NRATV, the online streaming service of the National Rifle Association, first impinged upon me in July of last year. There she was one morning, on my computer screen: a dark-haired woman giving off a blue-white afterlife aura, against a black background, chanting a strange and vehement rosary of disdain: “They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler.” The invective accelerated. Scurrying violins were heard, electro doom-clangs. “They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.” Then a fast-cut, black-and-white montage of societal crisis: broken glass, street scuffles, someone bleeding. “All to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia.” They, they, they; them, them, them. Scorn on her lips, scorn flaming in the hollows of her throat. “To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding … The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” This was pure brimstone. Less a diatribe, or an oratorical flight, than “an invitation”—as the novelist Mary Gaitskill once described the voice of Axl Rose—“to step into an electrical stream of pure aggression.” And who was this swaying, sneering, smolderingly glamorous woman? She looked like the villainess on a daytime soap—the one who steals the baby or pretends to have multiple personalities. “I’m the National Rifle Association of America. And I’m freedom’s safest place.”
That was Dana Loesch, an NRA national spokesperson and currently the raven-winged avatar of NRATV. Launched in 2016 as an expansionist reboot of NRA News, NRATV is a free, very well-designed, and smoothly navigable video-streaming website sponsored mainly by gun and ammunition manufacturers—Mossberg, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer. It offers a spectrum of programming that runs from harmless and hobbyistic gun-nuttery at one end to face-melting propaganda at the other. Fifty percent lifestyle channel, 50 percent gun-lobby orifice, 100 percent tone poem to the radical insecurity of modern American life, it aims to make you purchase firearms.
In the days after the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.—at which Samantha Fuentes, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, made the event’s most eloquent and incontestable statement by throwing up in the middle of a poem named “Enough!”—I spent a little time watching NRATV. Loesch is all over it, either monologizing savagely to the camera or nodding in vituperative agreement with her fellow members of the NRATV commentariat. It’s a heavy crew, doing heavy work: Grant Stinchfield, Cam Edwards, Colion Noir, and others, all squinting into the cultural headwinds, all facing down the storm of indecency, all rebutting, rebutting, reframing, and rebutting. Are they entirely wrong all the time? Of course not. I watched the ex–Secret Service big mouth Dan Bongino, for example, rather neatly pop a momentary liberal outrage-bubble over Sean Hannity’s use of the phrase civil war. “This country is headed towards a civil war in terms of two sides that are just hating each other,” Hannity had said on his god-awful radio show, prompting the usual howls. In rebuttal, Bongino offered a montage of talking heads from CNN and MSNBC, all blandly characterizing the current scene as a blah-blah “civil war.” Touché, Dan Bongino: When Hannity says it, it’s incitement; when Carl Bernstein says it, it’s … sociology.
I started my foray gently, with a show called NRA Gun Gurus: a white-gloved Jim Supica, from the NRA National Sporting Arms Museum, telling the story of the turn-of-the-century lawman Bass Reeves, “a master tracker, a deadly good shot, and one of the first African-American U.S. deputy marshals west of the Mississippi.” This is educational stuff: Reeves worked for “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker out of Fort Smith, Arkansas—Rooster Cogburn territory, if I’m not mistaken. Reeves liked his six-gun, Supica said, but in the clutch he preferred his Winchester, which fired an “authoritative, fight-stopping cartridge.”
Next: Dom Raso’s Media + Lab. Raso is a pumped and affable ex-seal with a rattling verbal style. “Now that I’m out,” he puffs in the show’s intro, “I get tons of people asking me all the time about their favorite TV shows and movies, what’s realistic and what isn’t. Well, there’s only one way to find out.” Excellent premise: Worn down by the queries of barstool yappers and armchair Chuck Norrises, Raso and his martial-arts bros patiently, blow for blow and clip for clip, refight and reality-test famous action moments. “That scene was completely BS,” he opines on some big blowout in The Rock. Then he turns, brightening, to a sequence from The Bourne Legacy in which Jeremy Renner nimbly immobilizes three security guards at a dodgy pharmaceutical plant in Manila. (Verdict: “It was awesome, to show you that position is everything.”)
Feeling somewhat adrift, I took in a few episodes of the first season of Defending Our America. Now, this was more like it. Sort of an NRA version of The View: a group of men—law enforcement, former intelligence—gathered around a table in somebody’s basement or bunker to discuss, in grave, late-night voices, the imminent collapse of everything and the woeful unpreparedness of everybody. Zombies go unmentioned, but gangs, predators, and “criminal elements” are gruffly pondered. “If it decides to go sideways, you have to be able to take care of yourself,” says Tom (khaki shirt and trapper’s beard). “When the shit hits the fan, I’m going with my family,” says Jerry (buzz cut and boxer’s nose). Sober noddings around the table, grimaces of assent—these are good guys, tough guys, useful guys, dads; in almost any kind of sideways-going situation, you’d want these guys around. And far be it from me to scoff at an apocalyptic intuition. You hear that thin rending note in the air, that doomsday thrill? Me too. It’s the poetry of Trump-time. The grid will fall; the router will stop blinking; the membrane of manners will dissolve. Pandemonium in the Amtrak quiet car. But come on. There’s something indulgent, even weirdly complacent, in the basement catastrophism of these dudes. This must be what the author Djuna Barnes meant when she wrote that Americans are a “fierce sadistic race crouching behind radiators.”
If you want a shortcut to the heart of NRATV, to the mystical, infernal core of the whole operation, click on the NRA Hunting channel and watch Trust the Hunter in Your Blood, a series of … I don’t know what to call these. Sermons? Visions? Ads? One-minute spots, at any rate, featuring wilderness vistas, stirring music, and some truly trippy spoken word. “Only one project embraces death as the absolute that it is,” breathes a voice like crawling lava, as the camera soars above cliffs and forests. “Only one project confronts the absurdity by its very nature.” He means hunting, I think. Good to be a hunter in the fresh air. Bad to be an “anti-hunter.” Bad to be too civilized. That geologic voice again: “Contrived emotions flood from their air-conditioned, glass-paneled, Wi-Fi-enabled habitats.” (Slight problem: If your habitat isn’t Wi-Fi enabled, you can’t watch NRATV.)
Who writes this stuff? I posed the question to a friend of mine. “Ah,” he said dismissively, “the same bunch of potheads who write everything else.” He was only speculating, but I envisioned it all. I saw the NRATV writers’ room—no true believers in there, just the usual gamers, bearded weirdies, post-ideological PowerBar nibblers in the usual atmosphere of molecular lassitude and fitful static, dankly high-fiving when an especially bananas line pops out: “Your humanity is not a disease to be cured by the manufactured guilt of the nonsense-stricken tortured souls among us, or a perversion to be purged from your DNA.” Yeah!
True belief exists, no doubt, over at NRATV. Right alongside true cynicism. Because this is how you sell guns—with that old song, that American standard. You know how it goes: It’s a paranoid’s lullaby. Above us are the elites with their champagne and free jazz; below us, the suppurating underclass. Also terrorists, sex traffickers, drug cartels, and shiftless migrants. It works, this song. It makes teenage girls throw up in the middle of poems.
This article appears in the June 2018 print edition with the headline “Live-Streaming the Apocalypse.”