What does one wear to a survivalist summit? My physical appearance shouldn’t be too much of a problem since I’m white, forty-ish and, if I pause in my increasingly elaborate maintenance rituals, go pretty ragged pretty quickly. But the clothes worry me. After I turned 40, my friend Gabe took me aside for a kind of personal sartorial intervention.
“You cannot wear those pants any more,” he said.
“Why not?” They were just jeans.
“They’re puffy. They look like parachute pants.” He paused, examined them again, corrected himself. “They look like the pants in Aladdin.”
Like a good friend, he was communicating the information I didn’t want to face but needed to know: I would never look good by accident again. Fortunately, Gabe had a plan: tailored jeans, which are, I have to say, the middle age man’s ass’s best friend.
But tailored jeans obviously wouldn’t work at the Ohio Preppers and Survivalist Summit I was attending in Bowling Green, Ohio. I needed to look like I was preparing for the end of civilization, not a book launch.
The good news was that I had kept my old jeans, and I remembered the Waffle House shirt my wife bought me as an ironic present the previous Christmas. With a couple days’ beard, scribbling on a hotel pad in bad clothes, I almost looked like a survivalist. I looked like a survivor of something, anyway.
I went to Bowling Green to answer a question that had been haunting me from the Canadian sidelines since the election: is America falling apart for real this time?
The idea has never been more popular. Prepping is by no means an esoteric hobby anymore; it has become a Silicon Valley cliché. Neo-billionaires, with their typical taste and decency, are building elaborate status-symbol bunkers for themselves, and are planning escape routes to New Zealand for their families. Every American I know is – even if it’s just emotionally – preparing for a fall.
On the face of it, the idea is absurd: the US military is the size of the next seven countries’ combined. Its economic output is just slightly less than a quarter of the world’s GDP. The unemployment rate stands at 4.6%. The Dow is at record highs.
But catastrophe hovers, like low clouds that could pass or bring flood. The market cycles are imminently due for correction. The international order that has maintained peace and prosperity for generations is being destroyed out of the boomer petulance: if it’s not the gerontocratic Brexiteers, it’s the Trumpists calling for the end of free movement of people. The press is under threat, partly from the president but mostly from the fact that the American people are finding they can quite easily make do without facts. And a sense of despair about the nature of the American state itself is spreading across the country, leaving a vacuum in which a new kind of radical Americanism can flourish – a patriotism defined by its loathing for its own government.
Challice Finicum Finch will be speaking at the summit. She’s the daughter of LaVoy Finicum, the anti-government spokesman for the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom shot dead by the FBI in a standoff at the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon in January 2016. You don’t have to look hard, at all, to find the rhetoric and philosophy of the new anti-government right inside traditional conservative politics. The Oath Keepers – a group the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the US today” – would be providing security at the summit. The Multnomah County Republican party in Oregon recently requested their services for security against “threats of leftist violence”.
Maybe it’s the collapse of America. Maybe it’s just America’s midlife crisis. Donald Trump could be the patron saint of midlife crises, after all – the don’t-dare-laugh-at-me hair, the watch that fit his wrist maybe 20 years ago, the neck that muffin-tops over his collar, the chasm at the core of his being that no truckloads of approval can fill, the reduction of all terrestrial things to status symbols.
Lily Tomlin said that middle age is when you finally get your shit together and your ass falls apart. Beginnings and endings and middles, all whirled up together.
On the fringe of Bowling Green sits Woodland mall, looking like a set for a photo shoot about the decline of American retail. Storefronts have that peculiar failing-mall griminess of yellow and brown and orange. Too many things have been fried here. The bleach won’t take. The skylights have collected congregations of leaves from several autumns.
In the hallways, the booths for the Ohio Prepper and Survivalist Summit are selling children’s books about the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, solar-powered flashlights that keep a charge for seven years, and plastic buckets containing 120 emergency rations for $274.99 (gluten-free is available if you plan on a gluten-free end of the world). Frontiersmen – an organized prepper group – are wandering the booths with pistols at their belts.
The Oath Keepers wear black shirts identifying themselves as security, but their sense of threat is diminished by the fact that these are mostly old men, some in wheelchairs, who possess that innate midwestern cheerfulness and helpfulness that makes Americans so hard to dislike.
“You want help putting on that wristband?” offers the bright-cheeked red-headed Oath Keeper at the front desk as I struggle.
“I can’t seem to do it myself.”
“These things turn everybody into a five-year old,” he says as he peels back the sticker, fixes the yellow paper strip. “There you go. Do you want to sign up for the newsletter?”
“That’s all right.”
“There are really great door prizes.”
I demur. I’m already a bit late for my first class, Jim Cobb’s seminar on bugging out.
After the Gaither report in 1957, which reviewed the country’s defense readiness in the event of a nuclear war, Americans built fallout shelters, and the trend grew over the subsequent decade. The 12 January 1962 cover of Life magazine reported on “The Drive for Mass Shelters”. That was a more innocent time. Americans then believed that, if the world as they knew it came to an end, they were safest where they were. Now they bug out. They flee. Even the end of the world isn’t what it used to be.
The summit offers a range of courses on the art of retreating to safety, ranging from bug-out planning and building caches and black powder DIY to bushcraft skills and homeopathy, archery and self-defense.
Cobb is the author of several books, including Prepper’s Armed Defense. He stalks the front of the classroom with the trepidatious jaunt of a middle manager at a seed company explaining effective sales strategy to a regional office for the 10-millionth time.
“In all the things in all of prepperdom, why would Jim suggest a water filter?” he asks the crowd of 30 or so. “Well, how long can you survive without water?”
Everybody in the room, except myself, answers at the same time: “Three days.”
“Bullshit,” Jim says. It’s true that you can survive for three days without water, but you start to break down after 24 hours. Two days without water and you’ll be hallucinating. Jim tells us to use our heads: “Use it for more than a hat rack.”
Jim’s plan for surviving the apocalypse seems somewhat rococo to me. It’s involved. Pick three bug-out locations in different directions from your residences, all of them under 200 miles from your home so you can get there without a full tank of gas in your car. You should also plan three routes to each of your three locations. So that’s nine routes in all. Don’t mark them down on a map either. What if you’re stopped on the way? Then people can tell where your bug-out locations are, and go steal your stuff.
At each bug-out location, Cobb suggests keeping the weapons cache on the outskirts of the property in case of “unplanned party attendees”. And above all, drill. Your wife might not like it. Your kids might not like it. “Drills suck,” as Jim says. Still, you have to drill to build up “muscle memory”.
As I picture Jim, rousing his family for a dash to one of their three bug-out locations, all the while keeping his eyes peeled for bad actors, it sounds like it must be sort of fun. A little element of live-action role play to it. There’s also the gear, the fun of buying stuff. Everybody needs a bug-out bag, of course.
“How do you know if you have too much stuff in your bug-out bag?” Jim asks. “Open it. How are you going to walk 28 miles with 50 pounds on your back?”
Overpacking is first on Cobb’s list of “eight common bug-out bag mistakes”. The others are “too much food”, “buying the bag first”, “not enough water containers”, “cheaply made gear”, “untested gear”, “lack of foot protection” and “over-reliance on multipurpose items”.
Cobb has some pretty useful suggestions: bring a flash drive of family photos. Try the food you’re going to survive on first, because dehydrated food is disgusting and surviving is hard enough without “lumpy farts”. And you can’t really spend too much on footwear. But that’s good advice generally, not just for the end of the world as we know it.
My next class is with Eve Gonzales, who teaches home medicine and post-collapse gardening. She has the sad eyes of a woman who tries to explain things to people who will not listen, like she’s run the school library in a small town for too long.
Gonzales wants us to develop “the skill of sprouting”. Bean sprouts are full of nutrients and grow quickly. You can start planting in the immediate aftermath of a civilization-ending event. She wants us all to buy heirloom seeds, which self-germinate. You can harvest seeds from them, but you should remember that germination declines by up to 50% over five years.
This is the part of the summit that I most enjoy – the hippie part. Just like a middle-aged man, I’m starting to love gardening, right on time, like there’s a big cliche-o-mat in my ageing heart that’s suddenly flipped to the switch that makes me interested in hydrangeas.
But it’s not just growing or finding food that’s important; it’s finding a way to keep it. The fundamental assumption about people at the prepper summit is that, in a crisis, everybody wants to steal from everybody else. Gonzales warns us equally about looters and the government. Her solution is brilliant: fill your garden with nutritious weeds – dollar weed, lambsquarters, amaranth, dandelions. “The government, by executive order, can take everything, but they don’t take dandelions.”
My final class of the day is with the organizer of the summit, the executive officer to the president of the Ohio Oath Keepers and the owner of the Oath Keepers Outpost store at Woodland mall, Nick Getzinger.
His class is on building a survival cache. The caches are built out of PVC tubes and then buried at secured sites. Mainly, Getzinger fills his PVC tube with incredibly elaborate ways of purifying water. (It is taken for granted by everyone that the LifeStraw, a straw-style water filter, is insufficient, although everyone recommends getting one anyway.) His methodology for water purification includes a combination I do not entirely follow of hypochlorine, colloidal silver and charcoal. For fire starters he uses a fresnel lens, wax-coated matches. He recommends a Mylar blanket for a solar oven.
Other more standard items go into a survival cache as well. Vietnam-era ponchos, because of the way they roll up. Snares, a hacksaw blade, seeds, silica packs and oxidizer to reduce the effects of moisture. He advocates a new kind of slingshot that flings projectiles from a circle (“more accurate than a wrist rocket”). As for ammunition, he suggests a consistent round in all the guns you own. You don’t want to have a .38 pistol and .45 bullets, do you?
I like the preppers, I have to admit. They’re the MacGyvers of their own lives. But there is a sense that everyone is making it up as they go along. There hasn’t actually been a civilization-ending event, so it has to be imagined. All the classes are exercises in participatory storytelling; the audience knows the basic story but what the bug-out bag and the plans and the gardening advice provide is realism, the telling details that make the story credible.
When the preppers do bring up a scenario, it’s a nuclear EDM or a solar flare. It’s something that knocks out technology rather than, say, permanent winter. I guess sprouting isn’t worth much as a skill if there’s no sunlight for 20 years. Bug-out bags and survival caches aren’t worth much if the climate makes the entire surface of the Earth uninhabitable. But that’s human nature: we’re all preparing for the catastrophes we want rather than the ones we’re going to get.
Their version of the collapse is highly specific. It is a world without technology in which roving bands attempt to raid your hard-won supplies, and self-sufficiency and self-defense determine survival. It’s all suspiciously similar to what the American frontier looked like – or, rather, what the American frontier looks like in the movies. The students are often enjoined to “think like the pioneers”. The preppers and survivalists aren’t really imagining the end of America. They’re imagining it beginning again.
And I know how they feel. Nostalgia mixed with regret is the sweetest poison. The longing for the moment when you might have become a different person – the person you were supposed to be rather than the person you are now – that is the unassuageable hunger. Apparently it afflicts nations as well as people. That dream is the most poignant, the most beautiful, the true American dream. If you could wipe the slate clean, if you could start over, tear away the ever-more-tightly-embracing bonds of family and history and religion, you could find out who you are, freely, purely.
When I look around the room full of mostly forty-ish guys, I know the number one way everyone in that room could prepare for the end of civilization: lose 40lb.
I’m no expert, understand, but I figure if the world system crashes, the ability to run five miles without passing out has to be worth something.
‘Come and take’
Since it’s America, everybody at the summit is selling something – books, packets of heirloom seeds, colloidal silver. But mostly, they’re selling guns.
The guns here are magnificent, fantastic. So many different models, so many different calibers, so many elaborately perfected mechanisms with which to blow a motherfucker away. Gun salesmen are the best salesmen I’ve ever met. These are not your Kia-slingers, your insurance-peddlers, your smartphone-data-plan-explainers. These are believers. I cannot think of any other consumer product, with the possible exception of marijuana, so adored by its merchants.
The Mossberg pump-action shotgun is the shortest legal shotgun on the market (“You don’t need any paperwork”). The loading sound – a huge, glamorous, spine-jangling “ka-chunk”, as satisfying as the second bite into a Macintosh apple – is worth the price alone. There’s a great selection of AR-15s too, at various price points, with different accuracies at different distances. To me they’re a bit tacky, like driving a 1980s Corvette. They’ve also got little .22 magnums about the size of child’s fist that fold up into a plastic handle – a little smaller, you could put them on a keychain.
A woman sells little guns for parents who want their kids to have hyper-accurate representations of weapons available when they play Lego. I buy my daughter a tiny pink M-16.
Apart from guns, the most popular items for sale are clothes to identify your pride in gun ownership. The best place to purchase them is the Oath Keeper Outpost. Here you may buy baseball caps marked with the name of the war you fought in. There are also “Black Guns Matter” T-shirts for sale, and flags with the coiled “Don’t Tread On Me” snake – the usual.
There’s a new one to me, too: a Spartan helmet with the letters MOΛΩN ΛABE underneath. MOΛΩN ΛABE translates to “come and take”. “Come and take” was the defiant response of Leonidas, king of Sparta, when Xerxes, king of the Persians, demanded he surrender his weapons at the battle of Thermopylae. (Sparta is a funny country to want to emulate, I have to say. A slave-state that openly practiced euthanasia, its internal contradictions eventually led to its undoing, as the proportion of citizens to slaves spun out of control. Its decline was precipitous. After the Romans forced it into the Achaean league in 146 AD, rich tourists used to visit Sparta to inspect the city’s peculiar rituals, remembered from the time of their greatness.)
The second amendment is not just some rule here. It’s not just another freedom. Political language could never suffice to describe the sensation of powerful independence and the means to righteous violence that guns provide. That sensation is the sensation of America. That’s why the gun lovers refuse even laws that restrict the mentally ill and those on terrorist watch lists from gun ownership. Limiting guns is limiting America itself. Let the guns work it out.
Gun love has found its ideal political expression in the foreign policy of Donald Trump. Trumpism is a combination of two once contradictory traits: isolationism and militarism.
Eisenhower, in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953, declared that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”. The greatest general of the 20th century wanted America to help shape the world but hated the idea that it would have to possess a large military to do so.
Trump is the opposite: he wants America to stop shaping the world but wants a huge military with which not to do anything. America is no longer the world’s policeman; it is the world’s gun nut.
America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. What does it mean to be free in midlife? What does it mean to be brave? What does it mean to be free when you have a five-year old daughter, like I have? Does it mean the freedom to run away? Is that bravery? It sure doesn’t look like bravery to me.
That’s the real fantasy of the gun – that you will someday be in a situation of complete moral clarity, rather than stuck in this muddy welter of decisions otherwise known as everyday life. There will be bad guys and good guys and you will know the difference, and you will be able to act with the ultimate consequence. There comes a time in the life of men and women and countries where the fantasy of just blowing up everything and starting over becomes nearly impossible to resist.
‘We are all slaves’
If I were a Democrat, or an American politician of any registered party, I would dread the coming of Challice Finicum Finch.
Twenty-six years old with four kids, blonde, skinny, she possesses roughly 10,000 times the charisma of a Chelsea Clinton. She is a real person with real pain, and she can make you feel it. On the sordid little stage in the middle of the Woodland mall, she draws her audience away from the gear and the guns and how to manufacture your own gunpowder, to the question of her father and freedom.
What precisely happened to Finicum Finch’s father is subject to debate. Nobody doubts that, in 2016, LaVoy Finicum was involved in a gunfight with federal agents as his group occupied the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon. Nobody seems to disagree either that Finicum crashed his pickup into a snowbank and attempted to flee on foot. The FBI version of events is that Finicum was shot while reaching for a firearm, and that while he was being arrested he shouted: “Go ahead and shoot me. You’re going to have to shoot me.”
The police declared his shooting justified. But one of the FBI’s agents, Joseph Astarita, has just been indicted on charges of lying and obstruction about who fired first. Finicum Finch believes that her father was shot in the back three times and left overnight to die in the snow.
She is speaking on a lousy stage at the Woodland mall somewhere in Ohio, but she may as well be speaking in the desert to God. Her eyes are Antigonean. They have the whirlwind in them.
“We are in slavery,” she announces.
Why are Americans in slavery?
“If you don’t own anything, you are a slave.”
And why don’t Americans own anything?
“If you don’t pay your property tax, you’ll find out pretty soon if you own anything. You have purchased the right to rent from the government.”
She asks: “Who’s been fined by Obama, for not having healthcare?” A couple of hands shoot up. “You don’t own your body.”
How did Americans become slaves? Finicum Finch’s answer is that they didn’t read the constitution. She enjoins the audience to weekly, daily reading of their foundational text.
To an outsider, the American obsession with the constitution is starting to look pathological – it’s not just the Oath Keepers; it’s Khizr Khan at the Democratic national convention; it’s the New York Times running a supplement of the whole text with accompanying commentary. The constitution has stopped being a political document and become a religious object.
What did Finicum Finch find in it? She found that states supersede the federal government because the states created the federal government. She discovered that the federal government holds “80%” of land in the west, land to which it is not entitled.
She tells the story of a recent encounter with the police. “I got pulled over and like a little slave, I did everything the officer told me to do and then I get home and I realize, hey that was wrong. He just trampled my rights.”
But whose rights? Everybody’s rights? I think immediately of Philando Castile, polite to the police, identifying himself as the legal possessor of a registered firearm, shot dead nonetheless. There were no NRA ads on his behalf. Would the room full of men in Blue Lives Matter T-shirts listening to Finicum Finch have taken Castile’s side against the forces of the state?
She must be having similar thoughts because she pulls herself back. The audience is full of veterans and active or current police officers, after all. The armed antigovernment forces are rising among those who serve or once served the government they condemn. Finicum Finch loves the police forces and those who serve. She repeats that she isn’t antigovernment; she’s just anti-corrupt government. That line is the line on which the new rising radical Americanism rides.
Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s most famous Trump supporter, wrote in his essay The Education of a Libertarian that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” and that “capitalist democracy” was an “oxymoron”.
As different as they are in geography and sensibility, Thiel and Finicum Finch share an idea: they both see America as an experiment in property rather than experiment in democracy. Liberty to them is not government of the people, by the people, for the people. Liberty is ownership. Taxation is legal plunder.
America’s midlife crisis has been realized in the flesh in the decaying Woodland mall: these men and women have been overwhelmed by an inherently unsatisfiable longing for freedom. To them, paying taxes, to be compelled to pay taxes, is a form of enslavement. By this definition, who among us is free? Who among us could ever be free?
I know this impossible longing intimately. I am among the freest men in the history of the world but every facet of my life constrains me. I am free in this sense: all it would take for me to do whatever I like is to burn down my life and start over.
And then I could call myself free. Free from what? Free from those I love? Free from my cloudy-eyed son and my bright-hearted daughter? Free from my garden with its Japanese snowbell tree? Free from my creaky knee and my gallstone-surgery scars? Free from my country? Free from my books? Free from all the ghosts of the men and women I am running away from or running to catch up with? Free from myself?
Free like who? Free like the Oath Keepers? Free like the Marines? Free like the runaway under the bridge? Free like the man on the motorcycle who throws away his watch? Free like the deer smashed to scarlet ribbons by the side of the road? If it’s not that, then what is it? Is freedom just a slightly smaller tax bill? A bigger gun? A better bug-out bag?
Is freedom just what you could have been, rather than what you turned out to be? Is freedom just a word for youth that has passed?
At the Woodland mall they know that, whatever freedom is, they are losing it. “How far are you willing to be pushed?” Finicum Finch asks. “When is your faith going to be bigger than your fear?” No political programme could ever assuage the hunger for impossible freedom it has sprung from.
What was the question again?
The first bestseller in the early American colonies was The Day of Doom, by Michael Wigglesworth, published in 1662. One copy sold for every 20 people in New England. It was reprinted four times in the 17th century and repeatedly at intervals throughout the 18th.
The Great Awakening of the 1730s, the first original American religious movement, predicted imminent collapse of all terrestrial power. Jonathan Edwards preached in Northampton, Massachusetts, that Americans deserved the end that was coming for them: “You are from below. We are born with an aptitude for hell. Its seeds are in us.”
Americans love this apocalyptic stuff. They always have.
Civilizations collapse for various reasons. Sometimes they are swallowed by other cultures, by force. Sometimes they run out of resources. Arnold Toynbee, who wrote A Study of History, an unreadable and imperialistic 12-volume attempt to explain the rise and falls of civilizations everywhere, believed that neither cause was all that common:
We may fairly conclude that the cause of the breakdowns of civilizations is not to be found in a loss of command over the human environment, as measured by the successful encroachment of alien human forces upon the life of any given society whose breakdown we may be attempting to investigate.
Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, came to the same conclusion: “the most potent and forcible cause” of the Roman empire’s collapse was “the domestic hostilities of the Romans themselves”.
Cultures commit suicide. That’s how they end. Just like with men and women, it’s not the challenges of life that break you, it’s your own internal contradictions.
America’s internal contradictions are beginning to overwhelm its politics. The preppers combine all the features that have defined American existence since its beginning: the apocalyptic visions, the maniacal over-reading of the constitution, the desire to live by self-reliance but in total conformity, self-righteous violence and the evasion of taxes.
They do not call themselves the “white working class”; they call themselves “real Americans”. You can say, no, that isn’t the real America. And you can say there is no real America. And you can say America has been built by all of its citizens, by great-grandpa Irving coming from Lentz and from the Ghanaian refugee who just got his green card, or whatever. You can say, with Martin Luther King Jr, that America should “be true to what you said on paper”.
You, my US Guardian reader, you think you’re so different from these preppers at the Woodland mall? Look around.
How many great American tech companies boil down to tax-and-regulation-evasion schemes? Hollywood is the world’s number one gun fetishist. Donald Trump isn’t from north-west Ohio, he’s a New Yorker – more a Billy Joel New Yorker than a Lou Reed New Yorker, sure, but a New Yorker nonetheless. The traits on display at the Woodland mall are evident everywhere. They are present in every aspect of its history. Why do you think every major columnist at the New York Times thought bombing Baghdad to rubble would solve the crisis of the Middle East? They’re bred to it. In America, the answer is violence. What was the question again?
America is in between its end and its beginning and somehow in the middle of both. It’s not a comfortable time of life, for anyone.
Middle age is when the bullshit you tell yourself begins to crumble of its own accord. Middle age is when the sum total of your decisions, rather than the dreams you began with, starts to become who you are. You were once the hero of your own story but the best you can manage now is to be the punchline to your own joke. The urge to have it all burn down and start over is ferocious.
But you can’t start over. You can only enflame yourself.
Middle age, for people and for countries, is a reckoning much more uncomfortable than a collapse: you find out who you are.
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