The fight over the NRA.

Plus, a question about anti-mask psychology.
Isaac Saul Aug 11, 2020
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Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The fight over the NRA, some quick hits, a question about anti-mask psychology and an important story on the census.

Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, speaking at CPAC. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Quick hits.

  1. The world coronavirus case count broke 20 million today. It has doubled in the last 45 days, according to the Associated Press. It took six months to get to 10 million cases, and a month and a half to get to 20 million from there. The United States now has 25% of all global cases despite having 4% of the world population. More than 163,000 Americans have died.
  2. President Donald Trump was escorted out of the White House briefing room yesterday after a secret service agent was involved in a shooting a block from the White House. Trump was abruptly escorted from the briefing room by the secret service just moments after starting his press conference, setting off alarm inside the room of an imminent threat. A 51-year-old man allegedly approached the secret service officer, said he had a weapon, withdrew an object from his clothing and got into a “shooter’s stance,” Thomas Sullivan, chief of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service, told the press. The man was shot and killed. No weapon was recovered at the scene.
  3. President Trump and Joe Biden are both out with new television ads against each other. Trump’s ad, the first since pulling down TV spots across the country to reevaluate his campaign, focuses on Biden’s commitment to raise taxes and will appear in Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin. Biden’s ad shows Trump on the golf course and quotes him promising to cut Social Security if he is reelected. The ad is expected to go up in Florida.
  4. More than 100 prominent Black men signed a letter addressed to Joe Biden urging him to choose a Black woman for vice president — and warning him that if he didn’t, it would cost him the election. The letter’s signatories include rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, radio host Charlamagne tha God, the George Floyd family attorney Ben Crump, CNN commentator Van Jones and Michael Eric Dyson, a contributing columnist for The New York Times. "For too long Black women have been asked to do everything from rally the troops to risk their lives for the Democratic Party with no acknowledgment, no respect, no visibility, and certainly not enough support," the letter says.
  5. INTERNATIONAL NEWS: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his cabinet’s resignation Monday, responding to national unrest after a deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut. Public fury raged over the explosion, which many blamed on the Lebanese government’s mishandling of the explosive materials and the coronavirus pandemic that already had the country on edge. In Russia, Vladimir Putin announced that the country had approved the “world’s first” COVID-19 vaccine. Putin says he gave the vaccine to his daughter, despite the fact it has yet to go through Phase 3 trials where it would be administered to thousands of people.

What D.C. is talking about.

Dissolving the National Rifle Association. On Thursday last week, New York’s state Attorney General Letitia James announced she was suing to dissolve the National Rifle Association. James alleges that leaders of the group, including prominent gun rights activist and NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, misused millions of dollars for personal use — spending nearly $64 million of the NRA’s money on themselves. As NPR reported:

It [the lawsuit] lists dozens of examples of alleged financial malfeasance, including the use of NRA funds for vacations, private jets, and expensive meals. In a statement, her office said that the charitable organization’s executives “instituted a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement and negligent oversight” that contributed to “the waste and loss of millions in assets.”

The NRA responded by suing James in federal court, alleging she was violating the group’s free speech rights. James has oversight over the NRA because it is registered in the state of New York as a non-profit, despite having headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. The NRA’s immediate countersuit against James suggests the organization was expecting the lawsuit.

The showdown between one of the most powerful elected Democrats in the country and the NRA comes less than three months out from the presidential election. For years, the NRA has been “vilified by liberals as an enabler of rampant gun violence” while it is “revered by conservatives as a champion of the U.S. Constitution and its Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” Reuters reported.


What the right is saying.

It’s dirty politics. Even folks on the right who concede the NRA needs a closer inspection — or that its leaders are corrupt and greedy — don’t view the lawsuit as a legitimate attempt to rein in the organization. Many note that James called the NRA a “terrorist organization” in 2018 and ran for office selling herself as a foe of gun rights advocates. The timing is also notable: the NRA has over five million members it often activates during election season, but now its leadership will be neck-deep in an expensive lawsuit.

Even if the allegations are accurate, Kaylee McGhee argued in The Washington Examiner, this is not how all of this is supposed to work.

“James’s attempt to dissolve the organization entirely should be seen for what it is: a political hit job,” she wrote. “The state can certainly punish the NRA for using its charitable funds improperly. The government can also punish the individual officials involved in the alleged fraud. New York could even take away the NRA’s tax-exempt status within the state. But James cannot be allowed to decide that the national organization as a whole must cease to exist.”

A lot of folks on the right seem to agree. “I hope Second Amendment advocates won’t be manipulated into thinking that defending the LaPierre regime is the same thing as defending the NRA and the Second Amendment cause,” Rod Dreher said in the American Conservative. “The New York AG makes it clear that she’s not really concerned about cleaning up the NRA, but destroying it.”

Even worse, James’s lawsuit seeks to hurt the NRA’s donors a second time. If James actually wanted justice — and not a political scalp — the lawsuit would focus on the NRA leadership and seek restitution for the people who spent money thinking they were supporting the second amendment only to have that money spent on frivolous personal expenses.

“As Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson puts it, dissolving the NRA would hurt the group’s donors by denying them the institutional voice they chose to represent their views on gun rights,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said. “Ms. James will no doubt receive media hosannas for ‘standing up’ to the NRA, which progressives have long portrayed as some unbeatable dark and nefarious political force. But the reason the NRA has power, if it still has any, is because it represents millions of Americans who believe in the Second Amendment.”


What the left is saying.

It’s a mixed bag. Given the NRA’s standing on the left, and the fact that so many view it as an enabler of gun violence in the U.S., there was plenty of support and cheering for James. In The Los Angeles Times, Mariah Kreutter summed these views up nicely by suggesting we “let the NRA die.” She argued that the allegations of impropriety against the NRA’s leadership were so vast they should unite both left-wing activists and NRA supporters in outrage.

“I’ve long been disgusted with the NRA for its massive lobbying efforts against even the most common-sense reforms,” Kreutter wrote. “But while this case will unavoidably generate accusations of partisan motivations, the extent of the fraud and financial abuse alleged in the lawsuit would justify legal action against any organization. It’s no secret that plenty of left-leaning Americans would be happy to see the NRA die. The allegations in James’ lawsuit suggest that those on the right should feel the same way.”

And while they’ll get their day in court, the allegations against the NRA leadership are already out in the press. The leadership has accused each other of extortion, LaPierre was accused of spending more than $200,000 on wardrobe expenses, the NRA has laid off staff, former lobbyists for the group have described LaPierre’s bloated salary of $2 million a year as “obscene,” and so on. In other words: it’s obvious to folks on both sides the NRA is guilty as charged.

Still, some were concerned. Ruth Marcus said in The Washington Post that she “loathed” the NRA and wrote that its “reflexive opposition” to gun control makes it complicit in thousands of deaths.

“And yet, I worry that New York Attorney General Letitia James has gone too far in her bid to dissolve the organization,” Marcus wrote. “Even assuming that the facts laid out in the state’s lawsuit against the NRA are true — and I believe every word about chief executive Wayne LaPierre’s jaw-dropping greed — the right remedy is fixing the NRA, not dismantling it.”

Noah Feldman agreed. Like Marcus, Feldman argued that “it’s tempting to react with applause… Yet even liberals who oppose the NRA’s mission should take a deep breath and ask: Do we really want an elected attorney general to try to destroy a prominent nongovernmental organization that is arrayed on the other side of the political spectrum from her? What if this were Alabama and the organization were the NAACP? Or Tennessee and the ACLU?”

Feldman made the case that “this is a situation where the importance of the First Amendment has relevance for the Second Amendment,” noting the NRA is “wrong” about how it defines the right to bear arms but it “should enjoy an unimpeded First Amendment right to argue for that incorrect and dangerous interpretation of the Second.”


My take.

Let’s get a couple things out of the way: 1) The NRA leadership appears to be guilty as charged. I’m a firm believer in the American promise of a day in court and the presumption one is “innocent until proven guilty,” but the publicly available evidence against the NRA’s leadership is robust. 2) I’ve conceded here before when I imagine I am “to the left” of many of my readers on a certain issue like police reform. So I think it’s also worth conceding when I imagine I am “to the right” of many of my readers on an issue, too. That would include gun control.

I’m not a supporter of the National Rifle Association — I think the group lost its way decades ago by transforming from a group that advocated responsible and regulated gun ownership, which it once did, into a group that became grossly partisan and immersed itself in a culture war. The United States would be better off without the NRA. I truly believe that. The group’s obsession with culture wars has made owning a gun like rooting for a football team, and it has corrupted millions of Americans who now view gun ownership as a kind of military cosplay rather than a serious responsibility.

But regardless of how I feel about the NRA, the organization is extremely popular with its members. The counterexamples are endless: Planned Parenthood, ACLU, NAACP — none of these organizations should be dissolved if its leaders were caught self-dealing. And it strains credulity to argue James would be going after those organizations for the same kinds of crimes in the same way she’s going after the NRA.

The argument here is rather simple: the NRA has over five million members, hundreds of millions in assets and is widely supported and beloved by those members. Dissolving it would mean taking those assets and putting them elsewhere — a move that could punish the good-faith donors and supporters as much as the leadership.

This reality has led legal experts like Pittsburgh’s Philip Hackney to speculate that James will have a hard time finding a judge willing to dissolve the organization. Even with the “long, substantial fraud” at the NRA, other law professors like James Fishman suspect James is using the threat of dissolution to get the settlement she wants.

As Marcus wrote in The Washington Post: “Count me uncomfortable.”

A fight to dissolve a national nonprofit is more than any of us should want from a state attorney general. James has the power — and obligation — to suss out and prosecute corruption amongst New York’s nonprofits and the NRA should be no exception. So make the lawsuit about LaPierre and his cohorts in the leadership, not about dissolving the organization. Help make the donors whose money they spent whole. Then let them go find a new organization — or choose new leadership — to carry on the advocacy they have every right to pursue.


Blindspot report.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

Last week, the left missed a story about Attorney General William Barr saying liberals want to “tear down the system” and pursues political victories as “a substitute for religion.”

Last week, the right missed a story about how Louisville police are cracking down on “protest caravans,” limiting the ability of Kentucky citizens to protests the killing of Breonna Taylor.

If you want more from Ground News, you can check them out here.


Your questions, answered.

Want a question answered? It’s easy. Just reply to this email and write in. You can reach me anytime by replying to the newsletter.

Q: Something I've been wondering about and hope you might address in a future newsletter is the psychology behind so many people being anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists etc. Is there any significant similarity in the psychology of these individuals? I'm especially interested because some of them are in my family, and logic, facts and reasoning seem to fall on deaf ears.

— Jana, Ontario, California

Tangle: Though there seems to be a good deal of overlap between conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers, I actually think the two are a little different. Plenty of Americans right now — who are otherwise not so susceptible to conspiracies — have taken staunch anti-mask stances. Recent polling shows about 44% of Americans “always wear a face mask” outside their home and 28% wear one “very often.” That’s 72% of Americans. Another 11% wear one “sometimes” and a combined 18% wear one “never” or “rarely.”

The latter group seems to be the one you are most concerned with, so I’ll try to address that here. First, I’ll note that many of these Americans may not be wearing masks because they don’t need to: either they live in very rural areas or they are not interacting with other people. But it seems there are two major things at play: one is basic human psychology and the other is political loyalty.

On the human psychology front, I’m no expert. But professors and psychologists have been all over the news recently explaining the anti-mask phenomenon. The basic premise is: Why are so many people resistant to a rather simple request (cover your face) that experts say will limit the spread of a deadly virus and protect your own health?

David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the School of Global Public Health at New York University, told HuffPost it’s about “hot cognition” psychology, a survival instinct activated under the threat of an unknown enemy and one that “completely” overrides our usual rational thinking. It’s the classic fight or flight state, and many Americans are choosing to fight the government rather than the invisible virus. It’s actually the same psychology that’s driving so many people to wear the masks, hide in their homes and to believe so ardently in the threat of COVID-19 — but underlying ideology, education and political beliefs change the outcome.

Joseph J. Trunzo, a professor and chair of the psychology department at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, chalked it up to control. Every American feels like they’ve lost control right now — of their job, their lifestyle, their relationships, the virus, etc. Choosing not to wear a mask gives people their agency back. “Uncertainty breeds fear, which naturally fuels a need for control,” Trunzo said.

Then there are the actual issues with the mask rollout. First, we were told masks were not needed. Then we were told they were absolutely necessary. Then Dr. Anthony Fauci basically conceded he lied about the need for masks to ensure frontline workers were able to get their hands on them. Then medical professionals threw support behind demonstrations in the street over George Floyd’s death after condemning other public gatherings. All of this mixed messaging led to distrust and resentment on the right — which led to people making decisions for themselves.

And once you’re in a position to choose for yourself, it’s a lot easier to choose convenience (never wearing a mask) over inconvenience (always wearing a mask).

Then, of course, there’s Trump. It’s obvious from the data that most of the anti-mask sentiment is on the right in America. Given that about 9 in 10 Republicans approve of the president, and Trump’s supporters move with him on most issues, it’s no surprise there’s such a strong anti-mask collection of Trump supporters.

Axios documented this well. In late May, Trump mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask and accused a reporter of being “politically correct” for wearing one. Republicans’ support of masks was quite low at that time. A month later, Trump told Fox News that “masks are good,” then in mid-July he wore one himself for the first time on camera. Then on July 20th he tweeted a photo of himself in a mask and said they were patriotic.

In April, just 24% of Republicans said they were wearing a mask outside all the time. In late July, after Trump’s change of tone, that number was 45%. One could argue this had more to do with rising numbers of cases in red states — but we’ve got numerous datasets showing Trump supporters follow his lead on many issues, from Russia to economic enthusiasm to China to masks.

On a personal level, I am quite serious about wearing a face covering when I leave the house — and asking others to do the same. So are most people in New York City, especially after seeing what happened here up close and in-person in April. My mom recently visited from Pennsylvania and remarked at how blown away she was by the percentage of people wearing masks outside in Brooklyn compared to suburban Pennsylvania. Everyone understands the risk, and — for me — until there is a reliable cure or vaccine, wearing a mask is an easy trade-off in order to go outside, be with friends or visit states that are facing rising case numbers. It’s also a sacrifice I’m willing to make to see older family members or friends who are immuno-compromised.

In the few instances I’ve encountered an “anti-mask” person in real life or online, I’ve found the best way to handle it is to exercise empathy. These people aren’t nuts: wearing a mask sucks. The government, or any figure of authority, telling you what to do is also not fun. Coronavirus is creating a horrible existence for a lot of people. Nobody likes the world we’re living in right now — and nobody wants to be in this position. I don’t find it particularly hard to empathize with people who say “screw this, I’m not putting this thing on my face.” After all, for many, everything has been taken from them — jobs, economic security, daily routine, etc. Now you’re asking them to remove their general comfort, too?

But the next part is important. You can empathize and also make a forceful suggestion. Masks aren’t about you so much as they are about the people around you. I focus on that. If you want to trade off mitigating COVID-19 risk for comfort, that’s your decision. But if you’re going to shop, go to public places or be around others, it’s not just your health you’re responsible for.

I like to think of it as the same kind of decision to step outside for a cigarette, or to tell people you feel like you have a cold when you’re sick and someone wants to shake your hand. These things are all common courtesy, an accepted part of society not because they are convenient or because they’re saving your life but because they’re just decent things to do. Appealing to that decency, wrapped in some empathy for how lousy all this is, has been the most effective way to approach it in my experience.


A story that matters.

An abrupt change to the census deadline could have long lasting impacts on how government money is allocated. The census is used to allocate federal funds, draw legislative districts and even impacts the way programs like free lunches or health care are executed. When people don’t respond to the census, census workers are sent door to door to do follow-ups and record data from individual homes. Because of the pandemic, the deadline for those follow-ups was pushed from mid-August to October 31. But the administration abruptly announced last week it was moving the deadline back to September 30th.

Accusations began flying immediately that the Trump administration was intentionally cutting the deadline short in order to undercount Black and Latino communities, which are already less likely to be counted in the census. “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and they might be shortchanging every Latino community for 10 years to come. This is cruel,” Lizette Escobedo, a leader of a nonpartisan Latino rights organization, said. “The bureau declined to comment about the risk of undercounting communities of color, but issued a statement announcing it would hire more workers to achieve a complete count,” The Washington Post reported. The Census Bureau has also instituted bonus incentives for field workers to visit as many uncounted houses and resolve as many cases as possible by the new deadline.


Numbers.

  • 50%. The percentage of Americans who now say they know someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
  • 4%. The percentage of Americans who said they knew someone who had tested positive for coronavirus in March when the poll was first taken.
  • 86%. The percentage of Americans who say they wear facemasks in public indoor settings where they cannot socially distance.
  • 97%. The percentage of Democrats who say they wear facemasks in public indoor settings where they cannot socially distance.
  • 70%. The percentage of Republicans who say they wear facemasks in public indoor settings where they cannot socially distance.
  • 35%. The percentage of Americans who say they would not agree to get an FDA-approved vaccine to prevent coronavirus/COVID-19 if it was available right now at no cost.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans in 1954 who said they would not get the Polio vaccine.
  • 8%. The percentage of Americans who say they would feel comfortable going to the movies within the next two weeks.
  • 38%. The percentage of Americans who say they're gaining weight during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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