April 22, 2020
by Cédric Levêque, Post-doc in Anthropology and member of the EXTINCT project team (University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès). He is currently doing research on the survivalist mouvement, and by Joshua Kelly, Sociologist working on conservative politiques in Europe and in the United States, in partnership with iGLOBES
As of April 20, 2020, the United States holds, sadly, two new world records: the number of people infected with Covid-19 (nearly 754,000 reported cases) and the number of deaths attributed to the disease (36,109 to date).
It is still too early to fully understand the reasons for this situation, even as the country spends on health per capita more than twice the OECD average. Several explanations have been put forward: the prohibitive cost of health insurance and of the hospital system, the acuity of social and racial inequalities, the weakness and slowness of the federal response, the prevalence of the main co-morbidity factors, the frequency and intensity of travel, etc. As in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, the giant reveals a fragility that its economic, military and cultural power poorly conceals. However, its vulnerability now appears with such vividness that several newspapers have (already and again) predicted the end of the “American era.”
Yet many people were expecting such a catastrophe. They had been saying for years that the “system” was too precarious, the dependencies too numerous, the insufficiencies too great. Since the early 2000s, survivalists – or “preppers” – have been developing anticipatory strategies to resist the expected disruption of our current way of life. Their fears and worries are varied: exasperation in the face of the supposed weaknesses of the government, desolation caused by the physical and mental decay that modern comfort would induce, anxieties over looming ecological disaster, migratory or techno-scientific fears... their motivations are plural, indeed. Still, the knowledge they acquire and transmit unites them: building and managing food and energy stocks, conceiving defense and evacuation plans, setting up self-help groups, mastering techniques for weaponry, fishing, hunting or poaching, developing knowledge of the environment, methods of healing, etc. Social chaos, apocalypse, nuclear winter, the “Big One" , or - more simply - the breakdown of American society will, they believe, substantially reduce the chances for survival of unprepared bodies and minds. Thus they “prepare” through meetings, trade journals, video tutorials, training courses, and conventions – supported by a thriving market for specialized skills and equipment.
Their profile is relatively homogeneous: Preppers are generally white, male, and from the middle and working classes. Most are Republican or libertarian, Christian, armed, and proud to live in the heart of the “red states:” those that progressive elites ostensibly disdain as they “fly over” between New York and California. Certainly, there are progressive survivalists in the United States – the so-called “liberal preppers.” But those are the only ones to which an adjective need be added; the phrase “conservative preppers” is essentially redundant. It goes without saying that one adheres to “traditional” values when one claims to prepare. For “true” survivalists, preparedness is also an expression of the Americanness they cherish, a way to reconnect with the masculine, religious and military values that serve as the foundations for the greatness of God’s Chosen Nation.
Some preppers, however, seem almost a little disappointed about the way in which the pandemic is playing out. While it took them years to get ready for doomsday, not much (or not enough) appears to be happening: The virus seems distant, abstract; it appears, so far, to be limited to urban areas. The more politicized preppers do not hesitate to post their doubts about the danger of the Covid virus on community forums and message boards. For many, a “Chinese virus,” one that has strongly affected Iran, arouses suspicion. It certainly suggests political mechanisms aimed at weakening an America whose heart is already gangrenous with leftism and political correctness, and which has gone astray enough to elect twice a black president.
They are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The situation is likely to get even worse, given the already devastating effects of the containment and social distancing measures on the economy. Still, they have time. They are ready. For those new to the cause, online courses and training will continue. It is never too late to learn and to understand. There is always something to do anyway; the sense of danger is an inexhaustible resource that they have turned into a way of life.
Above all, they are vigilant. This obscure virus is less of a threat to individuals than it is to the ideal of America. They claim prophylactic measures imposed by some states violate their constitutional rights. They are prohibited from demonstrating for the “reopening” of North Carolina or Tennessee (against the First Amendment) ; their right to travel is restricted even as “this is not China, here, and America will never be" ; soon, they fear, the Second Amendment will be violated, removing their guarantee to the right to arm themselves and to form militias... By definition, any government action contains the seeds of a freedom-destroying threat requiring the greatest attention. And most of them unfailingly support initiatives of “resistance” in the face of the “authoritarian” and “anti-American” actions of “leftist” governors, leading to – for example – the demonstrations held last Thursday in Lansing, MI against the containment measure defended by the Democrat Gretchen Whitmer .
Thus, by observing the prepper sphere in the United States, despite the distance and the distorting lens of social networks, we understand to what extent this pandemic is a social and political phenomenon, like all those that preceded it – far from the scientific visions that strategically restrict it to neutralized expertise. Many newspapers in the United States (and elsewhere) have already carried headlines about the “next world” and the need for innovation in “post-corona” life. We will have to invent and adapt, of course; but to think that we will wipe the slate clean of the past is naivety at best, a danger at worst. The prepper world illustrates with a disturbing acuity that many people are ready already. They advocate for a project that did not wait for the virus to appear. They are not calling for revolution or novelty; to the contrary, they rather evoke the past, traditions, identity or authenticity in order to impose a violent, sexist, racist, Christian, unequal and homophobic vision of society. Their words remind us that we, too, would benefit from vigilance. Of course, the pandemic is an event of an unknown magnitude. Still, it is also, for many, a perfect opportunity to undermine the liberal foundations of our societies.
 The mega earthquake expected on the West coast that will have catastrophic consequences
 The hashtag #reopen followed by the abbreviation of the State (#reopenTN, #reopenNC...) is quite popular on conservative social media
 References are commentaries made on private social media and are not credited for confidentiality reasons
 "Chanting 'lock her up', Michigan protesters waving Trump flags mass against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus restrictions", The Washington Post, April 16, 2020
Cédric Levêque is a post-doc in Anthropology at the University of Bordeaux and member of the EXTINCT project team (Labex SMS, University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès). His thesis was on "The governmentality at the State's margins: malaria fighting in Casamance (Senegal)". He is currently doing research on the survivalist mouvement.
Joshua Kelly is a sociologist working on conservative politiques in Europe and in the United States, in partnership with iGLOBES.