How Identity Politics Fuels the NRA and White Evangelicals

There is a reason why NRA spokesmodel Dana Loesch was off her game at the CNN town hall meeting recently with students and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The topic of discussion was policies that could prevent another school shooting. The only thing Loesch had to offer was federal standards on what states report about people whose history should exclude them from gun ownership. Given that the NRA has consistently fought against universal background checks, her policy prescription was absurd.

However, a few days later at CPAC, Loesch was in her element. Peter Beinart summarized her speech.

In 15 minutes, she barely mentioned the legislative process. Instead, she mostly discussed the ways in which journalists and corporations defame and persecute the supporters of gun rights…Finally, near the end of the speech, as if to explain its focus, Loesch declared, “Always remember, always … politics is downstream from culture. It’s going to happen in culture first before it happens in politics.”

Similarly, NRA President Wayne LaPierre steered away from gun policy in his speech at CPAC.

“I hear a lot of quiet in this room, and I sense your anxiety,” LaPierre said, turning to the political consequences of the debate. “And you should be anxious, and you should be frightened. If they seize power, if these so-called ‘European socialists’ take over the House and the Senate, and God forbid they get the White House again, our Americans freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever.”

Dylan Matthews helps us understand what’s going on with all of that by looking at how the NRA has been cultivating a political identity for gun owners over decades. He points to an analysis done by Matthew Lacombe, a political science PhD candidate at Northwestern University, of 79 years of back issues of American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication, as well as thousands of letters to the editor in major media publications. Here’s what he found:

The NRA’s editorials, he found, were filled with language meant to cultivate a clear political identity for gun owners rather than argue policy issues on the technical merits. And the specific identity the NRA sought to build, based in American traditions of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the like, was designed to fit well with American conservatism…

The conservative themes that Lacombe alludes to in the gun debate — an individualist spirit, paired with a respect for traditional family values — can be broken down in a couple of ways.

First, there is a divide between an individualist attitude, which places a premium on individual autonomy, and a communitarian attitude, in which the community or nation is in this together and sometimes needs to make individual sacrifices for the greater good.

Second, there’s a divide between a hierarchical worldview, where traditional practices and distinctions between genders, ages, social groups, etc. are viewed as important and justified, and an egalitarian worldview that views such distinctions as fundamentally arbitrary.

Beyond being “fundamentally arbitrary,” an egalitarian worldview is what our founders had in mind (although obviously didn’t adhere to) when they declared that “all men are created equal.” A hierarchical worldview is what sustains white patriarchy and religious intolerance.

Understanding how the NRA has allied the issue of guns with that conservative political identity sheds some light on Loesch’s statement about how “politics is downstream from culture.” That sets the stage for the politics of resentment that has been fueling conservatism for years now. Here’s Beinart on that:

This dynamic isn’t unique to guns. It’s how American politics now works. Even when conservatives win elections and pass laws, they look at the trend among cultural elites—the media, Hollywood, universities, even corporations—and feel like they’re losing. Even as they gain more political power, their declining cultural power makes them feel threatened and despised. Which makes them easy prey for people like Trump.

This idea of being under threat by the so-called “culture wars” fits very well with the identity politics fueled by conservative white evangelicals. Lance Mannion nailed that one:

The Religious Right knows what’s going on.

They feel persecuted and under attack, because they are under attack. They feel their religion threatened and along with it not only the way of life but their sense of identity and self-worth…by us!…

Our agenda really is to wipe out what they believe in, which is not God but an authoritarian, patriarchal, superstitious—they call it faith-based—social order….

No wonder they feel persecuted.

But here’s their secret.

They like feeling persecuted. They need to feel persecuted. It’s how they know their [sic] good Christians…it feeds their self-pity and sense of entitlement, and it gives them their excuse.

It’s how they turn offense into defense, how repression and oppression become liberty.

If they are under attack, then they’re free to fight back.

No one taps into conservative identity politics better than the current president. But it isn’t just Trump. It is precisely the message Paul Ryan’s super PAC is sending with its ad in the upcoming special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, which pretty much mirrors those that “establishment Republican” Ed Gillespie ran in the Virginia governor’s race.

As Josh Kraushaar pointed out, the Republican tax cut message (their only real policy initiative these days) isn’t moving voters, and so identity politics is all they’ve got. Groups like the NRA and white evangelical leaders have been building that one up for decades now.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.