Photo illustration by Matthew Cooley. Images in illustration by Adobe Stock, 4
“This is a United Nations peacekeeping helmet,” says a middle-aged white man in a denim shirt, with a red bandana tied around his neck, in a TikTok video. He holds an iPad up to the camera, displaying an image of the familiar blue helmet worn by UN personnel deployed in post-conflict areas of the world. “It’s constructed out of level 3A+ armor,” he explains. “That will effectively stop all handgun rounds, up to .44 Magnum, including 12-gauge shotgun. What it will not stop is 5.56 [ammo], and pretty much every North American hunting round known to man.”
This is 54-year-old Cody Crone — a.k.a. “Wranglerstar” — a homesteading content creator in Washington State who shares tips and tricks for manly rural living. Calling himself a “professional homeowner,” he advocates for a return to so-called traditional values, shows off high-end workshop tools and forest service gear, enjoys meals cooked by his “submissive” wife, praises God, and takes “viking baths” (his term for regular plunges in a cold river). His 2015 book, Modern Homesteading, published by the Christian imprint New Leaf Press, recounts how he moved his family from a “comfortable city life” to embark on a journey of self-discovery in the rugged landscape of Washington, romanticizing the Pacific Northwest.
But over the years, Crone has drifted away from content comparing cordless power drills toward videos espousing right-wing conspiracy theories and a prepper mentality — that is, the need to fortify and supply one’s home for a looming catastrophe. Amid a lot of generic, helpful home improvement fare like “How To Repair A Garden Hose,” he intersperses warnings of a “coming struggle” or “apocalypse” that will upend society as we know it. Much of Crone’s content now refers to this bloody cataclysm just around the corner: in a March YouTube guide on “How To Be A Modern Day Minuteman 2023” — referring to the elite, mobile militia troops of the American colonial period — he says, “I want to be able to respond to a call, if there’s a call to arms.”
He doesn’t exactly name targets, and he doesn’t identify with an extremist group or movement, which gives him cover to keep hinting at deadly political conflict. On YouTube, where Crone maintains his largest audience (2.4 million subscribers) he’s able to skirt guidelines while teaching viewers how to fashion tire spikes and primitive alarm systems with fish hooks that catch on an intruder’s face. He’s recommending ammunition for firing upon Boston Dynamics’ police robot “dogs,” giving advice for how to commit arson without getting caught, and demonstrating how to fill a water balloon with oil and sand to lob at an “occupying force.” After imparting such techniques, he almost always tells his viewers, “Act accordingly.”
Then there are the guns. This year, Crone went viral for a YouTube Short in which he dons body armor and loads up multiple firearms — including an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle — just to venture outside in Portland, Oregon, a city commonly portrayed in right-wing propaganda as overrun with Antifa “thugs.”
Scrolling the Wranglerstar page, you’ll encounter regular flashes of wild conspiracism: Crone has alluded to the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion, which killed seven crew members, as “the greatest money-laundering scheme in the history of man,” and speculated in a YouTube livestream that the government could force unvaccinated people to surrender their “pure” blood and “reproductive juices.” He makes forays into regressive gender politics — in one clip, he says that were he a young person considering marriage to a “western white woman,” he would “demand a virgin.” And Crone has tiptoed right up to sympathizing with Nazi-era Germans, which he caveats only by saying, “I’m not making excuses for Mr. Mean Mustache Man” — i.e., Adolf Hitler.
Replying to a detailed list of questions about his content and the motivations behind it, Crone tells Rolling Stone, “My videos are for entertainment and if someone happens to get some useful information from them, great. If anyone is misconstruing my videos that is regretful.” Addressing whether he sympathized with Nazis or wished to downplay their crimes against humanity, he says, “Obviously I disagree with what you have written and the allegations of your questions.”
Warning of the end times while brandishing lethal weaponry and peddling bizarre falsehoods and innuendo is not in itself a violation of YouTube’s rules. But it marks an important shift for Crone, who launched the channel in 2010 to document the construction of a wilderness homestead, then gradually developed an interest in “survival” tools. In 2016 and 2017, his reviews of these products began to draw millions of views. Crone followed this with pandemic-era exhortations to buy his emergency food kits and monologues like “Why I No Longer Support The Police (FURIOUS RANT),” which likewise garnered outsize attention. Indeed, Crone has appeared to benefit enormously from the waves of radicalization that rippled through internet culture thanks to Covid-19, adding nearly a million subscribers in the past two years as he leaned into his outlaw prepper persona.
While his comments are a mixed bag of supporters and detractors, there’s no telling whether someone will put Crone’s more irresponsible recommendations into practice. “It’s alarming to see content that he offers instructions for doing damage paired with content that promotes a generally paranoid worldview,” says Jared Holt, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who studies the intersection of tech and U.S. political extremism. “That can be a volatile cocktail, and I worry that it normalizes types of violence.”
Another theme among Wranglerstar comments is ridicule over his fixation on the U.S. Forest Service, an agency he claims to have worked for until he was fired over a YouTube video in which his son could be seen wearing his USFS hard hat. In an email to a request for comment, the agency said they had “no record” of Crone being employed by the service. Crone clarified in his own comments to Rolling Stone that he had only trained with the USFS sometime around 2015-2016, taking classes on chainsaw operation and wildland fire behavior, and gaining certification as a tree faller, though “it would likely take some time to find” documentation of that. The criticism is sharpest, however, on the r/AntiWranglerstar subreddit, which Crone’s most devoted haters have maintained since 2020. A few of those redditors are disillusioned former fans who complain that Crone has gone off the deep end — one more indication of how his brand has changed.
Crone has embraced the polarizing effect of his burgeoning extremism, attracting both rubberneckers and acolytes. To those aligned with him, Crone’s ideology is as plain as day: the advice on stockpiling, security measures, and isolated self-sufficiency is all of a piece with anti-establishment politics. Dr. Susannah Crockford, an anthropologist at the University of Exeter who has researched preppers and survivalists, says such messaging, however lacking in detailed prediction, encourages people to “be afraid” and “ready to defend themselves and their property with violence.” With his rhetoric, she says, Crone also indicates that people “need to take care of themselves and cannot rely on anyone beyond themselves or their immediate social group,” like one’s family or local church. This attitude meanwhile sows distrust in government institutions, which come to be seen as encroaching invaders.
Dr. Michael Mills, a criminologist at the University of Kent who researches American “doomsday” preppers, says Crone’s content illustrates the strong linkage between survivalist ideology and political extremism. “I’ve repeatedly found that prepper culture — its online ecosystem, expos, and other public events — plays a role in hardening the views of those who enter into this community,” he says. A politically moderate person, looking for ways to manage plausible threats like hurricanes or earthquakes, may be receptive to preppers’ “doom-laden proclamations”,” Mills explains.
Crone can continue stringing viewers along this way indefinitely because he keeps his pronouncements on the future vague enough that they can’t be disproven. He avoids “being too specific about what may come, when it may come, and exactly how bad it may get,” Mills says. “This aligns with the sentiments held by many twenty-first century preppers, which reflect a broad uncertainty and anxiety around the future.”
Crone did not answer a wide range of in-depth questions about his political views and the meaning of various statements he’s made in his videos. “Many of our videos are comedic [and] satirical [and] definitely not intended to cultivate antisocial or unlawful behavior,” he explains by way of summary. In the days after he began corresponding with Rolling Stone, Crone added almost this exact disclaimer to his YouTube videos.
Holt doesn’t buy humor as a defense for Crone’s channel, and says this sort of line is common “from people who are creating toxic material” when they fear they “might be about to face consequences for what they’ve been doing.” Although we might cut a kid some slack in this area, he notes, Crone is an adult who should know better. “‘I’m just joking’ is a lazy defense for creating harmful content,” Holt argues, and a blatant attempt to avoid “considering the impacts of that behavior.” Instead, he says, Crone offers “a juvenile plea of ignorance and an attempt to deflect responsibility and introspection.”
While YouTube has long been his bread and butter, Crone has managed to keep pace with an evolving internet in order to stay in the public eye. Last year, he expanded his digital footprint with a TikTok account that quickly became the fastest-growing part of his online enterprise, amassing almost 700,000 followers. Apparently less concerned with TikTok’s guidelines than YouTube’s, he grew especially bold there, at one point sharing a video in which he turned a Roomba vacuum into a potential bomb by loading it with the explosive tannerite (he uploaded the same clip to YouTube but later removed it from the platform; a rep for the site notes that their guidelines specifically forbid bomb-making content). Crone also used TikTok to suggest tactics for deflating tires on the vehicles of authorities trying to carry out a “no-knock midnight raid,” and for sabotaging parking meters in liberal cities — to deprive them of revenue.
After Rolling Stone brought the UN helmet video and other clips to TikTok’s attention, the company deleted Crone’s page. A TikTok representative confirmed that Crone was banned for “repeatedly violating” their policies, though did not enumerate which rules he had broken. The TikTok representative also reported that Crone had never made money on the platform. “While our investigation is ongoing, I can confirm that it did not monetize through our product features this year, and we’ve so far not found an indication it did so before that,” the rep said. Another Wranglerstar-branded TikTok account with more than 200,000 followers has preserved clips including a guide on breaking into buildings and a screed about “pushing back” against police officers by showing up to their houses to confront them. (It’s unclear whether Crone operates the account or someone else is reposting his content.)
YouTube, for its part, did not remove any of Crone’s videos or issue him a warning, and continues to generate revenue from his brand. (Crone, who has had an ad partnership with the site for at least a decade, was previously featured as an “On The Rise” influencer and on YouTube’s “Spotlight” channel.) In a statement to Rolling Stone, YouTube spokesperson Jack Malon says Crone’s videos have not violated the site’s community or the advertising-friendly guidelines for official YouTube Partners. “As such, they will remain on the platform,” Malon says.
According to the site’s policy guidelines, YouTube forbids “content intended to praise, promote, or aid violent extremist or criminal organizations is not allowed on YouTube,” though notably, Crone does not seem to identify with any particular radical group. YouTube also prohibits “content encouraging others to commit violent acts.” Whether Crone risks violating this policy with material like the arson clip — which falls into something of a gray area — is an open question. Malon’s statement did not address the assessments YouTube made of any individual video.
Holt tells Rolling Stone that Crone is “crossing or edging on the line of policies that platforms have against what’s usually called ‘dangerous’ or ‘harmful’ content,” but that such rules are useless without rigorous enforcement. If YouTube doesn’t see fit to remove this kind of content, says Holt, it would “be responsible to at least down-rank it in sorting.”
Crone did not return a request for comment on TikTok’s decision to ban his account, but he did address it in a YouTube livestream, saying that although he was blindsided by the company’s action, it may have been God’s will. “My TikTok channel, which was coming up on a million subscribers, it got nuked today,” he said with a laugh. “You know you’re on the right path when you start losing channels like that. I’m not disappointed about it.” Crone then floated his religious explanation: “It could be that this is something God is taking away from me because it was a distraction,” he said.
This leaves Crone with smaller accounts on Facebook (where he sticks to innocuous tool reviews and household projects) and Instagram (which he only updates sporadically) — plus his original, massive audience on YouTube. And while he is not so brazen there as he was in some TikToks, he nonetheless continues to urge a hyper-militant readiness for some unspecified violent calamity, as in a recent video where he recommended rifles for a “battle” ahead.
Though Holt emphasizes that “most people who view this sort of content will not be compelled to act, and even fewer will be violent,” he says a slim minority may feel emboldened to take action “in harmful or violent ways.” For YouTube to allow this content on their platform, he explains, is “to provide the next would-be attacker or vigilante with the tools they need to act,” comparable to “scattering instruments all over a stage and inviting musicians into the theater.”
Of course, Holt cautions, we can’t say for sure that this is what Crone intends — which gives him the plausible deniability to continue operating on YouTube without interference. As long as he is ambiguous enough in his prophecies, avoiding direct imperatives to act or praise for known terrorist groups, he comes across as just another eccentric, gun-loving conservative. This way, Crone is able to walk a thin line, seeding extremist propaganda while separately laying out strategies for an anticipated clash with authorities, leaving his audience to connect the dots. Unlike his less-filtered TikTok channel, his YouTube presence relies on the power of what remains unsaid.
Update, Aug. 11, 2:10pm: This story has been updated to reflect YouTube policies that prohibit bomb-making content.