It’s a long-standing joke among journalists that the go-to political headline in a pinch is: “Democrats in disarray.” Somewhere, somehow, it’s probably true.
So it’s a change of pace that recent reports amply justify the headline “NRA in Disarray.” Accounts about the organization’s financial crisis and internal dysfunction confirm what many of us have suspected: The National Rifle Association is a racket that stokes fear, aggravates our country’s divisions and blocks reasoned debate about gun violence to feather the nests of the conservative elite. A self-dealing class exploits the anxieties of Americans far removed from power and turns the Second Amendment into a money machine. No wonder President Donald Trump loves the NRA so much.
The most revelatory detail in the latest of these stories, a helpfully extensive investigation this week by Danny Hakim in The New York Times, concerns the fashion habits of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime chief executive. Hakim reports that LaPierre billed the organization that claims to speak for the heartland $275,000 “for purchases at the Zegna luxury men’s wear boutique in Beverly Hills.”
Unlike LaPierre, I’m just an unsophisticated real American because I have never even heard of the Zegna luxury men’s wear boutique. Must be nice to have your lifestyle financed by the people you spend your time scaring to death. The biggest falsehood: Shameful claims that high school students and grieving parents who plead for more effective gun laws pose a dire threat to the way of life of our country’s small town and rural areas.
Yes, it will be delightful to watch this pack of hypocritical demagogues gag on their counterfeit anti-elitist rhetoric as their organization faces fiscal and reputational embarrassment. It also will be useful to learn more about why they seemed so eager to seek the favor of Russia and Vladimir Putin, how they funneled income to favored insiders, and why so many conservative politicians and activists have prostrated themselves before this golden calf erected to hallow high-capacity weapons.
The NRA gang has had a falling out. That’s why we are getting so much new information as one bunch leaks against another. And we’ll learn more about the the NRA’s sketchy internal workings because New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating its tax-exempt status.
People abroad who wish our country well are mystified about why we seem so unable to legislate sanely on guns. Countries that have a lot in common with ours responded to gruesome killings by changing their weapons statutes with cross-partisan support.
We are paralyzed by two things. First, the conservative movement and the GOP have been the NRA’s willing agents. The organization’s board has been a who’s who of conservative glitterati. The anti-government knows it can’t sell Americans of modest incomes on its opposition to minimum wages, corporate regulation or more progressive taxes. So they channel their arguments through the gun issue and pretend this is a culture war between, well, Beverly Hills elitists and the good folks of Middle America. It’s a big lie.
Let’s start asking the GOP’s politicians how they feel about being allied with a crowd that looks more and more like a bunch of swindlers.
And then there is the U.S. Senate, one of the most unrepresentative bodies in any democratic nation. Fact: The two Dakotas (population 1.6 million) have equal representation with New York and California (population 59.1 million). The House passed two bills in February strengthening background checks for gun purchasers, but they face a blockade in a GOP-led Senate where rural states have outsized power.
The NRA’s implosion should be an occasion for a new conversation between metropolitan and small-town America that is, in any event, much needed. The high-living gun lobbyists do not have rural America’s interests at heart. Advocates of gun safety do not disrespect fellow citizens who use guns responsibly. The real insult to them comes from the leaders who buy fancy clothes on their dime.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a columnist with The Washington Post.