For the past eight years, Barack Obama provided the National Rifle Association with the perfect liberal bogeyman—an avatar of white anxiety who wanted to deprive gun-toting Americans of their constitutional right to bear arms. Annual gun production skyrocketed 239 percent during his presidency, and the NRA saw its membership hit a record five million. Last year, the group bet big on Donald Trump, pouring $30 million into his campaign and millions more to stack Congress with gun-friendly lawmakers. The gamble paid off: All but one of its Senate candidates was elected, and Trump has publicly aligned himself with the lobbying group. “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end,” Trump thundered before cheering throngs at the NRA’s annual meeting in April. “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”
But with Obama gone, and Republicans firmly in control, the NRA is suffering. In the first six months after Trump was elected, gun sales tumbled by 9 percent. Vista, the firearms manufacturer that owns brands like American Eagle and Bushnell, saw profits drop 27 percent in the first three months of the year—a reversal the company called an “unprecedented decline in demand for ammunition and firearms.” Individual contributions to the NRA, which account for roughly half its revenue, could also take a sharp plunge; the last time a Republican occupied the White House, the NRA’s membership flatlined. “They need a demon,” says Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York and author of The Politics of Gun Control.
Now, with no one in the White House to strike fear in the hearts of its members, the NRA is embarking on a bold new strategy. Instead of sticking solely to its pro-gun agenda—pushing for firearms in schools, allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines—the group has joined the ranks of Breitbart and Fox News. Last fall, in the weeks before the election, the NRA launched its very own streaming service called NRATV. Some of the 34 shows it produces—from Armed & Fabulous to Trust the Hunter in Your Blood—are little more than infomercials for gun manufacturers, who sponsor the programs to drum up business. But many of the shows focus on issues far beyond the NRA’s traditional purview, from immigration to the “fake news” media.
“We’re seeing the rise of a new NRA,” says Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor whose latest book, Gunfight, chronicles the battle over gun rights. “It’s long been committed to a die-hard approach to gun policy; they focused like a laser beam on Second Amendment issues. Now it’s focused on immigration, race, health care. We’re seeing the NRA become an extreme right-wing media outlet, not just a protector of guns.”
The swaggering hosts of NRATV, clad in baseball hats and golf shirts, go after their opponents with a ferocity that would make Rush Limbaugh blush: Hillary Clinton (“emotionally hysterical, blind drunk”); Lena Dunham (“wants to make conservatives look bad”); Rolling Stone (“blinded by bias”); Don Lemon (“your lies push division, hatred, and violence”). Cam Edwards, a mild-mannered Oklahoman who hosts a three-hour talk show on weekdays, interviews writers from the Daily Caller, columnists from Town Hall, and owners of shooting ranges. Oliver North drops by to discuss North Korea’s latest nuclear launch. Jim Geraghty of The National Review calls in to discuss angry vegans.
Other segments go a step further, portraying liberals as dangerous insurgents: activists who “openly call for the assassination of our president,” protesters who “set fire to buildings and attack people in the streets,” and “chaos creators who want to impose their will upon us, through their violence and lies.” NRATV’s imagery only adds to the fearmongering; a controversial ad that aired in April featured grainy black-and-white clips of torched buildings, trash cans lit on fire, and a Trump supporter beaten bloody, his face wrapped in bandages. Even the network’s motto echoes like a warning shot: “The truth is under fire.”
It’s a strategy sure to win supporters on the far right. Like Fox News, NRATV routinely parrots ultraconservative talking points, creating a familiar echo chamber for its viewers. Even after a young woman was killed at a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, hosts on the network continued to denounce the “violent left.” Grant Stinchfield, one of NRATV’s most strident voices, has called on police to round up Antifa members and teach them “what it’s truly like to live in a fascist community.”
Such rhetoric marks a decided shift for the NRA. Rarely has the lobbying group aligned itself so closely with a single strand of the Republican Party. As recently as 2010, it was still spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to back conservative Democrats who opposed gun control. (Even Bernie Sanders once received an NRA endorsement.) “Now that there’s a president in office that their base likes, they have to make Americans afraid of one another,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “They’re exploiting fear in America to sell guns.”
In the long run, however, the NRA’s new sales strategy could backfire. As more and more Americans earn college degrees and move to cities, support for gun control continues to grow. Latinos—who will comprise more than 28 percent of the U.S. population by 2060—favor gun control at a much higher rate than the rest of the country. “In a lot of ways, the NRA is facing the same demographic problems that the Republican Party faces,” says Winkler, the UCLA professor. “You need to appeal to new demographics in this changing America.”
Appealing to new demographics, in fact, is part of what made the NRA into one of America’s most powerful lobbying operations. Founded in 1871 as a marksmanship organization, the group has always been careful to follow the market: It reached out to hunters as outdoor activities became popular in the 1950s, and to homeowners terrified of urban decay and rising crime in the 1970s. “It was a new message that fit the changing time,” Winkler says. “The NRA has been remarkably successful as a political organization because of its ability to shift to reflect changing demographics.”
But now, with its turn to the extreme right, the NRA is bucking America’s broader demographic trends. In July 2016, for example, when Philando Castile was shot to death in the front seat of his car after telling a police officer that he was carrying a gun, the lobbying group could have welcomed black gun owners, publicly defending their right to bear arms. After all, one-third of all African Americans have a gun in their home, up from 19 percent just three years ago. “Here was a golden opportunity,” says Spitzer, the political scientist. “But they were dead silent. They understood that they ran the risk of alienating their conservative white constituency.”
NRATV does have one black host: Colion Noir, an eloquent gun aficionado and former YouTube star whom the lobbying group recruited during Obama’s second term. But as Trump proved that the GOP could still win elections by stoking the fear and hatred of its core supporters, Noir, like the NRA as a whole, has adopted the rhetoric of the alt-right. Once a supporter of Black Lives Matter, he now denounces it as a “weaponized race-baiting machine pushing the extreme liberal Democratic agenda.”
As a marketing arm of the gun industry, the NRA has long understood that fear sells—but now it has a new media platform from which to broadcast a daily drumbeat of extremism and paranoia. “I’m not even sure it’s a dog whistle anymore,” says Watts, the gun control advocate. “It’s just a whistle—to anyone in their base who’s willing to listen. They see the future: They’re selling guns to fewer people. Their demographic is older, white men. They have to create a culture war—to make Americans afraid of each other.”