AUGUST 28, 2018
A MOVIE WAS RELEASED in the summer of 2016. You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s called AmeriGeddon, and it opened in select cities that don’t usually get to be select cities: Kearney, Nebraska; Greenville, South Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida.
AmeriGeddon adapts to film a major conspiracy theory that has vibrated in the fringe right wing for over half a century: the vulnerable US power grid will be hit by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), and the country will be left without electricity. In the national chaos that follows, martial law will be imposed. American citizens will have their guns confiscated, be rounded up and imprisoned in FEMA concentration camps, and suffer there until they submit to the New World Order. In AmeriGeddon, it’s left to a small group of patriots with “strong survival skills” and “the remains of the Second Amendment” to resist this New World Order and save the nation.
Not surprisingly, the film’s major endorsements came from organizations that actively traffic in similar conspiracy theories: Infowars’s Alex Jones (who has a small cameo) and The Oath Keepers’s Jason Van Tatenhove. The latter organization is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. Today.”
Even viewers who share the movie’s beliefs seem to have found it unremittingly terrible; a typical online review reads: “This is more like a movie done by the liberal left to make fun of the Christian conservative right. I agree with the message, but could you at least get decent actors and a director! I was embarrassed watching this film and had to turn it off after 20 minutes.”
In one scene, a silky and mysterious political figure in a Dubai skyscraper calls the American president. In the round actorly tones of standard mid-Atlantic vocal training — which here, tellingly, is meant to convey something vaguely and terribly foreign — this ominous figure tells the president:
You knew damn good and well when we vetted you that this day was going to come. Well, the committee and I have decided now is the time. This was a courtesy call, neither a warning nor a threat. When you sell your soul, it’s a one-time thing. There’s no going back.
We come to understand that the president was only elected by virtue of a shadowy cabal’s influence and manipulation. Primarily via collusion with Russians, this cabal infiltrates the American government and military.
And just like that, this right-wing Z-grade flick goes prophetic.
During the 2016 election, Michael Morell, former head of the CIA, wrote an op-ed outlining his concerns over what he saw as Putin’s grooming of candidate Trump: “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” These concerns were then dismissed as overblown.
We now watch Trump stand next to Putin in Helsinki, submissive and manipulated, at the crest of a non-stop two-year flood of news stories outlining the breathtaking extent of Russian infiltration into Western political life. Russian involvement in Brexit. Russia manipulating FIFA. Russian hackers targeting American nuclear power plants. Russians hacking into the election systems of 39 states. A Russian operation targeting American service members and veterans via fake news and pro-Putin trolls, in an attempt to turn them into a fifth column. “Shadowy” groups connected to Russian military intelligence creating websites mimicking American conservative think tanks. The strange deaths of Putin’s critics — by poison in London, or a fall from the window in Moscow.
And that’s before you get to the Mueller investigation into Russian election interference and collusion with the Trump campaign. Don Jr. meeting with known Putin associates in an attempt to dig up dirt on Hillary; campaign manager Manafort, already found guilty of eight counts of fraud, about to go back on trial in September for the millions of dollars in loans he accepted from Russian oligarchs during the election. Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos — there’s a seemingly endless list of Trump associates now cooperating with the investigation that has uncovered their tangled involvement in unsavory foreign suasion.
How did AmeriGeddon see it coming?
Gary Heavin, writer, producer, and star of the movie, made his fortune as the founder and CEO of Curves, the wildly popular women’s fitness circuit gym franchise that was all the rage in the late 1990s and early aughts. In 2011, Heavin and his wife and co-founder Diane performed their all-American success on Secret Millionaire, a reality TV show in which millionaires go undercover to lower-class neighborhoods, have some kind of awakening around the essential humanity and goodness of poor people, and, by the end of the episode, make a major donation. This was probably the peak of Heavin’s appearance in mainstream media. As his religious and political views became more public — he’s a pro-NRA evangelical Christian, an aggressive patron of anti-abortion groups, an early Trump adopter, a Doomsday Prepping survivalist, and a 9/11 “truther” — his media appearances drifted rightward to various fringe radio talk shows.
Heavin fully realizes the right-wing paranoiac described in Richard Hofstadter’s timeless 1964 essay on conspiratorial thinking, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He believes the world’s events unfold not “as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will” — the will of a singular enemy in possession of covert yet unlimited power. He perceives this enemy’s evils “before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public.” Social clashes are therefore not political conflicts to be negotiated, but rather battles “between absolute good and absolute evil,” to be fought to the finish by the paranoiac, who figures himself as a hero. In other words, Hofstadter wrote Gary Heavin decades before Heavin wrote AmeriGeddon.
AmeriGeddon appears to be a vanity media project, nowhere so much as in Gary Heavin’s performance as a heroic version of himself: he’s Charlie, a wealthy Texas rancher whom the American government surveils with a constant stream of black helicopters because he knows just too damn much. The source of Charlie’s wealth remains conveniently mysterious — perhaps because the idea that his coffers were filled by the sweat of middle-aged women wasn’t sufficiently butch enough for his alter ego. And he’s conveniently single — he lives on his ranch alone, preparing for the impending NWO attack. (Well, mostly alone. AnnaLynne McCord, of 90210 reboot fame, plays a chemist and munitions genius employed by Charlie full-time to create and stockpile weapons for the coming battle. Sure, why not?)
Charlie maintains a tiny ragtag circle of trusted friends who somehow all manage to make it back to the ranch by the time the big bad Russians show up to try and take him out. The group includes screen legend Diane Ladd, who plays a grandmotherly militia enthusiast. When the lights briefly flicker during dinner, she knows instantly that it must be the massive EMP strike they’ve all been waiting for. Because she is Diane Fucking Ladd she’s actually able to pull that off.
Heavin’s script strains to connect the jumbled threads of his political beliefs (the UN, led by Russia and China, operates as a front for the New World Order; and also GMO produce is bad; and also, academia is a cesspit of atheist feminism; and also Texas should secede) into a single unifying vision of the world. If anything, its narrative logic boils down to this: Charlie (meaning, Gary Heavin) knew what was coming. He was right the whole time.
The emotional climax of the film is not the battle with the Russians but the scene that happens right before it: as they prepare for the confrontation, Charlie’s neighbor (played by the luminous Dina Meyer) asks him, through tears, “We could have known — all — along?” “Yes,” Charlie seems smugly pleased. Yes. Yes, I was right all along.
This narrative logic surfaces in the character arc of Penny, the college-aged daughter of Charlie’s buddy Roger, a liberal Texas state senator. We meet Roger and Penny in the middle of a contentious argument about Charlie. Penny asks her dad: “Why do you waste your time with that fascist conspiracy nut? I’ve seen his ramblings on the internet, they’re disgusting!” On the receiving end of Penny’s self-righteous tirade, her father gently breaks to her — in one of the least believable plot points of the movie — that right-wing Charlie is “actually my largest donor.” Penny symbolizes the failures of liberal education. She advocates for abortion and hates Charlie for not redistributing his wealth. She comes into the dorms crowing about how her professor is going to “publish her feminist manifesto,” having commended her for “burying the God and guns culture.”
And yet, unlike the other enemies in AmeriGeddon, Penny is granted reprieve — undoubtedly because she’s young, white, and cute. She will learn on the other side of the EMP strike that punching bad guys feels good; guitar-playing college boyfriends will ditch you in the moment of crisis; there are no atheists in foxholes; there are no feminists on the right side of history; and, when the apocalypse comes, all those useless college kids will be the first to go. Charlie comes to her rescue in his helicopter, flying her off her burning college campus. She reunites with her military ex-boyfriend and realizes the errors of her ways.
With “Charlie was right” as its arc, it becomes clear why the film is shot like an after-school special. AmeriGeddon doesn’t have cinematographic objectives other than making this world seem essentially “real,” meaning, believable. Shot on and around Heavin’s rural Texas ranch, the location scouting smells of the best the filmmakers could do for free and doesn’t greatly help the storytelling. Crowd scenes are sparse and poorly staged; the visual effects consist of awkward greenscreen and carefully selected CGI explosions; the final battle repeats the same clips multiple times in the edit. Perhaps all the money went to hiring AnnaLynne McCord and Diane Fucking Ladd.
Heavin’s attempt to make his interior worldview feel concrete, real, and possible fails. Conspiracy theories live most richly in the gaps of the mind, in the creative act of imagining connections across chasms of logic.
At the same time, AmeriGeddon remains a strangely prescient text for reading how the right-wing social imaginary played out in the months leading up to the 2016 election. It documents the right wing’s complicity in making its outlandish fears become reality.
Since the election, a part of the United States has suffered the longest blackout in our history, with all the attendant death and destruction Heavin predicts. Only it wasn’t the mainland and it wasn’t from an EMP attack. It was Puerto Rico, hit by a storm that exposes the looming terrors of climate change, which the American right wing still refuses to acknowledge is manmade. And, of course, Russia has undeniably made inroads into infiltrating our government, through a candidate who appears to be the very one for whom Heavin campaigned and voted.
AmeriGeddon believes in a world where the only thing that can protect American citizens from foreign infiltration is guns, lots and lots of them. And yet, as the film was being shot and distributed, amateur Russian spy Maria Butina was working her way — without much effort, it seems — up the ranks of the NRA and CPAC. Meanwhile, the FBI is currently investigating separate efforts of pro-Putin Russian donors to funnel funding into the NRA during the same time frame.
In a section of Hofstadter’s essay entitled “Emulating the Enemy”, he writes, “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self.” He notes how the anti-Catholic KKK imitated Catholicism down to its priestly garments, elaborate rituals, and organizational hierarchy; how the 1960s John Birch Society (whose obsession with the UN as a front for a New World Order gave rise to the set of beliefs upon which AmeriGeddon is based) recreated structures of cells and front groups from the same communists they were determined to root out.
As the paranoid style infiltrated and ultimately took over mainstream conservatism, it has become the most expected running gag of our ongoing American political saga: Christian right-wing complicity in the very things it most loudly rejects. We assume Republican congressmen are riddled with whatever they most attack: Larry Craig, anti-gay zealot, asking for bathroom stall blowjobs; Tim Murphy, staunch anti-abortion advocate, forcing his much younger girlfriend to get an abortion; Trent Franks, marriage-first evangelical, begging his interns to let him impregnate them.
It appears to be embedded in the culture from which these politicians emerge. Go to the #Exvangelical and #EmptythePews hashtags on Twitter; you can read thousands of people who grew up in a morass of sexual abuse, assault, duplicity, and moral turpitude that the Christian right wing purports to hate and refuses to acknowledge. Michael Gerson’s recent, tormented essay in The Atlantic states that the moral convictions of these religious leaders “have become a function of their partisan identification.” He writes, “This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives.”
Only this blindness could make people with public platforms like Gary Heavin remake Donald Trump, a golden-calf-worshipping, adulterous pig — a man who calls Haiti, the country to which Heavin himself sends missions, a “shithole” — into their standard-bearer. The inevitability of failure in such an attempt can be best seen visually in conservative artist Jon McNaughton’s recent paintings figuring Trump as an American Jesus. These cringeworthy images — Trump clutching the flag to his chest, gently teaching a white male college student to fish, as Washington crossing the Delaware with his “soldiers” — John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and Melania and Ivanka and Sarah and Kellyanne all wearing camo and holding rifles — collapse into parody under the weight of their implausibility.
Donald Trump himself demonstrates the most extreme levels of this performance: he blamed Hillary for rigging the election as he rigged an election; called out the Clinton Foundation for influence-peddling while selling influence to whomever was willing to buy it; promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington, DC, while installing almost hilariously corrupt businessmen and lobbyists into positions of public stewardship. In the aftermath of the Helsinki meeting, Trump accused Germany of being “totally controlled by Russia.” We can only imagine what that means for the United States.
AmeriGeddon calls into being what it most fears, and we are left living in it: the fantasy of a rich white man projecting himself as a hero in a crisis of his own making, shadowboxing with himself as the world burns.
Maya Gurantz is an artist in video, performance, installation and site-specific projects. Her art works and writing interrogate social imaginaries of American culture and how constructions of gender, race, class and progress operate in our shared myths, public rituals and private desires. She lives and works in Los Angeles. Her website is mayagurantz.com.