In the Trump era, the NRA has finally been revealed as a pathetic fraud

Once upon a time, the gun industry seemed invincible. Now it looks more like a low-level right-wing grift

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2019 1:45PM (EDT)

President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP/Michael Conroy)
President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP/Michael Conroy)

There are very, very few silver linings to the Donald Trump presidency. But thanks to the law of unexpected consequences, here is one development that is welcome: The gun industry is being exposed as a massive grift. Never-Trumper Rick Wilson's principle that everything Trump touches dies is in full force when it comes to the gun lobby. The forces of gun-nuttery backed Trump with an unrivaled fierceness during the 2016 election. In return, they are finding that the aura of invincibility that once surrounded the gun lobby is rapidly fading away.

On Monday, United Sporting Cos., a major firearms distributor, announced it would file for bankruptcy. The company sells guns to major retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart, and has fallen deeply into debt because it stocked up on inventory it couldn't sell.

This bankruptcy exposes, yet again, the dirty secret of the gun industry: It's basically a big right-wing hustle whose business model depends largely on exploiting white male identity politics and irrational, reactionary fears in order to bilk anxious conservative men out of lots of money.

The United Sporting CEO, Bradley Johnson, admitted in the bankruptcy filings that the company had stocked up heavily in 2016, in anticipation of a likely election victory by Hillary Clinton. The assumption was that if she won, they'd see a run on gun stores by Republican voters. This was not an irrational assumption: Barack Obama's two election victories had sparked a boom in gun sales, largely driven by white men in red states.

The traditional explanation for this is that gun lovers are "afraid" that the Democrats will immediately ban guns, so they go on a shopping spree ahead of the supposed crackdown. No doubt that's part of it, but I also suspect there's more going on. Obama and Clinton both represented symbolic threats to white male dominance. Running out and buying a bunch of firepower is a way for insecure white men, threatened by the idea of diversity and equality, to reassure themselves that they are still dominant and powerful. Guns are quite literally a pacifier for white male anxiety.

But those men didn't need that pacifier with Trump in the White House, serving as a daily reminder that, in our society, being a white man still counts for more than being intelligent or useful or decent or having any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Thus, the "Trump slump", which also likely contributed to last year's bankruptcy filing by Remington, one of the country's oldest firearms manufacturers.

Guns, it turns out, are no different than the survivalist kits or gold bars being sold in fringe conservative publications, or the supplements and cancer "cures" being hawked by Alex Jones and other right-wing pundits, or the fake super PACs that claim to support Republican candidates but mostly just line the pockets of their leaders. There's a long and ugly history of right-wing grifters exploiting the paranoid, reactionary impulses of their followers to bamboozle them out of their hard-earned money. Donald Trump himself, who doesn't seem to have made an honest dollar in his life, is just the most prominent example.

In order to stay afloat, the gun industry has to convince people to buy expensive products that have almost no practical use in modern life. This is what they've landed on: The right-wing grift. Furthermore, their association with the shameless con man in the Oval Office is stripping away the ability of gun-industry hacks to pretend to be anything other than shameless bottom-feeders.

That much has been made evident by the latest  trials and tribulations of the National Rifle Association, which markets itself as a "rights" group, but is better understood as part gun industry lobby and part right-wing scam designed to separate fools from their money.

On Sunday, the Washington Post published an in-depth exposé making clear how much beak-wetting had become the norm in the NRA's top ranks, with board members being regularly granted lucrative contracts and deals by the organization they supposedly oversee. About a quarter of the group's board of directors was getting paid, usually for vague "consulting" services or by commissions. Much of the money comes from the group's donors, which is to say the ordinary NRA supporters who largely become dues-paying members as a way to demonstrate their fidelity to the "conservative" movement.

That Post article comes after a tumultuous few weeks for the NRA, which has been subjected to a steady drip of stories about its leaders' appetite for living high on the hog. As the Post summarized:

Among the revelations that have burst into public view: CEO Wayne LaPierre racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique and on foreign travel, invoices show. Oliver North, forced out as president after trying to oust LaPierre, was set to collect millions of dollars in a deal with the NRA’s now-estranged public relations agency, Ackerman McQueen, according to LaPierre. And the NRA’s outside attorney reaped “extraordinary” legal fees that totaled millions of dollars in the past year, according to North.

These revelations are part of a series of suits and countersuits being filed by NRA leaders who accuse each other of being corrupt. One can only conclude, in fairness, that all the accusations have merit. Now the NRA's predicament is growing more intense thanks to an investigation by New York Attorney General Tish James that could threaten the group's nonprofit status by showcasing how many of its leaders are on the take.

None of this should come a surprise. This is the same group, after all, that hired North as its president, a veteran con artist who has spent several decades milking his conviction in the Iran-Contra scandal to sell himself to credulous right-wingers as a noble patriot who was unfairly railroaded by the all-powerful forces of political correctness. Falling for Ollie North is a sure sign that someone has developed a terminal case of right-wing crazy; deciding to hire him was a signal that the NRA had fallen to the level of WorldNetDaily or Infowars in the conserva-scam economy.

Prior to the Trump era, the NRA and the gun industry it represents were largely able to pass themselves off as more legitimate than they actually were. Then the NRA put its entire weight behind the orange-haired carnival barker, spending a record-breaking $30 million on Trump's campaign alone. That, plus the group's unsavory connections to Russian interests, stripped away any illusion of legitimacy, exposing both the NRA and the gun industry as marketing schemes designed to exploit irrational fears.

The NRA has survived tumultuous times before, but there's good reason to hope this time will be different. In the past, the group could rely on its reputation as an invincible political force. Now, however, stories about the organization make it look more pathetic than intimidating. What was once the far right's equivalent to a powerhouse like the ACLU now seems closer to a Theranos-style fraud. That kind of blow to the NRA's reputation might be damaging in a way that a million liberal op-eds denouncing its noxious politics never could be.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte