Conversations with Charlie (11/15/2021)

Conversation 9:

Charlie’s Monday’s podcast had him talking with Tim Mak, Washington investigative reporter for NPR  (Nov. 15, 2021).

The main topic of discussion was Mak’s new book, Backfire, detailing the recent sudden downturn in the fortunes of the National Rifle Association or NRA.


But, before he got to that talk, Charlie had some thoughts to share, starting with the admission that whether we like it or not we are continuing to live in abnormal times.

He thinks this is part of why things still feel stuck in Washington DC and the country, because we, as a nation, are trying, those who are, to govern in a rather normal fashion that is perhaps no longer possible and potentially a mistake.

The illustration Charlie offers is a kind of split screen from Monday with on one hand President Joe Biden signing the Bipartisan Infrastructure deal, the normal, and on the other hand is Steve Bannon turning himself into the FBI in a manufactured circus centered around his brazen defiance of the rule of law.

Something is still not normal; it is perhaps needed for those still trying to govern and keep America together to realize this new reality and push back before Bannon and others like him flood the media room with shit.


Enter Tim Mak to discuss his book. Similar coverage has been coming out for a while now about the struggles plaguing the NRA. Season 2 of the podcast series Gangster Capitalism specifically investigated the early rumblings of the trouble coming for the NRA during the Trump years.

These should have been their high point, but being who and what they have become, the ascendancy of a Republican president actually means a decline in donations and fundraising. The fear of the Democrats and their gun legislation is not just there. And that is the problem: Money.

The NRA is about money and making money and lavish spending by those privileged at the top, like Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. 

This is not what they were founded to be, but this is what they have become.

The negative fallout of this shift is that for the first time in its 150-year history the NRA is enduring its worse crisis. 

Corruption and reports of it coming out are leading to infighting and revolts in the membership who are challenging the leadership of LaPierre and others on the Board of Directors.

The corruption and financial mismanagement has produced scandals that have opened the door, as of 2018 when the organization was almost unable to make payroll, to investigation by the New York City DA who is now seeking to dissolve the non-profit organization.

As Mak notes, and as it has been revealed by other reports, a lot of this decline and conflict centers around the unlikely character of Wayne LaPierre. In particular, many of the scandals focus on his lavish and extravagant spending, as well as that of his wife, of Wayne and other top board members. 

Those seeking to maintain the organization and right the ship are running into the reality that much of the NRA’s financials are, in fact, a black box. It is incredibly hard to tell what is going on inside and just how deep, thanks to the black box nature, the corruption runs.

Mak’s book ends up detailing much about Wayne LaPierre, including the weird events of his own wedding that he nearly ran away from but was kind of bullied into by his bride and now wife, as a figure in the organization.

The consensus is that he is terribly awkward, weird, weak willed, and a terrible hunter. His character, for Mak, is a crucial point for understanding the decline of the organization because LaPierre is NOT a strong leader, but a weak one, but more important and malleable one who people keep around to feed of the teat of the NRA’s money.

LaPierre is the useful idiot and stooge people want around so the corruption can keep on happening. He is perfect for that role.

For those, like former NRA President Oliver North (LaPierre’s friend) and other reformers, he is a signal of the mismanagement and a hinderance to reforms. This struggle is what broke out in 2019 when North wanted to have a financial audit of the NRA performed.

LaPierre and others pushed North out.

So, how did it get here?

Charlie asks Mak to give him a timeline and it is one that goes back to 1999 and the shooting at Columbine High School.


TIMELINE

1999-

LaPierre and other members, on a conference call, openly mocked many of their “crazy” members who were so diehard as not to care about what had happened at Columbine, which was 10 miles from where the NRA’s convention was scheduled to meet.

The driving fear was that they did not, the leadership, want to appear weak.

They also showed a real contempt for members of their own organization, despite the fact that these were their most loyal donors and could be counted on to mobilize outrage to fundraise.

In the end, the NRA adopted a defiant stance when it came to tragic events involving guns and has maintained this ever since. Their mantra was to never show weakness.

Flashforward

2012 –

NRA response to the Sandy Hook School shooting, which the Mak pinpoints as a real turning point in the NRA decline. Charlie points out that this and the NRA response was  a real breaking point for him with the organization.

There was a short-lived effort, working with Sen. Joe Manchin (D) and Pat Toomey (R) to craft a bipartisan gun legislation act. NRA helped work in crafting it but after some internal struggles and tensions between their lobbying (pro-bill) and fundraising (anti-bill) arms, turned against the legislation.

The NRA turns harder into embracing those people they derided in the 1999 conference call, the fundraising arm is raking in the money after Sandy Hook because the organization turns of the fear rhetoric. It is not just about the 2nd Amendment and gun rights anymore, now it becomes about all rights; all freedoms of NRA members and admirers are under threat from the government. That is the new line.

The shift in 2012 was more away from directly about gun rights and legislation to a full embrace of culture wars.


Now, the term culture wars is rather vague and not always clear, but there have been running variations on them for decades if not centuries. It basically boils down to social and political struggles which try to decide the direction of a nation’s culture on a large swath of issues. James Davision Hunter wrote one of the definitive books on the issue 30 years ago, but it is now, just continuing to get worse and worse.


After 2012, the NRA waded into the culture wars. It positioned itself as the defense, the bulwark protecting gun owners from the government, but not just on guns but on all forms of freedoms they claimed were under attack.

This was the time and birth of NRA TV, which had shows taking on all kinds of issues, not just guns. This was itself a big expense that ultimately failed to capture real viewership and ended up being a money pit. 

2019 –

Now we return to the accusations of malfeasance that bubbled up in the NRA between LaPierre and North. Things start to get contentious. The NRA was bleeding membership and failed projects, like NRA TV, were pulling the company into bankruptcy proceedings.

The confrontation between Oliver North and Wayne LaPierre stemmed from North’s demand an audit. Wayne refused and this blew up at their own convention, North being pushed out.

At the center, Wayne LaPierre and those who use him got rich off corruption, those riches came from the NRA pushing fear.

What happens next is still to be determined.


For me, I want to linger on that idea of “pushing fear” as a major part of the NRAs message.

I cannot help but think about the Dana Loesch ad the NRA put up not long after came into office in 2017. Without necessarily realizing it yet, we apparently slipped into an Orwellian dystopia. The deeper reality is that this right here was the NRA had become. 

It is a fear machine. Those who are not with you are the enemy.

The only way forward is to fight. They say “clinched fist of truth” in the ad but this is coming from a gun organization who supposedly, used to stand for responsible gun safety and has morphed into something far more insidious instead. This ad is still up on NRA website and Facebook page.

I thought it was disturbing then, now, after what happened on Jan. 6 (and what might have happened) and continues to escalate, this kind of rhetoric is a timebomb. No one is going to defuse it I’m afraid either. 

All for now.

J C Evans


LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

The Bulwark Podcast: “Tim Mak: Inside the Downfall of the NRA”

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