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It’s a long-standing joke among journalists that the go-to political headline in a pinch is: “Democrats in disarray.” Somewhere, somehow, it’s probably true.
So it’s a change of pace that a slew of reports in recent weeks amply justify the headline “NRA in disarray.” Accounts about the organization’s financial crisis and internal dysfunction confirm what many of us have always suspected: The National Rifle Association is a racket that stokes fear, aggravates our country’s divisions and blocks reasoned debate about gun violence to feather the nests of the conservative elite. A self-dealing class exploits the anxieties of Americans far removed from power and turns the Second Amendment into a money machine. No wonder President Trump loves the NRA so much.
The most revelatory detail in the latest of these stories, a helpfully extensive investigation this week by Danny Hakim in the New York Times, concerns the fashion habits of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime chief executive. Hakim reports that LaPierre billed the organization that claims to speak for the heartland $275,000 “for purchases at the Zegna luxury men’s wear boutique in Beverly Hills.”
Unlike LaPierre, I’m just an unsophisticated real American because I have never even heard of the Zegna luxury menswear boutique. Must be nice to have your lifestyle financed by the people you spend your time scaring to death. The biggest falsehood: shameful claims that high school students and grieving parents who plead for more effective gun laws pose a dire threat to the way of life of our country’s small towns and rural areas.
Yes, it will be delightful in the coming months to watch this pack of hypocritical demagogues gag on their counterfeit anti-elitist rhetoric as their organization faces fiscal and reputational embarrassment. It will also be useful to learn more about why they seemed so eager to seek the favor of Russia and Vladimir Putin, how they funneled income to favored insiders, and why so many conservative politicians and activists have prostrated themselves before this golden calf erected to hallow high-capacity weapons.
That last reference comes straight from a thoughtful Midwestern soul. It was invoked in 2018 by the Rev. Peter Marty, senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. “More than a hunting or safety device, the gun has become an object of reverence,” he wrote in the Christian Century. “We bow in devotion at its altar.” False gods usually serve profane purposes.
As often happens with racketeers, the NRA gang has had a falling-out. That’s why we are getting so much new information as one bunch leaks against another. Quite a crew they have over there! And we will be learning more about the organization’s sketchy internal workings because New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating the NRA’s tax-exempt status.
People abroad who wish our country well are mystified about why we seem so unable to legislate sanely on guns. Countries that have a lot in common with ours — most recently New Zealand and, in 1996, Australia — responded to gruesome killings by changing their weapons statutes with cross-partisan support.
We are paralyzed by two things. First, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been the NRA’s willing agents. The organization’s board has been a who’s who of conservative glitterati. The anti-government right knows it can’t sell Americans of modest incomes on its opposition to minimum wages, corporate regulation or more progressive taxes. So they channel their arguments through the gun issue and pretend that this is really a culture war between, well, Beverly Hills elitists and the good folks of Middle America. It’s a big lie.
Let’s start asking the GOP’s politicians how they feel about being allied with a crowd that looks more and more like a bunch of swindlers.
And then there is the U.S. Senate, one of the most unrepresentative bodies in any democratic nation. Fact: The two Dakotas (population 1.6 million) have equal representation with New York and California (population 59.1 million). The House easily passed two bills in February strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, but they face a blockade in a GOP-led Senate where rural states have outsize power.
The NRA’s implosion should be an occasion for a new conversation between metropolitan and small-town America that is, in any event, much needed. The high-living gun lobbyists do not have rural America’s interests at heart. Advocates of gun safety do not disrespect fellow citizens who use guns responsibly. The real insult to them comes from the leaders who buy fancy clothes on their dime.
E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.” Follow
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