2016 Elections

NRA Buys Deck Chairs on Trump's Titanic

In Republicans' civil war, the group will end up on the side where paranoia and extremism run deep.

Ready for a Republican civil war.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Rifle Association this year has already broken its record for political spending, backing the Republican Party with more than $36 million. More than $21 million of that sum was devoted to attacking Hillary Clinton or supporting Donald Trump.

“The blitz cements the NRA’s status as a key cog in Republican electoral efforts,” reported the Trace. “This cycle, it has paid out more than any other conservative group aside from three Super PACs formed to back GOP presidential candidates.”

Trump is not looking like a shrewd investment. Republican strategists fear he could take the Republican Senate majority down with him, and even, if he tries extra hard, blow up the Republican majority in the House.

Clinton, meanwhile, is more overtly hostile to the NRA than any presidential candidate in history. She campaigns with mothers of victims of gun violence, aggressively champions universal background checks and advertises her willingness to “take on the gun lobby.”

Although the NRA was once bipartisan, and was effective even recently at cowing Democrats from rural states, few Democrats in Congress now view the group as anything more than a collection of extremists. In June, House Democrats staged a sit-in to protest Republican inaction, at the NRA’s behest, on gun regulation.

As it grew more extreme in recent years, the NRA made a perhaps unavoidable decision to become a GOP cog. (While giving $36 million to Republicans in this election it gave Democrats about $1,500.) In effect, the group opted to become wholly Republican just as the GOP was beginning to unravel.

Now, with phrases like “civil war” applied to the party, the NRA will in all likelihood end up on the Trumpian side of the divide, where anger and paranoia, its stock in trade, run deep.

Like the Republican Party, the NRA desperately needs an influx of young people, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It’s been trying to attract women for decades, with limited success. Now, it’s pouring millions of dollars and its valuable brand into Trump, who repels all of the above.

Among gun-regulation advocates, there is a chicken-and-egg debate about whether the NRA is run by a band of moon-howling lunatics or by a gang of soulless opportunists. There’s no reason to choose. If you walked into a hospital emergency room quoting, verbatim, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre’s rap about being under siege from “terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, ‘knockout’ gamers, rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals,” you might find yourself on medication in short order.

On the other hand, the business of the NRA is paranoia; that’s what keeps the money spigot open and flowing. So whether LaPierre genuinely believes what he spouts or is just pretending, he serves the organization’s bottom line -- and the profits of the gun industry -- either way.

But if the group’s leaders are indeed being cynical and strategic, they also appear to be in the middle of an expensive blunder. The organization can afford to blow $20 million or more on Trump’s Nov. 8 rendezvous with an iceberg, though that’s real money even for the NRA. But without moderating its extreme politics, its agenda is entirely subject to the fortunes of its GOP host body -- a body currently undergoing violent convulsions. And by constantly aligning itself with reactionary forces, the NRA will be increasingly pushed to the fringe, encouraging men who own multiple firearms to buy a few more before the apocalypse.

That has proved to be a lucrative and potent short-term strategy, in sync with the fierce reaction to President Barack Obama and a changing nation. By substituting a female demon for a black one, the NRA can milk immoderation for a few more years. But extremism is a volatile compound, with a sometimes limited shelf life. The clock ticks.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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