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The Fanatic and the Opportunist

What do opportunists and fanatics have in common? They both chronically exaggerate – the former often to con folks into doing their bidding, and the latter most often because they have already been conned by their own grossly distorted worldview. There are plenty of both types of people in today’s America, and the uncertain political environment has brought a lot of them out of the woodwork. The recent marriage of convenience of the National Rifle Association (NRA) leadership (fanatics) and Donald Trump (opportunist) is a case in point.

The Fanatic

The NRA is one of the country’s most influential advocacy organizations, with a membership of over 3 million. Its worldview, which can be neatly summed up as “freedom equals unrestricted gun ownership,” almost certainly carries weight beyond its membership numbers. In the wilds of places such as Minnesota, Wyoming and Alabama, NRA principles might carry more weight than the Bible.

Wayne LaPierre is the executive vice president of the NRA and Chris Cox is its executive director for Legislative Action. LaPierre and Cox are typical of NRA stalwarts and we can see them as representative of a good percentage of the organization’s members. On 20 May 2016 both men gave speeches before the NRA convention in Kentucky announcing the association’s endorsement of Donald Trump for president. In his speech Cox spent a lot of time painting a picture of the United States as a place about to lose its “freedoms” if Hillary Clinton gets elected. Here is how he put it: the present political environment in the U.S. is mired in “dishonesty, corruption and contempt for everyday Americans” and the only thing that stands between those “everyday Americans” and “the end of individual freedom in this country” are “gun owners,” who must turn out to vote “in droves this fall.”

Wayne LaPierre painted a similar crisis picture, again emphasizing that it is only the country’s gun owners who stand in the way of catastrophe. Here is how he put it: “We in this room, we are America’s best hope, and this is our moment. In all of history, there’s always been a time and a place when patriots stand up and rise up against the decree of the elites and shout, ‘No more! Get your hands off my freedom!’… That time and place is now. … The revolution to take America back starts here.”

Hillary Clinton was characterized as a “corrupt politician” whose “policies and Supreme Court picks would destroy individual freedoms, and therefore destroy the America we all love.” According to Cox, Clinton’s vision of the U.S. is a place “where only law enforcement has guns and everything is free: free meals, free health care, free education.” It seems Cox has a real distaste for free access to anything that does not have lethal potential. He likens a society that provides no-cost availability to the items he lists to a prison.

As these sentiments suggest, the NRA’s notion of freedom is harshly reductionist and based on its members’ own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That interpretation is discussed in Part IV below. For the NRA, freedom is the right to own and carry a gun of any type. All other freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are secondary, probably because without the right to own large numbers of assault rifles, the population cannot defend itself against an American government allegedly bent on dictatorship. Assigning such an exaggerated importance to the right to bear any arms is, of course, a gross distortion of the concept of freedom and demonstrates “contempt” for the ability of U.S. society to function based on the rule of law.

The NRA stalwarts live and breathe this exaggeration. There is something pathological going on here, for their obsession with gun ownership has also spun out conspiracy theories about looming oppression. There is here a general inability to analyze, in any reasonable way, the political and social environment around them. In other words, the NRA devotees are fanatics.

The Opportunist

The speeches of LaPierre and Cox laid the groundwork for the introduction of Donald Trump – now the NRA’s endorsed candidate for president. Trump’s appearance at the NRA convention marked his official  acceptance of the organization’s exaggerated reductionist position. Actually, it was but a culmination – months before, Trump had discarded his more moderate position and, upon launching his campaign for the presidency, almost immediately adopted the NRA’s stance.

Now on stage at the Kentucky convention, he started off with what has become his characteristic patter for things he finds convenient to endorse: “I love the NRA. I love the Second Amendment.” Then he moved on to, essentially, parrot Cox and LaPierre: “The Second Amendment is under a threat like never before. Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun … candidate ever to run for office. And, as I said before, she wants to abolish the Second Amendment. She wants to take your guns away. She wants to abolish it.” All of this is a mixture of lies and gross exaggeration. In addition, Trump pledged to “get rid of gun-free zones” because that will make us safer. Trump has claimed that if we all went around armed, the death toll during the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris would have been lower. At this point the Huffington Post contacted a number of Trump hotels and found that, lo and behold, most of them remain “gun-free zones.”

The truth is that Trump is an opportunist and a chronic exaggerator. You might say that all politicians fit this bill. However, here we are dealing with a matter of degree, and most the key word is “chronic.” Trump’s practice in this regard is habitual and therefore may be pathological as well.

It is to be noted that this habit of persistently stretching the truth to the breaking point does not make Trump a fanatic. In fact, it causes his thinking and rhetoric to be all over the map. He even tells us that he values “unpredictability,” and this means he is often inconsistent as to how and what he exaggerates. It’s an orientation that precludes fanaticism but lends itself naturally to opportunism.

Just What does the Second Amendment Say?

As mentioned above, the NRA has its own peculiar interpretation of the Second Amendment. This piece of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The amendment has two parts, the first part contextualizing the second. The first part reads, “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” The term “militia” here is the late 18th century American way of referring to the military forces of the thirteen states then in the process of becoming the United States. These militias were not private organizations but were controlled by their respective “free State.” That is what “well regulated” meant. The second part implies that these militias were to be democratically derived, that is, the “People” were to “bear arms” so a “well regulated militia” is possible. In other words, the “right to bear arms” is not open-ended or unregulated. It is tied to the maintenance of a regulated, democratically constituted armed force.

Nonetheless, what the NRA and other gun fanatics do is simply drop the contextualizing first part from their interpretation of the amendment. Having done so they are conveniently left with “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” They put all their emphasis on this second part which, now taken out of context, inevitably distorts the meaning of the Amendment as a whole.

This is the kind of thing that both fanatics and opportunists are good at, and what comes so easily to them – the twisting of a text, and often reality itself, to conform to their point of view.

How long will the marriage of convenience between the opportunist Donald Trump and the fanatics of the NRA last? Well, that is really up to Trump, the self-styled unpredictable one. Fanatics rarely change, but opportunists are always playing the odds.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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