The Irresistible Dream of a Prepper’s Life
When There Are No More Real Frontiers, People
Tend to Invent Their Own
It is no exaggeration to say that the inegalitarianism of the past 40 years—the results of which were also distributed unequally to different populations, with the result that some of the relatively unfortunate blamed their problems on the more unfortunate—resulted in Trump. But if his ascendance looks like an even worse future emerging, it is also the moment in recent world history that most feels like a departure from the world that the Chicago neoliberals built—the world in which Reagan’s supposed victory over the Soviet Union had somehow ended history itself.
(“The good news,” a friend said to me soon after the election, “is that we still live within history. The bad news is that we still live within history.”)
It is an exaggeration to say, as many have, that Trump’s occasional gestures in the direction of protectionism make him the tribune of the forgotten white Midwestern worker. The working class isn’t all that white these days, and will continue not to be. And many white poor people, like poor people in general, do not vote.
Though Trump managed to attract more than 50 percent of those white-working class voters who did turn out in November 2016, his share of them was not nearly as commanding as his share of, say, white people making over $100,000 a year. To borrow and adapt an illustration from the writer and “Chapo Trap House” co-host Matt Christman—himself a Wisconsinite—Trump owed his victory less to the white guy behind the counter at the McDonald’s than to the owner of the store, his boss, who lives in a slightly nicer part of town, and who spends his Sundays cursing recreationally at football players who kneel during the anthem.
Trump won the Midwestern states in 2016, in part, because he bothered to contest them at all, while his opponent did not. But we cannot forget the way he contested them: lurid tales of a “real” America menaced by ethnic minorities and elite enemies. (One of his last campaign ads, made up almost entirely of images of wealthy Jews, made clear what he meant by “elites.” That an increased emphasis on open nativism and anti-blackness in mainstream discourse has also placed American Jews back on the chopping block is clear from the fact that two of the deadliest anti-Semitic mass hate crimes have taken place post-Trump and were carried out by Trump supporters.)
As I finish writing this, he has just told four of the most honorable people in Congress—two of them Midwestern women—to go back where they came from. He means this in a sense that cannot be corrected by pointing out, as many have, that they are citizens.
He owes some of his support to the ersatz form of populism, for which we need another name, that has dominated American political conversation in recent decades. (It is to the Populist Party of the 1890s what brutal Mr. C. is to brave Agent Cooper.) A too-strong belief in one’s own normalcy becomes precisely a belief in one’s superiority. Normalness becomes a fetish, a performance, or a product.In fact people everywhere are strange. If you look at a person and see a known quantity, you are not seeing that person.
The Midwest, because of its perceived averageness, has long been forced to play a symbolic role in this process. Artists and writers who do not sufficiently condescend to their audiences get brought to heel by invocations of mythical Peorians. Here in the real world, Peoria has several mosques and a halal restaurant, a famous museum, the oldest community theater in Illinois, a small college. Historically, it was one of the region’s most important distilleries: how dare you assume these people are no fun?
In fact people everywhere are strange. If you look at a person and see a known quantity, you are not seeing that person. You are seeing a phantom generated by your desire to have everything simple enough to grip, to move around, to compel. This is presumably true even of Trump, though he has done nearly everything it is possible to do to make a person feel that he is interacting with a body unsouled.
Trump panders to, but he does not represent, the voters of the Midwest. But Trump is the candidate who best represents the right-wing response to the climate crisis. As Greg Grandin has pointed out, that old idea of the frontier, which continued to define American identity for over a century after the Census Bureau reported the frontier closed—think of Kennedy’s “New Frontiers”—really, finally, has closed, and it has closed because of climate change.
We simply cannot economically expand forever in the old way; nature is asserting limits. So Trump argues, in his (let us say) impressionist style, that the American future consists only in locking down our possession of what we already have. Where the humanist says “Let’s build the best society we can, out of whoever happens to show up,” Trump says, in effect, “America for the People Already Here.”
When a federal court upholds a law that literally makes it a crime to give a child a cup of water in the desert; when Immigrants and Customs Enforcement abducts a child at an airport in order to force the (undocumented) parents to turn themselves in; when Border Patrol shoots people at the Mexican border with tear gas: that’s the reactionary response to a warming world. It is a much simpler and more satisfying response than regulating energy companies or taxing carbon. It only has two problems. It is evil, and it will result in, if nothing else, the end of this country.
People who want to live in a world are already too querulous to make a society, even with each other, even if they get everything they want. Picture them trying to manage a baking earth, an evaporating Lake Superior riddled with Asian carp, a countryside full of feral bacteria and reeking of CAFOs that produce less food every year. It won’t work. A fully achieved Fortress America would just be the Donner Party a day or two before the cannibalism starts.
On Election Night 2016, I looked around at my household and I made a plan. I would gather my friends, get a homestead in the country, and learn to shoot. We would live self-sufficiently, modeling a new, better world as the old world crumbled around us. If the Nazis showed up, I’d be ready to defend my outpost.
Almost everything about this urge was silly—except for the fear it arose from. I was not wrong to feel that circumstances constituted an emergency, for the country and for my particular household. My wife and I are college teachers; we both work with prisoners; she is part Latina, with at least one undocumented immigrant in the family tree. We were renting rooms at the time to two former students, both of them black, one of them Muslim. When you look at our social ties and personal loyalties, it’s a list of what Trump hates. I was not wrong to feel I ought to do something, even something strenuous.
But what a something! What stands out about my protective instinct to retreat to the wilds of Michigan is not only its tragic propensity for backfire, but its abstractness, its inutility. It was a vision for keeping “people” safe, but not for keeping these people safe. First of all—as Ashley reminded me, in a cheerful but tired voice—we knew people in Ann Arbor, and knew nobody in the country. And second, my wife went on, she was not interested in sharing a house simultaneously with a gun and with a male adult who had a history of anxiety and depression. She cited statistics on gun suicides. She didn’t fear for her safety, but for mine.
Ashley kindly refrained from stating the most obvious reason why this idea wouldn’t work: I am not homesteader material. I am not a farm kid, though I grew up in a small town. I am far removed, on both sides, from pioneers of any kind. My parents did not keep a gun in the house, or hunt, or fish. I have no military experience. My aim sucks. Nor do I like guns. Nor do I think killing people is justifiable, except defensively. Nor do I like the country, really.
This urge has no place in my head. It did not grow there organically. It’s an invasive plant.
If you’re trying to be as practical as possible, to solve an immediate problem, and an idea comes to you, vivid and overwhelming and a little blurry on the details, like a strong dream in which you nevertheless can’t quite make out anyone’s face; and if that idea is the one idea that absolutely won’t work—you are probably in the presence of an ideology.
Ideology at its most successful feels like a good dream: it resolves exactly those tensions that can’t be worked out in real life as it’s presently arranged. Say you can’t choose between good jobs in different cities; you dream that you’re somehow in both places at once, or that both jobs are somehow fused. Say you can’t choose between two lovers; you’ll dream an impossible (and patient) amalgam of both.
So what ideology was at work in me that night? To want to go off not on my own, but on our own—to build a community on a sort of middle frontier, on one side of you an old civilization hardening like grandpa’s arteries and on the other a pure but punishing wildness—that’s Midwestern. My version of the fantasy simply combined the utopianism of the Rappites with the postmodern cynicism of the doomsday prepper—that group of people so in need of a frontier that they have created a new one, in time, forming their imaginations and habits around an apocalyptic hellscape that doesn’t yet and may never exist.
The Midwest plays a special role in the preppers’ dream. A company named Vivos xPoint has acquired a network of old military bunkers in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which they have refurbished rather smartly, so as to offer, according to the website, “accommodations for more than 5,000 like-minded survivalists.” (I wonder what, or who, these survivalists—a group notoriously riven by schism—are “like-minded” about.) If the dream of the company’s owners comes true, the Black Hills really will be the center of all that is, in a way the Lakota never intended.
In the photos, the curving steel walls are softened by wood-paneled cabinets and high-end couches—they have the cyborg look of the future utopia-dystopias you see in 1970s sci-fi, that combination of unforgiving, mathematical silver and organic brown. The sticker price is a surprisingly low $35,000, plus another thousand a year. As with a vacation timeshare, it’s the monthly fees that really get you.
The corporation has systems in place to ensure that each section of the compound will feature an equal mixture of necessary skills—all doctors and no plumbers, notes the website, with what I hope is gruesome irony, would be a “real disaster.” The website also refers rather ominously to a “New Genesis,” the new humanity that will emerge from these steel underground huts after the strategically-undescribed Bad Thing has somewhat receded from the horizon. As with Turner, frontier-style adversity results in the evolution of, in effect, a new race.
The website adds, “We are not at liberty to discuss the ongoing security measures.”
A missile silo in Kansas offers a slightly less messianic appeal. If Vivos xPoint subtly mixes Biblical tropes into its sales pitch, Survival Condo is a strictly secular bit of territory. Its website masks the terrifying nature of the product on offer with an Eisenhoweresque prose style, mixing pseudo-military diction with boosterism—two dialects that evolved for the purpose of denying death.
“Our objective when first approaching this project was to leave no stone unturned,” runs one typical passage. Because Survival Condo is, in fact, a condo, it has an association and rules; during an emergency you’d have to work a four-hour day. Thomas More’s Utopia required six, not only during emergencies.
From Midwest Futures. Used with the permission of the publisher, Belt Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Phil Christman.