The NRA and America’s Long History of Absolutist Extremism

Watching Wayne LaPierre’s press conference today (transcript here) I found myself searching for various synonyms of “insane” to describe it. Unglued, unhinged, taken leave of his senses, etc. It reads like the nutty handwritten letters to the editor magazines get, complete with lots of italicizations and exclamation points.

But the truth is this is not true madness. It’s something as old as the country, which bears some eerie similarity to the extremism of the slavery movement, as a lovely piece Ta-Nehisi Coates put up today argued. Here’s a taste:

In the 1850s, slaveholders got their way in Congress (including a hardened Fugitive Slave Act), in the Supreme Court (the Dred Scott decision), and in the White House (occupied by a succession of doughfaces). But proslavery hardliners weren’t satisfied. They sought the resumption of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the Constitution had banned as of 1808. They branded moderates like Abraham Lincoln–who pledged to leave slavery alone in the South–as members of a “Black Republican” conspiracy to overthrow slavery. And they banished former allies such as Stephen Douglas, who lost his A-Rating for straying from the ultra-orthodox line that there must not be any restriction on slavery.

Rather than accede to Douglas’s nomination as Democratic candidate in the 1860 presidential election, which he might well have won, Southerners split the party and nominated one of their own, dividing the Democratic vote and paving Lincoln’s path to the White House. At which point, the Fire-Eaters led Southern states out of the Union rather than accept a democratically-elected president they opposed.

The NRA shows signs of similar derangement and over-reach. During the election, it demonized a president who had done nothing on gun control, claiming a “massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” It has alienated staunch allies like Democrat John Dingell who resisted the NRA’s mad-dog campaign to hold Eric Holder in contempt over “Fast and Furious.” Other supporters who have deviated an inch from the NRA line have been targeted for electoral defeat.

This could be a positive development in the medium term, I suspect. The NRA still has a lot of clout, and they’re not clinically insane, but they’ve clearly lost the ability to know what they sound like to non-gun nuts, or a view of sensible tactics. That kind of overreach is the mark of a weak organization—one particularly vulnerable to being baited by the other side into overreach. I predict much trolling of the NRA in the coming weeks.

For more, see Paul Waldman, Kevin Drum, and Ryan Frazier.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.