Jim Weisman, 54, has a back-up generator, a water filter, a grain mill and a 4-foot-tall pile of emergency food tucked in his home in upscale La Jolla, California. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
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.