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National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston holds up a rifle as he addresses gun owners during a 2002 rally.

National Rifle Association

This Sociologist Spent A Decade Studying the NRA — and Saw How It Paved The Way for Trump

Scott Meltzer says the group tells members they are 'crusaders’ fighting a corrupt elite class to make America great again.

Those hoping to understand how Donald Trump rode a wave of white, middle-American anger to a surprise presidential victory should look to the National Rifle Association, an organization that has achieved remarkable success in politicizing that discontent, says Scott Melzer, a sociologist who has studied the group’s powerful relationship with its members.

For his 2012 book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, Melzer attended the NRA’s annual meetings, interviewed its supporters, and read its literature in an attempt to understand what has driven the group’s political popularity. He concluded that the NRA is often misunderstood by outsiders. Its power stems from its ability to mobilize its base, which it achieves by giving members and sympathizers a shared purpose, he says. They are told they are “gun crusaders” joined in arms against a corrupt elite class.

Melzer writes, “the gun crusader’s mission is clear. Defend gun rights, win the culture war, save America.” It’s not hard to imagine “Make America Great Again” at the end of that sequence.

Melzer spoke with The Trace soon after the election about the NRA, its vision of political struggle, and how it prefigured the rise of Trump.

In your book you say that the NRA acts more like a social movement than an interest group. What’s the difference?

The NRA is regularly referred to as the gun lobby. That’s inaccurate and misunderstands the NRA. It is a membership organization, first and foremost. That’s what distinguishes it from other lobbying groups. The NRA is really representing this broader masculinity politics, which speaks to the anti-establishment and anti-government motivations of so many Trump voters.

The NRA does certainly have economic resources and as it demonstrated in this election, it shepherds those resources effectively. However, its most important resource is its large membership base, something like four to five million and particularly their core members — gun crusaders who at a moment’s notice will contact their members of Congress and lobby forcefully and loudly for and against legislation.

The group’s leaders seem to understand that power.

They recognize that the NRA is a leading organization within the conservative sphere. Charlton Heston said, “It’s not about guns, the gun association is just a symbol of individual freedom we’re fighting for,” because the NRA is able to frame gun rights as the most important — in its language — civil right, the one that protects all others. It can attract folks who are concerned about the government encroaching on people’s lives in other ways, even those who are not necessarily gun owners or gun activists, but share that kind of anti-government ideology.

What makes the NRA so uniquely effective?

Social movements and their bases respond to either fear or hope. The NRA has cranked up the fear meter to 11 and has kept it there for a really long time. Threat is really the strongest source of mobilization. In magazines and mailings to its members, the NRA’s messaging is about one existential threat after another. In some ways it’s kind of puzzling because there’s some scholarship that suggests you can’t constantly say the sky is falling. Eventually, folks are going to get tired of that kind of rhetoric, but that hasn’t seemed to be the case among the NRA’s core members.

To what degree do you think the NRA tells its members to feel threatened not just by particular policies, but the people who back those policies? People like President Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, who are very clearly marked as not from the same kind of America that the NRA’s membership comes from.

The NRA’s rhetoric is narrowly about gun rights — and broadly about threats to all individual rights and freedoms. Who are the sources of those threats? Those ‘others,’ those folks on the left who represent what seem like threats to many people’s ways of life.

NRA members say they feel as though they’re losing their grip not just on their guns but on their country. I think a lot of other voters who lean conservative, gun owners and non-gun owners alike, are feeling that way. That’s why the rhetoric is resonating.

When you wrote about how the NRA transformed from a single issue interest group to something more like a social movement, I was really struck by the importance of Charlton Heston.

Charlton Heston provided the NRA with a kind of legitimacy. When he first joined the organization he went on a kind of national speaking tour, talking about the culture war and gun rights. Heston had a positive, mainstream reputation and gravitas but he was able to frame the issue in such a way, again, that liberals had put not only gun rights at death’s door, but all individual rights and freedoms.

There was a kind of nostalgic language in Charlton Heston’s arguments: This big government nanny state was taking over and chipping away at our freedoms, threatening life as we knew it.

Heston stood for this very respectable mainstream of what a nostalgic past looks like. And now the NRA’s primary mascot has become Ted Nugent. He’s extremely confrontational, extremely crude, willing to indulge in openly racist rhetoric.

It’s hard not to see a similar trend in right wing politics more broadly, from George W. Bush figures who are very conservative but aspire to be widely respected, to Donald Trump, who is proudly offensive.

You talked about the various crises of masculinity in American history: the first being the transition from an agrarian economy where men owned their own labor, to an industrial economy where men sold their labor. How have those crises of masculinity served the NRA?

Women are working at rates comparable to most men. Still, I think most men still maintain a breadwinner identity. If that’s threatened, and it is, by shifts in the economy, then that’s going to lead to all sorts of reactionary politics.

And if that’s coupled with a sense, accurately or in many cases inaccurately, that others are doing better than them, or receiving special rights, then that allows them to feel like victims.

The NRA, other social movement organizations, and certainly Donald Trump can get folks to believe messages that they’re victims of this kind of left-wing attack on their values, their livelihoods and ultimately their masculine identities.

When talking to NRA members, did you get the sense that they really expected they could, if they mobilized enough, win this culture war?

Yeah, I think the really interesting dynamic that the NRA has in its rhetoric and its language is that it frames itself and its members as victims of this culture war that’s removing guns and giving special rights to women and people of color and gays and lesbians. Its members are the new minority, they’re the new victims.

The flip side for the NRA is that it also frames its members as heroes, as freedom fighters. The group labels itself as the oldest civil rights organization in the country. It’s essentially a religion, it’s a faith. It’s a fundamental belief system, it’s the religion of freedom — that they have to literally fight ’til the death. That’s what Heston was saying with “from my cold, dead hands,” right? There are not a lot of other single-issue interest groups that would use that kind of rhetoric.

As described in your book, the NRA increasingly casts its members as patriots and freedom fighters. In the past that meant Revolutionary War and World War II imagery. But when I went to the NRA convention this year, that image had been replaced by the  “special operator” — covert forces who might fight with unconventional tactics, in small groups, in urban settings. The late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in particular, has really become a prominent symbol in gun culture.

After the election, Wayne LaPierre issued a statement arguing that the NRA deserves credit for electing Trump. He called the membership “special forces,” which seemed to me like very carefully chosen language. Can you talk about how the group describes its base?

In his book Warrior Dreams, James William Gibson writes about the idea that, post-Vietnam, the “Rambo” films and other cultural touchstones contributed to the idea that the left held us back. That we would have won the Vietnam War if not for those pantywaists, those sissies who wouldn’t unleash the full power of the U.S. military. And so these soldiers of fortune conventions popped up and there were a lot of wannabes that attended these sessions, Gibson writes, who wanted to deck themselves out in camo and have all the toys.

And so I think you can trace this to the present, and there are certainly similarities between the conception of someone like Chris Kyle and the open and concealed carry movements where, again, you have this idea of hidden warriors amongst civilians — there are the sheep, and the sheepdogs.

This imagery seems to be much more effective at mobilizing the membership than advocating for the things that are more directly tied to a nostalgic vision of gun rights, like hunting. The NRA is pushing for policies that allow its membership to identify as a civilian warrior.

The civilian-warrior idea resonates with the NRA’s idea of frontier masculinity and a kind of independence or a lack of reliance upon the government for protection, for food, for anything. In its mind the government and the police are there to clean up the scene afterwards. It’s up to us, the good guys with guns, to protect ourselves and potential victims from the bad guys with guns.

One NRA member I interviewed said something along the lines of, “Whenever I get pissed off at the government I go out and buy a gun.” That’s his symbolic middle finger to the government that you can’t control me, I’m an independent citizen. My weapon is a symbol of freedom, it’s not just a tool.

Are other conservative groups as effectively tied into members’ identities as the NRA?

Probably not. I think the comparable movement that we can look to is the pro-life movement. It’s very mobilized and highly effective, and commands a lot of votes. But you can’t construct a broader conservative politics and identity around that issue.

What makes the NRA so unique and effective is that they can and do effectively argue that if conservatives lose on the gun issue, then everything else is going to be lost. I don’t think there is another organization whose members argue that their issue is the bedrock of freedom and the American way of life.

What do you think the Trump presidency holds for the NRA, especially in its relationship to its members?

The NRA’s operated on fear for so long, but if the Trump presidency can expand gun rights then the NRA can flip it around and operate off of opportunity and hope. But threat is what really mobilizes its base. If there aren’t threats, the NRA is likely to lose members.

[Photo: AP Photo/Jim Cole]