Another gun nut cracks up and 17 students die. The National Rifle Association is in the headlines again, frantically trying to characterize the gun nut as just a nut and to blame anything and everybody other than the legally purchased semi-automatic, military-grade assault rifle that made slaughter on that scale possible.
But I’m not here to argue about gun control. I’m here to argue about the NRA. Yes, I know that they try to block even the slightest effort to reduce the supply of weapons in a nation that has more guns per capita — and more mass killings — than any other country on earth. I also understand that it’s the job of manufacturers’ associations to sell the products made by their clients. My problem is the viciously destructive approach the NRA is now taking to fulfill those twin missions.
Have you seen the new NRA ad, the one with the buff white guy smashing his TV set with a sledgehammer? It opens on a TV screen flipping between CNN, Comedy Central, ABC, NBC, even C-Span. Then the camera pulls back to reveal the grim looking, middle-aged white guy in a T-shirt with the slogan “Socialist Tear” on it. He puts on safety goggles — safety is always the NRA’s top priority, of course — and shatters the screen. A slogan pops up: “Our Greatest Weapon is Truth.”
Truth? The images on the TV screen (before it gets smashed) are too abbreviated to mean anything at all. Comedian John Oliver saying “National Rifle Association” in his plummy British accent is enough to trigger the ire of the NRA faithful. Other rapid-fire clips seem to be anti-Trump. The message, insofar as there is one: People talking, people arguing politics or just making jokes, especially about the president, should be sledgehammered. No effort is made to rebut the soundbite pastiche. Talk is cheap. The NRA’s critics are “socialists” — whatever that means. Real men take a sledgehammer to their TV screens at the mere sight of one.
It’s become a cliché of right-wing propaganda, the idea that mainstream media is the demon — but somehow the most powerful voices on radio and TV (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and NRA messaging) aren’t themselves mainstream media. Everybody likes to talk these days about how divisive our political culture has become, but let’s be clear about who is doing the dividing.
On February 16, 13 Russian nationals were indicted by the United States for alleged interference in the 2016 election. The immediate aim of the indicted Russians was to get Donald Trump elected, which of course explains his reluctance to even acknowledge this astonishing act of electoral sabotage. But the Russians had another, broader goal, according to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.”
For the Russians, undermining our democracy destabilizes a rival power that, before the success of their campaign ushered Trump into the White House, was far more respected and admired internationally than the Kremlin. For Trump, it means opportunities to bask in the adoration of his base as he whips them up into ecstasies of rage against the government he was elected to lead. For the NRA, fanning rumors that the Second Amendment is about to be rescinded has spurred gun-marketing bonanzas, though interestingly the Trump win has backfired on them thus far. Gun sales are actually dropping in an already saturated market.
But gun sales are no longer the sole goal of the NRA’s divide-and-destroy strategy. The lobbying group has become an all-purpose, right-wing polemics factory. Since Wayne LaPierre took over NRA leadership in 1991, culture war has been their go-to strategy. They drive their membership into a tizzy with the paranoid fantasy that someone wants to strip gun owners of their weaponry — something that’s not on the agenda of even the most anti-gun congressman. As guns fade in importance to the NRA’s broader goal of demonizing Americans appalled by the slaughter they cause, the newest NRA mission is to defend Trump at all costs. Ads like the one with the sledge-wielding lib hater seize on that mission with a libidinal urgency typical of right-wing extremist movements.
Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher and sociologist, had this to say in 1944 as he worried about the lingering effects of fascism: “Innumerable people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand or employ only because they trigger off conditioned reflexes.”
That’s a pretty fair description of how today’s Trump/NRA/Putin triad uses language to incense their base against fellow Americans. The idea is to craft words that shut down thought, not provoke it. The NRA’s sloganeering about “truth” — without deigning to explain what the NRA considers to be true — vaguely implies that people who don’t agree with them are intellectually deficient and somehow un-American.
Psychologists call it “projection,” the displacement of one’s own weaknesses and anxieties onto someone else. Thus a virulently anti-intellectual movement allied — wittingly or not — with Russian interests accuses opponents of intellectual disability and a lack of patriotic fervor.
The discomfort of NRA/Trump supporters with intellectual life is impossible to miss, and that’s why their demands regarding anything having to do with education are so disturbing. The sledgehammer ad salutes an unwillingness to hear any arguments at all, but a longer, more detailed ad starring one of the NRA’s most popular celebrity flacks, pretends to scrutinize their enemies list more closely.
Alt-right pundit and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch begins the ad, released last summer, with the tried and true “media” jab: “They use their media to assassinate real news,” she sneers. Here and throughout the ad, she equates speech with violence, confusing the fundamental moral and legal differentiation between the two.
Loesch then gets more specific about what kind of “media” are the problem: “They use their movie stars, and singers, and comedy stars, and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.” So it’s not just news media; it’s also movies, comedy, music, and cultural institutions in general. As Loesch says the words “award shows,” the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is shown. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra may also be on the enemies list, since that’s their performance space, or it may be that she hates Frank Gehry’s architecture. I know, the message is more general than that: urban cultural life is suspect.
The “narrative” that Loesch is trying to insinuate goes this way: “Cultural elites,” people who frequent concert halls, art museums and the like, are arrogant snobs disdainful of those Americans targeted by the NRA for recruitment. Thus does the NRA weaponize cultural insecurities and put targets on the backs of the millions of Americans who actually participate in the creation and consumption of the nation’s rich and globally influential culture.
Most of the ad tries to paint protest — a form of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment — as a violent attack against America. Loesch says that protestors “bully and terrorize the law-abiding” and “scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia.” Here again, speech is seen not only as “bullying” but as a form of terror, like, you know, shooting a bunch of people in a schoolhouse.
Loesch’s enemies list soon swells to include what constitutes an American majority: everyone who stands up to racism, who defends the rights of immigrants, who supports gender equality and gay rights. She ends with a call to “fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” Here again we see the conflation of speech with violence.
“Truth” stripped of meaning is reduced to a password. If you “get it,” you can enjoy the thrill of thinking you have been initiated into a special tribe. You vaguely sense that a great revelation lies just beyond your ability — or Loesch’s or, for that matter, Wayne LaPierre’s — to define it clearly or logically.
The ad does not neglect to mention schools, but because it was released during a brief dry spell between school shootings, we are spared the fake concern about school safety that Trump has used to justify his greatest recent gift to his handlers in the NRA: the proposal that schools be “hardened” and classroom teachers all across America be required to pack heat.
In a moment of unguarded honesty, the NRA’s real opinion of American education comes through: “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler,” Loesch brays. It’s a pre-emptive strike against the unavoidable comparisons between Trump’s rhetoric and the noise out of fascist Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.
It also shows an inability to grasp — or a refusal to acknowledge — that education can be anything other than a process of indoctrination. Asking students to compare and contrast Trump’s and the NRA’s rhetoric with its historical antecedents is, in their view, going too far. We may praise the president or keep our mouths shut.
Of course the right wasn’t so patriotic when the president was a black urban intellectual. The ad calls Obama “their” ex-president, just so we know who’s them and who’s us. For those who need reminding: Obama’s the guy who won the popular vote twice; his successor — the incumbent the NRA thinks of as “our” president — came up 3 million votes shy against Hillary Clinton.
Both Trump and LaPierre showed up earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland and gushed the usual anything-but-gun-control obfuscations as the solution to gun violence. It wasn’t access to an assault rifle by a screwed-up teenager that killed those people, LaPierre argued. It was “the failure of school security, the failure of family, the failure of America’s mental health system and even the unbelievable failure of the FBI.”
Not enough blame to go around? LaPierre also condemned universities for allegedly spearheading a “socialist revolution.” That’s right: a high school drop-out shot up the Parkland school with an assault rifle because college professors include Karl Marx on their reading lists.
Don’t look for logic here, folks. It’s an NRA speech. “The clenched fist of truth” has a lot of fingers to point but not a fingernail clipping’s worth of factual truth. That’s not news to anyone besides the tiny percentage of Americans who actually believe this stuff.
Loesch did a star turn at CPAC, too, taking a page from her Kremlin allies by trying to use racial divisiveness to shred what she calls a “socialist” coalition: i.e. the substantial majority of Americans (including GOP voters) who support sensible gun regulation. In a media attack with a twist, she accused “legacy media” of “loving” mass shootings because “crying white mothers are ratings gold.”
So now the NRA is calling out white privilege and under-representation of black shooting victims in the “legacy” media! I guess we should look to Loesch’s previous employers at Breitbart and the Blaze for less racist news coverage.
Loesch played the race card in this instance for the same reasons the Russian bot comrades used it in the 2016 election — not to empower non-white mothers but to split apart the multi-racial coalition of Americans (the majority of us) who remain opposed to what Trump and the NRA are trying to do to this country.
It’s revealing that, in the aftermath of the latest (as of this moment) school massacre, both Trump and LaPierre chimed in simultaneously with their chatter about “hardening” schools. Collusion? Coincidence? It’s more likely Trump was reading NRA talking points than that LaPierre, the better propagandist, was borrowing from his Twitter-crazed proxy in the Oval Office. Our schools are “soft,” they both told CPAC.
Hard. Soft. Whatever the Trump “base” makes of this doltishly masculinist rhetoric, neither the president nor LaPierre seems to grasp that, while it sheds very little light on the horrifying crisis at hand, it speaks volumes about a speaker’s sexual anxieties,.
Calling schools “soft” is a way to blame them for a nationwide slaughter, when in fact only a fraction of the young people lost to gun violence each year are cut down in school shootings. It’s a way to blame gun-control supporters for the commission of gun crimes. And it adds a zingy tincture of misogyny to the attack on an American institution identified as overly feminine by anti-intellectuals still seething over the C-minus they got years ago from that eighth-grade English teacher.
After 20 students and six faculty were riddled with lethal bullets at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the NRA said the teachers should have had guns, a suggestion that was widely derided at the time as crazy.
Six years later: Vive la difference!
With help from the Russians and money from the NRA — three times what the gun lobby gave to Mitt Romney for his 2012 presidential run — Trump is now president and has made the idea of arming teachers the centerpiece of his response to the slaughter at Parkland. Worse yet, the lemmings in Congress are at least pretending to take the idea seriously.
There was an armed guard at Parkland, but he didn’t engage the shooter. Might that have been because he knew his service pistol was no match for a semi-automatic assault rifle? Clearly Trump’s proposal to arm teachers with pistols is laughably inadequate. No kindergarten is truly safe unless the teacher has an assault rifle slung over her shoulder.
But what if Johnny gets a little hands-on with teacher’s killing machine? Well, we all know it takes a “good guy with a gun” to stop a curious kid with a gun, especially if little Johnny has an attitude problem and a “failure of family” at home.
Another question for you: When a would-be mass killer enters a “hardened” classroom knowing the post-Parkland teacher is likely to be armed, who gets taken out with the very first round the nut case manages to fire? Pick off the teacher and, as targets go, her students are now truly soft. There won’t be someone left to herd them into a closet and wait out the carnage.
Oh, but wait! Trump vowed that even unarmed he’d have run into a classroom to confront the Parkland gun nut. Maybe he’ll make good on that boast next time someone starts shooting up a schoolhouse.
I cherish my right to own a gun, and I enjoy shooting. I also like my beer and liquor, but that doesn’t mean I should be able to get heroin and fentanyl over the counter at Walgreen’s. And I don’t need the NRA to defend my Second Amendment rights because their line about people trying to take away that basic freedom is a lie.
Keep your gun. Burn your NRA card.
C.W.Cannon’s latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.”
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.