You have to respect the ambition of the National Rifle Association. The easy course for the NRA in 2016 was to assume a Hillary Clinton presidency, and to graciously accept the bounty that her election foretold. With Clinton in the White House, the gun industry could count on a Clinton boom piggy-backing on the unprecedented Obama sales boom.
For the NRA, the first woman president represented almost as rich a propaganda bonanza as the first black president. NRA rhetoric had already seamlessly supplanted Obama, previously the greatest threat to human freedom, with Clinton, who NRA leader Wayne LaPierre in May said “attacks our fundamental right to survive and protect ourselves.”
The group had much to gain from a Clinton presidency. With the House in Republican control, there was little Clinton could have realistically achieved on gun regulation. Meanwhile her Supreme Court nominee, like Clinton herself, would have served the NRA well as a readily caricatured super-villain and a spur to both organizing and gun sales.
Instead, the group broke its political spending record to help elect Donald Trump, a man whose positions on gun regulation are as checkered as his business career.
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The Supreme Court seat, frozen throughout 2016 by unprecedented Republican obstruction, was surely one reason. But gun-regulation groups have not made the court a focus; indeed, they claim to have made peace with the court’s 2008 Heller decision recognizing an individual right to arms.
The NRA’s winning bet on Trump was in part an assertion of its expanding cultural portfolio, which extends well beyond guns, and in part an acknowledgment that Trump is the organization’s most authentic political voice. Trump’s speech — conspiratorial, saturated in cultural and racial resentments — is an uncanny echo of NRA leader Wayne LaPierre.
Trump has been likened to Batman’s Joker, an “agent of chaos.” LaPierre not only beat Trump to the role; he has for years promoted a vision of the U.S. as a dystopian Gotham, a hellscape of broken promises and shattered institutions, overwhelmed from below by violent crime and tyrannized from above by conspiratorial elites.
This LaPierre riff from 2014, a year in which violent crime was near a record low, is perhaps the most resonant sample:
“We know that in the world that surrounds us there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, ‘knockout’ gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse as a society that sustains us all. The chaos is uncontrollable. The institutions tasked with protecting us are either broken, like democracy itself, or corrupted by the shady globalist elites who prey on virtuous everyday Americans.
“Do you trust this government really to protect you and your family?” LaPierre asked NRA convention-goers in 2014. The question was purely rhetorical. “We’re on our own,” LaPierre assured them.
Like LaPierre, Trump thrives on chaos, real or perceived. During his campaign, he falsely, repeatedly recast the nation’s historically low rate of violent crime as an existential crisis.
“You won’t hear this from the media: We have the highest murder rate in this country in 45 years. You don’t hear that from these people. They don’t want to talk about it.”
The combination lie — the murder rate is at a 45-year high and the corrupt elites in the news media won’t report it — is an homage to LaPierre’s artistry. So was Trump’s casual claim that violence in black neighborhoods is so vicious, random and pervasive that when you walk down the street, you get shot. “That’s what’s happening now,” Trump said in August.
In a video heralding Trump’s victory — like Trump, LaPierre avoids news conferences where his assertions might be challenged — LaPierre cast the election as a triumph of “the everyday American who stormed the polls in an act of ultimate defiance of the elites.”
Hatred of elites, and destruction of the news media’s power to validate facts, are as central to NRA dogma as they are to Trump’s.
“In the wake of this historic event, the same group of disgraced so-called experts, talking heads, pundits and pollsters that got everything wrong before the election are trying to deceive you once again,” LaPierre states in the video. “The disgraceful media attempted to manipulate your emotions. They tried to suppress your enthusiasm, your speech, your vote.”
Before Trump recognized that a famous philanderer could dominate the votes of white Christian conservatives, the NRA recognized white Christians as a key constituency of gun culture, devoting a 2015 video to the depredations of the “Godless Left.”
In his new video, LaPierre casts the “openly dishonest media” as an enemy of the people “that truly hates your right to speak, your right to worship and your right to vote.” The professional exemplars of the First Amendment, in other words, are destroying it from within.
Perhaps LaPierre, and Trump, will get there first. “In the face of the bitter hatred and elitist condemnation,” LaPierre said, “this is our historic moment, to go on offense and defeat the forces that have aligned against our freedom once and for all.”
There will be no magnanimity in victory. The NRA’s goal is not simply to expand gun rights, which are nearly unfettered already, but to justify the destruction of its enemies. The group is not engaged in a war on urban crime. Like Trump, it fetishizes urban crime, the better to justify a radical reaction.
The war the NRA is fighting is Trump’s war against cosmopolitan culture.
The group’s top legislative priority is nationwide right-to-carry reciprocity, which would enable gun owners with carry permits in any state to carry guns in any other — including states that want nothing to do with such a law. Thus gun owners from Florida and Texas could enter Manhattan, San Francisco and other dens of cultural opposition and literally and figuratively impose their rule.
The NRA has been on war footing for years, anticipating an apocalyptic battle over the American future. The battle lines — race, region, religion, education — coincide with those of the 2016 election. The NRA could have settled for another perfect foil in the White House in Clinton. Instead, it went for total victory with Trump. Starting in January, the organization will have a loaded gun in the Oval Office.