“I want you to know that we will support your two children in the way that you will not.”
That was Emma González, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings, speaking to Dana Loesch, the spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, at a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening. González made the comment as a lead-up to a question about the NRA’s position on semiautomatic weapons, and on the modifications that so effortlessly increase those weapons’ capacity to kill. Loesch, however, wasn’t at the town hall to talk about the guns that are used to murder; she was there to talk about the problems of the people (“people who are crazy,” she repeatedly emphasized) who use the guns to do the murdering. She was also there, she suggested, to soothe. She was there to protect. She was there to be motherly to a group of kids who are grieving.
After congratulating González and her fellow students for their activism—“think of how far you all could go,” she said, magnanimously, maternally, “as a result of voicing your beliefs”—Loesch replied to González’s question with a comment about her own status as a concerned mom: “I have kids, and I’m not just fighting for my kids, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for all of you. Because I don’t want anyone to ever be in this position again.”
It was a remarkable exchange. Confronted with weaponized childhood—the survivors-turned-activists, savvily using their youth to their political advantage—Loesch, the NRA’s “telegenic warrior,” parried in kind, emphasizing her own identity as a mother, as a caregiver, as a nurturer. (I’m not just fighting for my kids, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for all of you.) The woman, as a torch-bearing protector of American values. Loesch’s reply to González summoned a longstanding truism in American politics: motherhood, as a moral force. Motherhood, as a political argument. Moms, making their case—women, raising the next generation of (male) civic leaders—for suffrage. Maternal sacrifice, bringing the weight of empathy to movements for peace during wartime. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Moms Demand Action.
And, now, a national spokesperson for the NRA—a woman, a mom—claiming to demand her own kind of action. Claiming to do that quintessentially maternal thing: defending the defenseless.
But Emma González has been defending herself. The Parkland survivor and mourner and activist, along with her fellow survivors/mourners/activists, has been speaking out not merely against Loesch, as a representative of the American gun lobby, but also against a generation of adults who have failed in their duty to protect young people: in Parkland. In Newtown. In Sanford. In Ferguson. I want you to know that we will support your two children in the way that you will not. The generation coming of age right now is a cohort for whom mass murder has been a constant presence and constant threat; it is one that has watched as the national response to the slaughter of children has become steadily ritualized. Adults, González suggested, have failed children; it is thus now up to the children to advocate for themselves. Youth—its passion, its technological savvy, its innocence, its righteous outrage—is now adopting the mantle of moral force.
It’s fitting that, this week, Dana Loesch became the target of that declaration: Loesch herself has long woven the logic of femininity, and of motherhood specifically, into her defenses of the Second Amendment. Her career in journalism began with “Mamalogues,” a blog she wrote about her home-schooling of her two sons. Before becoming the NRA’s national spokesperson last year, Loesch served as a special adviser for the organization—focusing on women’s policy issues—and she has often framed gun regulation, as a political specter, as an affront to the particular freedoms of American women. (Loesch in 2014: “Gun control is also sexist, because women are the ones who are most greatly disenfranchised when they are disarmed.”) The pundit Michelle Malkin’s assessment of Loesch’s 2014 book, Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America, effuses, “WARNING: This book is explosive! Mother, wife, New Media warrior, and political sharpshooter Dana Loesch confronts the ultimate war on women: gun control.”
This is a very particular interpretation, of course, of the “war on women.” But Loesch’s own interpretation is similarly particular. Loesch, wearing an Al Bundy–esque “NO MA’AM” t-shirt, once appeared on Fox Business to ask, “What rights do women not have that men have? None of them have been able to answer that question. What rights do these feminists not have that men do?” In one of her online bios, she describes herself as conversant in “anti-feminism”; she participated in the current iteration of #MeToo via a tweetstorm that declared, in part, “If ‘inequality’ was truly a concern for modern feminists, they’d defend, not shame, women for making choices antithetical 2 progressivism.”
At the same time, Loesch has used the semantics of progressive feminism to make her arguments for guns. She talks, often, about empowerment. She talks about “women’s rights.” At the CNN town hall where she sparred with Emma González, Loesch also suggested that guns, were they more commonly carried by women, could help would-be victims of sexual assault to fend off their attackers. (The implication is false.) She declared, during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, “We will not be gaslighted”—gaslighted, that shibboleth of the left—“into thinking that we are responsible for a tragedy that we had nothing to do with.” During the same appearance, Loesch reported that audience members at the CNN town hall the night before had rushed the stage screaming, “Burn her!”—a complaint that framed Loesch not just as a victim of progressive politics, but also as an embodiment of that classically tragic figure of feminism: the outspoken woman, punished by the angry mob for her refusal to stop speaking her mind.
This week, as well, Loesch attempted to co-opt feminist theories of intersectionality to advance her particular interpretation of “women’s rights.” During her CPAC appearance on Thursday, while mocking the American press—a now-classic NRA move, the First Amendment pitted provocatively against the Second—Loesch accused the media of exploiting mass shootings. “You guys love it,” she said, glaring at the conference ballroom’s press gallery. “Now, I’m not saying that you love the tragedy. But I am saying that you love the ratings. Crying white mothers are ratings gold to you and many in the legacy media in the back.”
She added: “And notice I said ‘crying white mothers’—because there are thousands of grieving black mothers in Chicago every weekend, and you don’t see town halls for them, do you? Where’s the CNN town hall for Chicago? Where’s the CNN town hall for sanctuary cities?”
“Thousands” is false. And MSNBC, last year, produced a Chicago-focused town hall. But the facts here are, evidently, not the point. The rhetoric is. The emotion is. The maternal identity is. The key word, in Loesch’s CPACian call to arms—as it has been in so many of her other public appearances—is “mothers.” Crying mothers. Grieving mothers. Helpless mothers. Mothers who live, as we all do, in a dark world of constant threat and lurking danger—a world of us and them, of battles that will either be bravely fought or ceded to the enemy. Mothers whose interests, in that omni-raging war, will be faithfully defended, Loesch insisted, by the National Rifle Association.
Loesch, for a long time, could make those assertions unimpeded. Motherhood and moms themselves are, after all, extremely hard to argue against. And it was not that long ago that the NRA was a lobbying organization like many others, doing the political bidding of gun manufacturers in the shadowed and vaguely abashed way that is traditional of the practice. As the NRA has become more and more public-facing, though—more and more performative, more and more present as a participant in the mass media it claims to resent—it has embraced its own strain of identity politics: a way of life, currently under threat. Freedoms that can be yanked away at any moment. Loesch has embodied that transformation. She has been a woman and a mother, working on behalf, she has said, of fellow women, of fellow mothers, of children. I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for you, I’m fighting for all of you.
This week, though, a group of kids, armed with their own anger, asserted their own ability to fight. They insisted that they do not need to be spoken for, because they can speak so well for themselves. And: They declared that they are the ones, now, who are the protectors of the common good. “When adults tell me I have the right to own a gun,” Emma González said, “all I can hear is my right to own a gun outweighs your student’s right to live. All I hear is mine, mine, mine, mine.”