Donald Trump speaks before the National Rifle Association’s convention today, where he will enact a charade of cultural affinity for the assembled members, one utterly laughable in its insincerity. Not being there to ask them, I can’t say whether anyone in the hall actually believes that he means what he’ll say to them.
But as long as he hits the right notes — vowing to make sure guns are brought into as many places by as many people as possible, pouring sneering contempt on city slickers and egghead liberals, painting ludicrously paranoid pictures of America as a post-apocalyptic hellscape of crime and chaos, insisting that Hillary Clinton will singlehandedly destroy every right they treasure — it’ll be good enough for them.
This is a perfect expression of the larger Republican bargain, where the party’s elites pretend to share the base’s cultural values and priorities, and in exchange are put into office where they pursue an agenda of tax cuts and regulatory rollback. You can see it played out with one constituency group after another. For instance, when Trump stood before an audience of evangelicals and cited “Two Corinthians,” he quoted from the verse, then said, “Is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like.”
The audience snickered at his ham-handed attempt at pandering, and when Trump says that the Bible is his favorite book (even better than The Art of the Deal!), nobody thinks he’s being honest. But guess what: Trump will have no trouble holding on to the evangelical vote in the fall. After some doubts, they came around to him, just like every Republican constituency group either has already or will before long.
It does take a bit of rationalization, but that’s often a part of the presidential campaign process. Once somebody is your party’s nominee, you’re going to work hard to convince yourself that he’s not just the least bad option, but somebody who’s actually terrific. So in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 67 percent of Republican voters say Trump “shares their values,” even though for so many of them he plainly doesn’t. That number will probably climb higher between now and the election.
As for the NRA faithful, Trump is about as far from their values as he could be. A born-and-bred city dweller, he used to support an assault weapons ban and expanded background checks. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve he wrote that “The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.”
But now he’s turned himself into a parody of a gun nut. He says he has a concealed-carry permit, he wants to rescind President Obama’s executive actions expanding background checks, he thinks assault weapons are tremendous, and he wants to make any permit you get in any state valid in the 49 other states, so people can bring their guns even where other states don’t want them. And as for gun-free zones, “My first day, it gets signed, okay? My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.”
Trump is saying to gun advocates: Is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like.
Gun advocates certainly get something substantive out of the deal: inaction. Fortunately for them, Trump doesn’t actually have to do much for them, since the status quo isn’t that bad as far as they’re concerned (forget about him wiping away gun-free school zones with a stroke of a pen on his first day — that exists as the result of a law passed by Congress in the 1990s, and it would take another act of Congress to repeal it). But the real appeal is cultural, and they want candidates to genuflect before that culture, no matter how baldly phony the act might be.
The NRA, which believe it or not used to be an organization devoted to promoting gun safety and good marksmanship, has succeeded over the last couple of decades in freighting guns with all kinds of cultural associations, making them one of the most powerful markers of identity in American life. They’ve encouraged people to think that gun ownership makes you self-reliant, independent, masculine, strong, capable, and patriotic — and anyone who thinks that 30,000 Americans killed by guns every year is a problem worth addressing must not be any of those things.
Those voters will be told that if they don’t get out and vote Republican, Hillary Clinton will send her jackbooted government thugs to break down their doors and take their guns, leaving them defenseless against the dusky horde of low-lifes lying in wait to kill them and rape their women. They will be told that it’s an emergency, that the gun-grabbing is set to begin the day after inauguration, that their lives and freedom and everything they hold dear hang in the balance.
“If you cherish Second Amendment rights, the stakes have never been higher than they are in this election,” says an NRA spokesperson, which is an amazing coincidence, considering that the stakes were never higher than they were in the last election, and the stakes were never higher than they were in the election before that, and the election before that and the election before that.
The cultural argument also helps cloud the fact that Republican politicians have chosen to take the positions of the NRA leadership, which are far more extreme not just than those held by the public, but even by the group’s own membership. The NRA opposes universal background checks, which are supported not only by around nine in ten Americans, but by three-quarters of NRA members. With just a few exceptions, nearly every Republican in Congress lines up with the NRA leadership and against their own constituents.
The group successfully tells gun owners: Forget about that, because Democrats want to grab your guns. There can be no compromise. And when Donald Trump goes before them and acts like Yosemite Sam, either they’re foolish enough to think he means what he says, or they decide that it doesn’t really matter.