The new doomsayers taking up arms and preparing for catastrophe: American liberals

The new faces of the prepper movement.
The new faces of the prepper movement.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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A month before the 2016 US presidential election, Colin Waugh and his wife bought their first firearm.

Donald Trump’s campaign was taking an unprecedented turn, with the candidate baiting gun-rights supporters to exert their influence and suggesting that a loss in November would be evidence of a rigged system. The gun, as Waugh frames it, was a form of insurance in case American democracy dissolved into a quasi-Mad Max society, and liberals became the hunted.

When Trump won, Waugh felt “numb.” His wife was “catatonic.” They both feared for their lives. The couple, liberal Mississippians and stalwart Obama supporters, were not the primary targets of the right-wing vitriol directed primarily at Latino immigrants and Muslims during Trump’s campaign. But from Waugh’s liberal perch, seeing the new president’s supporters on the news screaming “We’ll take back our country!” and hearing similar sentiments from conservatives in his home state, even from friends, felt like a genuine threat.

“For the first time in my life, I realized my own freedom was my own responsibility,” says Waugh. “I could no longer trust Trump, or Congress, to reassure my rights and liberties would remain in place.”

But even though he sought self-sufficiency in his new America, Waugh realized he would need a new community of sorts. So on Nov. 10, 2016, Waugh logged onto Facebook and set up the Liberal Prepper.

The rise of the prepper movement 

As the group’s name suggests, the Liberal Prepper’s 2,500 members are united by two things: their political leanings, and a desire to learn how to “prep”—to learn the various skills and tactics that would help an individual survive catastrophic events within one’s community. It was founded with the following disclaimer, penned by Waugh: “We welcome all individuals who are center and left of center politically. We do not knowingly accept conservatives, Trump supporters, into this group​.”

Prior to accepting members, the group’s administrators typically vet requestors for alt-right iconography. According to Kenny Stabler, the current moderator, any anti-liberal users that get past the vetting process usually are ejected not long after their first “snowflake” comment. “If somebody’s a dick, we boot them,” he says.

Despite their shared politics, members’ individual reasons for prepping vary. Some fear a Trump-triggered nuclear war; others are worried about economic collapse. Nicole Pilt is a Liberal Prepper who says that the nationalist rhetoric now coursing through Western society fuelled her desire to prep. She says she’s “worried about the plethora of natural and social disasters that are occurring.” Many of the Preppers’ reasons for joining are underlined by a distrust of government—a new sentiment for many Democrats—and the resulting fear for one’s safety.

“Trump is a clown, but with the idiot congress we have, I am concerned that we’ll have an economic collapse,” says Stabler. “The election freaked me out because after all this time, people are still voting Republican. Jobs pay so little and the economy is so fragile. That scares me more than some redneck morons.”

Until recently, prepping has primarily been associated with right-wing, second-amendment survivalists. Since the 2016 election, as well as the rise of nationalism and anti-globalist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic, more folks on the left end of the political spectrum have begun to believe that disaster is impending. In response to this epiphany, Facebook groups such as the Liberal Prepper have gained steam, operating as educational platforms for liberals interested in prepping.

The terms “survivalists” and “preppers” are occasionally used interchangeably, but Chad Huddleston, a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville who has studied prepping, believes ideology plays a significant role in distinguishing the two.

Survivalism, he says, is a term largely associated with doomsday conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists seen from the 1970s to the 1990s, including anti-government militias, fundamentalists, and terrorists. According to Huddleston, historic figures like the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh continue to be mythologized among some survivalists. More recent incarnations of survivalism include far-right patriot movements like the “3 Percenters,” founded in response to Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral win, and the  “Oath Keepers,” comprised of both current and former military veterans as well as law-enforcement officials whose stated mission is to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Both organizations have caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists them as “extremist antigovernment groups.”

Prepping, on the other hand, is a relatively new term adopted by practitioners who wanted to distance themselves from those radical ideologies. It was meant to be the apolitical version of “survivalist,” though by now the term has become a bit of a catchall. “Nobody wants to call themselves a survivalist because of the baggage,” says Huddleston. “They call themselves ‘preppers’ but when you talk to them, you realize they’re [often] old-school, anti-government militias. They just put on a new category.”

The genesis event for many nonpartisan preppers, says Huddleston, was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At the time, both the citizens of New Orleans as well as news-watchers around the nation witnessed the government’s fallibility. The Bush administration, it seemed, could not (or would not) react to the disaster with the level of commitment and haste needed, exacerbating the suffering of thousands in the wake of the deadly storm. The 2008 financial crisis stoked additional fear, as Americans began to see the deep vulnerabilities in the US housing market and the nation’s financial system.

The Liberal Preppers and others like them may seem fringe-y or unreasonably paranoid at first glance, but prepping is starting to move more and more into the mainstream. On Facebook alone, there are hundreds prepping-focused groups searchable with the phrase “Preppers” (and plenty of others with “Survivalists”); some have memberships as large as 60,000.

Some of the country’s most influential people have latched onto the trend. Though they might not consider themselves “preppers,” Silicon Valley’s rich and elite are clearly thinking along the same lines as Waugh and Stabler. Earlier this year, LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman told the New Yorker that he estimates over 50% of Silicon Valley’s upper class owns hideaway property in either the US or abroad (New Zealand is a popular choice among the tech community, with new “residents” including the likes of Peter Thiel); and Steve Huffman, the co-founder and CEO of Reddit, has said he got LASIK so he wouldn’t be burdened by his deficiency come societal collapse. And then, of course, there’s SpaceX’s Elon Musk, who wants to help humanity populate Mars as fast as possible as an answer to man’s “inevitable extinction” on Earth.

Prepping is not a uniquely US phenomenon, although it has different flavors in different parts of the world. A “scale of people’s trust in their [nation’s] government probably reflects how people prep,” Huddleston says. Preppers in Scandinavian countries differ from their Stateside counterparts, predominantly because they wholeheartedly believe their government would eventually save them in a time of danger. According to Huddleston, in that region of the world, preppers focus on surviving disaster in the short-term. Weapons are also not a typical feature of Scandinavian prepping, because there, prepping is less about defending property and person, but rather being able to get away from danger quickly and safely.

The liberal refugees

Despite the trend, it took Trump and one worried Mississippian to trigger the formation of the first large, out-in-the-open left-leaning community. Of the hundreds of prepper groups on Facebook, there are still only handfuls that outwardly promote themselves as “liberal” or welcoming of similar politics—and most are offshoots from the Liberal Prepper, which seems to be the biggest left-leaning prepper community to date. It grew rapidly: Stabler says it had only 30 or so members in the early days, then it’d jump to 100 or so, then more each time it got a mention in the media.

Colin Waugh
Colin Waugh
Image: Colin Waugh

Many of the more experienced Liberal Preppers members are refugees from other survivalist groups who sought out a more politically like-minded community. Now, they “are educating people such as ourselves—liberals, who you never think would prep,” says Waugh. Some members have shared seemingly advanced techniques, like how evacuate from one’s home without leaving a trail; others offer more rudimentary (but probably more useful) survival skills like fire-starting and water-purification methods. “They are helping newbies daily, who are noticing what’s going on and think it’s really scary; who think ‘I want to protect my family regardless of the type of disaster,’” says Waugh.

Seth Hemond, an outdoorsman now living in Washington state, has been prepping for a decade or so, long before Trump entered the White House. While living in Massachusetts during the Blizzard of 1978, Hemond learned that the government can’t—and maybe even won’t—always help you out. To this day, he remembers the hundreds of New England residents left in freezing temperatures without heat, water, or electricity for over a week. If people ran out of food, they couldn’t get groceries for days; Hemond decided it was essential to learn to survive without modern amenities.

Despite his years of prepping, Hemond, too, says he has become wiser since joining the group. But really what amazes Hemond about the Liberal Prepper is the level of respect and open-mindedness maintained in group discussions, compared to other online prepper and survivalist forums. He says that if there’s any sort of silver lining to Trump’s election for the prepping community, it’s this: Suddenly there are a lot more like-minded individuals adding new perspectives to these niche discussions. Things that are verboten elsewhere—liberals in metropolitan communities who want to learn how to use guns, for example—are welcome at groups like the Liberal Prepper, which offer the space to ask these questions.

“There are not a lot of places where you’ll get a rational discussion where people can disagree about firearms in America but you can among this group,” says Hemond. “So it’s like this dialogue going on between this group of adults who may have different levels of skill sets in the thing they’re trying to figure out—but [are] having [an] adult conversation about the politics around it. That’s an interesting dynamic.”

The psychology of prepping

It may seem strange that thousands across the nation are deciding to learn horticulture and how to clean a rifle because they think there might be an economic collapse sometime in the future. But Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin who researches decision-making, says prepping isn’t outside the bounds of normal human responses to fear.

“There is enough news out there now that can be frightening that it’s an extreme reaction on their part, but not an inappropriate one,” he says. People are forever trying to wrest control over situations that feel beyond their own control or understanding. This might involve focusing on aspects of their lives where they feel they are taking charge, or ascribing responsibility to a higher power, like religion.

The preppers are “doing the thing that fits with their belief system that makes sense for taking control over the situation,” Markman says. “And because it emerges from a deep belief that we just can’t trust the institutions around us, it is a rational response to that set of beliefs.”

Learning the survival techniques that are core to prepping might even provide long-term health benefits, Markman says.

In the short term, stress can be a good thing: The sudden surge of adrenaline, as well as the increase of cortisol, can help us in situations like potentially violent conflicts. But experiencing stress for a long period of time is damaging. Markman uses the case of a divorce that drags on for six months as an example: the divorcees might self-medicate with alcohol, but a healthier response is to take up projects like learning to play an instrument or remodeling a house, which essentially shelters them from the stress response. He says that for members of the Liberal Prepper, whose long-term stressor is the helplessness they feel about the threat (whether real or not) of apocalyptic war or economic collapse, learning some homesteading techniques might actually help to remove their stressors.

“In the long term,” Markman says, “if prepping becomes this way of life, it keeps the fearful stuff at bay—because as far as you’re concerned, unlike everybody else, you’re doing something concrete.”

Ready to talk, ready to fight

According to Stabler, liberals were learning how to ensure their safety in case of a disaster long before Trump’s presidency. For years, left-leaning Americans interested in survival practices—picking up outdoor skills, learning how to can and preserve food properly, even taking notes on how to use a gun without hurting one’s self—lurked on places like the red-hued Survivalist Boards. But they were cautious about their encroachment on right-wing territory, as these discussion boards were not exactly welcoming of liberal perspectives.

Kenny Stabler
Image: Kenny Stabler

“[We’d] have to skip past threads where we were either a bunch of vile and horrible liberals, or how we’re a bunch of pussy snowflakes,” says Stabler. A big draw of the Liberal Prepper, he says, is knowing that somewhere on the internet, there is “a bit of peaceful alternative where everybody’s not a giant dickhole praying for the end of the world.” He believes that whether members join because they’re terrified of Trump, or war, or a financial meltdown, what they really get out of the Liberal Prepper is a safe space for liberals to explore a potentially unpopular worldview.

“Capitalism is getting more brutal, and war is big business,” Stabler says. “So probably people…going on the internet, getting educated, understanding a little bit more what’s going on, isn’t such a bad idea.”

The idea of a community where people could learn these sorts of skills from others is what got Stabler to take prepping seriously in the first place. “I had plans and a space, some land to go to if it gets ugly in the city,” says Stabler. “And a group of people with a variety of skills that are able to actually contribute, that’s important. So I was more into the community than actual prepping itself.”

The community vibe has attracted all sorts of people, some with backgrounds nothing like you’d expect—like Zachary, a lawyer and mindfulness instructor in Lexington, Kentucky. Although he says he hasn’t committed to purchasing backup water or food supplies just yet, since joining, Zachary (who asked that his full name be withheld) bought some silver and gold on other preppers’ advice. It’s a financial security measure, he says, in case the global stock market crashes, paper money becomes worthless, and mass panic ensues.

Occasionally, Zachary engages in ethics debates with other Liberal Preppers. Recently, he asked whether the group members would be okay shooting another human during a civil war or nuclear holocaust. (He says that the answer is, more often than not, yes.)

Stabler says the group he moderates has not organized any meet-ups in the real world, but over the past few months, Zachary has connected with a handful of members offline, and has guided several through mindfulness sessions over the phone. “Some of them [have] been absolutely traumatized,” Zachary says. “They know something’s bad, that something’s coming, but also the fear is compounded by a world just in agony…they’re afraid.”

Not everyone is so sympathetic. Richard Mitchell, author of the 2002 book Dancing at Armageddon, an in-depth exposé of survivalist culture in America, is skeptical that members of the Liberal Prepper are motivated to accumulate survival gear by a legitimate concern for their safety. Having embedded himself with survivalists for over a dozen years, he believes that “fear is not the initial impetus at all—that’s the materialist narrative.” In his eyes, preppers and survivalists are detailing their story “with a smile.”

“They’re having fun doing this,” says Mitchell. “It’s more than just fun. It’s a kind of actualization.” He describes a survivalist he interviewed, whose employment involved maintaining the city’s sewage system. In his garage, he had stored disinfectant, odor treatment, and iodine treatment, among other chemicals. According to Mitchell, the sanitation expert claimed all of this was for some future crisis, when, inevitably, a terrorist group will fry the city’s computers, causing a flooding of the metropolitan community that would leave people “to their armpits in shit water, and he’ll be there ready to fix it.”

“Mr. Poop was not terrified,” says Mitchell. “He was very satisfied with his solutions to these problems.”

“Come see the snowflake”

Whether or not Mitchell is right about the underlying motivations behind prepping, the vast majority of preppers are not attracted to the media spotlight, even as their worldview gains more and more mainstream acceptance. Waugh, who appeared on a segment of Fox News’ Watters World this past March, says he left the Facebook group after receiving death threats from right-wing survivalists for being a “liberal doomsday prepper,” while the exposure made some members of the Liberal Preppers feel paranoid; others thought that Waugh was just narcissistic. A number of the Liberal Prepper’s members, including an administrator, declined requests for interviews; one member posted a warning regarding the presence of a Quartz reporter in the group.

Stabler says many in the group keep a low-profile because, if a crisis occurs, a person who reveals their status as a prepper will have unintentionally tipped his hand, “saying ‘Here’s a grocery list, here’s everything I have,’” and could wind up cornered into sharing his carefully rationed canned-goods with someone who never saw the end coming. Many also want to avoid having to explain to non-preppers why they’ve taken up the task of preparing for disasters—nobody wants to be called crazy or invite the negative attention that Waugh endured.

Some are ready to fight, though, if it comes to it.

“They’re laughing at us, thinking that we’re people with no guns,” Stabler says of right-wing survivalists. “But there’s an attitude with some of us who are like, ‘Bitch, bring it. Come see the snowflake.’”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Seth Hemond’s last name.