I was about 15 or 16 when my father cancelled our membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). Money was tight back then, but Dad said that wasn’t entirely the issue. He was also fed up with their politics.
I was mortified.
The old “If guns are outlawed” sticker was then sitting on the bumper of my first car (which wasn’t yet running), and a stack of hunting and shooting magazines rested on a shelf in my bedroom. My private arsenal had already outgrown the gun-case. At the time, there just wasn’t much about the NRA that I didn’t like. Oh sure I’d noticed a myopic one-sidedness to some of the articles in those magazines, but for the most part, I was down for the main agenda. Dad never did explain to me what had bothered him about the NRA back then (the early 80s). I reckon he was just hoping I would grow a dose of moderation at some point. This was hardly the only obsession that could have given him cause for such concerns.
I guess Dad got his way on this one at least. My views on guns and gun control are complex. ‘Ambivalent’ may be a better word. My take on the legal issues doesn’t map well onto either the left or the right on the actual issue of gun ownership. I’m open to gun control, but skeptical of its impact (at least one any scale that’s practically possible in the present political climate). It hasn’t escaped my notice that I live in a region where firearms can be damned useful. (By way of illustration, one of my students took a job collecting plant samples this summer. Part of her training including a day or so learning how to handle a firearm. In the land of polar bears, a gun can be an essential part of scientific research.) I’ve also got a lot of friends and neighbors who feed themselves by use of firearms, and I’m not in the habit of turning down a good bowl of tutu (caribou) stew. The bottom line is that I won’t be campaigning for full disarmament anytime soon. Few do, really, but if complete disarmament is your bandwagon, then I am definitely not on board.
There is one other bandwagon I’m not climbing aboard any time soon, and that is the one run by the NRA. Any latent interest I might have had in that organization slipped away during the Clinton administration. The television ads from that era telling us that every honest gun owner ought to be a member didn’t exactly inspire me to get out my checkbook. Hearing countless people spouting their fears about ‘thuh guvment’ was enough to send shivers up my spine and put a large dose of queazy in the pit of my stomach. I recall “Impeach Clinton” bumper stickers within the first few months of his first administration. In time his critics would find reasons. In the interim, suddenly Bill Clinton was the source of the New World Order, notwithstanding Bush Senior’s use the the phrase to sell Desert Storm. Within the space of a single election, Clinton became the source of all that was wrong with the world. Seeing the same people who had supported centralization of power throughout the Reagan and Bush administrations suddenly play underdog against government authority was more than a little disconcerting.
It got a lot more disconcerting after the Oklahoma City bombing.
You can’t run a direct line of reasoning from Charlton Heston’s “take my gun from my cold dead hands” speech to that bombing, no, but these two notes fit in the same damned tune. The right wing now sings a constant chorus of ‘don’t tread on me’ messages, and most of them serve simultaneously to valorize the weekend warrior games of countless over-gown boys and to demonize the best efforts of anyone involved in pretty much any kind public service. Hating the government is a popular sport in what passes for ‘conservative’ circles these days. The problem is you can’t shoot at the government and you can’t bomb the government. Hell, you can’t even shout at the government. You can only do these things to real people, people who work for the government, and the trouble with demonizing that government is its a damned effective way to demonize real people. It’s a damned effective way to justify hurting real people. An awful lot of people died in Oklahoma City because someone decided to strike a blow against the government, and his ideas about that government had an awful lot in common with those pushed by the NRA for a couple decades now. Is the one the cause of the other? Maybe not, but it’s a damned reckless message just the same.
What I specifically object to is the scorched earth tactics that the NRA keeps producing. Talking of Second Amendment solutions and other confrontations with the government may sound like the words of brave people put-upon by dark forces and powerful institutions, but they are also clear and obvious efforts to intimidate the rest of us. While other interest groups go to the voting booths, hire lawyers to plead their case, or sometimes take to the streets with a sign or three, elements of the gun rights crowd keep threatening to use their guns under some unspecified conditions. It’s easy enough to imagine the scenario without its details. They will fight back against tyranny, of course; that’s what these people keep telling us. The problem of course is that tyranny may very well be a few unwelcome regulations and the tyrant may well be (as it was in Oklahoma City) ordinary people just trying to do their damned jobs.
Don’t get me wrong. For better or for worse, the Second Amendment is part of American government. There are certainly arguments to be made about its proper scope, and still other arguments to be made about the effectiveness of various gun control measures, but there is no excuse for the constant litany of violent fantasies surrounding firearms ownership. An awful lot of people keep telling us they and their guns are the best protection from government overreach, and every time I see or hear this message I find myself hoping for protection from precisely the folks producing it. I realize echos of this message come to us from the days of America’s founding fathers, but those echos have been twisted by ideology, augmented by fraudulent representations, and generally milked for everything they could possibly be worth. In the end, it isn’t America’s founders that keep this threat of violence alive in America’s politics today. It is the words and deeds of shameless people.
…which of course brings us to the latest twist in Donald Trump’s campaign. These are his words on the subject:
Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the second amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the second amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
To say these remarks have sparked outrage is putting it mildly, but let’s be clear. This is not an obvious call for gun owners to assassinate Hillary Clinton. It isn’t even a clear call for armed rebellion in the case that Hillary wins the election. There isn’t really anything clear about this message at all, but then again there wouldn’t be.
It’s Trump, remember?
He and clarity have never really been on speaking terms.
What this rhetoric ALSO isn’t is a responsible case for the Second Amendment. To begin with, the claim that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment is hardly supported by the evidence. She favors a variety of gun control measures, yes. This does not mean she wishes to abolish the Second Amendment after all. It’s a straw Hillary that Trump is talking about, not the real one.
It’s really not clear how the straw Hillary who wants to abolish the Second Amendment altogether would even go about it, but it actually is clear that she couldn’t do it just by appointing a few judges. That move is neither sufficient nor necessary to do away with the Second Amendment (in principle or practice).
Hillary may well support gun control measures that many gun owners wouldn’t want to see passed. She may even advocate measures that ought not to be passed by any objective measure of their merits. Gun control measures, perfectly sound or bat-shit crazy, do NOT add up to the abolition of the Second Amendment. And let’s be clear, even Scalia, in the infamous Heller decision suggested that some regulations could be consistent with the existence of the Second Amendment, a Second Amendment he construed explicitly (and quite controversially as an individual right).
Simply put, regulations are on the table with or without Hillary as POTUS. Also the Second Amendment remains on the table with or without Hillary as POTUS. Far from the dooms-day scenario Trump trots out in this speech, another Presidential Clinton is at best/worst just another twist in the long case history of the Aecond Amendment. It’s not the end of the Second Amendment or civilization itself. So, yes, Trump is exaggerating, which is putting it mildly.
That exaggeration is not simply a mistake. Realizing just how badly Trump is exaggerating the prospect of a Presidential Hillary helps us understand how to take the comment that Second Amendment people might be able to do something about her after all. These Second Amendment people would be acting in a fantasy world in which a President, and a President alone is enough to render the legal landscape hopeless. If Trump is really suggesting something as mild as voting or rallying to his cause, then there is no need to raise the specter of a gun-grabbing apocalypse in preparation for it. His wording is ambiguous of course, but it’s the ambiguity of plausible deniability. And when speaking to millions, some of whom are clearly quite excitable, Trump’s message will take on many meanings. He knows that. The man is not THAT stupid. Many, perhaps most will take his words to mean something as radical as it takes to say something really rude to a cotton-picking liberal, but some will take them far worse. Some folks are quite prepared to kick their John Wayne fantasies into high gear. A responsible candidate knows this, and a responsible candidate doesn’t rouse his support base, or any subsection of it to the brink of violence.
He has been doing this throughout his campaign. I know of no other candidate in recent memory who has deliberately provoked violence at his own rallies, always falling short of directly calling for it, but often coming as close as one might without explicitly endorsing it.
During the primary season, the actual violence at campaign rallies clearly worked in Trump’s favor. What began as a series of news stories about Trump’s own supporters beating various protestors transitioned seamlessly into a series of stories about protestors engaged in all manner of violence against Trump’s own supporters.
Trump’s fighting words couldn’t help but fall on angry ears for his critics. Many of us have responded with such radical actions as a contemptuous tweet or a few minutes of outraged gripetude, but some took it further. Some engaged in genuine violence. The pay-off for Trump was obvious enough as he and his supporters played the victim and cast his critics as those with no respect for civil society.
What better context for Trump to present himself as the law-and order candidate!?!
A responsible candidate would have asked his supporters to step back and let security handle matters. If Trump said such things on some occasions, on others he talked about how those beaten deserved it, suggested he would pay for the lawyers of those beating protesters, and otherwise said a number of things encouraging the violence in his own supporters. and to provoke violence against his opponents.
Simply put, violence has worked well for Trump. He provoked it to his benefit in the primaries, and it should come as no surprise that he continues to do so in the present general election cycle. He started the general election by fantasizing about hitting his critics at the Democratic National Convention. You can see it in this passage. It isn’t until the very end that we come to realize he is talking about something other than outright violence, and you come to that only after indulging in a long violent fantasy.
The things that were said about me, I mean, should I go through some of the names? I, You know what I wanted to, I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard, I would have hit them, no-no, I was gonna hit them so, I was all set, and then I got a call from a highly respected governor, ‘how’s it going Donald?’ I said; “well it’s going good, but they are really saying bad things about me. I’m gonna hit them so hard, I was gonna hit one guy in particular, a very little guy, I was gonna hit this guy so hard his head would spin, he wouldn’t know what the Hell happened, and, he came out of nowhere, he came out of nowhere; they made deals with me, ‘would you help me this; would you make this deal and solve the problem.?’ I solved the problem. I do a great job. I was going to hit a number of those speakers so hard their heads would spin. They’d never recover. And that’s what I did with a a lot of, that’s why I still don’t have certain people endorsing me. They still haven’t recovered.
It could be an accident of course. And elves could bake chocolate cookies under a full moon. This is a conscious effort on Trump’s part. Just as above, this is a message calculated to stimulate violence. It is ambiguous enough to evade responsibility for that violence, but it’s evocative enough to encourage it just the same.
And so here we are, at a new low point in American politics, at least in my own memory, a Presidential candidate stirring up violence in the service of his own campaign. It says a lot about Trump’s character that he is willing to do this to get the position. It says a lot about how he plans to run the country, and what it says about those plans is damned frightening. We can add his penchant for promoting violence to Trump’s sustained and very deliberate courtship of white nationalists throughout his campaign. This man has already done irreparable harm to the nation, and it’s hard to imagine what good things he could possibly do as President to overcome the harm he is clearly willing to do in the service of becoming President. More likely, he will just go on hurting people and encouraging his supporters to do the same.
Today’s message is distinctive insofar as it’s a clear and definitive marriage of two trends within the current GOP. On the one hand, we have Trump’s general efforts to wind up the nation to state of hysteria, to create the sense that America rests on the brink of social breakdown. On the other we have the long-standing right-wing message of violent opposition to government authority, one rooted in a myopic devotion to a single civil right. It’s marriage made in Hell, or at least a cheesy overpriced hotel equivalent thereof. Donald Trump is a huckster. That much should be clear to pretty much anyone this side of a mental ward. But he’s a huckster with a heart full of bile.