The disturbing thread of white nationalism woven into the NRA’s rhetoric

If you pay attention to the rhetoric of gun rights groups, what happened in Charlottesville wasn't surprising.

Armed militia gather in Charlottesville, Virginia (CREDIT: screenshot from video captured by fmr. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA))
Armed militia gather in Charlottesville, Virginia (CREDIT: screenshot from video captured by fmr. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA))

One of the most chilling moments during the past weekend of violence in Charlottesville came after much of the protest had ended and state officials were trying to take stock of what just happened. In an interview with the New York Times, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) defended the sometimes anemic response of state and local police, claiming that the officers were simply outgunned.

A line of assault rifle-carrying militia members, some of them sporting Confederate flags over their military fatigues, “had better equipment than our State Police had,” McAuliffe said. “It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this, 80 percent of the people here had semiautomatic weapons,” he said, adding that if “you saw the militia walking down the street, you would have thought they were an army.”

The German scholar Max Weber once defined a state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Under this definition, Virginia’s status as a state briefly seemed to break down over the weekend.

Militia leader Christian Yingling told the Washington Post that the militia was not in Charlottesville to align with the white supremacists, but rather to “help people exercise their First Amendment rights.”

Regardless of Yingling’s intentions, however, some militiamen openly displayed white supremacist iconography — and the situation quickly became a volatile mess. Police feared a firefight with a heavily armed force. Crowds divided between enraged white supremacists, peaceful counter-protesters, violent left-wingers, and some heavily armed individuals who seemed to openly proclaim their allegiance to the Confederacy.

But it was the sort of chaos anyone who has paid attention to language of Second Amendment advocates and gun rights groups should have seen coming. The notion that Weber is wrong — that a state should not be able to claim a monopoly on legitimate force — has long been a central prong of the gun rights movement.

Instead, gun rights proponents argue, firearms are a necessary tool to challenge the state’s tyrannical use of force. The Second Amendment, Sen. Ted. Cruz (R-TX) claimed in 2015, is “the ultimate check against governmental tyranny.” The NRA sells t-shirts featuring a gun-toting eagle over the slogan “because you can’t fist fight tyranny.” The so-called “Bundy militia,” a group of armed men who seized a federal wildlife refuge in 2016, also claimed they were there to stop government “tyranny.”

And particularly since the election of Donald Trump, another, even more disturbing thread has woven its way into the NRA’s rhetoric. The nation’s largest gun lobby, which has long seen itself in opposition to an oppressive government, now speaks as if we stand on the cusp of a race war.

Black rights don’t matter to the NRA

The NRA touts expansive gun rights for white Americans, while, in at least one high-profile case, suggesting that African Americans who commit minor gun offenses should be summarily executed.

Consider Philando Castile, an African American man who was issued a gun permit in 2015 and who was fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer the next year. As a transcript of the traffic stop that led to his death reveals, Castile informed the officer that he was carrying a firearm right after he was asked to produce his license and registration — then, almost immediately, the cop accuses Castile of trying to reach for the gun. The shots begin as both Castile and his girlfriend protest that he’s not reaching for the gun.

Castile, in other words, should have been the darling of the gun rights community — a man lawfully permitted to carry a firearm who was apparently gunned down by an oppressive state shortly after he tried to do the responsible thing and inform the officer that he had a gun. Instead, here is how NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch reacted to a Twitter user who questioned the NRA’s reluctance to defend Castile.

Police did indeed find a small bag of marijuana in Castile’s car after the man was fatally wounded. But it should go without saying that the penalty for possessing a firearm and marijuana simultaneously is not death. Given the circumstances of the Castile shooting, it is hard to escape the impression that the only “controlled substance” that contributed to Castile’s death was melanin.

The NRA’s obsession with black crime

Through its media outlet NRATV, the nation’s leading gun group promotes racist hosts and spreads fear that movements like Black Lives Matter present a physical threat to white people. NRATV personalities portray people of color generally and African Americans in particular as dangerous individuals who can’t stop killing each other and who will make this violence spill over into white neighborhoods.

After the New York Times reported that “some 30 people are victims of gun homicides” every day in America, future NRATV host Grant Stinchfield said that we should “blame minorities killing each other not law abiding conservatives.”

When a Boston Globe piece argued that more guns will likely lead in more people of color being killed, the NRA’s sole African American host, Colion Noir, likened the piece to a “negro pity party.” (Noir’s given name is Collins Idehen. His chosen last name, “Noir,” is the French word for black.)

Blacks commit murder at 11 times the rate of whites alone,” NRATV host Bill Whittle claimed on his show.

Two days after Donald Trump took the oath of office, Chuck Holton, who co-hosts an NRATV show with disgraced Iran Contra figure Oliver North, celebrated by suggesting that having a black man in the White House defiled the nation.

The notion that violent, armed criminals will come for you and your family if you are not armed is a longstanding theme of the NRA’s rhetoric. Witness, for example, a 2013 NRA ad claiming that “law-abiding average people” need high-capacity magazines to defend against “the madmen, drug cartels and home-invading killers.” Or an NRATV interview last May featuring, of all people, the male model Fabio — who claimed that California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will soon release a wave of “pedophiles, child molester [sic] and rapists” upon the people of his state.

Now, in the age of Trump, the NRA’s propaganda often casts Black Lives Matter in the role of the dangerous external threat that must be resisted with armed force.

In a July video, for example, Stinchfield and Holton claim that “white families are being tortured and killed almost every day in racist violence” in South Africa and argue that the same thing could happen here in the United States. They warn of “the parallels between what’s happening in South Africa and the blatant racism and violence we’re seeing from people like the Black Lives Matter crowd.”

South Africa, a nation where white supremacist rule was displaced not too long ago, is “kind of a warning for what could happen in the United States,” they continue, if America is taken in by “this racial hatred that is being forced on the American culture by the Black Lives Matter crowd.”

How the NRA works to give danger a black face

According to the NRA, anti-Trump mass movements are directed by dangerous black men pulling puppet strings behind the scenes.

Last April, Dana Loesch cut a recruitment video for the NRA that featured her speaking over dramatic music, violent imagery, and footage of political protests. Media, schools, “movie stars and singers and award shows” and an unnamed “ex-president” are all joined in a effort to “make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia and smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law abiding,” according to Loesch’s NRA video.

“The only way we stop this,” she concludes, “the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.”

The video is jarring. It comes about as close as it possibly can to directly asking NRA members to incite a civil war — or, at least, a violent uprising against liberals — without explicitly calling for such action. It was widely denounced, including in an a video released by Los Angeles Black Lives Matter activists that called upon the NRA to remove “their dangerous propaganda videos narrated by conservative radio hosts Dana Loesch and Grant Stinchfield.”

But after the backlash inspired by this video, Loesch didn’t just double down. She cut a new video alleging some vague connection among “leftist media,” the January 21st Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and “the violent agenda of the men behind these women’s march organizers.”

The plot line of Loesch’s follow-up video, entitled “Farrakhan’s Anarchist Angels,” is hard to follow. It criticizes the media, Black Lives Matter, and three women’s march organizers — all women of color — for accusing Loesch and the NRA of bigotry and hatred. Then, it morphs into a vague accusation that some of the NRA’s enemies are taking direction from “Islamic extremist Siraj Wahhaj, race riot inciter Al Sharpton,” and “Louis Farrakhan, a religious terrorist whose highlight reel of bigoted beliefs includes ‘Hitler was a very great man.'” Wahhaj, Sharpton, and Farrakhan are all African American men.

NRATV weaves together longstanding gun rights themes — such as the threat presented by Democrats or an oppressive government — with warnings of dangerous criminals and very clear efforts to give that danger a black face.

Creating a racist atmosphere

Loesch’s “clenched fist of truth” video walks right up to the line of calling for explicit violence against liberals without ever actually crossing it. Stinchfield and Holton assert that Black Lives Matter is bringing America on a path toward a South African dystopia, but never quite connect the dots to explain how. And in writing this piece, I spent the better part of an hour watching and rewatching Loesch’s “Farrakhan’s Anarchist Angels” video, trying to figure out how, exactly, to summarize the connections it draws between the NRA’s enemies and Louis Farrakhan — eventually, I just threw up my hands and wrote that the video is “hard to follow.”

The theme that emerges here: The NRA does not so much make racist arguments as it creates an overall racist atmosphere.

NRATV materials dance just one inch inside the fence of plausible deniability. They seek to leave you enraged that scary black men are directing the anti-Trump resistance — and they bolster that rage with violent images and the NRA’s core focus on guns — yet they also leave you unable to explain what, exactly, you are angry at. It’s the kind of propaganda that skips the brain and goes for the gut.

Yet while it is often difficult to make logical sense of the NRA’s arguments, it is easy to process them emotionally. Donald Trump is good. Democrats are bad. Gun control is bad. Black Lives Matter is bad. NRA members are in danger. And only guns can save them.

The world described by NRATV, in other words, looks very much like the world white nationalists in Charlottesville must have imagined when they marched through the streets chanting “you will not replace us.” It is a world where conservative America is fading and weak. Where barbarians lurk just beyond the gate. And where the only tactic you have left may be violence.