The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vivek Murthy, the NRA and the politics of fear

The National Rifle Administration knows the power of fear. After all, its entire business model is based on it. When the organization’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, goes before an audience and proclaims, “We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage 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 the society that sustains us all,” he’s not trying to give a reasoned assessment of contemporary challenges. (In the real world, crime has been steadily declining for two decades.) LaPierre is trying to make his audience as afraid as possible, because fear is great for his business.

The more afraid he can make you, the more likely you are to buy a gun to protect yourself. And when you buy a gun, you can sign up for an NRA membership right at the gun store. And then LaPierre’ll work to make you afraid that, any day now, jackbooted government thugs are going to kick down your door to take away your guns, and acting on that fear, you’ll contribute more to the NRA. It’s a beautiful circle of fear.

The creation of fear is how the NRA approaches elected officials, too. They have to be made afraid that, if they are not with the NRA 100 percent of the time, their next election is doomed. And believe it they do. Empirical evidence shows that the NRA’s ability to affect the outcome of elections is next to nil; when Republicans win, the organization claims credit, and when Democrats win, it gets silent very quickly. But it doesn’t have to actually sway any elections, so long as everyone believes that it does.

Creating and maintaining the proper level of fear among members of Congress requires not just that no actual gun control measures pass into law. It requires something more: regular reminders that nobody better even think about even the mildest limits on guns, or even talk about the effect guns have on public safety. And getting the occasional scalp is an excellent way to remind people. Which brings us to Vivek Murthy, the Obama administration’s nominee for surgeon general.

As Harold Pollack explained at Wonkblog a couple of weeks ago, Murthy is widely respected as a physician, a public health expert and an all-around good guy. And like many doctors, he has decried the toll guns take on public health, with around 30,000 gun deaths and 80,000 nonfatal gun injuries in America every year. For that, Murthy must be made an example of.

Some red-state Democratic senators are saying they’ll oppose Murthy’s nomination, which has all but doomed it, and the White House is backing off its push to get him confirmed. My guess is that, within a few weeks, Murthy will be persuaded to withdraw his nomination with some regretful words about getting past the controversy, saving the White House any more trouble.

In the calculations over whether Murthy could get confirmed, it’s notable that everyone assumes, almost certainly correctly, that every Republican in the Senate will, of course, vote against the nomination. George W. Bush appointed only one surgeon general, Richard Carmona. He was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0. But those days are gone — what do you expect Republicans to do, examine a nominee’s qualifications and vote to confirm if he’d obviously do a fine job? Please. The default used to be that a president will get the nominees he chooses unless there’s something really egregious in their past or what they’re likely to do if confirmed, but when it comes to this president and this Congress, that has been turned upside down. Now the Republican position is that every nominee should be rejected, unless there’s some kind of a deal that allows them to get something in exchange.

Murthy has said that his top priority as surgeon general would be the problem of obesity. And the post is one with almost no practical power; it’s not as though the surgeon general can go around taking anybody’s guns away. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is fear, and the NRA has certainly created a good amount of it. Republican senators are afraid, Democratic senators are afraid, the White House is afraid, everyone is afraid. And you wonder why people are cynical about politics and government service.