Nearly eight years before he was paralyzed by a bullet, George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, chose Independence Day in 1964 to condemn the newly signed Civil Rights Act in harsh language, even for him. Speaking at a campaign event south of Atlanta, Wallace called the landmark legislation, which among other things outlawed racial segregation and discrimination, “a fraud, a sham, a hoax.”
“Never before in the history of this nation have so many human and property rights been destroyed by a single enactment of the Congress,” Wallace said. “It is an act of tyranny. With this assassin's knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy which claimed power to rule over the lives of our forefathers under sanction of the Divine Right of kings.” By mandating equality, Wallace argued, the liberals had become the very slaveholders whose legacy Wallace defended with every breath.
Wallace was a dutiful segregationist, and represented the values of many people who felt as though they were asphyxiating in a changing America. The end of Jim Crow as they knew it threatened their very way of life. In that vein, Wallace tailored his rhetoric to vilify both the act itself and its supporters. It was scary stuff, and it was meant to be.
In early April of this year, the National Rifle Association released a YouTube video in which conservative talk show host Dana Loesch embraces her inner George Wallace. Part of the organization’s ad series “Freedom’s Safest Place,” this edition, “The Violence of Lies,” features Loesch giving a chilling 60-second monologue condemning liberals, the press, intellectuals, and modern-day civil rights organizers alike in an ominous third person. “They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler,” she says. Interspersed with grainy black-and-white footage that grows more violent as the video ends, she lays blame for a calamitous America solely at the feet of liberals.
Loesch dictates her monologue to the camera in a tight shot, her delivery quietly intense. “They” use Barack Obama to lead the resistance to Trump, she claims, “all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia and smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for police to do their jobs and stop the madness,” — that last bit is her blithe euphemism for police violence on protesters — “and when that happens, they'll use it as an excuse for their outrage.” The video made news on Thursday shortly after it popped up on the NRA’s Facebook page and the progressive site ThinkProgress wrote it up. It quickly sparked condemnation from critics on the left, including Sen. Chris Murphy, a staunch proponent of gun control, and civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson.
The NRA helps sell a violent product that, once upon a time, helped deliver white, landowning male colonists to the promised land of independence. Violence has always been used as political vocabulary, as endemic to our nation’s evolution as a powerful campaign speech, a Civil Rights Act, or a Declaration of Independence. The NRA’s video is a reminder that the gun lobby is willing to use fear, anxiety, and violence as marketing tools.
However, the incidental timing of the ad matters too. Arriving in the broader public consciousness shortly before the July 6th anniversary of Philando Castile’s death and mere weeks following the acquittal of the police officer who killed him, the video’s gaslighting about racial inequality leaves no doubt where the organization stands. If you aren’t white and conservative, the gun lobby doesn’t speak for you.
The NRA’s attitude toward black gun owners, and black people more generally, has always been conditional. Fifty years ago, members of the Black Panther Party entered the California State Assembly chamber, armed with rifles, to protest the Mulford Act, a bill banning the open carry of firearms. They should’ve become a cause célèbre for the nation’s largest gun lobby. California governor Ronald Reagan, an NRA member, later commented that the Mulford bill “would work no hardship on the honest citizen” and that he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” He signed the bill into law a few months later with the NRA’s backing.
Since then, the organization has bleached its own history, occasionally using the language of the civil rights movement when it makes their cause seem more endearing. In April, the same month Loesch’s video was published, the NRA held its Leadership Forum in Atlanta. “Georgia was a pivotal location in the civil rights movement,” read the website’s description of the event. “So, it is fitting that the NRA, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, is holding its 146th Annual Meeting of Members in Atlanta.” Never mind that one of the leaders of that movement, Rep. John Lewis, positioned himself outside with his Atlanta constituents protesting the convention.
But such hypocritical flip-flopping really came to a head in the NRA’s brief, flaccid statement about Philando Castile, released the day after the 32-year-old school nutrition supervisor was fatally shot one year ago this week by a St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer named Jeronimo Yanez. “As the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization,” the statement began, “the NRA proudly supports the right of law-abiding Americans to carry firearms for defense of themselves and others regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated. In the meantime, it is important for the NRA not to comment while the investigation is ongoing. Rest assured, the NRA will have more to say once all the facts are known.”
That was nearly a year ago, and surely there are enough facts now. Dashcam video of the incident was released in June; in it, Castile can be heard saying calmly, “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,” seconds before being shot by a clearly panicked Yanez. New, heartbreaking footage also emerged of Diamond Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter, who witnessed the shooting from the back seat, begging her furious mother, Castile's girlfriend, in the immediate aftermath to stop berating the officers: “Mom, please don't scream 'cause I don't want you to get shooted!” (Yanez was tried and acquitted on all charges last month.) But while gun enthusiast and YouTuber Colion Noir, one of the NRA’s only prominent black faces, condemned the verdict in a Facebook post three days after it was handed down, he was alone. The organization has remained officially silent, despite pleas from its own members to speak out in Castile’s defense.
That brings me back back to Loesch’s video. The fears of the NRA’s largely white, conservative customer base have shifted from a loss of their guns to a loss of their country. Hence, the NRA has given up any pretense that they cared about any civil right for people who aren’t white, or any bit of the Constitution outside of the Second Amendment.
Every sentence that Loesch utters in that video evokes violence, to the point of relying on extraordinary metaphors. “The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth,” she says at the video’s end. How does one “assassinate” news, real or fake, or form a “clenched fist of truth”? Loesch’s script takes a turn for the utterly reckless. But it is nothing if not on brand.
The NRA wants to scare Americans into buying guns. Shortly after the video was revealed at its Atlanta forum, CEO Wayne LaPierre followed up by labeling “academic elites, political elites, and media elites” as “America’s greatest domestic threats.” Loesch stood by the video, arguing on Periscope that “the language of the left is violence” and that liberal critics are "the dullest crayons in the box." Another NRATV host named Grant Stinchfield — a conspiracy theorist known for blaming minorities for gun violence — filmed a response video that is three times as long as Loesch’s ad just to rebuke prominent critics, arguing that they were either hypocrites or, in Mckesson’s case, a “professional rioter.” (The NRA did not respond to my request for comment.)
The NRA hasn’t responded to the gun owners who are criticizing the ad. That may be because gun makers need every potential customer they can get these days. Gun sales have dropped severely since Trump’s November victory, except among people fearful of his administration and violent acolytes. The fear of violent hate crime is even more real and justified in the Trump era, with the number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripling since 2015, when he first announced his presidential candidacy, but those marginalized people buying firearms for their protection aren’t the audience the organization seems to want. The gun industry has cordoned off white Republicans and other conservatives as its market by motivating them with cultural fear — but thanks to Trump, those folks are not scared anymore.
After Wallace gave his speech, he didn’t get quite the response he bargained for.
The alarmist tone provoked boos from members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who were attending the event, and fights broke out. This didn’t work out well for Wallace: the controversy stemming from the event derailed his campaign.
It was clear that Wallace had lost the argument over racial progress, anyway. He had failed so decisively that he was willing to use violent rhetoric as a last resort. Trump has done much of the same, even actively encouraging the assault of dissenters at his rallies. Like the NRA, the president stays quiet when hate crimes and police violence are committed against people of color and immigrants, or when unjust verdicts are returned. Loesch’s video is a sign that the gun industry may not be so much worried about politics as it is about financial gain. The NRA knows it has little else to sell to its white, conservative base but anxiety about an America that is getting browner. Never mind all the potential customers who have legitimate fears about what the country may become under this president. The NRA’s ad is a kind of commercial terrorism, stoking the worst instincts of a consumer base to produce more profit. Whether or not that strategy gets someone hurt or killed in the process seems irrelevant.
Jamil Smith is a political journalist and essayist based in Los Angeles.
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.