Eight concerned Americans sit around a coffee table and talk about entertainment. One says he stopped paying for cable when everything started “turning left.” Another is upset that his young daughter watches reality shows about teen pregnancy. “There’s a war for our culture,” says Tim Clemente, a former counterterrorism expert turned TV producer. “And it’s led by Hollywood.”
No one mentions guns, but they don’t have to. The coffee klatch was sponsored by Sig Sauer firearms, and the discussion took place in front of the National Rifle Association logo. This is a scene from Defending Our America, Season 2, Episode 5, a production of NRATV. Launched in late 2016, the online television platform of the powerful gun-rights lobby comprises two live news channels and 34 taped shows, all sponsored by gunmakers.
The NRA’s primary tool of influence remains campaign spending: it shelled out more than $54 million to help lift President Donald Trump and pro-gun-rights lawmakers during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it has long sought to spread its message through media as well. Its magazine, the American Rifleman, dates to 1923, and in 2004 the group started its own news company focused mostly on radio broadcasts. Now, with NRATV, it is trying to use viral video segments and shareable online content to sway ordinary Americans.
The goal appears to be to encourage a sense of shared identity around gun ownership. (The NRA declined multiple requests to comment.) As NRATV’s programming suggests, that identity has become about more than just personal protection, hunting or marksmanship. In an increasingly polarized America, a firearm is a symbol of its owner’s cultural values. “They don’t always talk about gun issues,” says Robert Spitzer, an NRA member and professor at SUNY Cortland who has written five books about gun policy. “It’s about beliefs and how people view the world.”
If NRATV is devoted to defining the gun owner’s identity, its programming does so in some unexpected ways. Sure, its segments are anti–Black Lives Matter, pro-cop, antimedia and pro-Trump. And, yes, they’ve picked fights with the Women’s March and the New York Times. But NRATV also features more welcoming content, such as stories of teenage girls gaining confidence through shooting and a middle-aged couple whose marriage is strengthened by a shared passion for hunting. In one episode, NRATV’s Colion Noir explores which gun would work best against the zombies in the AMC series The Walking Dead.
NRATV also makes an effort to bring more women, minorities and LGBTQ people into the fold, often borrowing the language of the left. After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, NRATV urged LGBTQ Americans to arm themselves against hate crimes. Commentator Dana Loesch hailed firearms training as a form of feminism, suggesting that armed self-defense is “what real empowerment looks like.” When Black Lives Matter criticized the NRA for failing to defend the gun rights of Philando Castile, a black man killed by a Minnesota police officer during a 2016 traffic stop, Noir, who is African American, argued that tighter gun laws would lead cops to “lock up even more black men” and perpetuate mass incarceration. “The NRA isn’t the one telling me I shouldn’t own guns because I’m black–white liberal politicians are,” says Noir in a July video. “That, my friends, is white supremacy.”
The overriding message is that the NRA identity is under attack. There’s a tone of simmering indignation and a sense of persecution that curdles into hostility toward government, media and other cultural institutions. “Their hateful defiance of [Trump’s] legitimacy is an insult to each of us,” Loesch says in one video. “But the ultimate insult is that they think we’re so stupid that we’ll let them get away with it.”
The same attention to populist resentments helped lift the President into office, a powerful sense that it’s us against them. “They’re mimicking the messaging content of Trump support, of Breitbart and of Steve Bannon,” says Spitzer. “They’re adapting themselves to the culture-war text of the moment.”
This appears in the November 27, 2017 issue of TIME.
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