The near-constant barrage of climate disasters pummeling the US is having an unforeseen political effect. As FEMA struggles to keep up with the magnitude and frequency of disasters, far right militias like the Oath Keepers are filling the vacuum to build trust and organize. In a recent article for Grist, Zoya Teirstein looks at what these efforts looked like on the ground in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Zoya joins The Marc Steiner Show for an in-depth look at this phenomenon.

Zoya Teirstein is a staff writer at Grist covering climate change and public health.

Studio / Post-Production: David Hebden


Marc Steiner:  Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. And welcome to another edition of Rise of the Right. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Now, weather-related disasters grip the headlines more and more with each passing year. This year’s floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all over the news. It can also lead to an almost hidden societal disaster. Another perfect storm. There’s an explosive dialectic of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, being ill-prepared to respond to the human-induced industrial climate change that increases the magnitude and frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, and all other climate-borne disasters. And within that, dialectical twists with right-wing militias organizing to save the day, responding to help communities hit by those disasters, and in the process, building their racist right-wing arm movement.

Yes, part of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers who stormed the US Capitol are masking themselves as saviors. And Zoya Teirstein wrote a stunning article about this in Grist titled, “Boots on the ground: As FEMA struggles to keep up with climate disasters, extremist groups see an opportunity.” And Zoya, who is a staff writer at Grist, covers climate change and public health. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Wired, Slate, HuffPost, The Verge, and many other places. And Zoya, welcome, good to have you with us.

Zoya Teirstein:  Really glad to be here. Thanks, Marc.

Marc Steiner:  So this really was a fascinating piece for me to read because it’s a hidden aspect of what this country’s future faces that none of us expect. But after reading it, it made so much sense to me. So take us back. I’m really curious about what got you into this, how you began to think about this and began to want to expose it.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, it’s been such a long road that it’s hard to remember the exact moment when I got clued in but I’m pretty sure it was around the midterm elections when there were these groups that were surveilling ballot boxes in Arizona. That group was called The Lions of Liberty and for whatever reason I had a free couple of hours and I started looking into what that group was and I saw that it was the political arm of this other group called the Yavapai County Preparedness Team. Which, to me, and I’ve covered emergency preparedness and relief efforts a lot in my time at Grist, sounded like a government agency. Yavapai County Preparedness Team that’s named after Yavapai County in Arizona, which sounds like an emergency relief group or preparedness group.

So I started looking into that and went down, as you can imagine, one of the longest and weirdest rabbit holes I’ve ever come across and ended up tracing back this long history of that group, which is an offshoot of the Oath Keepers, and how the Oath Keepers have used disasters for decades really – For years and years at least – To fundraise and to perhaps recruit. That part’s a little trickier to try to trace back but it definitely built their brand. So that really got me to start thinking about all that.

Marc Steiner:  There’s a line in your piece that jumps out and it’s a very simple line but I want to explore it. You write, “What happens if the government fails to show up and communities start to rely on extremists next door?” And that’s what’s happening is that you write about right-wing militias, right-wing organizations coming into disaster areas to save the people and save the day. That’s the gist of it.

Zoya Teirstein:  Totally, yeah. It’s an interesting thing to say out loud but it is perhaps the truth that for example, if you are white and you live in a community that’s struck by a disaster, the Oath Keepers might be exactly who you would want to show up at your door if you were having a crisis. The whole nature of that organization is, it’s former and current law enforcement, people who are trained to do disaster rescue missions, to put out fires, former firefighters, current firefighters, sheriffs, people who are trained to stay calm in an emergency and to help people. So it’s an interesting thing to say though, who would really want these–It’s basically a militia to show up in an emergency. But people who don’t know that the bedrock of these organizations is that they’re formed on conspiracies, racism, and sexism, and people who don’t know that might say, wow, thank you so much for coming and helping. And that’s how these groups get a foothold in these communities really.

Marc Steiner:  Well, one of the things that you point out here is really important to explore for a moment in what you said is where the root of this happened. And you make the difference between Jim Arroyo and Stewart Rhodes. Stewart Rhodes being that guy with the patch in his eye, who was one of the people who stormed the capitol and got convicted in prison. Arroyo being an Oath Keeper but much more slick and much brighter in terms of his approach and what he’s done in Yavapai County in creating these groups. That to me said a great deal about how Arroyo thought through this, who these two men are, and what the major difference is.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah. Arroyo, I’m hesitant to give him too much credence but because the guy believes in true conspiracies, things that you need to be relatively not rather bright to believe in: he believes that we are in the middle of, or at least the beginning stages o,f World War III. I confronted him on a number of issues that he brought up in his meetings and I’d be like, hey, people say that you believe in conspiracy theories. And he would take me back to the definition of what a conspiracy even is. I don’t want to say that he’s the brightest guy, however, he has capitalized on something of a unique moment. So the Oath Keepers are now dissolved in many ways because of what happened at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

So Stewart Rhodes is facing a lot of jail time and so now the largest right-wing anti-government group in the US is without a leader. And what Jim Arroyo is doing, and he stood by while January 6 happened, he told me that he doesn’t believe that the people who stormed the capitol should be going to jail. In fact, he said that those people were in there actually protecting the police, which is not true. But he said that basically he stood by and he said, those guys are idiots. He said it was the ultimate dumbass contest. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along those lines. So he has clued into this idea that in order to be successful, subtlety is key. And I saw that in his meetings. These meetings are not subtle, the ones that he organizes in Arizona, but when things go too far–

For example, he had an expert, quote-unquote, come up and teach the audience how to navigate home security systems. How to put in place an alarm system of your own. You can make one yourself with a shotgun blank that makes a very loud sound if it’s tripped to a tripwire. And someone in the audience shouted out, it doesn’t have to be a blank, which alludes to real violence. And the crowd laughed and people were really into it. But then Arroyo came on stage after and said, listen, if you put a real bullet in there, you will go to jail.

What he’s realizing and what he’s tapped into is that there’s a way to ride the line right between legal and illegal. And he’s burnishing his image with this perception that he’s stoic, he knows what he is doing, he has experience, he can teach people how to stay safe. That’s his main thing. His thing that he told me over and over and over again was, we are not training people to fight in the Civil War. We’re training them in how to get out of the way. And we can get into whether the reporting really bore out, that that’s not fully the truth, but that’s what he says.

Marc Steiner:  So one of the things I got, and I’ve heard Arroyo before, there are a lot of people out here who believe in these conspiracy theories about the US government wanting to take over everybody’s entire lives and running the nation and everything you see out here, FEMA as a test run to how to control stuff and pull people away in camps as you allude to in your article. But one of the things that can be a danger sometimes it’s not really realizing how smart people like Arroyo really are. Just because they believe in this crazy crap doesn’t mean they’re not strategically smart. And they’ve been trained to be strategically smart, especially those guys who’ve spent time in the services, been army rangers, they know what they’re doing, they know how to calculate and strategize and think things through.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, it’s tempting to think that, and I don’t entirely disagree with you, but that theory falls apart when you look at Stewart Rhodes. He could argue that he was smart, he was trained allegedly by the military if I’m remembering correctly. And he built an organization from the grassroots up. It was massive, but then he stormed the capitol and he thought that he could get away with that. That is inherently dumb.

Again, I would caution that it’s easy to fall into this trap that these people are super smart, that they’re gaming the system, that they’ve got it all figured out. And the truth of the matter is they don’t. What they do have on their side is that people are, right now, especially totally primed for conspiracy. You have COVID-19 which was a hotbed of conspiracy theories and anti-vax stuff, and the list goes on. So people are really ready to hear what Jim Arroyo has to say, and he’s definitely saying it. So in that way, he’s smart. He’s capitalizing on an interesting moment in American society and American history.

Marc Steiner:  But what to me is smart and what you talk about in this article, the difference between Rhodes and Arroyo. In many ways, Rhodes strikes me as a total buffoon, but Arroyo created these things that you write about in-depth, these community preparedness teams that go into disasters and help people through their disasters, and know what they’re doing because of their previous training and the training they continue doing. That to me is really the nose under the tent, being able to actually will your way into a community by helping them and that can change an entire political dynamic in the long run. So talk a bit about that and what you unfolded here with all that.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah. Well, the community preparedness teams were actually started by Stewart Rhodes a few years after he formed the Oath Keepers. And they were initially called Civilization Preparedness Teams, or something along those lines.

Marc Steiner:  Civilization Preparedness Teams, is that what you said?

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, but then he changed it to Community Preparedness Teams. And talk about things that are smart, that was a smart move because the nature of disasters in this country, and FEMA talks about this a lot, is that the nation is much too large for FEMA to be everywhere all the time. And we can talk about the agency’s shortcomings of which there are many.

Marc Steiner:  Yes.

Zoya Teirstein:  But the one thing that’s true that I’ve seen time and time again is that communities really need to come together in the aftermath of disasters and especially before disasters, to prepare, to provide relief for each other. That is the nature of what it’s like to be a neighborhood in America. And you see that time and time again after disasters, people coming together, people driving in from out of state to help out. The one thing that I was really nervous about with this article, was that it was a long process and we sought a lot of outside expertise to make sure that I was telling a story that was entirely accurate and the full picture, but I don’t want to discourage people from relying on their neighbors in the aftermath of these situations.

It is essential that we rely on each other for this stuff. That’s the way we get through the climate crisis. But the Community Preparedness Teams take advantage of that in some ways. And what’s sad about it is that they are providing a service. And these teams did a number of things, it wasn’t only post-hurricane relief, that stuff. And after Hurricane Harvey for example, and Maria or Irma – That was in 2017 when we had a trio of hurricanes that really brought havoc all across the US – Those teams went in, provided meals, helped out, I watched all their videos and there’s a reason they post their videos online. They’re saying hey, look at us. We’re doing this. We’re a legitimate organization. Again, it builds their brand. But that wasn’t all they were doing. They also went when there were standoffs between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management, they showed up and sometimes even those folks didn’t want them there. They were there providing security.

When the George Floyd protests were going down, those riots, they arrived and said they were providing security for business owners. I don’t know how much of that is true. There was no one really keeping tabs on what these groups were doing at the time, but historians I’ve spoken to say that that’s bad news. You don’t want these armed vigilantes showing up ready to fight. That’s a long-winded answer to your question, but the CPTs are a really fascinating element. And when I look at the long-term effects and what I hope this article does is I hope it points to these initiatives  – I’ve talked to FEMA extensively now about this – And alerts federal agencies that these threats are there. And as more and more communities are affected by climate disasters, we need to be more aware that there are nefarious actors that are coming in.

Marc Steiner:  What struck me in reading your article and reading it again this morning was that the lack of funding, as you talk about briefly in your article for FEMA, and in some ways, it’s not being prepared for the climate disasters that we face, really does open the door for these Community Preparedness Teams that are run by the right-wing in this country and run by right-wing militias in this country that are regrouping to fill a void.

And that’s something that we really do not think about, that we don’t think about what those consequences might be. And maybe you want to send this article to a bunch of my friends in Congress saying, you should read this. Think about what this could mean in the long term, I’m serious. So this perfect storm that I alluded to in the opening of the climate disasters increasing, FEMA being unprepared, and in the gap in the void comes these right-wing militia groups posing as Community Preparedness Organizations to take care of you at any time of a disaster. That to me is a frightening scenario of what could come if we don’t wake up.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, I agree, that’s why I wrote this article really because that threat seemed legitimate enough to me to shed light on. I will say that when it comes to these militias, it’s a growing but small problem. The larger problem to me and something that we write about at Grist a lot, is how ill-prepared FEMA is for a climate-changed world. And that is the larger story, and it will continue to be the larger story unless these groups somehow form a very cohesive front. So we’ll watch that. But for the time being, FEMA’s shortcomings are a real problem. You’ve got an agency that is funded by Congress on a regular basis. It has a steady stream of funding, and it’s funded with a lot of money, but it’s always not quite enough. And then so the agency’s always scrambling to catch up.

And you have these disasters that are enormous. Hurricane Harvey was so expensive, we’re talking tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, billions of dollars, it all stacks up when you have one disaster after another. For example, you’ve got right now temperature, water, sea surface water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are extremely high in the Atlantic. They’re very high, you’ve got hurricane season coming. That does not bode well for the Northeast, which is already inundated with flooding and does not bode well for the South, which is dealing with a horrific heat dome. You have these compounding disasters that create a very expensive situation. You have one agency really, FEMA, that’s tasked with dealing with all of it. They’re understaffed. COVID led to an enormous staffing shortage there.

So you’ve got an agent and Congress is really not giving them enough funding. You’ve got Republicans fighting FEMA funding and then asking for FEMA funding right after a disaster happens in their state. You’ve got Democrats probably not fighting hard enough to get FEMA the full funding that it needs. It’s a real cluster and something that really concerns me as someone who not just writes about this stuff, but as someone who lives in the US.

Marc Steiner:  Yes, what I was thinking about again is reading your article was that if you look at what allows the rise of the right-wing in our country and across the globe, it’s disasters and governments not being able to respond to people’s needs. And this is that perfect storm I alluded to earlier that could come in the wake of this, if the only people responding to a disaster, when they come your way, whether it’s a hurricane or a wildfire, are neo-fascists with hoses or whatever they’re coming in with, then that could come to bode some real danger. And people are asleep at the wheel when it comes to what FEMA can no longer do because of climate change. That to me, is a thesis that I don’t think anybody’s thought through. You’re opening the door to a new thesis, a new idea of what we could face.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, well, it’s a horrible catch-22, because you have this federal problem and the naked truth that FEMA can’t be everywhere at once, and it was never designed to be everywhere at once. And you have to have communities helping each other out. And then you have these groups coming in that have this alternative mission. And so that’s where things get really tricky. You need communities to help each other. And then when you have these groups coming in, it looks like communities helping each other.

Marc Steiner:  And you’re right about people like Hampton Stall and others who are watching this, who have a militia watch. Clearly what they’re saying and looking at their other work, as I was reading your article, that this can give rise to militias, is exactly what it’s doing. And that to me is, I don’t think people really understand the true danger that we face when it comes to the armed right-wing that are trained in combat, trained in disaster relief, and coming together, what that can mean. And that’s what is part of the danger that you are green-lighting for America to understand.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah. And episodes like January 6 will throw that into sharp relief, those are moments people wake up. The Oklahoma City bombing was another example of that where anti-government groups can cause a lot of damage. And I agree, it’s a serious threat. You have right-wing white nationalist terrorism on the rise, not only in the US but globally. And I spoke to a number of experts for this story, some of which didn’t even make it into the piece because I decided to focus on the US specifically. But the extremist movement globally is growing and there are many facets to it. The Patriot movement is different from the neo-fascist movement that you alluded to. They share similarities but within this large umbrella of extremism, you have a number of different threads that require different solutions and different approaches. It’s a many-headed beast and that’s what makes this problem so thorny.

Marc Steiner:  Expand on that for a minute. What do you mean by that?

Zoya Teirstein:  Okay, here’s a good example: Even within the patriot movement within the US, you have the Three Percenters. And then you have the Oath Keepers. So the Three Percenters are younger, they are more racist, they are anti-Semitic, sexist, and in many ways, they’re openly so. They share some of the same anti-government ideologies that the Oath Keepers do, but it’s a different demographic. Whereas the Oath Keepers are older, by and large, they’re in their ’60s, they’re in their ’70s, and they are more subtle. If they are racist, they’re more subtle with it. When they are sexist, it’s not the number one thing that they advertise. What they advertise is government tyranny, that they took an oath to protect America from enemies, foreign and domestic and the emphasis is on domestic.

So that’s a difference. To the naked eye, it might not seem like a major difference, but in many ways, it is because it requires different solutions. And that is something that I learned from the experts that I spoke to, Hampton Stall being one of them who runs Militia Watch, which is a great blog where he keeps tabs on these different groups and also explains the differences between them. But yeah, that’s another thing that’s worth paying attention to because a one size fits all approach will not work here.

Marc Steiner:  Well, and finally to conclude with, I’m going to come back to the heart of your work and the part of the heart of this article, which is the depth of the role and importance that climate change and climate disasters play in the ability of the right to gain power.

Zoya Teirstein:  Yeah, and it’s such a good question, Marc because the way that the right regards climate change has been an issue for so long and for so many decades, and I’ve only been writing about climate change for half a decade. For many more decades, journalists have been chronicling this resistance from the right to action on climate change to any approach to addressing climate change. And now we’re in this situation where it is– I don’t want to say it’s too late because that’s not true.

Marc Steiner:  Right, it’s not too late. I don’t think it’s too late.

Zoya Teirstein: It’s not too late and I would hate to tell your listeners that, but we are entering a new era and that is something that people need to know. It’s the dawn of a new age and we are dealing with a number of disasters on all fronts at all times. This summer, and it’s only July, not even the middle of July quite yet, is a great example of that. So now we have a party that for many years denied even the existence of climate change, slowly starting to shift towards a more nationalistic approach. This has not become mainstream in the Republican Party yet. In the Republican Party, honestly, climate denialism is still the name of the game in many ways. But in general, what people are forecasting is this switch from climate change isn’t real to climate change is real and we need to batten down the hatches and protect against becoming a wave of what may be tens of millions of climate refugees.

You’ve got people who are going to be living in parts of the world that are going to quickly become uninhabitable and that’s the truth. Many studies show that. So that’s something to watch as well. Of course, I’m worried about these right-wing extremist groups but also within America, in more mainstream politics, we’re going to have this push and pull between how many people are we going to let into this country? Are we a climate safe haven? Will we accept people at all or will we turn them away? And that to me is another looming big issue that people need to be starting to think about.

Marc Steiner:  Well, you’ve opened up something for people to think about in this article. You really have. It’s something that many people are not yet understanding or talking about, which is this very weird and dangerous synergy that’s taking place between the rise of the right, their militias, climate change, and our government’s inability to respond. And we have to wake folks up about this. I’m going to encourage folks to not just listen to this podcast but to check out the article in Grist, and we’ll be linking to it on our website, “Boots on the ground: As FEMA struggles to keep up with climate disasters, extremist groups see an opportunity” by Zoya Teirstein. Great article. I look forward to many more discussions. Your stuff is great. I’ve been reading your other stuff and I’m really impressed. So thank you so much for your work, and thank you for taking your time.

Zoya Teirstein:  Thanks so much for having me on, Marc. I’ve really had a great time.

Marc Steiner:  I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Zoya Teirstein about her stunning article that appeared in Grist entitled, “Boots on the ground: As FEMA struggles to keep up with climate disasters, extremist groups see an opportunity.” There will be links to this article and it’s a well-worth read so please read it, and let me know what you think. And as climate change rises, it can fuel the rise of the right, which is one of the reasons we’re presenting this today. I want to thank you all for joining us today, and please let me know what you thought about what you heard, and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at and I’ll get right back to you. And while you’re here, go to Become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. And so for David Hebden and Kayla Rivara and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.