Barackalypse Now

By Murphy, Tim | Mother Jones, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Barackalypse Now


Murphy, Tim, Mother Jones


Obama's second term is very bad news for survivalists. It's also very good news for the industry catering to their worst fears.

WITH HIS LOAFERS, KHAKIS, and polo shirt, James Talmage Stevens isn't exactly dressed for the end of the world. When I run into the 73-year-old Texan 10 days before the November election, America's most celebrated self-reliance guru seems better suited for an early bird special than a black swan event. The only hint of his notoriety is a patch over his left breast depicting his professional alter ego-"Doctor Prepper."

Stevens' book, Making the Best of Basics, may be the closest thing the survival industry has to a bible (aside from the actual Bible). It has sold more than 800,000 copies since hitting the shelves at Kmart during the gas crisis in 1974. Stevens is not actually a doctor, and, come to think of it, he'd rather you not call him a "prepper," which he considers a slur meant to impugn selfreliant folks like himself as paranoid loons. But it's become part of the lexicon, and Stevens is somewhat paranoid about where the United States is headed (he foresees a borderline tyrannical second Obama term that begins with massive gun confiscation and ends who-knows-where), so he's rolling with it. As he puts it, "I don't really like cuss words, but I know how to use them and I know what they mean." Besides, it's good for business.

I met Stevens at the Self Reliance Expo in Mesa, Arizona, one of the nation's leading "readiness" trade shows, where attendees (about 5,000 over two days) shop for bulletproof vests and dehydrated peas or practice suturing an open wound on a severed pig's foot. Stevens' cosponsorship amounts to a sort of papal blessing for the event. "He's the bomb, he's the godfather," says Tony Tangalos, the Phoenix-based host of The Prepper Patch, an AM radio show. "He's like the Elvis Presley."

Over the past four years, Stevens has witnessed something of a renaissance, coming out of retirement to hawk an expanded edition of Basics and a water-filtering system that's so efficient, he tells me, it could make urine taste like bottled water. The product has netted Stevens and his partner $1.5 million in profits in just over a year. And he's far from the only one making a living off the coming collapse of civilization. Sites like Revolutionary Realty and Survival Realty list rugged properties with amenities such as a "defensible hillside location." There are no fewer than three prepper dating sites-Survivalist Singles ("Don't Face the Future Alone") boasts 4,000 members, mostly male. Both the National Geographic Channel and Glenn Beck TV have gotten into the game with their reality shows Doomsday Preppers and Independence usa. The preserved food company Shelf Reliance reported a 708 percent explosion in revenues over the past three years. Overall, the size of the market for Americans expecting major disruptions caused by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorism, pandemics, price shocks, gas shortages, civil unrest, martial law, nuclear disasters, and/or the Rapture is estimated to be $500 million.

Welcome to the doom boom.

Humans have been preparing for the worst for millennia, but modern Americans have turned it into an art form. At the dawn of the Atomic Age, suburbanites scrambled to build backyard shelters and the government stockpiled food in anticipation of the day after. The spiraling inflation of the 1 970s brought with it a spike in gold sales and backwoods land purchases. During the Clinton years, camo-clad survivalists prepared for the black-helicopter invasion, and Y2K briefly made prepperism mainstream. But perhaps the best salesman for the notion that we're on the verge of financial, technological, and political collapse has been the current occupant of the Oval Office. Stevens says of the president, "He is the leading promoter of this without even knowing it."

At the Self Reliance Expo, the prospect of a second Obama term is seen as both a catastrophe and an opportunity.

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