One curious little corner of the conservative culture war is turning off its cameras:
The National Rifle Association has shut down production at NRATV.
The N.R.A. on Tuesday also severed all business with its estranged advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen, which operates NRATV, the N.R.A.’s live broadcasting media arm, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The New York Times.
While NRATV may continue to air past content, its live broadcasting will end and its on-air personalities — Ackerman employees including Dana Loesch — will no longer be the public faces of the N.R.A.
This may not seem like it should matter to anyone outside of gun advocates or media obsessives, but it’s actually a revealing story about what conservatism looks like today and the complex challenges of operating in the modern political world.
On the most basic level, NRATV is a casualty of a broader meltdown that the NRA, long one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, is going through. The organization is tearing itself apart, with accusations of internal coups, lavish spending by top executives and misspent funds.
But it’s at the rhetorical and symbolic level where NRATV and its failure was most interesting.
NRATV had some success in garnering attention, particularly its marquee star Dana Loesch, whose angry rants about fighting liberals with “the clenched fist of truth” were somewhere between comical and terrifying. She jumped the shark with a segment complaining about the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine” adding girl trains, bizarrely illustrated with an image of Thomas trains in KKK hoods.
Which, as you might have noticed, has nothing to do with gun rights. Even some gun rights advocates thought that the NRA should stay in their lane and not worry about fighting the culture war. But can a conservative organization do that in 2019?
It was one of the defining successes of the NRA, and the gun rights movement more broadly, that they convinced one of our two great parties to put a categorical opposition to nearly any restriction on guns at the absolute center of their ideology, along with low taxes and small government. That success was never more evident than after the Sandy Hook massacre, when congressional Republicans killed a proposal for universal background checks, which has the support of over 90 percent of Americans in just about every poll on the subject.
But Donald Trump’s election presented a serious challenge to the NRA. When there’s a Democrat in office, gun sales tend to go up, as manufacturers and the NRA warn gun owners that any day now the government is going to confiscate all their guns, so they really need to stock up. It’s a lot harder to make that argument when the government is controlled by a Republican, which is why the gun industry is now experiencing what is being called the “Trump slump,” with sales down 16.5 percent from 2016.
The NRA’s answer to this problem has been to shift focus away from the threat of government oppression and toward a chaotic and dangerous world, where terrorists, gangs, criminals and anyone you pass on the street is out to kill you at a moment’s notice. That means you have to be heavily armed in case your home is invaded by an Islamic State strike team or you need to exchange fire with a fellow customer on your next trip to the Piggly Wiggly.
But even that obviously didn’t seem to the NRA like it would be enough. So when they launched their TV channel, they figured that in addition to content focused purely on guns, which would have a limited audience, they’d need to supply a heavy dose of culture war programming, with the anger and resentment turned up to 11. After all, isn’t that what people want?
It turned out, however, that they didn’t understand the conservative media well enough to find a place in it.
In that right-wing media ecosystem, every part of the machine serves a purpose. Fox News is the foundation, the place where everyone on the right goes and where messages can be forced into the mainstream media — in addition to carrying an ongoing two-way conversation with the president. Conservative talk radio keeps people mad through the daytime hours when they’re working or driving. Operations like Breitbart locate new stories and information that provide the other parts of the machine with things to talk about.
And if all that doesn’t supply you with enough assurance that Kids Today Are Out of Control, Black People Need to Pull Their Pants Up and Stop Complaining, and Immigrants Are Destroying Everything Great About America, you can spend an extra $5.99 a month for a Fox Nation subscription.
How was NRATV supposed to slot into that machine and provide something it needed? What would anyone get from watching them tell you exactly what Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh already told you?
NRATV had one thing right: Conservatism today is indeed driven by a politics of resentment and anger, where the threats are overwhelming and there is no higher goal than owning the libs. But as the Times article notes, “The site’s web traffic was minuscule, with 49,000 unique visitors in January.”
The NRA may recover from its current turmoil, and next year’s election will provide an opportunity to spin up the calliope of terror as they warn that if the Democrat is elected, it will be mere hours before the jackbooted government thugs come busting down your door to grab your guns. But they’ve learned that they don’t need a TV channel. The conservative media is doing just fine without them.