Donald Trump’s pitch to National Rifle Association members prominently included an unapologetic defense of mass incarceration and the war on crime, weaving much-touted threats from Muslim terrorists and Mexican immigrants into another racialized message valorizing police and vigilante justice.
“President Obama tried to take the guns from law-abiding Americans but has reduced prosecutions of violent criminals who use guns,” said Trump, accepting the NRA’s endorsement on Friday. “President Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers and those with gun crimes. And they’re being let go by the thousands. By the thousands. Many of these are also, I’m sure you’re not going to be surprised to hear this, illegal immigrants.”
It’s unclear what data if any Trump is relying on to make the claim that Obama “has reduced prosecutions of violent criminals who use guns.” Violent criminals make up a very small share of the federal prison population and people get longer sentences for possessing a gun regardless of whether they are violent. Trump implies that drug dealers are automatically violent criminals whether or not they are actually violent.
But the truth is not so important here: According to Trump, he is the one man standing between America and a wave of immigrant, terrorist and homegrown thug murderers and marauders. “A great wall” will protect the border. Police, unjustly maligned for doing their jobs, will join armed citizens to protect the home front. By contrast, Trump intoned, Hillary Clinton wants to keep the border wide open and disarm the citizenry as she floods American streets with felons. Clinton, of course, is a recent convert to criminal justice reform and immigrant rights whose proposals are far too tepid to do anything like this. Two-party general elections have a tendency to miss this kind of nuance.
“This is Hillary Clinton’s agenda too: To release the violent criminals from jail. She wants them all released. She wants people released that you wouldn’t want to walk on the street with, you wouldn’t want to look at…I’m going to put criminals behind bars and guarantee that law-abiding Americans have the right to self-defense. One hundred percent.”
Trump’s remarks had as much to do with him knowing his audience as with his penchant for bigotry. And like many things Trump, the rhetoric is more shocking for its brazen performance than for its novelty. In 1968, as the black freedom and anti-war movements rocked city streets and college campuses, Richard Nixon ran a television advertisement showcasing volatile protest imagery and making the unsubtle declaration that “the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.” Law-and-order politics has long been grounded in protecting white supremacy and muscular American nationalism.
At first blush, Trump’s rhetoric might seem out of place in the NRA’s ostensibly libertarian moral universe that pits endangered free individuals against the rapacious maw of big government. But in reality, the NRA has long upheld a racially-tinged vision of firearm freedom premised on law-abiding citizens’ right and necessity to bear arms against a criminal underclass. In American politics, of course, the upshot has been the construction of a gargantuan prison state that disproportionately imprisons black people.
As Tim Murphy recounted in a 2013 Mother Jones story, the role played by the NRA was not merely rhetorical: the group made a priority of lobbying hard for prison construction and three-strikes laws during the 1990s. At the time, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre bragged that they had "supported prison building” and condemned California’s Supreme Court-ordered prisoner releases as "the largest prison break in American history."
Widespread right-wing support for George Zimmerman’s execution of Trayvon Martin made the ideology’s implicit racism clear.
At the NRA convention, Trump described a world made dangerous by external threats like Muslim terrorists and criminal immigrants ready to take advantage of an America made weak by liberals who have shortchanged the military, protested police abuses and strove to end mass incarceration. Trump’s promise is that he will ensure that people no longer have to be afraid. A strong people and a strong man. Together at last.
The Paris attacks happened not because of broader social and geopolitical issues but because the victims couldn’t shoot back. “No guns in the other side folks,” said Trump. Armed civilians, especially if they had been wearing Make America Great Again hats (he said that), would have stemmed the carnage. Trump obliterate context and neatly placing all of the bad guys in one category, and all the good guys in another. All the threats, whether they be terrorist or criminal, are the same.
“Hillary Clinton wants to disarm vulnerable Americans in high-crime neighborhoods,” said Trump. “Whether it’s a young single mom in Florida or a grandmother in Ohio, Hillary wants them to be defenseless. Wants to take away any chance they have at survival.”
The problem, as George Zimmerman reminds us, is figuring out who the good guys are.
Trump doesn’t often appear before rooms he cannot read on a dime and play like a fiddle. His multitude of detractors takes great pleasure in mocking the seeming non-sequiturs that spew forth from beneath his iron-coiffed comb over. But his cartoonism doesn’t detract from his brilliance: no one does a better job triumphantly stage-performing and legitimating racialized fears. Trump’s rhetoric makes explicit what tough-on-crime Republicans and Democrats would never utter in polite company. In the gun rights world, the only thing stopping a criminal with a gun is a law-abiding citizen with a gun. Trump, more than most, is willing to paint that criminal’s demographic profile with unalloyed specificity.
Trump knew that trumpeting the white right to bear arms before the fabricated specter of a growing criminal menace is just what the NRA wanted to hear. For those who view Trayvon Martin as a criminal, George Zimmerman is still a hero. The debate over gun control, however, mostly passes by the poor black communities that it most concerns. While gun control advocates are certainly correct that this would be a much better country to live in if like many others it weren’t flooded with weapons, liberals also tend to support carceral solutions like mandatory minimums for illegal gun possession. The fixation on guns elides the social and economic underpinnings of gun violence. Programs that tackle gun violence preventatively, at its human source, get little attention and even less funding.
Trump’s right-wing phantasmagoria is terrifying. And it serves to dress up the worst in liberal politics as a real solution.