At the tail end of 2017, New York City officials began to remove nuclear fallout shelter signs from public buildings around the city. The signs had been up since the 1960s, when President Kennedy urged the nation to build home bunkers and dedicated federal funding to the construction of public shelters, but such buildings have long since been converted back to other uses. The signs, with their three yellow triangles circumscribed in a black circle, went largely unnoticed for decades. But with President Trump exchanging provocations with North Korea and flinging around Freudian references to nuclear buttons, the Cold War relics suddenly don’t seem so antiquated. City officials didn’t want residents planning to arrive at a safe location to find the doors locked. All of which is to say: the apocalypse feels closer now, again.
At least, it feels this way to some. Doomsday prepping has long been associated with the right (the ethos is rooted in survivalism, a term that connotes far-right militias, and many preppers prefer not to use it). But in recent years many people with left and liberal politics have joined their ideological nemeses in getting ready for that moment when, in prepper parlance, the SHTF (shit hits the fan). There is something fundamentally conservative in the prepper impulse: to create a stockpile in one’s basement rather than work toward a system that could help ensure community-wide safety. Embedded in the prepper ethos is a deep distrust of public systems, fueled by the belief that we’re one cataclysm away from a Hobbesian state of unrestrained every-man-for-himself (and-his-family) competition. So why is it catching on among liberals?
One reason is obvious enough: the Trump administration is a circus of meanness and incompetence, and if you believe that the presidency is of consequence at all, you might well be worried about what this one means for your — or your community’s — survival. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Colin Waugh, a liberal voter from Missouri, started a Facebook group called The Liberal Prepper, as a place for likeminded people to prepare for the Trumpocalypse. The group started with invitations to some thirty of Waugh’s friends. Today the group has over 3,400 members, who share tips and tricks for the bunkered future. Members debate stocking up on a home supply of Tamiflu, share discount codes for giant tins of military-surplus beef taquitos, trade recommendations on freeze-dried foods, rainwater catchment systems, and permaculture techniques. And like any good online community, it has its own self-referential memes. One riffs on the idea of a glass of water as personality test: optimists see it half-full, pessimists see it half-empty, preppers stock 70,000 glasses in reserve.
For many new preppers the system they’re worried about failing is the planetary climate system itself. The editor of the popular online forum The Prepper Journal, an Arizona resident who goes by the pen name Wild Bill, says the community often discusses hurricanes and other natural disasters — his own interest in prepping arose after he experienced the 1971 Sylmar earthquake in southern California — but does not use the language of climate change. “We talk about weather events and natural disaster but when it comes to climate change and whether it is real or not, or whether Al Gore is right or not, or the polar caps are melting, I don’t get into that,” says Wild Bill. (It is; he was; they are.) His daughter lives in the Houston area and recently had to put her prepping skills to use when the meteorological S did HTF during Hurricane Harvey. Wild Bill has photos of his daughter and her husband kayaking away from their house, with their cats and bug-out bags aboard. Still, he says he stays away from discussion of climate qua climate. “When we post about weather it’s about what to do if you are in that situation.”
But for liberal preppers, the threat of climate change disasters is highly motivating. One told the prepper blog The Prepared that as it has become clear to her that the government will not effectively counteract climate change, “we are going to have to fend for ourselves.” She’s right. Decades of American politicians have failed to meaningfully combat climate change — Trump’s climate-denying administration will surely not be the one to reverse that course. But she’s also displaying the great ironies of the prepper movement: the imagined meltdown that lies ahead steals focus from the ones happening right now. Ask anyone in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where people are living under tarps and dealing with waterborne diseases and the power is still out months after Hurricane Maria — many groups already have to fend for themselves right now.
Prepping became something of a national spectacle in 2012 when the National Geographic channel started airing the reality show Doomsday Preppers. In each episode, cameras follow confident heads of households as they construct solar panels, build a sniper tower, outfit an RV with bee-keeping equipment to make a giant mobile hive, and train their children in marksmanship. The DIY projects are cool, but there is something disconcerting — to those of us without armed mobile hives to pollinate our post-apocalyptic orchards — about the glee in the eyes of the preppers as they deliver prophecies of mass destruction. “We still have a bit of a grudge against Nat Geo,” says Wild Bill. He wasn’t featured on the show himself, but takes umbrage with the show’s presentation of the prepper community. “They have many great programs, but like any reality show they looked for the odd, the bizarre, the really out there.” Wild Bill says his readers and followers aren’t so far out — they’re not hiding soldered tubes of camping supplies at the bottom of a lake — they’re “people who have a generator in case the power goes out.” For Wild Bill, who lives in Arizona, prepping isn’t an extreme position but a sensible one. “If something happens, for two or three days, you want to have enough food and water on hand for your family.”
Wild Bill’s colleague, the founder of The Prepper Journal who uses the pen name Pat Henry, wrote a post last year welcoming liberal preppers to the party: “Your politics might be driving your rationale for prepping but you are trying to achieve the same personal goals as all the rest of us.” He makes the case that the prepper community ought rightly to be a big tent: “We have people who love guns, who wear MAGA hats, hold lifetime memberships to the NRA as well as vegans, pacifists and yes, Liberals.” Not everyone agrees, though, that prepping and progressivism can be compatible. “I would like to think we can all get along, but my instincts tell me to stay far away from liberals in a SHTF situation,” writes one commenter on Wild Bill’s welcoming post. “Liberals tend to support wealth redistribution. Liberals tend to favor the seizure of property by the government. Liberals tend to favor gun control. Liberals tend to believe that profiling is wrong. None of those things tend to increase my odds of survival.”
Prepping aesthetics don’t fit neatly into a liberal/conservative dichotomy. Many popular blogs and publications have material that could have been pulled from the 1970s Whole Earth Catalog, with articles detailing how to store caches of seeds, make your own soap from beeswax, forage for edible plants in the wild, or can the fruits of your garden. Readers of such guides could be interested in avoiding pesticides or artificial fragrances rather than preparing for the EOTWAWKI (end of the world as we know it). But these are scattered between articles with a far more aggressive bent: how to fend off snipers, how to build your own guns. There is, too, a strong undercurrent of distrust of technology and telecommunications systems, and plenty of articles devoted to advice on how to communicate in a post-electronics world and stay anonymous online. Ultimately they’re an edifying reflection of precisely which parts of modern society preppers most mistrust. Your approach to prepping reflects the things you are most worried will fail or otherwise betray you: big agriculture, the banking system, the power grid, the arms of the government charged with maintaining law and order.
According to Wild Bill, the place where political differences often crop up in the TPJ posts and discussions is around guns. “Most of the people who are into prepping are also into American gun culture,” he says. “They’re hunters, fishermen, outdoorspeople who are going to go out and provide food for themselves, and here is something the liberal side has not adjusted to.” But he is also careful not to generalize too broadly. “There are some who are into guns and are liberal in other ways.”
He notices that the new wave of preppers are most interested in bug-out bags (mainstream emergency preparedness agencies often call these go-bags), rucksacks packed with a few days’ worth of essential supplies. The contents of these bags are hotly debated. “We had one guy say that toilet paper was a waste of time,” recalls Wild Bill, “and he just got creamed!” In Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara wrote that the well-prepared revolutionary should always have on-hand a rifle, ammunition, canteen and cutlery, antibiotics, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, some inspirational reading, a machete, some gasoline, matches and kindling, needle, thread, and buttons. The modern bug-out bag often adds to this list a flashlight, radio, handcrank or solar-powered charging device, a tent, and some mechanism for water purification.
In December 2017, Vogue featured in its holiday gift guide a handsome canvas apothecary bag monogrammed with Anna Wintour’s initials. But it is no ordinary tote — the bag, from L.A.-based company Preppi, is packed with food, water, first aid items, outdoor necessities like ropes and flares, luxury soaps and teas, and Mast Brothers chocolate. Preppi started out as a “boutique company,” co-founder Lauren Tafuri told a local L.A. blog in an interview,but “2016 was a big year” and the market for their bags has been expanding.
In a December 2017 episode of The Daily Show, a correspondent presented a packed Preppi bag, the Prepster Black Ultra Luxe Emergency Bag, which retails for $4,995 (this is their most deluxe offering; other pre-packed bug-out options start at $95) for inspection by a hard-core survivalist, Rick Austin, who laughed off the smartly designed case and thoughtfully sourced snacks, and made a deadpan comment that in the world after the SHTF, the only liberals around will be dead ones. Preppi founders Lauren Tafuri, a costume designer, and Ryan Kuhlman, a film director, say this is exactly the kind of attitude they are trying to change. “Our company intentionally went 180 degrees in the opposite direction of these themes (extreme/outdoors/zombie apocalypse/fear) most commonly associated with prepping. Our customers tend to be modern, connected, and urban dwelling — they are not going to suddenly shed their way of life after an emergency,” agreed Kuhlman, pointing out that most emergencies will not bring about the dawn of a new anarchic age, but rather, will call for people to hunker down for a few days. “After that most likely you will be in touch with emergency responders and services aiding you with anything you may need.” Preppi bags may lack cred among hard-core survivalists, but their growing popularity speaks to the mainstreaming of prepping and the long cultural distance it has traveled.
Prepping has also spread to the uberwealthy and tech-world elite, with Silicon Valley aristocrats buying bunkers in case they have to GOOD (get out of Dodge). Peter Thiel has gone so far as to procure an estate in New Zealand — and citizenship to go with it — where he can, as Tech Crunch put it, “watch the world burn in peace.” Several others told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos they had gotten Lasik surgery so as not to be hampered by blurry vision; in case of societal collapse, one’s contact lens subscription service could be among the first amenities to go. Reid Hoffman, investor and LinkedIn co-founder, put the cohort’s concerns to Osnos: “Is the country going to turn against the wealthy? Is it going to turn against technological innovation? Is it going to turn into civil disorder?”
Of course, the nightmare SHTF situations these new preppers imagine are already happening — to people whose wealth and status don’t protect them. Low income individuals and communities of color are far more vulnerable to the consequences of the natural and political disasters we are all already living through. New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward remained desolate and stripped of services for years after Hurricane Katrina; armed men knocking on doors and stopping cars of people trying to escape dangerous weather at checkpoints is already a reality for undocumented people in the United States.
Disaster preparation doesn’t have to be a purely private undertaking that happens at the family or individual level. During the early 1960s, landlords took part in what the New York Times called a “fallout shelter drive.” The Army Corps of Engineers identified over 17,000 buildings across the city, which they “equipped with federally provided survival kits — costing roughly $2.40 per person — that featured aspirin, toilet paper, tongue depressors, appetite-suppressing hard candies and “Civil Defense Survival Rations,” i.e., animal cracker-like biscuits.” No champagne or artisanal chocolate here, but the program provided enough space to accommodate nearly 12 million New Yorkers.
Preppers’ doomsday scenarios typically hinge on an acute, almost cinematic event — the city floods, the bomb goes off, the virus mutates. The crisis is unambiguous, a clear moment at which the old world falls away and it’s time to batten the hatches or set off in the mobile hive. What they don’t seem to prepare for is the slow creep of social and economic precarity, the erosion of niceties and norms, the sea level inching higher so slowly your feet are wet before you realize you ought to have packed a bag.
Rachel Riederer is editor-in-chief of Guernica. Reprinted from Dissent (Spring 2018), an independent quarterly magazine, publishing some of America’s most exciting long-form political and cultural criticism since 1954. © 2018 Rachel Riederer, as first published in Dissent.