Conservatives Are Losing the Culture War Over Guns

While Republicans have successfully blocked legislative changes, Americans’ attitudes are changing.

Dominick Reuter / AFP / Getty

Who’s winning the post-Parkland debate over guns? It depends where you look.

Legislatively, anti-gun control forces remain in control. President Donald Trump, after veering towards the NRA earlier in the week, veered away from it during a meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday. But he did something similar in January, vowing in a bipartisan meeting to legalize the immigrant “Dreamers” only to pull back as the legislative process evolved. And even if Trump remains sympathetic to modest gun-control measures, there’s no guarantee congressional Republicans will go along. Many responded negatively to his comments on Wednesday. And neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell nor House Speaker Paul Ryan have even agreed to hold a vote on measures the NRA opposes.

The climate isn’t much different outside of Washington. While some bluish states are considering tightening gun-control laws, red states like Kansas, Indiana, and South Dakota have actually responded to Parkland by making it easier to own a gun.

But shift your lens from public policy to culture, and the last two weeks look very different. More than 20 corporations, including United Airlines, Hertz, and MetLife have cut ties with the NRA. Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, two of America’s largest gun retailers, have both announced they will stop selling guns to people under the age of 21. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas gun-control activists have become national heroes, praised by numerous celebrities. And last week, at a CNN town hall, those students and their families booed NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch so loudly so that they almost drowned her out.

This bifurcation between the governmental and cultural aftermath of Parkland has had a telling impact on conservatives. They remain powerful, yet they feel under siege. The day after the CNN town hall, Loesch spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention. In 15 minutes, she barely mentioned the legislative process. Instead, she mostly discussed the ways in which journalists and corporations defame and persecute the supporters of gun rights. She accused tech companies of “chang[ing] their algorithms” and “Google rankings” in order to “suppress our speech on social media platforms.” She implied that CNN had not allowed anti-gun control “junior ROTC members” to ask questions at the town hall. She repeatedly addressed the “legacy media” covering her speech, and after claiming that they “love mass shootings,” warned that they would likely “scream at me and confront me” after her talk. She claimed that had security guards not protected her at the CNN town hall, people in the audience, “who were rushing the stage, screaming burn her,” would have threatened her life. Finally, near the end of the speech, as if to explain its focus, Loesch declared, “Always remember, always … politics is downstream from culture. It’s going to happen in culture first before it happens in politics.”

Other conservatives have echoed Loesch’s persecution narrative. Discussing the corporations cutting ties to the NRA, Rod Dreher warned in The American Conservative, “Once big business joins the social justice mob, it’s over. I’m beginning to understand now what friends who grew up in communist countries mean when they tell me that the atmosphere in the West now reminds them of their youth.” Conservative journalist Bethany Mandel called the CNN town hall “a lynch mob.” A Breitbart headline warned that, “YouTube is Shutting Down Conservative Criticism of CNN over Parkland Shooting.”

It’s odd. On the subject of guns, conservatives have dominated public policy, both in Washington and in the states, for decades. Pro-NRA Republicans run Congress, most state legislatures, most gubernatorial mansions, and the White House. Few gun-control advocates believe they can even pass a new version of the assault-weapons ban they passed in 1994. Yet by focusing on culture, not policy, conservatives over the last two weeks have told themselves that their most basic freedoms—not merely their right to own a gun, but their rights to free speech and perhaps life itself—are at risk.

This dynamic isn’t unique to guns. It’s how American politics now works. Even when conservatives win elections and pass laws, they look at the trend among cultural elites—the media, Hollywood, universities, even corporations—and feel like they’re losing. Even as they gain more political power, their declining cultural power makes them feel threatened and despised. Which makes them easy prey for people like Trump.

Consider how different the last 18 months look culturally as opposed to politically. In November 2016, Republicans won the White House and both branches of Congress, a power they have now leveraged to rebuild a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Republicans control both branches of 32 state legislatures compared to the Democrats’ 13, the largest edge for either party in decades. Since Trump’s election, Congress has massively cut taxes and boosted defense spending. Trump himself has slashed government regulation, hyper-charged immigration enforcement, and withdrawn America from the Paris climate agreement.

Contrast that with what the last 18 months have brought culturally: the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment. The Boy Scouts’ decision to admit girls. Football players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. The mass removal of Confederate statues. For every political victory, conservatives have suffered a cultural loss.

Trump has exacerbated this discrepancy but he’s also its product. His election was, in large measure, a rebellion against cultural shifts that have been gathering force for decades: the rising share of Americans who hail from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the declining share of Americans who attend church, the growing tolerance for LGBT Americans and intolerance of those who would deny them equal rights, and the escalating rebellions against male dominance and privilege.

These cultural shifts intersect with public policy, of course. But even when conservatives amass political power, they find them exceedingly difficult to reverse. An October 2016 Atlantic/Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey found that 45 percent of self-described conservatives agreed that, “These days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.” Those conservatives overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, but then got #MeToo. In 2016, North Carolina Republicans passed a law restricting transgender people’s ability to use the bathrooms of their choice. The result: boycotts—including by Bruce Springsteen, the NCAA, and the NBA—that cost the state $3.7 billion, and led to the bill’s repeal.

It’s the same with immigration. Republicans have channeled their fears of demographic change into a widespread embrace of restrictions on even legal immigration. (Only 15 percent of Republicans say immigration from “predominantly Christian countries” is too high.) But even if Republicans succeed in eliminating the “visa lottery” and restricting family reunification, the demographic shifts that unnerve them will likely continue. As the sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has noted, because Latinos are younger than other Americans and on average have more children, “they will account for the lion’s share of U.S. population growth for the next several decades—regardless of what happens with immigration.”

Donald Trump can say Merry Christmas all he wants. But in a country where Christians comprise a declining share of the population, businesses will keep changing their holiday greetings to appeal to their changing customers nonetheless.

These cultural shifts have alienated conservatives from many of America’s non-governmental institutions. Eighty-five percent of Republicans, the Pew Research Center found last year, say the media is having a negative effect on the country—up 17 points since 2010. Fifty-eight percent say the same about universities, a 21-point jump since 2015. By last October, 60 percent of Trump supporters held a negative view of the NFL.

And this alienation fuels the persecution complex that Loesch voiced at CPAC. Trump supporters believe that white Americans face more discrimination than African Americans and American Christians face more discrimination than American Muslims. A majority of Republicans think “discrimination against men is becoming as big of a problem as discrimination against women.”

As a movement dominated by white Christian men, contemporary conservatives see themselves on the losing side of the great power shifts of our age. Which helps explain why, in 2016, 81 percent of Trump supporters—compared to only 19 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters—agreed that “compared to 50 years ago, life for people like you in America is worse.” But even now that Trump is president, and even as the economy booms, much of the underlying pessimism remains. One-third of Republicans still say the country is headed in the wrong direction. And Republicans are more pessimistic about their party’s future than Democrats are about theirs.

By jabbing at African American football players who kneel in protest during the national anthem and liberal academics who take down Confederate statues, by deriding women’s physical appearances, and endlessly taunting the media, Trump scratches a conservative itch. It’s part of the reason conservatives forgive him for his astonishing ignorance of—and periodic disinterest in—public policy. If “politics is downstream from culture,” then choosing a president obsessed with cultural battles makes sense. Except that, deep down, many conservatives fear those battles can’t be won. Which is why, despite all their political power, they still feel oppressed. And can convince themselves that a CNN town hall filled with grieving families constitutes a greater threat to American life and liberty than a deranged person’s ability to walk into a gun store and buy an AR-15.