Political ads in America are a fascinating and yet painfully predictable form of social commentary. Stylistically they range from cheap aesthetics reminiscent of home video to slick, Hollywood style creations, and in tone they vary from hokey to dark. Their purpose, however, is always the same - to influence opinion. Thus, audiences are usually treated to one of three formulas. They may be sold the virtues of a particular candidate, inspired to learn more about an issue or bill, or scared shitless by the what they’re told awaits them if the other side wins.
A recent ad from the NRA featuring right wing personality and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch lands firmly in the category of selling fear. The video was first published in April, but this week the NRA posted it on their Facebook page, leading to a wave of criticism and concern. I also first came across the ad this week when it started to make the rounds among people in my network. Loesch never mentions guns or uses language that directly promotes violence in the video, but the message is clear, liberals are the enemy and they are a direct threat.
“They use their media to assassinate real news,” Loesch begins. “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse The Resistance.”
Who are “they”? The ad never mentions anyone specifically, but given that Barack Obama is described not as the former President of the United States, but as “their” president, it’s pretty obvious that Loesch means Democrats. As the ad continues, the music becomes more ominous and images of protests around the country are shown as Loesch says:
“All to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia; to smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness. And when that happens, they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage.”
Finally we reach the crescendo, and the camera focuses on Loesch standing illuminated in front of a blue background. Her tone grows more hostile and alarmed and she tells viewers, “The only way we stop this…the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.”
And that ladies and gentlemen is how in a mere 60 seconds, you induce paranoia and convince Americans that their fellow countrymen and women are against them. This binary view of politics and divisive rhetoric is how Loesch makes a living, so it’s not at all out of character. She’s caused controversy many times over the years, including blaming the San Bernardino shooting on the “Godless left”.
Loesch’s modus operandi is to be smug, mean, and belittling to her targets. She has no problem stooping to insults about looks or lack of machismo as a means of attack. In a video posted on her twitter page responding to the “freak out” over the NRA ad, Loesch uses a mocking tone to address those bothered by the ad’s message, and tells them to “man up”, “ball up” and apologize for violence coming from the left.
The examples Loesch uses of left wing violence in her response are primarily overblown. She describes all protests as riots, and repeatedly refers to events restricted to college campuses where speakers were blocked due to student actions, or a handful of anti-fascist protesters who damaged property in Washington D.C. on the day of Trump’s Inauguration. This ad was created before the shooting targeting Republican lawmakers practicing for a Congressional softball game. That tragic and senseless act of violence, Loesch oddly doesn’t mention in her response. Maybe it’s because that’s the only example where a gun was used and people were hurt and therefore doesn’t fit the NRA narrative that Americans would all be safer if they had more lethal weapons.
The “clenched fist of truth” called for in the NRA ad, Loesch explains in her follow up video, is a reference to the imagery used by “The Resistance” - a general term embraced by those opposed to President Trump and the policies of his administration. The fist has a long history as a symbol of solidarity against oppression, but these days is used by almost anyone and everyone. For example, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump made the gesture while on the campaign trail.
Loesch’s tactics are standard for those attempting to discredit peaceful movements. She paints with a broad brush, using the actions of a few to label millions of people as the violent “they”. The hypocrisy of ignoring right wing violence, or the NRA’s silence on the death of legal gun owner Philando Castile at the hands of police, is obvious. And the dismissal of grievances people are protesting over, like the devaluation of black lives, encroachments on women’s reproductive rights, travel bans based on religion, and many more, is again typical for a person who leans heavily into partisanship to grow her personal brand. Loesch makes a living by being a right wing outrage machine, yet condemns the left for their outrage. Doesn’t quite make sense, does it?
Finally, one of the primary arguments that Loesch uses to defend her video is that she is denouncing violence, whereas the “other side” knows no other means of public discourse. Isn’t it ironic then that she chose to make this statement in an ad for the NRA? Why use a platform of an organization that refuses any kind of dialogue in the face of mass shootings and gun deaths, to call for peace?
Advocating for unity is of course the opposite of what this ad does. While not all agree that it promotes violence, there is no question that it heightens tensions and sows discord, manipulating viewers into believing everything is an us vs them battle for American values. That mindset, in an of itself, is dangerous and debilitating to democracy. Propagating culture wars may pay the bills and create fame for someone like Loesch, but it does nothing to bring us closer to a “clenched fist of truth”.