Trump’s Reelection Strategy Makes a Gun Bill Unlikely

President Trump has made costly political decisions in the past resulting from his determination to maintain the support of his far-right base. Most famously, he said that there were “good people on both sides” of the 2017 clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Confederate monument.

The Unite the Right rally was a white supremacist rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, from August 11 to 12, 2017. Protesters were members of the far-right and included self-identified members of the alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias. The marchers chanted racist and antisemitic slogans, carried semi-automatic rifles, Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols (such as the swastika, Odal rune, Black Sun, and Iron Cross), the Valknut, Confederate battle flags, Deus Vult crosses, flags and other symbols of various past and present anti-Muslim and antisemitic groups. Within the Charlottesville area, the rally is often known as A12 or 8/12. The organizers’ stated goals included unifying the American white nationalist movement and opposing the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s Lee Park.

I already described the conundrum the president faces on gun control. Having eschewed a traditional reelection campaign of capturing the middle, he’s dependent on getting overwhelming numbers out of rural counties where gun control is least popular.

What’s good for the party as a whole is not necessarily good for the president. He’d face a loss of faith from many of his most ardent supporters if he signed a bill banning assault weapons, and even enhanced background checks and ban on high-capacity magazines would dampen enthusiasm for him with many people in his base. He certainly can’t afford a drop-off in turnout in rural areas. Trump’s strategy depends on them turning out in droves and voting overwhelmingly to reelect him.

NRA president Wayne LaPierre confirmed this for the president this week when the two discussed possible legislation to address the recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas:

[Trump] has directed White House aides to determine what he might be able to do through executive action if Congress does not act. And he has reached out to Wayne LaPierre, the embattled head of the N.R.A., seeking to test whether the organization’s formidable clout in blocking gun control legislation is ebbing…

…Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump has made at least some appeals to Mr. LaPierre. On Tuesday, the president called the N.R.A. leader to describe his thinking, according to two people familiar with the call. The call was first reported by The Washington Post.

Mr. Trump talked up the idea of a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden and insisted that he believed it would be successful, according to those briefed on the call. Mr. LaPierre made clear that his members — many of whom back Mr. Trump — would not favor such a move.

The sight of Trump celebrating a gun control bill in the Rose Garden with ardent opponents of the NRA would not do much for the president’s reputation with the hardline gun rights crowd. He’s tried to cultivate that relationship with speech after speech where he has promised “Your Second Amendment rights are under siege, but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I’m your president.”

The two proposals that seem to have legs are more thorough background checks and “red flag” legislation that would make it easier to disarm people who demonstrate mental instability or a propensity for violence. While wildly popular with most Americans, the NRA and the Republican Party have vociferously opposed both measures as infringements on people’s constitutional right to bear arms. It will be hard to do an about-face on that position and maintain that promises have been kept.

Supposedly, theres’s a split among Trump’s children:

The hard-liners and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is close to pro-gun activists, are uneasy about angering the president’s heavily white and rural base by pursuing gun control measures ahead of 2020.

But others, particularly Mr. Trump’s eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, are aggressively lobbying the president to take action, according to Republican officials who have been in touch with her.

There seems to be some thought that the “red flag” legislation is an easier lift than the background checks.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a close ally of the president, said Mr. Trump was “open-minded” about pursuing background check legislation, but he sounded more optimistic about the possibility of a red flag law.

But I’m not sure that it would be the easier sell with the gun rights crowd. Expanded background checks are opposed mainly because they introduce a level of hassle to law-abiding gun enthusiasts who enjoy being able to attend a gun show and walk out with their purchase without any delays. A red flag law actually threatens to disarm people whose friends and relatives think are a danger, and that describes a lot of Trump’s supporters.

As a purely political matter, it would probably be suicidal for Trump to sign any significant gun control legislation and I think Donald Trump Jr. will win any internal argument with his sister Ivanka. A different Republican would be eager to show some distance from his base in order to gain some territory in the middle, but Trump has no plans to cater his campaign to the middle. He’ll try to win some support in the suburbs by talking about socialism and some of the Democrats more unpopular health care and immigration positions, but he’s not going to go for their hearts and minds in the culture war. He won’t get enough credit for relenting on gun control to compensate him for the loss of support with his rural base which is already reeling over his agricultural policies.

Obviously, I hope I am wrong about what he’ll do. I’d love it if he passed a bill that would both save lives and sink his reelection chances. I just doubt that he’ll make that choice.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com