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Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Survivalism' | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Survivalism'


Photograph from National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, courtesy of National Geographic Channel

There’s nothing new under the wingnut sun.

Survivalists are back in the news this week, though now we call them “preppers.” In Alabama the hostage standoff against a doomsday prepper holding a 5-year-old in a bunker he’d been working on in the middle of the night for over a year approaches the end of its first week. Adam Lanza shot up the children of Sandy Hook elementary with weapons his mother was reportedly stockpiling “for the economic and social meltdown.” And the brittle worldview that drives the survivalist mentality—the imagination of one’s one innocent enclave, always ever threatened by siege from dread unnamed Others—was laid bare at the recent congressional hearings on gun control, when Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum (incidentally: not independent, not by and for women, not a forum) spun out her delirious fantasy of “a young woman defending her babies in her home” by fending off “three, four, five violent attackers” with one of those lightweight, easy-to-handle assault rifles.

Recently a young blogger, in a nice profile of the diverse subculture as it thrives now, unfortunately described preppers as a “nascent” movement. That ain’t so. As I’ve insisted earlier, “too much of what we observe today on the right we act as if started the day before yesterday. Always, we need to set the clock back further—as a political necessity. We have to establish deeper provenances. Or else we just reinvent, and reinvent and reinvent the wheel.” Let’s think about this: for generations we have shared our America with Americans who fear change, fear difference, fear you and me, fear everything falling apart. So much so that they organize their lives and politics around staving off the fear—which often entails taking political action that only makes America more fearful and dangerous in for everyone; which destroy the trust and love it takes to sustain communities; and who reinforce one another in their fear to such a degree that the less crazy among them surely play a positive role in spurring the more crazy to the kind of awful acts we see around us now. We need to better understand where that comes from, and why it is not going away.

So let’s get down to work.

In the early 1960s there was a group called the “Minutemen,” preparing for the imminent combined Communist and United Nations invasion. Their founder, Robert DePugh, a manufacturer of veterinary phamarceuticals in Misssouri, told the press that while waiting for the final showdown, his men would monitor and check subversive activities in their hometowns. DePugh claimed inspiration from a speech given by John F. Kennedy: “We need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life.”

Make no mistake: armed right-wing enclave-defenders aren’t just a function of their hatred for Democrats; they are also enabled by Democrats who braid paranoia into the political identity of the nation—Cold War paranoia then, “Homeland Security” paranoia now.

The stickers they distributed included read ones reading “REGISTER COMMUNISTS, NOT FIREARMS,” and tiny one members would slap on restroom walls or inside phone books featuring an image of rifle cross hairs, and this text: “See that old man at the corner where you buy your papers?… He may have a silencer equipped pistol under his coat. That fountain pen in the pocket of the insurance salesman that calls on you might be a cyanide gas gun. What about your milkman? Arsenic works slow but sure.… Traitors, beware! Even now the crosshairs are on the back of your necks.”

In 1966, Minutemen were arrested in a raid after FBI infiltration indicated they were on the verge of attacking three pacifist camps in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. They had stockpiled rockets, bombs and literally tons of ammunition. (You can read all about the group in this excellent book published at the time.)

What was DePugh’s connection to later preppers and survivalists? It was direct. In 1973 he published Can You Survive? Guidelines for Resistance to Tyranny for You and Your Family. Read the Amazon comments (“Everything they don’t want you to know…”); some people still find it useful now. And note the cover of the paperback. Like I said: the enclaves of innocents, always ever threatened by sudden siege by dread unnamed Others. Be prepared.

By the way, heard that new one? That a liberal is a conservative who’s been incarcerated? According to an article in his hometown newspaper published upon his 2009 death, “DePugh spent four years in federal prison and wrote a book about the plight of the incarcerated. Many consider it his best and most compassionate work.”

But that article also noted, “His ideas were so out of whack with what most poeple were thinking that the great majority of people laughed him off as a kook.” Not precisely so. The culture DePugh helped midwife grew and grew—so much so that, by 1981, Peter Arnett, then of the Associated Press, did a four-part series on the subject. It began: “Small but growing bands of Americans are arming themselves and learning how to kill because they are convinced the social order is crumbling and they will have to and they will have to fend for themselves to surive…. “There are inner perimeters in America today, places people are reluctant to leave for fear of their own safety. The national perimeter no longer seems secure.’”

Enclaves of innocents, always ever threatened by sudden siege by dread unnamed Others.

And now we have the hit new cable series.

Is there a continuity of culture here? Well, consider the reviews by the podcasting proprietor behind TodaysSurvival.com of “Best of the 80s Survivalist Books” (“The gem, the golden find of this book is his reloading tables: He has provided load data for virtually every cartidge in existence…with only 3 powders. This is incredibly helpful to the survivalist reloader who may anticipate reloading ammunition for themselves, and possibly others. By storing only 3 types of powder one may reload everything from the 219 Zipper to 300 Weatherby Magnum to .44 Special and everything in between. This book is out of print, but Mr. Stair is alive and well. He runs the ‘End Times Report’ web site, which sells a pamphlet containing the reloading data in the ‘booklet’ section.”)

There’s nothing new under the wingnut sun—only that, these days, you’re more likely to find ideas that once upon a time might have got you laughed off as a kook aired out in front of respectable congressional committees.

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