Plenty of people are talking about Donald Trump’s outrageous ad-lib that “Second Amendment people” could do something about Hillary Clinton after she’s elected.
But Trump wasn’t talking about assassination, he was pandering to gun nuts like the National Rifle Association and their paranoia that believes an armed population is the only defense against government tyranny. The NRA understood loud and clear, tweeting its agreement with what Trump said and launching a $3 million anti-Clinton ad campaign on the same themes, combining false claims about Clinton with the fear that America is falling apart so that citizens must take up arms to defend themselves.
That’s what one of his supporters recently said on C-SPAN.
“Since we do have firearms, it might, if it comes down to it, be us having to defend our rights with those guns, just as the revolutionaries did in the Revolutionary War,” Raw Story reported. It’s a theme commonplace throughout the far-right, from Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to the Ammon Bundy in 2016.
What Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics” is increasingly found in the mainstream right as well. Obamacare is fascism, Hitler backed gun control, Muslims are plotting to implement Sharia Law across the United States, Black Lives Matter is a militant Black Panther army, crime is spiraling out of control, terrorists are coming to kill you. Threats are everywhere, and just as the threat level is increasing, Democrats taking your guns away. These are messages no longer confined to the fringes, but regularly opined on Fox News.
All of these themes are part of what my colleague John Avlon has called a “Reconstruction Fantasia”: a symphony of fear that imagines white Americans today in the role of white Southerners in the 1870s, subjugated by an “elite” coastal government that is hostile to their values and hell-bent on disarming and destroying them.
The Reconstruction Fantasia plays to white fears and male fears that are, themselves, partly based on reality, as America slowly becomes less dominates by whites and by men. But it quickly turns to fantasy, as these changes are attributed not to demographic and social shifts, but to sinister conspiracies and fascistic governments.
None of this is true, of course. Secretary Clinton and President Obama have said many times that they respect private gun ownership and have no intention of confiscating guns. The number of Americans killed by Islamist terrorists in the last decade (78) is dwarfed by the number killed by handgun violence and accidents (132,349). And violent crime has been declining for years.
The NRA’s new ads conflate support for limited gun regulation (assault weapons bans, for example) with banning guns entirely.
“She doesn’t believe your right to keep a gun at home for self-defense,” one of the NRA’s new ads, uploaded to YouTube today, claims. “Hillary leaves you defenseless.” Another new ad features a rape survivor who later purchased a handgun and warns that doing so might soon be banned.
Similarly, a pseudo-news-clip released earlier this year by the NRA described an Australian gun buyback of automatic weapons as “confiscation,” even though the program compensated gun owners and did not confiscate any guns.
And immediately after Trump’s “Second Amendment People” comment, the NRA tweeted “@RealDonaldTrump is right. If @HillaryClinton gets to pick her anti-#2A #SCOTUS judges, there’s nothing we can do.” There was no comment on the following sentence.
Ironically, not only does the Second Amendment have nothing to do with individual gun ownership, it was meant to bolster government power, not resist it. Before the United States had a standing army, states and localities would maintain a “well-regulated militia” by placing muskets and other weapons in the hands of local citizens.
In fact, the only way in which the NRA’s new ad blitz is reflective of reality is in its foregrounding of the Supreme Court, which could indeed revisit its controversial 2008 opinion, DC v. Heller, which was the first time the Court agreed with the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. Though even there, the ads misrepresent the views of Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, alleging that he disagrees with Heller (and gun rights in general), when in fact he has never taken a position on it.
More broadly, though, Trump and the NRA share the view that the world is an increasingly dangerous place and we must all arm ourselves for the chaos that is to come. This is not new, and not confined to Trump. Remember how Ebola became a critical issue in the 2014 election? While the GOP’s greatest national victories were based in optimism—Reagan’s morning in America, Bush’s thousand points of light—its modern incarnation is and soaked in fear disguised as anger.
It’s worrying, though, that the NRA—which spends $275 million a year, after all, compared to $3 million spent by the leading gun control group—seems not to have any red lines when it comes to stoking those fears. At precisely the moment when Trump’s off-the-cuff comments crossed a line for most Americans, the NRA doubled down on the candidate and added its own hyperbolic attacks on Hillary Clinton. Because the only thing more dangerous than an armed populace is a terrified one.