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Obamageddon: Fear, the Far Right, and the Rise of “Doomsday” Prepping in Obama's America

  • MICHAEL F. MILLS (a1)

Abstract

This article examines the politics of American “doomsday” prepping during Barack Obama's presidency. It challenges claims that growing interest in prepping post-2008 arose exclusively from extreme apocalyptic, white supremacist, and anti-government reactions to Obama's electoral successes – claims that suggest prepping to be politically congruent with previous waves of extreme right-wing American “survivalism.” Drawing on ethnography, this paper argues that, while fears of Obama have been central to many preppers’ activities, much of their prepping under his presidency centred on fears that sit outside survivalist politics. Building on this, the article illuminates connections between prepping and America's twenty-first-century electoral mainstream. Engaging with discussions about the “remaking” of American conservatism during Obama's presidency, it particularly frames prepping's growth as being engaged with, and shaped by, currents of mainstream anti-Obama fear that similarly undergirded the Tea Party's rise within popular Republicanism at this time.

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1 Tim Murphy, “Preppers Are Getting Ready for the Barackalypse,” Mother Jones, Jan–Feb. 2013, at www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/11/preppers-survivalist-doomsday-obama; Nina Strochlic, “Apocalypse Now: Preppers Are Gearing Up for Ebola,” Daily Beast, 17 Oct. 2014, at www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/17/apocalypse-now-preppers-are-gearing-up-for-ebola.html.

2 Ryan Herman, “Ready for the Apocalypse! One American Family Shows What It Takes to Prepare for the End of Civilisation As We Know It,” Daily Mail, 23 March 2013, at www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-2296472/Apocalypse-ready-Are-families-stocking-end-civilisation-crackpots-simply-canny-survivors.html.

3 Caitlin Dewey, “Inside the Fascinating, Bizarre World of ‘Prepper Pinterest’,” Washington Post, 1 Sept. 2015, at www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/09/01/inside-the-fascinating-bizarre-world-of-prepper-pinterest/?utm_term=.54c6ade2cd81.

4 Huddleston, Chad, “‘Prepper’ as Resilient Citizen: Understanding Vulnerability and Fostering Resilience,” in Companion, Michele and Chaiken, Miriam, eds., Responses to Disasters and Climate Change (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2016), 239–48; Mills, Michael, “Preparing for the Unknown … Unknowns: ‘Doomsday” Prepping and Disaster Risk Anxiety in the United States’, Journal of Risk Research, 2018, at https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2018.1466825.

5 On this comparison see Chad Huddleston, “‘Doomsday Preppers’: Our New Threat?”, 16 Jan. 2013, at https://blog.americananthro.org/tag/chad-huddleston.

6 Coates, James, Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995; first published 1987); Lamy, Philip, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy (London: Plenium Press, 1996); Mitchell, Richard Jr., Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).

7 Lamy; Mitchell.

8 Evan Osnos, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” New Yorker, 30 Jan. 2017, at www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich; Dewey.

9 Coates; Lamy.

10 See Aho, James, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Dees, Morris, Gathering Storm: America's Militia Threat (New York: HarperCollins, 1996); Barkun, Michael, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997)

11 Coates, 9, 236–49; Lamy, 22.

12 Huddleston, “Doomsday Preppers.”

13 See Keith O'Brien, “How to Survive Societal Collapse in Suburbia,” New York Times, 16 Nov. 2012, at www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/magazine/how-to-survive-societal-collapse-in-suburbia.html?_r=0.

14 Mark Potok quoted in Johnson, Daryl, Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat Is Being Ignored (Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012), 310, emphasis added.

15 SPLC, “Intelligence Report,” Spring 2017.

16 Johnson, 310. See also SPLC, 2017; Neiwert, David, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Leone, Luigi and Presaghi, Fabio, “Tea Party Support, Racial Resentment and Evaluations of Obama: A Moderation Analysis,” Race and Social Problems, 10 (2018), 91100.

17 See Amato, John and Neiwert, David, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane (Sausalito, CA: PoliPoint Press, 2010); Johnson; Neiwert.

18 David Morris, “What I Saw at the Doomsday Prepper Convention,” Fortune, 11 Nov. 2013, at http://fortune.com/2013/11/11/what-i-saw-at-the-doomsday-prepper-convention.

19 Murphy, “Preppers Are Getting Ready for the Barackalypse.”

20 Nicky Woolf, “When the Apocalypse Comes, Preppers Will Be Ready. But You Won't,” The Guardian, 20 Feb. 2015, at www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/20/apocalypse-preppers-expo-florida.

21 Huddleston, “‘Prepper’ as Resilient Citizen”; see also Mills, “Preparing for the Unknown.”

22 Foster, Gwendoline Audrey, “Consuming the Apocalypse, Marketing Bunker Materiality,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 33, 4 (2016), 285302, 290; and Foster, , Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of the Apocalypse (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 27.

23 Respondents were recruited through appeals published on six prominent prepping websites (for example, www.doomandbloom.net). The websites selected were chosen because their content focusses on the practicalities of prepping – including instruction and guidance on various aspects of storing food and practising disaster medicine – rather than promoting particular political ideas.

24 See Hacker, Jacob and Pierson, Paul, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

25 See Foster, John Bellamy and Magdoff, Fred, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009); Stiglitz, Joseph, Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy (London: Penguin, 2010).

26 Berger, J. M., Extremism (London: MIT Press, 2018), 33, 44; Lipset, Seymour and Raab, Earl, The Politics of Unreason (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 711; Hofstadter, Richard, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Vintage Books, 2008); Mudde, Cas, The Far Right in America (London: Routledge, 2018), 12.

27 The one exception to this within the sample was Gloria, a widowed prepper in Florida who at one point claimed, “FEMA … they do things with ulterior motives … In my opinion … and we all know what opinions are … FEMA has the FEMA camps and I truly feel that, at some point in time that, one of the leader's executive orders … unsuspecting Americans will be put in these camps. It's like a prisoner of war camp … guards, lights.”

28 For a broader overview of the non-apocalyptic nature of many preppers’ disaster-related anxieties see Mills, 6–9.

29 Indeed, as is well established in sociological and political literature, racist notions can (and do) permeate the political and social views of many who disavow racist discrimination. In particular, numerous studies provide valuable examinations of the ways in which racism can linger as a “subterranean agenda” within numerous positions on immigration, welfare, and other matters. Following this line of argument, racism certainly permeates many preppers’ reactions to Obama, and their politics more generally, even where no overtly racist views are expressed. Future research on race/racism in prepping would therefore be useful to further interrogate this aspect of preppers’ social outlooks. See McVeigh, Rory, “Structured Ignorance and Organized Racism in the United States,” Social Forces, 82, 3 (2004), 895936; Blee, Kathleen M. and Yates, Elizabeth A., “The Place of Race in Conservative and Far-Right Movements,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1, 1 (2015), 127–36.

30 Skocpol, Theda and Williamson, Vanessa, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

31 Ibid., 8; Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (London: The New Press, 2016), 7.

32 Nate Silver, “Poll Shows More Americans Have Unfavorable Views of Tea Party,” New York Times, 30 March 2011; Parker, Christopher and Barreto, Matt, Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 1314, 73.

33 Skocpol and Williamson; Parker and Barreto, 98; Medzihorsky, Juraj, Littvay, Levente, and Jenne, Erin K., “Has the Tea Party Era Radicalized the Republican Party? Evidence from Text Analysis of the 2008 and 2012 Republican Primary Debates,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 47, 4 (Oct. 2014), 806–12.

34 Emily McClintock Ekins, “The Character and Origins of the Tea Party Movement,” unpublished working paper delivered at the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, 2011, 17; Skocpol and Williamson, 57.

35 See DiMaggio, Anthony, The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 50; Parker and Barreto, 167–68.

36 See, for example, Skocpol and Williamson, 4.

37 See, for instance, MacLean, Nancy, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (London: Penguin, 2018). See also Skocpol and Williamson; Parker and Barreto.

38 Skocpol and Williamson, 33; Neiwert, Alt-America, 139.

39 Parker and Barreto, 198.

40 See, for example, Skocpol and Williamson; Blee and Yates, “The Place of Race,” 128. See also Disch, Lisa, “The Tea Party: A White Citizenship Movement?”, in Rosenthal, L. and Trost, C., eds., Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 133–51; Burke, Meghan, “Beyond Fear and Loathing: Tea Party Organizers’ Continuum of Knowledge in a Racialized Social System,” Race, Gender & Class, 20, 1–2 (2012), 93109; Maxwell, Angie and Parent, T. Wayne, “A ‘Subterranean Agenda’? Racial Attitudes, Presidential Evaluations, and Tea Party Membership,” Race and Social Problems, 5, 1 (2013), 226–37.

41 Fisher, Patrick, “The Tea Party and the Demographic and Ideological Gaps within the Republican Party,” Geopolitics, History and International Relations, 7, 2 (2015), 1331; Ragusa, Jordan M. and Gaspar, Anthony, “Where's the Tea Party? An Examination of the Tea Party's Voting Behavior in the House of Representatives,” Political Research Quarterly, 69 (2016), 361–72.

42 Lepore, Jill, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Charles Postel, “The Tea Party in Historical Perspective: A Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy,” in Rosenthal and Trost, 25–46, 32, 41; Skocpol and Williamson; DiMaggio; Fisher; Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land.

43 Blee and Yates, 128; Disch; Burke; Maxwell and Parent.

44 On the similarly fractured and hard-right nature of previous periods of popular Republican politics see, for example, Rogin, Michael, Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Oakland: University of California Press, 1988); Brinkley, Alan, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” American Historical Review, 99, 2 (April 1994), 409–29.

45 See Coates, Armed and Dangerous; Lamy, Millennium Rage; Mitchell, Dancing at Armageddon.

46 Lepore; Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party,” in Rosenthal and Trost, 47–66; Christine Trost and Lawrence Rosenthal, “Introduction: The Rise of the Tea Party,” in ibid., 1–8; Postel, 32, 41; DiMaggio, 13; Street, Paul and DiMaggio, Anthony, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); Parker and Barreto, 200; Rohlinger, Deana A. and Klein, Jesse, “From Fervour to Fear: ICT and Emotions in the Tea Party Movement,” in van Dyke, N. and Meyer, D. S., eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (London: Routledge, 2014), 125–48; Hochschild.

47 Quotes taken from comments at the Values Voters Summit (Washington, DC), 11 Oct. 2013; speech in Barrington, NH, 15 March 2015; Fox News, 1 June 2015, at https://video.foxbusiness.com/v/4269330211001/#sp=show-clips.

48 Skocpol and Williamson, 79, 77.

49 Berlet, 48; see also Alan I. Abramowitz, “Grand Old Tea Party: Partisan Polarization and the Rise of the Tea Party Movement,” in Rosenthal and Trost, 195–211.

50 DiMaggio, 102.

51 Jamieson, Kathleen Hall and Cappella, Joseph, The Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Amato and Neiwert, Over the Cliff; Street and DiMaggio; DiMaggio; Press, Bill, The Obama Hate Machine: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks on the President – And Who Is behind Them (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2012); Skocpol and Williamson; Berry, Jeffrey M. and Sobieraj, Sarah, The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Skocpol, Theda and Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander, “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism,” Perspectives on Politics, 14, 3 (Sept. 2016), 681–99.

52 See Amato and Neiwert; Street and DiMaggio; DiMaggio; Press; Skocpol and Williamson; Berry and Sobieraj.

53 Skocpol and Williamson, 12–13.

54 Amato and Neiwert; Press; Skocpol and Williamson, 201–2; DiMaggio; Street and DiMaggio; Hochschild.

55 Mills, “Preparing for the Unknown.”

56 In references to issues like Benghazi we see how, despite many preppers’ seemingly sincere disavowal of various conspiracy theories, their fears sometimes drew on speculative and pseudo-conspiratorial reporting through right-wing media. In particular, this case demonstrates how the prominence of the Benghazi attack as a story in right-wing media – around which reporting suggested that members of the Obama administration constructed a false narrative of spontaneous protest leading to the attack – fed into participants’ own assessments of the President. (The House Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee have since confirmed that these comments on protest were based on the CIA's own conclusions at the time.) Here, respondents did not communicate elaborate theories concerning conspiracy related to Benghazi, as has sometimes been the case in right-wing culture. Nevertheless, mentions that, at a more basic level, the continued nature of the “scandal” had exposed the Obama administration's poor performance in, and lack of proper commitment to, national security and foreign policy seemed to illustrate ways in which such thinking still indirectly resonated in their considerations on some occasions.

57 Fox News, “Doomsday Preppers,” 13 Feb. 2012, at http://video.foxnews.com/v/1450325975001/?#sp=show-clips; Fox News, “Fox Flash: ‘Doomsday Preppers’,” 13 Nov. 2012, at http://video.foxnews.com/v/1965380587001/?#sp=show-clips.

58 Skocpol and Williamson, 2012; Murphy, 2013; Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, 253.

60 See Hacker and Pierson; MacLean, Democracy in Chains.

61 Around this theme see DiMaggio; Kabaservice, Gary, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Lofgren, Mike, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted (New York: Penguin Books, 2012); Mann, Thomas and Ornstein, Norman, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2012); Skocpol and Williamson; Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez; Grossmann, Matt and Hopkins, David, “Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats: The Asymmetry of American Party Politics,” Perspectives on Politics, 13, 1 (March 2015), 119–39; Hacker and Pierson; MacLean.

62 On this, see Hochschild.

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