The National Rifle Association’s recent ad, starring conservative radio host Dana Loesch, didn’t ruffle many feathers when it was first released in April. When Twitter users discovered the video this week and began debating the merits of Loesch’s rhetoric, however, the ad became something of a cultural lightning rod, which was undoubtedly what the N.R.A. wanted in the first place.
Here’s why some people are so disturbed by the ad: in addition to the N.R.A.’s usual boilerplate about the Second Amendment and how gun ownership is simply one’s God-given right, Loesch paints a twisted picture of protesters wreaking havoc on a nation they don’t respect. She addresses the viewer as “we” and builds an image of a separate “they”. That’s not a new rhetorical tool for conservatives, who have been decrying the “liberal media” for decades, but President Donald Trump’s fixation on what he calls “fake news” has helped popularize the concept again.
Twitter users were quick to point out that describing a liberal conspiracy which reaches across media is a very old argument, one historically aimed at Jews by anti-Semites. The conspiracy theory surged in popularity during the 1940s when Americans who favored the U.S. joining WWII in support of Germany said the Jewish media was exaggerating Hitler’s actions against Jewish Europeans. The NRA has evidently updated this old American adage — that Jews control the media — by linking the stereotype with protestors of all backgrounds. According to the ad, everything from our school systems to our late night talk shows are being controlled by some unnamed force that wants to take your guns away.
On Tucker Carlson Tonight, Loesch responded to criticism by saying, “There was nowhere in this video … where I called for anyone to move toward violence, to silence anyone, or where I called for anyone to even pick up a firearm and enact violence.” Then again, the ad’s language is pretty suggestive, urging viewers to react to “violent” liberal “terrorism” with a metaphorical “fist”.
Loesch looks particularly fed up with political protesters, ascribing the verbs “bully, terrorize, destroy, smash windows, and shut down infrastructure” to unnamed groups. The assertions are so disturbing that Women’s March co-organizer Tamika D. Mallory demanded clarification and a public apology from Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the N.R.A. LaPierre and the N.R.A. have not commented.
When The New York Times asked Loesch which protests the ad was meant to criticize, she replied that the protests in Ferguson and even some vandalism during Trump’s inauguration were in her cross-hairs. For what it’s worth, the Antifa movement, clad entirely in black, did damage private and public property in D.C. that weekend, but they were a minute subsection of the thousands of protestors who marched on Washington on both Inauguration Day and in the days following.
How the N.R.A. managed to insult their own members
The ad is a violent departure from the organization’s previous commercials, which typically involve an actor belonging to a demographic other than straight white males explaining to the viewer why they value the Second Amendment. “I Didn’t Listen”, an ad actually released after Loesch’s tirade, simply suggests that black women have just as much of a right to legally carry a firearm as Americans of any other demographic. Of course, the N.R.A. has been criticized publicly for not defending black American gun owner Philando Castile when he was murdered by a police officer.
It’s notable that many long-standing affiliates of the N.R.A. have been vocally disturbed by the ad. Many N.R.A. members and legal gun owners have called the ad dangerous and not representative of their beliefs.
As reported in TIME, gun owners flocked to the N.R.A.’s Facebook page to leave comments like, “What happened to you? You used to represent hunters and sportsmen and responsible gun ownership. […] When did you become this hate-mongering […] extremist group?” and “As a strong supporter of gun rights, I am flabbergasted and appalled.”
You can watch all the advertisements in the N.R.A.’s “Freedom’s Safest Place” campaign on YouTube. There are thirty-one videos in total, but none have been as offensive to both sides of our political divide as Loesch’s “The Violence of Lies”. By alluding to a violent and dangerous threat to American ideals without actually pointing out any particular culprits, the N.R.A. tried to appeal to Trump supporters who feel their values are being challenged unfairly. Unfortunately for the organization, their fear-mongering message managed to alienate members of their own group.