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What's behind NRA TV's grotesque take on 'Thomas & Friends'

Updated 10:08 PM ET, Fri September 14, 2018

Editor's Note: Robert J. Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at SUNY Cortland, and the author of 5 books on gun policy, including "Guns across America" and "The Politics of Gun Control." The views expressed here are solely the author's. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - NRA TV host Dana Loesch seems to thrive on dog whistle controversy. Case in point: in a recent segment of her internet show "Relentless," she castigated the British cartoon series "Thomas & Friends," featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, for seeking to bring "gender balance" and "ethnic diversity" to the show.

The special focus of her ire? A tank character named Nia from Kenya who was introduced as part of the program's effort to internationalize and diversify its characters. Horrible as that may seem to Loesch, she capped her critique by displaying a doctored picture of Thomas and two of his friends in KKK hoods riding on track seen to be burning in the background.

Loesch considers the program "creepy." But next to the image of children cartoon characters in Klan outfits -- well, readers and viewers can draw their own conclusions about what constitutes "creepy." But what does Loesch's grotesque distortion of a children's cartoon have to do with gun rights? Nothing, according to the laws of common sense. But in the era of President Donald Trump, everything.

This tale begins with the NRA's early and fulsome endorsement of Trump's presidential campaign -- even before he had officially captured the nomination. That political move was significant for two reasons: first, the gun rights group has normally not made political endorsements so early in an election cycle; second, the NRA was taking a political risk because of the unorthodox nature of Trump's campaign. But the NRA's gamble hit the jackpot. Trump won the nomination, and the presidency.

The NRA has taken its culture war cues from Trump, especially through NRA TV where, according to Time magazine, "its segments are anti-Black Lives Matter, pro-cop, anti-media and pro-Trump." Add to that list that it's against Hollywood liberals and so-called coastal liberal elites, all Trump targets. The point is that it's not just guns the NRA is defending, but its way of life, its identity. If these messaging themes are good enough for the President, then why not for the NRA? Absent a demonic figure in the White House like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, here is a new focus to gin up fear, anger, and gun sales.

Despite the fact that a decade earlier, Trump had supported gun measures like the assault weapons ban and longer gun waiting periods, his conversion to NRA dogma was thorough and unwavering. But more than that, Trump's core constituencies coincided closely with that of the NRA -- especially older white males from rural areas, who are also highly likely to be gun owners.

It was a natural fit. Multiple studies have found that fears of "racial and global status threat," as political scientist Diana Mutz puts it, and fear of change in an increasingly multiethnic nation were core forces driving much of the Trump vote. This does not mean that all or even most Trump voters were racists, but that race-based fear and anxiety was nevertheless an important animating force explaining Trump's victory. NRA core supporters share many of the same beliefs.

One need look no further than Trump's obsessive condemnation of NFL players, mostly African-Americans, who chose to kneel before the start of games to protest unjust police shootings of African-Americans, to understand Trump's dog whistle race baiting. When Nike recently featured Colin Kaepernick, who led the kneeling movement, in an advertisement, Trump used it as a convenient symbol to rally his base and divert attention from the parade of scandals and missteps that have characterized his administration.

Even if one questions whether there was racial animus embedded in Trump's verbal attacks on NFL players, Trump's shocking defense of neo-Nazi protestors who demonstrated in Charlottesville in 2017 as including "some very fine people" -- and which neo-Nazis were the "fine people," I wonder? -- has to lead us to realize that Trump has carved out a safe space for virulent racists.

Admittedly, there is nothing the NRA would like more than to cultivate gun ownership and use among segments of the population that have shown little or substantially less interest in guns, including women, African-Americans, Latinos, and the LGBT community. To date, however, efforts to increase gun ownership among these groups don't seem to be yielding many gains. Surely the angry, dark, and relentlessly apocalyptic messaging that is the steady rhetorical diet of the NRA is not disposed to broaden the NRA's appeal, which goes double for its recent Trumpish foray into the culture wars.

The NRA's reaction, or lack of reaction, to recent shootings involving police and African-Americans certainly hasn't helped it broaden its base. Consider the case of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American pulled over by police outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2016. When the officer asked for the man's license and registration, Castile told the officer that he had a firearm (and was a licensed gun owner). In the car was Castile's girlfriend and young daughter. After yelling at the man to not pull out his gun, and after Castile replied that he was not, within seconds the officer fired 7 shots, killing Castile. (The officer was acquitted of manslaughter, but was removed from the force.)

For its part, the NRA has been quick to defend, in a highly public way both with words and legal assistance, civilians who were, in its view, properly exercising their gun rights -- even if authorities said otherwise. From Bernhard Goetz, the 1980s "subway vigilante" who shot four African-American youths he said were harassing him, to its fierce advocacy for expanded "stand your ground" laws that give special legal protections to people who kill others who feel threatened in public places, the NRA has been unstinting in extolling civilian gun use.

Yet in the Castile case, and despite the fact that the man wound up dead for simply exercising his so-called "gun rights," they were silent. In the culture wars debate the NRA wants to have, criticism of police, even when they mistakenly use deadly force against African-Americans, is a bridge too far -- even if invoking the KKK isn't.


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