A performative event whose lone purpose is publicity—what historian Daniel Boorstin labelled a pseudo-event—was methodically rolled out at the White House on February 21. In what was branded as a “listening session,” distraught students and teachers poured out their hearts after the Parkland school shooting, and an uncharacteristically somber and attentive Donald Trump promised action. It was catnip for the media, and the story duly led all the evening news programs.
But the facade of Adult Seriousness began crumbling within hours, and by the next day it was in ruins, revealed as yet another Lucy-and-the-football con job on the media and the American people. The evolution played out just as it had with DACA: Trump is serious about solving the problem, then lobbies against his own alleged position, and then blames his political opponents for their failure to take action.
No, it didn’t take even one news cycle for Trump to offer up a seriously deranged non-solution: arming school teachers. If trained police officers frequently cannot hit the side of a barn in a firefight, does anyone imagine a 50-year-old teacher, who might not like firearms anyway, doing any better with a Glock against a suicidal assailant armed with an AR-15? And what about the fact that an armed sheriff’s deputy at the scene of Parkland shooting failed to enter the building, presumably frozen with fear? Are teachers assumed to be more courageous than cops?
Meanwhile, Trump’s own son was “liking” a tweet claiming the activist school children were “crisis actors,” a meme of great popularity in conservative media ever since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. NRA President Wayne LaPierre added his bit, frothing at the mouth that people concerned about their kids’ survival represented a “socialist wave” overtaking America.
It is obvious that the White House listening session was about buying time for Trump and getting an emotional photo op to dominate the day’s news, and had nothing to do with listening. It was a mawkish and manipulative pseudo-event, just like Paul Ryan idling around at a soup kitchen for the homeless as he plots to throw millions off health care and gut the social safety net.
Why is it that a former supporter of gun control like Trump can be so down-the-line on the other side of the gun issue? He is hollow man with no fixed beliefs, of course, but he also believes that confusing maneuvers can save his skin. Shortly after his CPAC love-fest with the NRA, Trump once again flipflopped and professed that he was supporting measures opposed by the gun lobby, a move that alarmed Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a favorite of journalists who easily fall for his sanctimonious gravitas.
We’ve all seen this movie before. Trump says he’ll sign anything Congress places before him and Republicans push the panic button—but then, behind the scenes, White House gremlins like Stephen Miller will shore up the GOP position, run out the clock, and leave the issue at status quo or even slightly worse. Miller is no anomaly: Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell invariably follow precisely the same game plan.
It is long past time for opponents of Trumpism to stop shaking their heads in disappointment, and instead go on the offensive. Trump wins because he appeals to emotionalism—chiefly rage, fear, and resentment—and he offers his followers a unified theory of life with ready-made villains and heroes, apocalypses and redemptions, in lieu of the difficult business of rational thought.
Such movements are not defeated by a sigh of resignation and the hope that this cancer will pass. Given the shift in public opinion, Democrats have more leverage on the gun issue than they think—if only they would use brass knuckles instead of powder-puffs.
Day after day, Democrats must take to the House and Senate floors and say that the GOP, and especially Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, would prefer to see school children massacred than face the wrath of the NRA. To repeat, they would prefer to see kids murdered rather than poke the gun lobby and lose their money and support.
Brutal? Yes. But is it true? Demonstrably, if decades of their past behavior prove anything. Etiquette enforcers, particularly in the media, would presumably moan that Democrats were violating decorum, ripping asunder the fragile threads of civil society, and on and on. Let them moan: the charge is true, and in any case, the modern GOP has so thoroughly demolished whatever standards of decorum had previously existed that accusations of incivility on the left would merely be yet another iteration of media both-siderism. Because a brutal statement of the truth that breaks through the fog of posturing is what it will take—nothing less will be effective in the current climate.
Political success will also require thinking strategically. Trump is calculating that he cannot abandon the gun nuts and the NRA because, as the Mueller investigation grinds on, the gun nuts and the NRA are the ones who trust him and will not abandon him.
But that is not the only nexus between the NRA and Trump. The NRA was the biggest benefactor of the Trump campaign, pumping $30 million into his campaign, more than twice as much from the gun lobby than Romney did in 2012. But, as McClatchy suggests, the real total may have been as much as $70 million, funneled through a dark-money affiliate of the NRA that does not have to disclose the source of its funds.
Where did that money come from? McClatchy has found tantalizing clues leading to Alexander Torshin, a Russian oligarch and deputy governor of Russia’s central bank. He has close ties to the NRA and American conservative operatives on the one hand, and President Vladimir Putin on the other.
Most Americans only have a cursory knowledge of the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, particularly when the media sometimes presents the story in a piecemeal, context-free fashion. But opponents of Trump need to make the connection between Russiagate and the shootings a talking point. Linking school shootings and Russian interference through the vehicle of the NRA would not only give millions more Americans a reason to be concerned about what they may feel is an overly complex and confusing “foreign” issue, it would also increase the popular disgust with gun lobby. Because how are Wayne LaPierre and his ilk going to pose as true American patriots and constitutionalists if they’ve been unmasked as eager tools of Vladimir Putin?