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Podcasts Norco '80
A Conversation About Survivalism
California Love
Episode 9
24:15
A Conversation About Survivalism
Dr. Casey Kelly discusses survivalism's enduring allure, from pioneer days to prepper conventions.

NORCO 80
Episode 9 Transcript: A Conversation About Survivalism
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Theme song

I’M ANTONIA CEREIJIDO AND THIS IS NORCO 80. A SERIES ABOUT GOD, GUNS, SURVIVALISM, AND THE BANK ROBBERY THAT CHANGED POLICING FOREVER.

TODAY - WE’RE GOING TO FOCUS ON THE SURVIVALISM ASPECT OF THIS STORY. MY CONVERSATION WITH DR. CASEY KELLY ABOUT SURVIVALISM’S ENDURING ALLURE - FROM PIONEER DAYS TO TODAY’S PREPPER CONVENTIONS.

Theme out

LONG BEFORE CASEY KELLY WAS A MEDIA STUDIES PROFESSOR, HE WAS A KID GROWING UP IN NORTHERN IDAHO. AND IN IDAHO, IN THE 80S AND 90S, A LOT OF PEOPLE HE KNEW WERE DOOMSDAY PREPPERS.

Casey: I had a number of acquaintances in elementary middle and high school who bragged of having underground bunkers and um stockpiling weapons…

AT THE TIME, CASEY DIDN’T THINK MUCH ABOUT IT.

Casey: I don’t even think we had a name for it until much later.

BUT AFTER 20 YEARS, ONCE HE HAD MOVED AWAY FROM IDAHO HAD BECOME A PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA, LINCOLN, A TV PROGRAM PUT SURVIVALISTS BACK ON HIS RADAR.

Casey: The Nat Geo program Doomsday Preppers actually is what really piqued my interest was the nat geo program doomsday preppers

Clip: Across the country, ordinary Americans from all walks of life are preparing themselves....this is Doomsday Preppers

Casey: Once I saw that that had made its way into the culture, it was more than just a fringe movement but something that deserved our attention.

CASEY BEGAN STUDYING SURVIVALISM AS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT. HE WROTE A BOOK THAT CAME OUT IN 2020 CALLED APOCALYPSE MAN.

Survivalism is not just an isolated community of people, but it’s something that is woven into the fabric of America at a much broader level.

ASC: What do you mean that?

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Casey: Really I think that survivalism is part of America’s preoccupation with pioneer and frontier heroism.

ACCORDING TO CASEY, SELF-RELIANCE IS THE CENTRAL ETHOS TO SURVIVALISM. AND SELF-RELIANCE HAS BEEN A KEY ASPECT OF AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY SINCE ITS FOUNDING.

Casey: The frontier myth is a kind of uniquely American narrative. So a culture that worships cowboys, adventurers, explorers and conquerors

THE LONE - OFTEN WHITE MAN - WHO TRIES TO MAKE IT ON HIS OWN AWAY FROM DEVELOPED SOCIETY.

CASEY SAYS THAT’S WHERE THE IDEALS BEHIND SURVIVALISM REALLY STARTED. BUT IT WOULD CHANGE AS THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION TOOK OVER IN THE LATE 18TH CENTURY.

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AS PEOPLE BECAME MORE DEPENDENT ON TECHNOLOGY, MORE DEPENDENT ON INFRASTRUCTURE, SURVIVALISM BECAME ABOUT BEING READY TO GET BY WITHOUT THOSE THINGS.

Casey: Our food or water systems might collapse at any minute.

THIS FEAR BECAME ACUTE AFTER WORLD WAR 2 - PARTICULARLY AFTER A SORT OF IDYLLIC IDEA OF THE U.S. BEGAN TO BE CHALLENGED.

Casey: you see it begin in the 1970s when the myth of the American dream starts to implode quite a bit. When you have economic crisis, military crisis and then environmental crisis,

I think seeing long gas lines in nineteen seventy three when there was an oil embargo against the United States gave us the sense that we are vulnerable to our dependance on outside resources.

I think that those correlate quite well with then the turn to survivalism.

THIS ERA OF SURVIVALISM IS THE ONE THAT GEORGE AND THE OTHER ROBBERS WERE A PART OF.

Casey: I think that the 1970s in particular saw a resurgence of what some people have called paramilitary culture, which I think

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can be heavily tied into America's defeat in Vietnam. But also just a broader sense of vulnerability.

IN THE 70S, DEJECTED VIETNAM VETS RETURNED TO A SOCIETY THAT WAS AMBIVALENT ABOUT THE WAR.

CLIP: Thousands of demonstrators opposed to the Vietnam War...

AND SURVIVALISTS OF THIS ERA - IN PARTICULAR MEN - WEREN’T JUST RESPONDING TO FEAR THAT THE INFRASTRUCTURE THEY RELIED ON COULD COLLAPSE. CASEY SAYS THEY ALSO FEARED THAT THE ESTABLISHED SOCIAL ORDER IN THE U.S. WAS ALSO BEGINNING TO CRUMBLE.

This was a subculture..I think it was a kind of warrior attitude that people had, particularly white men who felt emasculated by the forces of the 70s, but also the movements of the 1960s, too.

So the success of civil rights, of black power, of the feminist movement, all of these things that demanded, you know, at the most basic level just equality, a lot of White men in particular felt that something had been taken from them. And so you see people retreat into gun culture, into martial arts and combat, guns..I think those things become really important.

MUSIC

And this is also reflected in the mainstream culture. I think of a film like Deathwish in 1974

CLIP: let’s see the money man.

Bronson: You’ll have to take it.

Casey: in which Charles Bronson takes to a rotting New York City and it's ineffectual federal police force and goes after criminals himself totally outside of the law.

Same with Dirty Harry, which is a kind law and order film in which a lone male gunslinger has to go outside of the law to get justice.

CLIP : Eastwood: we’re not gonna let you just walk out of here. Mugger: Who is we?

Eastwood: Smith wesson and me.

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THIS FEELING THAT CAME THROUGH IN POP-CULTURE WAS REINFORCED BY THE NATIONAL CONCERNS OF THE TIME.

AND THAT PERSPECTIVE - THAT SOCIETY WAS FAILING AND IT WAS UP TO THE INDIVIDUAL TO PREPARE FOR THE WORST, TO PROTECT THEMSELVES - IS PART OF WHAT DROVE GEORGE SMITH TO PLAN THE BANK ROBBERY.

Music

IN THE COMING DECADES - SEVERAL HIGH PROFILE VIOLENT INCIDENTS INVOLVING SURVIVALISTS WOULD FORCE THE SURVIVALIST MOVEMENT TO CHANGE ITS BRANDING.

WE’LL BE RIGHT BACK

Break

WE’RE BACK WITH MY CONVERSATION WITH DR. CASEY KELLY.

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Casey: throughout the 1990s in particular, a number of high profile events put on negative impressions of survivalism out into the public.

TWO MAJOR INCIDENTS INVOLVING SURVIVALISTS HAPPENED IN 1992 AND 1993. Casey: you have police shootouts in Ruby Ridge and Waco.

Clip: A federal agent has been shot and killed in a confrontation with a fugitive in north Idaho.

RUBY RIDGE WAS THE HOME OF A FAMILY OF ANTI-GOVERNMENT SURVIVALISTS WHO RETREATED TO A MOUNTAINTOP IN NORTHERN IDAHO.

Clip: Randy Weaver, a fugitive on a firearms charge, has been holed up in a cabin near Naples Idaho for more than a year.

A YEAR AND A HALF BEFORE THE SHOOTOUT, RANDY WEAVER, THE FATHER, STAYED QUARANTINED IN THEIR CABIN EVADING LAW ENFORCEMENT BECAUSE HE HAD FAILED TO ATTEND HIS TRIAL ON FIREARM CHARGES. WHEN MARSHALS SHOWED UP IT BEGAN AN 11 DAY SHOOTOUT.

CLIP: Randy Weaver has told friends all he wants is to be left alone. But with the sudden appearance of military hardware like this, a one man stand against the law has started to look like all-out war.

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LESS THAN A YEAR LATER, FEDERAL AGENTS WOULD SIEGE A COMPOUND IN WACO TEXAS THAT BELONGED TO A GROUP OF RELIGIOUS SURVIVALISTS KNOWN AS THE BRANCH DIVIDIANS WHO BELIEVED ARMAGEDDON WAS COMING FEDERAL AGENTS BELIEVED THE GROUP WAS ILLEGALLY STOCKPILING WEAPONS.

CLIP: It happened outside Waco Texas a heavily armed compound. A religious cult. Four law enforcement agents are dead.

76 MEMBERS OF THE BRANCH DIVIDIANS WOULD DIE INCLUDING 25 CHILDREN.

CLIP: the fbi said cult members didn’t panic when tanks approached the compound. Yet calmly, apparently under order from Koresh, began to gather inj an underground bunker, and donned gas masks.

ANOTHER HIGH PROFILE SHOOTOUT HAPPENED IN OKLAHOMA CITY IN 1995.

IN RETALIATION FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN RUBY RIDGE AND WACO, TIMOTHY MCVEIGH, A KNOWN ANTI-GOVERNMENT SURVIVALIST SET OFF A BOMB IN OKLAHOMA CITY - EXPLODING A FEDERAL BUILDING.

CLIP: The whole front of the federal building is gone. The floors to the roof/A major explosion in a the federal

building/we’ve got a lot of children hurt...

Casey: Those violent events made survivalism out to be a caricature of what we think survivalism is

THESE EVENTS ALL HAPPENED IN THE 90S, WHEN THE INTERNET WAS STILL IN ITS INFANCY. AND AS OTHER SURVIVALISTS INCREASINGLY BEGAN TO FIND EACH OTHER ONLINE - THEY CHOSE TO REBRAND THEMSELVES SO AS NOT TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH THESE HIGH PROFILE VIOLENT INCIDENTS.

Casey: Survivalism didn't have a very good reputation associated with it. And so I think Prepper was a term that developed to kind of soften the edges a bit, and to make the what we might consider survivalism, to make it seem as something that is not a fringe, but is really about just simple preparedness for potential disasters.

The term prepper is much more recent, and I think it coincides with the development of online communities.

Musiquita

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AND ONLINE THE PREPPER COMMUNITY SHARED TIPS AND ADVICE. FORUMS AND YOUTUBE VIDEOS DETAILING HOW TO STORE FOOD, HUNT, BE GENERALLY PREPARED. THIS IS A YOUTUBER WHO GOES BY THE NAME “NEVER ENUFF AMMO”

NeverEnuffAmmo: And it's just good to be prepared. I have a family to think about and that's why I do this, but I can't see how some people look at prepping, and in their mind, they instantly think the hardcore militia guys who run around stockpiling weapons, waiting for World War three or waiting for our government to come and try and arrest everybody who owns a gun.

I can see that, too. But to look at it from my point of view, I think that is something that's perfectly natural. It's something that's been done for generations. We just personally got lazy and stopped doing it.

THESE VIDEOS ARE STILL POPULAR TODAY. IN PARTICULAR, ONE TREND HAS HELD FAST: WHICH ARE THE “BUG IN AND BUG OUT” VIDEOS. THESE ARE VIDEOS WHERE PEOPLE SHOW THE CAMERA ALL THE ITEMS THEY HAVE PACKED IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY, AND WOULD BE READY TO TAKE WITH THEM IN A MOMENT’S NOTICE.

NeverEnuffAmmo: And also, I just got a new bug out back here and a lot of other videos have seen. The old one is Swiss Tech, which is actually a really good bag. This is for me and my family. I've got a family of five. So these are these items are going to be specific to what we have decided we need.

THE VIDEOS HAVE A SIMILAR VIBE TO HAUL OR UNBOXING VIDEOS IN WHICH PEOPLE SHARE WHAT THEY BOUGHT AT THE MALL THAT DAY .

NeverEnuffAmmo: So let's get into what we've got in the bags here. All right. First off, flashlight. This is my little Coleman. Two way radios.

This is my med kit. This is obviously a very large med kit because it’s for a family of five.

Superglue, electrical tape, duct tape. I separate all my stuff in bags. This is my bag of fire. I've got three lighters, I've got three boxes of matches, I've got some of the little emergency candles I've got at the actual magnesium firestarter in here.

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Casey: Survivalism or prepping is a large business. It’s and industry that generates 500 million dollars a year. So it’s very very expensive. That includes everything fromm underground bunkers, really really high capacity rifles, essential oils, gold and metal stocks, weapons training...there is an entire cottage industry around survivalism and it can be very expensive.

CLIP: emergency relief revenue saw a 21.7% increase following 2017 climate disasters. For a growing number consumers, emergency preparedness isn’t just logical. Its a necessity//Wait until you see how much people are willing to pay, and how far they’re willing to travel to survive the unthinkable.//Terrorism. Natural disasters. Most families are unprepared. The govenrment recommends bug out bags for your car home and work. Introducing the Flagg bug out bag...

MUSIC

BUT EVEN THIS NEW MORE SANITIZED ONLINE SURVIVALIST COMMUNITY - HAS ITS EXTREMIST MEMBERS. CASEY SAYS THAT AFTER YEARS OF FOLLOWING PREPPER FORUMS ONLINE, HE WORRIED SOMETHING LIKE THE INSURRECTION OF THE CAPITOL WE SAW IN JANUARY COULD HAPPEN.

Casey: Yeah, I'll admit that on the lead up to that day, I was very worried about what was going to happen. And when I saw it unfolding under my eyes, I was absolutely terrified because this is this is a fantasy that has played itself out in online communities for years.

So it's one thing to spout off about that on 8CHAN. It's another thing to actually bring weapons and bombs into the Capitol. And so my concern and still is, is that we've crossed some kind of event horizon where this is going to be something that happens more frequently. I hope that it doesn't.

BUT CASEY IS QUICK TO TELL ME THAT WHILE THERE ARE EXTREMISTS WITHIN THE SURVIVALIST COMMUNITY, IN HIS RESEARCH HE WAS SURPRISED THAT THE COMMUNITY WAS MORE DIVERSE THAN HE ANTICIPATED. SOMETHING THAT HE DISCOVERED WHEN HE WENT TO THE SURVIVALIST TRADE SHOW “PREPPER CON.”

I expected to see a lot of camo clad mountain men. And when I went there, sure, there were plenty of those people there. But what I saw was all kinds of folks.

THE FUTURE OF PREPPING WHEN WE RETURN.

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BREAK

WE’RE BACK. IN 2016, CASEY KELLEY WENT TO PREPPERCON - A GIGANTIC CONVENTION FOR SURVIVALISTS AND PREPPERS HELD YEARLY IN SANDY, UTAH.

Casey: And it was kind of a festive atmosphere. I saw, suburban families with their kids in tow. I saw single women.

CLIP: So you’re here at Preppercon in Sandy Utah

Well I’ve been a prepper all my life i just didn’t know what it was.

Not to mention zombie proof

Casey: I got to meet Ms. America. Twenty sixteen. She is a doomsday preparer and she gave a rousing talk on survivalism.

Clip: We actually have Ms. America, Julie Harman. She’s also a former Ms. Utah. Her whole platform is

preparedness. And she’s actually one of our ambassadors.

Julie Harman clip: It really literally threads through every facet of society so it’s an easy topic to talk about, and it’s not just emergency preparedness, it’s for everyday, too.]

Casey: Yes, there were several stars of some survival programs, some reality television shows who came and gave a talk.

Clip: Well, They’re fans of Mountain Men…

Host: ”there’s a lot of us who are fans”

Casey: There was a hurricane simulator for the kids

So there was a lot of there was a lot of different ways in which they were engaging the apocalypse. But they didn't look like what I thought. I realized that I had to kind of change my conceptions a little bit, that there was something about survivalism that appealed to all kinds of groups.

Tape: PREPPERCON

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What’s in your bug out bag?

AND BEYOND THESE CONFERENCES - SURVIVALISM HAS ALSO ENTERED THE LUXURY INDUSTRY.

YOU CAN PURCHASE A MULTIMILLION DOLLAR DOLLAR UNDERGROUND BUNKER COMPLETE WITH SPA AND BARBECUE GRILL -

CLIP: He makes the most expensive, most popular underground bunkers in America.!hat do you get for 10.4 million dollars? you get an underground swimming poolCLIP of LUXURY HOUSE

AND YOU CAN EVEN BUY A DESIGNER BUGOUT BAG –– IF YOU HAPPEN TO HAVE TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS LYING AROUND

CLIP: We have like 5 different levels of kit now, going from 95 now 10,000. This is the prepster black./With everything we have going on, do you see an increase in sales?/Yes we have.

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ASC: So why do you think survivalism, or doomsday prepping, is so big right now.

Casey: One appeal that may explain why there's been such a resurgence in popularity of doomsday preppers or survivalism, I think has been just living in an environment where people don't know whether they'll have a retirement or they're working in a gig economy where they can barely cobble together a living, you know, buy a house or have a family. But I think that that makes it seem as if perhaps a better alternative than investing in the stock market or having a retirement plan might be to to doomsday prep instead.

ASC: [00:15:44] I definitely I have survivalist tendencies, like I have a rooftop garden. And definitely during quarantine, when I think there was a general feeling of where are we going to get food? And we're so interconnected and we should be it's better for the environment if you have your own garden. Like I went all in.

And so I, I understand. I mean, as a millennial, that feeling of precariousness that comes through both the economic crises we've endured and also climate change, I feel that wholeheartedly and I think anyone does. The thing that's been the question, of course,

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and this story is like one thing is having an urban garden and another thing is robbing a bank to build a bunker in Utah.

Casey: I’d say the difference today or what sort of makes preppers different today is that you have a much wider range of people who participate and varying levels of commitment. Now to be sure there are the people who build bunkers, who buy luxury doomsday condos in the middle of Kansas where there used to be nuclear missile silos...but i think you have people that are much more casual. They might be prepping for a water shortage, they might be prepping for a natural disaster because of fear of climate change, but i think for whatever reasons, people are dabbling in this community more than fully investing in it.

If we're going to really invest in being preppers, why not as a culture prep for the thing that we know will be our undoing? Climate change? Hopefully survivalism can be appropriated as a way of thinking about climate change. My fear is that we've individualized survivalism. It's become something that one does, and they do it in opposition to their neighbors, believing that they'll those people will turn into their enemies The moment that the shit hits the fan, which is the phrase that preppers like to use.

And I think that that's what's really the most tragic thing about survivalism, is that we don't do it collectively,

So I'd hope that we quit just preparing to protect our family and thinking selfishly in that regard. But instead, that we might appropriate those values from survivalism as a way of thinking about how we're going to collectively overcome.

What can we do collectively to prepare for what we know will be the challenge of our of the next 20 years?

Music

  1. CASEY KELLY IS A PROFESSOR OF MEDIA STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA, LINCOLN. HIS BOOK IS TITLED APOCALYPSE MAN: THE DEATH DRIVE AND THE RHETORIC OF WHITE MASCULINE VICTIMHOOD.

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This episode of Norco 80 was written and produced by me, Antonia Cereijido and Joaquin Cotler.

The show is a production of LAist Studios in collaboration with Futuro Studios.

Leo G is the executive producer for LAist Studios. Marlon Bishop is the executive producer for Futuro Studios.

Audrey Quinn our editor

Sophia Paliza-Carre is our Senior Producer. Juan Diego Ramirez is our Production Assistant.

Marialexa Kavanaugh is our intern.

Fact checking by Amy Tardiff.

Engineering by Stephanie Lebow and Julia Caruso.

Original music by Zach Robinson.

This podcast is based on the book Norco '80 by Peter Houlahan

Our website is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios.

The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding.

Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including: Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G.

If you want to hear more Norco ‘80 please follow or subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, NPR One, the iHeart App or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to rate and review the show!

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.