The NRA's very Trumpy playbook

In June of 2017, the National Rifle Association ...

Posted: Feb 27, 2018 12:52 PM
Updated: Feb 27, 2018 12:52 PM

In June of 2017, the National Rifle Association posted a video online featuring the conservative commentator Dana Loesch. Speaking directly to the camera, Loesch, who had joined the group as a national spokeswoman months earlier, issued a breathless call to arms.

"They use their media to assassinate real news," she began, as the music quickens underneath her voice. "They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse 'the resistance.' "

The video ends, about 45 seconds later, with what -- to the untrained ear -- sounds like a non sequitur.

"I'm the National Rifle Association of America," Loesch says, "and I'm freedom's safest place."

At no point during the monologue does she mention guns or firearms. There is no discussion of the Second Amendment. "They" are never named. And yet, as a piece of agitprop, the ad is a master class. The message is crystal clear: There is an "other" out there, a liberal insurgency bent on stripping conservatives of all they hold dear.

Sound familiar?

President Donald Trump, too, goes unnamed, but his politics fill the screen. The backlash that helped deliver him to the White House -- the grievance, the depiction of political opponents as a wanton horde, the threat of a country on the brink -- colors every scene. Trump and the NRA are, by this logic, inextricable. And so, it follows, any setback for the NRA is a defeat for the President.

Trump has employed this tactic on his own repeatedly during his time in office. Some times it is done openly and shamelessly; other times, it plays like background music coloring what seems like more high-minded debate.

When facing a political crush, like after the GOP failed last summer to repeal Obamacare, he took the former approach -- oxygenating his base with a flurry of culture war offensives. In August, he refused to unconditionally condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, eventually becoming fixated on the preservation of "beautiful statues and monuments" to Confederate military commanders. A little more than a month later, he began his crusade against protesting NFL players, exploiting the demonstrations to dig an even deeper divide between red and blue America.

In Loesch's NRA video, she concludes that "the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth." What that has to do with responsible gun ownership is anyone's guess. But the message is unmistakeable. It echoes Trump's campaign slogan, which he now often uses to punctuate a partisan tweet -- the promise to "Make America Great Again!"

By this weird Trumpian transitive property, supporting the President becomes a precondition for attaining a certain brand of righteous patriotism -- or, in the case of Charlottesville, cover for something sinister that even a few years ago lurked anxiously in the shadows, well outside the boundaries of the mainstream.

The tactic isn't a new one -- and certainly not for the NRA.

The organization has for decades now hooked its narrow interests in with broader ones. On May 20, 2000, not long after George W. Bush became the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee and Republicans began to gear up for a campaign fight with Vice President Al Gore, the NRA's top lobbyist, Jim Baker, delivered his own bitter warning to the rank-and-file.

"For the next six months, Al Gore is going to smear you as the enemy," he said at the group's annual meeting. "He will slander you as gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, bloodthirsty maniacs who stand in the way of a safer America. Will you remain silent? I will not remain silent. If we are going to stop this, then it is vital to every law-abiding gun owner in American to register to vote and show up at the polls on Election Day."

By today's standards, Baker's riff seems tame. He directs his harshest language at Gore, the candidate, not (directly) at Democrats more widely. But the principle is the same. Gun rights are almost incidental to the argument, which says that the other side despises you and looks down on you. And that you, the "law-abiding gun owner," would be fooling yourself -- capitulating to a liberal leviathan -- by considering any kind of negotiation or compromise.

This past weekend, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, Loesch delivered one of the early talks. She was fresh off a nationally televised, unusually milquetoast appearance at a CNN town hall on gun control and so, back among unquestioning allies, returned to the script.

"Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it," she said on Thursday. "Now I'm not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back (of the ballroom)."

She continued, asking why reporters didn't devote as much attention to "grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend" and blaming the FBI for not acting on warnings about the alleged shooter in Florida. Both talking points, like so much of the messaging in the June 2017 video, were firmly in line with Trump's own.

The sum effect is an upside-down politics, governed purely by a consuming animus for anything that looks or smells like something "they" might want. The NRA, by wrapping guns into the Trump package, makes any attempt to alter the status quo tantamount to surrender to the "resistance" -- a durable strategy for these tribal times.

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