirring in our country, something more foreboding. The ominous prophecies of government tyranny, financial meltdown and violent anarchy featured on Preppers inform more than just the survivalist movement circa 2013. They’re also being absorbed into contemporary conservatism, which has increasingly bought into these same doomsday storylines hook, line and bunker.
Rose McDermott, a political scientist at Brown University, recently published a study in the American Journal of Political Science that analyzed people’s susceptibility to succumb to fearful thinking. In it, she found a correlation between heightened fear and current conservative attitudes toward immigration and segregation. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” McDermott explains. “People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”
This latent conservative anxiety is also the bubbling undercurrent that runs throughout the 60-odd-year history of the survivalism movement in America. A vast majority of its adherents are undoubtedly harmless “small-s survivalists,” as then Chicago Tribune reporter James Coates calls them in his 1987 book, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right. But Coates also points out that the survivalist movement’s origins nonetheless rest upon a virulently right-wing, or “big-S,” foundation of violence, racism, and anti-Semitism.
“The godfather of latter-day American survivalism of both the big-S and the small-s variety is Robert DePugh,” writes Coates. In the late 1950s, DePugh’s thinking began to coalesce around racist conspiracy theories and tales of imminent societal collapse, many of which form the rootstock of today’s apocalyptic scenarios. By the 1960s, DePugh had founded the Minutemen, the notorious precursor of the anti-government resistance group Posse Comitatus. Across the decades, these Survivalist Right groups and their spinoffs have developed a frightening reputation for criminal activity and violent behavior. Just last summer, five men, including one with suspected Posse Comitatus ties, were arrested in Louisiana for the murder of two sheriff’s deputies.
In recent years, a sort of rebranding has taken place within the survivalist movement to distance it from the poisonous “big-S” worldview as well as from fatalistic End Times religious sects. As a result, around 2008, the more artful, less incendiary term “prepper” began to appear on survivalist message boards, and it has gained momentum ever since. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible for prepper types to avoid encountering the extremist elements within the movement. “When the small-s survivalists set out to swap ideas with like-minded people,” Coates writes, “they don’t have very far to look before running up against the Survival[ist] Right.”
Studying how ideas and narratives develop within survivalism is key to understanding how its doomsday thinking has propagated outward into the mainstream. “Survivalism centers around this crafting of tales,” says Oregon State sociology professor Richard G. Mitchell, Jr., who spent fifteen years inside the movement while researching his 2002 book Dancing at Armageddon. “The survivalist trick is to tell their story in such a way that there’s a delicate optimism achieved, that what you have in terms of your personal resources, your material resources, your time, your knowledge and so on, is pretty much what you need.” What a survivalist chooses to prepare for, then, is not based on what is the most statistically probable threat to their safety, but on what fits their individual fears and unique circumstances, he says. For example, large numbers of survivalists stockpile gas masks, but as Mitchell has pointed out before, more people have been killed by vending machines tipping over in the past 30 years than have died from biological or chemical terrorist attacks.
This rigid, irrational worldview, one that tries to force fit reality to one’s beliefs rather than the other way around, is a hallmark of reactionary thought. Nearly 50 years ago, Richard Hofstadter, in his seminal 1964 Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” identified how irrational fears had fueled a similarly unhinged, anti-communist wing of conservatism. Hoftstadter’s essay predates the popular usage of the term “survivalism,” but it nonetheless recognizes the broader similarities between individuals with an inward, self-focused paranoia and those with an outward-looking group-based fear, what he calls the “paranoid spokesman” in politics. “They both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression,” he writes.
In addition, both survivalism and right-wing political populism experience cyclical ebbs and flows in their popularity. What are subtle shifts, however, become amplified by the press into dramatic boom and bust cycles. After large-scale trigger events—most recently, events like the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the dual shocks of Obama’s 2008 election and the Great Recession—media attention in these groups inevitably picks up, and another generation comes forward to put a new gloss on age-old themes.
Thus, a movement like the Tea Party can ride the zeitgeist rollercoaster from non-entity up to sensation and back down to political afterthought in four short years while the demographic cohort that overwhelmingly identifies with it—white, married, male, middle-aged conservatives—is remarkably homogeneous. Likewise, popular survivalist websites of today, such as endoftheamericandream.com and SHTFplan.com (short for “shit hits the fan”), like to repeat the claim that their burgeoning movement has as many as three million followers across the country. But Mitchell says these same numbers were bandied about throughout his many years of research. And in a survey conducted for his book, Mitchell found survivalists to be strikingly homogeneous as well—white (97 percent), married (74 percent), male (89 percent), fairly well educated (52 percent had a bachelor’s or higher degree), and with an average age around 40.
The similarities don’t end there. Just as a New York Times/CBS poll found that “Tea Party supporters over all are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good,” survivalists also tend to be firmly ensconced in the middle class or well off. For these people the term “survivalism” is an awkward misnomer. “This is not the homeless on the streets of New York,” Mitchell points out. “This is a hobby. It is always done with surplus time, resources, money, interest and so on. You don’t run into a lot of really poor survivalists,” Mitchell notes, laughing.
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.
Some right-wing sites, like World Net Daily, tread boldly into deeper, murkier waters. Despite counting as contributors such conservatives as Rick Santorum and Pat Buchanan as well as Fox News personalities John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano—all of whom enjoy, deservedly or not, some mainstream media respectability—WND.com is renowned for pushing crackpot “birther” conspiracies and apocalyptic sensationalism. In December, the site conducted a bizarre poll asking morbid, leading questions about the hypothetical aftermath of a massive power outage. Among its published “findings”: 50 percent of Americans believe that within two weeks of a catastrophic emergency their home would be attacked by looters; 58 percent would be willing or somewhat willing to use a firearm to kill a neighbor they deemed a threat.
Of course, thanks to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of thousands of people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut did lose power for days, if not weeks. As for those predictions of roving, bloodthirsty gangs and pitched, neighborhood gun battles? They never materialized. Even a favorite right-wing trope—repeated by the NRA’s LaPierre—about looters “running wild in south Brooklyn” turned out to be a gross exaggeration. In fact,New York City saw a widespread decrease in crime immediately following Sandy, even enjoying a record eight-day span without a single homicide. But as is so often the case, facts are no match for the hard-wired doomsday prepper mindset.
Consider a January front-page post on SurvivalBlog.com by “Elizabeth in the Northeast.” A single mother, Elizabeth describes the rather caring, well-organized emergency aid she and her two children received at a local evacuation shelter the frantic night Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Nevertheless, she summed up her experience interacting with the many on-site government workers this way: “I didn’t feel like a refugee from Monster Storm Sandy, I felt deep within my soul and in my heart that my children and I were in a farce of being shipped off to a concentration camp similar to what I had seen in Schindler’s List.”
Fleeing one’s home during a natural disaster can understandably generate overwrought emotions. But what failed Elizabeth last October were not our public institutions; they, by most accounts, performed admirably. What failed was her trust in them. This is perhaps the most insidious aspect of the survivalist mentality—the willful abandonment of faith in civil society’s ability to function, often contrary to all evidence. This doesn’t make someone apolitical—a common, self-identified claim among preppers—it makes them anti-political and an apathetic stance toward government should never be confused with an apocalyptic one. “If you talk about politics, you’re always talking about actions in the collective,” observes Mitchell. “To do that is to negate the very fundamental notion that individual action is the most crucial factor with survivalism.”
Ironically, a not unsubstantial number of people winning elections these days do so under a banner of being thoroughly disenchanted with the idea of government and the value of collective action. On the state level, it’s not hard to find evidence of reactionary, doomsday thinking among these political self-abnegators. To cite three recent examples: an Idaho state senator blithely comparing her state’s proposed health exchange to Nazi concentration camps; a Wyoming state rep advocating the legalization of gold and silver as legal tender due to “the potential coming collapse of the dollar”; a Texas county judge warning that Obama’s reelection could lead to “civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe.”
At the national level, polarization studies show that Republicans have tilted even further toward the extreme right in recent years as well. No surprise then, that Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential standard-bearer, rehashed the bitterly divisive “maker vs. taker” argument, one that has deep roots in survivalist mythology. Likewise, Representative Paul Ryan, chosen to be Romney’s vice presidential nominee, fast-tracked his reputation within the party by authoring a plan to dismantle Medicare in favor of a go-it-alone healthcare voucher system. And don’t look to Tea Party favorite and Republican rising star Senator Marco Rubio if you want to avoid yet another man-made financial crisis or fear being abandoned after the next major natural disaster. Rubio, recently hailed as “The Republican Savior” on the cover of Time, joined a small cadre of hard-right conservatives who uniformly voted against avoiding the fiscal cliff, raising the debt ceiling, and allocating desperately needed disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
If left unchecked, this brand of political nihilism does more than just wreck Congress’s job approval numbers; it effectively undermines all our public institutions until they, like Congress, start to fail. Then when they do, these same doomsday conservatives can conveniently cite these breakdowns as vindication. To be sure, right-wing, anti-government agitating has a long, sordid history in our country. But today an alarmingly broad swath of mainstream conservatism also buys into and acts out these catastrophic, self-fulfilling prophecies.
To accept this as our near-term fate may be daunting, but it need not be defeating; the folks on Doomsday Preppersat least offer that valuable lesson. Eighty years ago, President Roosevelt understood this point as well. Thus, his inaugural address invoked “the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity.” He recognized that a nation of atomized individuals invested only in filling one’s bank account or stockpiling one’s basement shelves isn’t really much of a nation worth believing in. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” Roosevelt confidently stated in conclusion, once again embracing the power of the collective spirit to remind his audience, “the people of the United States have not failed.” The same holds true today. If we let it, fear itself can indeed divide one person from the next, but bound together as one people, fear alone cannot defeat us.
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