Donald Trump stepped onstage at the National Rifle Association summit in Kentucky on Friday moments after the gun lobby announced it was endorsing him for president. The presumptive Republican nominee suggested the news was a surprise, even to him. “I did not know that,” he said, adding with a smile, “I knew I was doing well.” What followed was 30-odd minutes of rambling paranoia during which Trump suggested Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment and flood the streets with violent criminals released from prison. His remarks were greeted with thunderous applause and the occasional standing ovation from the crowd.
“I will not let you down,” Trump declared at the outset. “Remember that: I will not let you down.” Moments later, while bragging about how much his sons know about firearms, Trump made the type of comment that might have had some in the crowd wondering about that promise. “They have so many rifles, so many guns that even I get a little concerned,” he said of his sons, a remark that might reasonably be heard as a suggestion that there is such a thing as too many guns, an opinion akin to NRA heresy. The audience, though, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. That may be because the lobby’s leaders had already gone to great lengths to rally the crowd behind Trump by casting Clinton as a big-government, freedom-destroying boogeywoman.
The event opened with the NRA’s executive director Chris Cox and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre giving their own speeches, and both played the stop-Hillary unity card early and often. LaPierre, a man who stood in front of cameras after Newtown and blamed pretty much everything but guns for causing the mass murder of 20 first-graders, may have even out-Trumped Trump when it came to playing the greatest anti-Clinton hits. “If she could, Hillary would ban every gun, destroy every magazine … and put your name on a government registration list,” LaPierre declared. In no particular order he also mentioned: her email server, her Goldman Sachs speeches, Benghazi, “Hollywood elites,” “media elites,” Democratic superdelegates, and even the Obama administration’s push to allow trans people to use the bathroom of their choice (something Clinton hasn’t actually explicitly endorsed but that LaPierre suggested would be one of her top priorities). His common theme echoed Trump’s campaign slogan. “Our country, and what it stands for, is disappearing,” LaPierre said.
This was the ideal warm-up act for Trump, who was, as usual, a mess of contradictions and vague bluster. An incomplete sampling: A man whose hotels and clubs are gun-free zones stood on stage at a convention hall that was a gun-free zone and promised to end gun-free zones once and for all. At another point, he boasted about how he was getting better at using a teleprompter before mocking President Obama for using one of his own. “You’d be surprised how much I know about Kentucky,” Trump said before going on to talk about West Virginia and Indiana. He told the crowd that he brought along prepared remarks because his thoughts on guns were “so important to me I wrote it down,” but often strayed from those remarks, because I guess they weren’t important enough to him to actually read. At another point, he went off on a secondary tangent and never finished his original one about what he would do with the concealed weapon he says he carries on occasion in the event a protester ever hits him. He also cherry-picked a few recent national polls to suggest he’s the favorite come November, and talked about coal miners so many times you’d almost be forgiven for thinking this was an NMA event, not an NRA one.
But it was the NRA, proving once again that for all the #NeverTrump talk of the past year, conservative interest groups will fall in line when the other option is a Democrat. Trump can’t have been the NRA’s first choice for the GOP nomination. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, the billionaire voiced support for banning some assault weapons and generally tried to stake out some space between conservatives and a liberal straw man. (“Democrats want to confiscate all guns, which is a dumb idea because only the law-abiding citizens would turn in their guns and the bad guys would be the only ones left armed,” he wrote. “The Republicans walk the NRA line and refuse even limited restrictions.”) And following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Trump took to Twitter to say that “President Obama spoke for me and every American” during his post-shooting remarks, which included a call for more gun control.
But after jumping into the 2016 race, Trump made a hard turn to the right. In the immediate wake of the mass school shooting in Oregon this past October, Trump brushed off the very idea of addressing gun violence by suggesting success was impossible. Shortly after, he began to sound like an NRA talking point by explicitly blaming gun restrictions for gun-related deaths, both in Paris and in the United States, a claim he repeated again on Friday.
Perhaps more importantly for a man still needing to win over those skeptical of his conservative bona fides, Trump—and the NRA executives—talked repeatedly about the Supreme Court. “The Second Amendment is on the ballot in November,” Trump declared after warning that Clinton, if given the chance, would stack the high court with anti-gun justices. He also called on his rival to release her own shortlist of SCOTUS nominees so voters could compare it with the one he drew up this week, promising the difference between the two would be “night and day,” which was probably the truest thing he said all afternoon—and the most effective.
As I’ve noted before, Democrats tell themselves that the chance to replace the late Antonin Scalia will energize their base, and it likely will. But so too will it fire up conservatives who will spend the summer being warned of all they will lose if Clinton is given the chance to replace their conservative hero with a liberal villain. On Friday, Trump and his new friends at the NRA did just that.
“If we don’t show up at the polls in force this November, we will witness … the end of individual freedom in this country,” Cox said. “That’s not hyperbole. It’s the truth. But first, we’ve got to get together. It’s time to unite.”