Why the NRA has turned from fear to hate

The National Rifle Association is practically calling for an all-out civil war now. Here's why.

An NRA member at the annual meeting.
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Americans are divided, as we all know. But as much as that might be true, most of us aren't ready to take up arms and go trying to create an actual civil war with the people who disagree with us about politics. Because that would be crazy.

That reluctance to get violent — or at least to believe that things are about to get violent, and prepare appropriately — is a serious problem, as far as the National Rifle Association is concerned. Which is why they're doing their best to turn up the volume on our civil disagreements. For the last eight years they've prospered by preying on fear, but fear isn't going to be enough anymore. So now they're putting their money on hate.

Take a look at this ad the group recently created, in which conservative media personality and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch stops just short of calling for an all-out armed civil war against liberals:

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I don't know what "the clenched fist of truth" is, but I'm pretty sure it involves buying more guns. And that's the context in which this has to be understood, because President Trump is a threat to the NRA's business model, one that requires a different kind of appeal from the one they've been making.

The last eight years were very good for the NRA and its partners in the gun industry. Gun sales were up, membership was up, and they managed to beat back an effort to impose universal background checks — a proposal supported by nine in 10 Americans, including the vast majority of gun owners — after 20 elementary school children were slaughtered in Connecticut. In 2015, the last year for which their tax forms are publicly available, the NRA had a healthy $336 million in revenue. The executive director of its political arm, Chris Cox, had a $1.3 million salary, while Wayne LaPierre, the group's chief executive, took home over $5 million. Despite the fact that Barack Obama never actually took away anyone's guns, his presidency was a boon to the NRA.

When there's a Democrat in the White House, the NRA's message has two parts. First, they say, America today is a terrifying post-apocalyptic hellscape where, probably as we speak, there's a gang of dark-complected terrorist gang members coming to rape your wife and steal your manhood before killing you. Second, the government is coming to take the only thing that can stop those thugs and tyrants in Washington: your guns. So the answer is to make sure you're a member of the NRA, and to buy more guns before they're banned.

To get a sense of what that sounds like, here's Wayne LaPierre speaking at the group's convention in 2014, when Obama had already been (not) grabbing people's guns for six years:

We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout 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. I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you? We are on our own. [Wayne LaPierre]

That message was extraordinarily effective. Even though the number of Americans who own guns has been steadily declining since the 1970s, gun sales have never been better. That seeming paradox is explained by the fact that the most devoted gun owners keep buying more and more guns; today just 3 percent of Americans own half of all the country's guns. Those are the people who keep the NRA and the manufacturers doing such great business.

But what happens when Donald Trump — who pledged that he would do pretty much whatever the NRA wanted — takes office? Both parts of the NRA's message suddenly become inoperative. If they keep saying that America is a nightmarish land of threats and violence, that sounds like a criticism of the president. You'd almost think he had failed to make America great again! And they can't say that Trump is coming to take your guns, because he obviously isn't (neither was Obama, but that's just quibbling).

So if you're the NRA, what do you do? How do you justify telling people not just that their gun rights must be preserved but that there's an emergency requiring just as much frantic gun purchasing and membership-renewing as ever?

You turn from fear to hate.

You can't quite say that Rachel Maddow and Bernie Sanders are going to break down your members' doors and snatch their AR-15s before burning down the house, but you can foster the idea that civil war might be around the corner — and you can ramp up the hatred of liberals. After all, what would make a liberal madder than going out and buying a few more guns? Ha, take that, hippie!

But whatever you do, don't stop buying.

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