On March 26, Donald Trump issued an executive order to ward off the apocalypse. The “Executive Order on Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses” instructs the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other federal agencies to evaluate the potential damage of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse attack and implement measures to protect the U.S. should such an event occur.
A large-scale EMP attack that affects the entire nation would, in theory, involve a foreign power detonating a nuclear missile in the atmosphere above the U.S. The explosion would produce gamma rays that could then disrupt all sorts of electronic equipment on the ground below—cellphones, power grids, the works. It’s not hard to imagine how our society could devolve into a survivalist hellscape if it were suddenly stripped of functioning electronics.
Trump’s executive order is the product of decades of right-wing fretting. Mainstream national security experts tend to be extremely skeptical that an enemy is likely to launch an EMP attack against the U.S., largely due to the risk of retaliation. Yet some of the most visible figures in the Republican Party—such as Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee—have headlined conferences dedicated to EMPs and incorporated the issue into their campaigns for public office. Ex-intelligence officials have lobbied tirelessly for government initiatives to harden the country’s infrastructure, as have conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation. All of that raises a question: Why are conservatives so obsessed with EMPs?
It’s important to note that there has never been a nuclear EMP attack, and much of the national security community thinks it’s not very likely to happen. It would be bizarre for a foreign power to initiate a nuclear war with a largely untested means of attack when it could just level a city with a bomb, according to Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America. (New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)
There are some EMP scenarios that are slightly more likely to actually happen. For instance, governments around the world are developing weapons that can produce EMP disruptions for electronics in a one-mile radius. Using such a device would be much less risky, but also less devastating, than deploying a nuclear EMP. A similar disruption could also occur naturally during a solar flare, a sudden release of energy on the sun’s surface that also produces gamma radiation. The probability of such an event is also slim—there’s around a 10 percent chance of a massive solar flare happening every decade—but it’s happened before. In 1859, a solar superstorm set telegraph circuits ablaze around the world. And in 1989, a solar flare caused a 12-hour blackout in Quebec, Canada.
Scientists first observed the effects of a nuclear EMP during the Starfish Prime bomb test in 1962, which disrupted electrical services in Hawaii. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union studied the potential impacts of an attack during the Cold War and continued to detonate atmospheric nuclear explosions for several months, though the countries eventually agreed to stop such testing with the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. And as tensions eventually decreased, so did concerns over the scenario.
According to the New Republic, that changed in the late ’90s when then-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland, glommed onto the issue. Bartlett consulted with espionage novelist Tom Clancy and in 2000 convinced lawmakers to form a commission to evaluate EMP attacks. The commission was enacted in 2001 and put out a report warning that the technology was a looming threat—but the timing was off. The report came out the same day as that of the 9/11 commission. Bartlett eventually became a doomsday prepper and was last reported as living in a remote cabin in the West Virginia mountains.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has in some ways taken the EMP mantle from Bartlett. In 2009, author William Forstchen published the thriller novel One Second After, which follows a North Carolina man’s quest to save his family in the wake of an EMP attack.* The book predicts that 90 percent of the American population would be wiped out from an attack, and the figure has since then become a popular talking point among EMP alarmists. (Tests conducted by the EMP commission show that a “significant fraction” of electrical systems would fail from an attack, but it’s hardly enough to wipe out 90 percent of the population.) Gingrich, who has co-authored several novels with Forstchen, wrote a foreword for One Second After and has regularly touted it as an essential read on the dangers of an EMP scenario. “I’ve believed for a long time that EMP may be the greatest strategic threat we face,” Gingrich said during a conference in 2009. (He regularly gives talks about the issue.) “Without adequate preparation, its impact would be so horrifying that we would in fact basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.”
Plenty of other influential figures in Trump’s orbit have tried to raise awareness around nuclear EMP attacks. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a prominent Trump booster and father of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, warned during his 2016 presidential campaign kickoff speech that EMPs could “take this country back to the Stone Age in a matter of minutes.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary and former presidential candidate Ben Carson mentioned the threat both during the primary debates and on the campaign trail in 2016, as did Rick Santorum, who seemed particularly worried that Iran would try make “planes fall out of the sky.” And former CIA Director James Woolsey, one of the most active EMP doomsayers, was an adviser for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and Trump’s 2016 campaign, though he has been associated with the Democratic Party and previously served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Former congressional adviser Peter Pry, another leading figure in the EMP lobby, also had contact with Trump on the campaign trail. Pry visited Iowa in 2016 shortly before the first caucus to speak to Republican candidates about EMPs, and apparently Trump was particularly receptive to the warnings. “[Trump] got it,” Pry told BuzzFeed. “He’s a smart guy. He basically said, ‘If I’m elected President, I’ll knock their heads together and solve this problem.’ ”
Why conservative figures have traditionally been the loudest alarmists for EMP attacks is a bit of a mystery. Indeed, the national security experts I spoke to for this piece weren’t exactly sure why this issue has become an important issue for people with a certain ideological bent. “Why this obsession? I’ve always wondered about that,” says Singer.
One theory is that the Republican approach to global affairs has a tendency to emphasize catastrophic threats. “[EMP threats] work for all flavors of conservative foreign policy,” says Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who studies military doctrines and has tracked the rise of EMP fears among conservatives. Farley says that EMPs are a useful bogeyweapon for Republican causes like maximizing the defense budget and subduing the axis of evil. The idea that one device couple cripple the entire U.S. makes North Korea and Iran seem even more threatening.
For the most part, the measures necessary to safeguard the country from EMP-related disruptions are harmless, even useful. For example, modernizing the electrical grid and investing in alternative energy sources would both reduce the United States’ carbon emissions and make the country more resilient to EMP attacks. But security experts worry that an obsession over EMP preparedness could mutate from a largely benign call for upgrades to U.S. infrastructure into an excuse for hawkish military actions. Sharon Burke, a senior adviser at New America, points out that while most of Trump’s executive order seems innocuous, it does include instructions for the secretary of defense to “defend the Nation from adversarial EMPs originating outside of the United States through defense and deterrence.” Burke says, “That’s a really problematic clause … giving a justification for a preemptive attack, potentially.”
Shortly before he became the national security adviser, John Bolton gave an interview to Fox News in which he made the hawkish claim that “the only diplomatic option left is to end the regime in North Korea” in the wake of the country’s sixth nuclear test. In supporting his point, Bolton later added that the country’s nuclear devices “can be used as electromagnetic pulse weapons that are not necessarily hitting targets, but destroying our electrical grid’s capabilities.” Throughout the 2000s, Republicans also marshalled the EMP threat as an argument for developing an expanded national missile defense system, which would cost billions of dollars.
Conservative-leaning fiction may also have played a part in stoking the imaginations of the public, breathing new life into panic over EMPs. Singer described Clancy’s and Forstchen’s EMP-related novels as belonging to “the genre of the U.S.’ collapse taking us back to when it was the real U.S. … Society has fallen apart, but our guns still work, and we’ll re-create it. There’s a neat ideological fit.”
Michaela Dodge, a research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, which has been instrumental in publicizing the EMP threat over the years, says that her talks about EMPs seem to enthrall her largely conservative audiences. “I would say of all the issues I work on, this one captures the imagination of the general public the most.” Dodge suggested the post-apocalyptic TV shows Jericho and Revolution, which premiered in 2006 and 2012 respectively, helped people to think about the consequences of EMPs and widespread power loss. While Dodge said she didn’t see why these shows would appeal to a certain political demographic, Jericho’s first season had a notably conservative plotline. And according to viewership data, Revolution had a largely Republican audience.
Some experts further suggested that there may be a financial incentive for certain conservative figures to be pushing the EMP threat. “There are some people who marketized it. It’s a moneymaking scheme,” said Singer, who pointed to several opportunities to cash in: writing novels on EMPs, securing think tank funding for further research on the threat, selling doomsday prepper equipment. (Companies like Faraday Defense and Mission Darkness sell lines of key fob cases and backpacks that can withstand EMPs on Amazon.)
It’s difficult to divine how exactly certain EMP alarmists could be profiting off increased attention to the issue, since their think tanks often don’t disclose their funding and because it’s not yet clear which companies will be receiving government contracts as a result of the executive order. However, the Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, published an op-ed in 2018 by former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer Gregory Kiley noting that former CIA Director James Woolsey “has worked with three different venture capital firms who have investments in companies that could profit off of EMP hysteria.” Woolsey serves as the chairman of Woolsey Partners LLC, which invests in industries crucial to EMP readiness such as alternative energy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications. He’s also a venture partner at Lux Capital. The firm has invested in companies like Gridco—which helped utilities become more resistant to power outages before it folded—and Crystal IS, which manufactures water purification products that would be crucial in a disaster scenario. Woolsey formerly served as a partner at VantagePoint Venture Capital, which was investing in “grid optimization” companies during his time there. (Woolsey declined Slate’s requests for comment.)
Whatever the motivations may be for Trump’s executive order on EMPs, it’s probably not a harbinger of war with a nuclear power. “My feeling is that you don’t necessarily worry about the snowball when it’s at the top of the hill. You worry about the snowball when it’s rolling toward you,” says Farley. “If you’re worried about [the EMP issue] being used for missile defense or attacking North Korea, wait until people are making those arguments.”
Indeed, administration officials haven’t said much about EMPs following the executive order. As tensions rise with Iran and North Korea, it’s possible that EMPs could eventually become a fraught part of the national conversation. There’s also the chance, though, that the government will prepare by simply upgrading the energy grid and broadcasting PSAs urging us to buy EMP-resistant duffel bags and fabrics on Amazon.
Correction, June 3, 2019: This article originally misidentified the state in which the protagonist of One Second After lives. It is North Carolina, not South Carolina.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.