When National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre took the stage at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday, he grinned broadly and exclaimed, “What a difference a year makes!”
Ain’t that the truth.
A year ago at CPAC, LaPierre declared, “[The November 2016] election must set our nation back on its rightful course where individual freedom is respected, justice is restored, laws are enforced, government gets off our backs and leaves us the hell alone and elected officials start telling us the truth.” He railed at President Obama for “try[ing] every day to restrict the rights of law-abiding people” and bragged, “When it comes to…fighting for our fundamental freedoms, no one fights harder, longer or stronger than the NRA.” And looking forward to the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton, LaPierre warned, “If you want to turn this election into a bare-knuckle brawl for the survival of our constitutional freedoms, bring it on!”
For four decades, the NRA has told its supporters that they have an individual right to shoot and kill government officials if they behave in a “tyrannical” manner. I outlined this dangerous “insurrectionist idea” with Coalition to Stop Gun Violence executive director Josh Horwitz last year in an op-ed in U.S. News & World Report just before the election.
“For four decades, the NRA has told its supporters that they have an individual right to shoot and kill government officials if they behave in a “tyrannical” manner.”
But such anti-government rhetoric was nowhere to be found in LaPierre’s 2017 speech at CPAC. Instead, LaPierre made it patently clear that he has no problem with an authoritarian government that infringes on the rights of average Americans as long as that government is on the NRA’s side. Just as ominously, he prepared conservatives to engage in armed violence against those who protest the policies of the Trump administration.
At CPAC 2017, LaPierre declared, “We’ve got President Trump’s back for the next eight years” while engaging in a full-throated defense of the administration’s most overreaching policies. Regarding the administration’s highly controversial muslim ban, he said the following:
It’s not that the Constitution’s unclear on the issue. The president handles the foreign affairs of the country. It’s an executive function… The president has absolute authority to suspend the entry of all aliens, or any class of aliens, that he may deem to be appropriate to protect the interests of the United States of America.
He then described the suspension of the ban by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as “a form of violence against our constitutional system,” echoing the administration’s attacks on the legitimacy of our Judiciary.
LaPierre even embraced the Trump administration’s ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia, which are now being investigated by six different U.S. intelligence agencies. He mocked the U.S. media’s coverage of the issue, saying, “They’re horrified. They’re all afret over the Russian-American equation.” He then added, “Even more alarming is they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the U.S. intelligence community.” In the past, LaPierre told CPAC, these intelligence officials would have been “hanged for treason.”
(Remember as you read these remarks that the NRA claims to be a “single-issue organization” that advocates only for the right to keep and bear arms.)
But the meat of LaPierre’s speech was used to paint a portrait of “the violent left.” He echoed Republicans’ conspiracy theory about Trump protesters being paid professionals ($1,500 a week, according to LaPierre). He told a story about an unnamed high school girl who was beaten by a mob because she liked Donald Trump. He claimed that the political left in America is “dedicated to destroying…Western civilization.”
His eliminationist rhetoric was like something out of an old John Birch Society pamphlet:
Right now we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us … Anarchists, Marxists, Communists, and the whole rest of the Left Wing socialist brigade … They’re willing to engage in criminal violence to get what they want … They want revenge. You’ve got to be punished. They say you’re what’s wrong with America and now you’ve got to be purged … What happens when terrorists tag along with a flash mob protest at your local airport and gas the place like they did in Tokyo?
There was a specific purpose to all this fearmongering, and LaPierre made it clear near the end of his speech, stating, “Make no mistake. If the violent left brings their terror to our communities, our neighborhoods, or into our homes they will be met with the resolve and the strength and the full force of American freedom [guns] in the hands of the American people.”
In other words, conservatives should arm themselves with firearms and serve as President Trump’s private militia, shooting and killing his political opponents as necessary—a perverted vision of America that sounds like something out of South Sudan.
“It’s always about the bottom line with the gun lobby.”
After listening to LaPierre’s speech, I consulted political scientist Lawrence Britt’s “Characteristics of Fascism.” Britt studied the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia), and Pinochet (Chile) and found 14 common characteristics. In his 29-minute speech, LaPierre exhibited and embraced at least half of them:
Powerful and Continuing Nationalism: LaPierre made constant use of patriotic rhetoric [“freedom”] and symbols [firearms].
Disdain for Recognition of Human Rights: LaPierre’s absolutist embrace of Trump’s Muslim Ban showed no concern whatsoever for potential violations of human rights. He also mocked those concerned about Russian intervention in U.S. politics.
Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause: The Media and “The Violent Left.”
Controlled Mass Media: “They dehumanize, they demonize us all,” LaPierre said of the media. He accused them of purposely fomenting political division and violence in the country.
Obsession with National Security: Evident in LaPierre’s support for the Muslim Ban and fearmongering about “terrorists” attempting to impose a “worldwide caliphate.”
Corporate Power is Protected: LaPierre warned that Leftists are attempting to “tax capitalism to collapse.”
Obsession with Crime and Punishment: “Crime, it’s rising against in many U.S. cities … Drug gangs are expanding their networks all across the country.”
Wayne LaPierre and Donald Trump have something in common: Both men covet wealth and power and will destroy whatever democratic institutions stand in their way. LaPierre knows that Trump will give the NRA what it wants in terms of regressive gun policy. These regressive gun policies will allow the gun industry to operate with little if any regulation (public safety be damned), thereby producing greater profits. And these profits will enrich the NRA through its “Ring of Freedom” program—which takes in millions of dollars every year in direct corporate contributions from gun and ammo manufacturers—and other symbiotic ties to the industry.
When Barack Obama was in the White House, insurrectionist propaganda was a tool the NRA used to stoke fear among Americans and sell product. Now that Donald Trump is president, the NRA’s embrace of authoritarian government shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s always about the bottom line with the gun lobby. If that now means spurring on a private militia to shoot those of us who disagree with this administration and its policies, so be it.
We’d be wise to take LaPierre’s threat seriously, and understand that our democracy will never truly flourish until the NRA has been discredited and dismantled, totally.