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Why Donald Trump’s dramatic swing on gun control won’t last

Opinion: The President’s history and the nature of his base make it impossible to be hopeful about his feints toward gun control
President Donald Trump pauses during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, with members of congress to discuss school and community safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Donald Trump pauses during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, with members of congress to discuss school and community safety. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

This is not the Donald Trump we’re used to. Conciliatory, magnanimous, bordering on polite, and prepared to listen, the President of the United States has appeared to be open to working with the “obstructionist Dems,” as he’s fond of calling them on Twitter, on the issue of gun control. “It’s time that a president stepped up,” Trump told a group of bipartisan lawmakers. He nodded along with Democrat Chris Murphy’s assertion it was up to Trump to “bring the Republicans to the table” on comprehensive gun control reform because “the gun lobby would stop it in its tracks,” and he told Democrat Dianne Feinstein that an assault weapons ban—a Democratic holy grail of gun laws—should be proposed. He casually interrupted his own vice president, Mike Pence, who was outlining the possibility of taking guns only from those a court deems dangerous so as not to “trample” on anyone’s rights: “Or Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court, because … it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures,” Trump said. “I like taking the guns early.”

“Taking the guns” is a phrase Republicans throw at Democrats to sink campaigns, one that would’ve belonged on a Saturday Night Live spoof of GOP messaging gone off the rails; it’s the nightmare scenario that so many on America’s right conspiratorially ascribed to Hilary Clinton’s secret desires. And from the left, Trump’s tone has been met with cautious optimism; the New Yorker deemed it a “glimmer of hope.”

But Trump has a history of flinging himself into uncharted terrain, only to eventually find his political centre of gravity again and again. Just this January, Trump met with Democrats and Republicans at a televised roundtable over immigration reform and promised a citizenship path for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, the so-called Dreamers. He said he wanted to sign a “bill of love.” After conservative media stars berated Trump’s comments and warned of a GOP-wide collapse at 2018 midterm elections, Trump demanded the next day on Twitter that border wall funding must be included in any immigration bill. In the following weeks, he refused to sign the very bipartisan bill he asked for—wall funding included—and by the time the State of the Union speech rolled around at the end of January, Trump had returned to his grim message of immigrants as criminals, of Americans in need of protection.

So as before, all this bipartisan middle-grounding from the President on gun control is unlikely to last. Trump will fall back to his source of power: the white, dominantly male, Evangelical Republican base of voters that put him in office—who also happen to be the most stridently pro-second-amendment gun owners in America.

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About half—48 per cent—of white men in American own a gun, compared to just one-quarter of white women and non-white men, according to a Pew Research Center study released last summer. Republicans are more than twice as likely to own guns compared to Democrats and independents (44 per cent to 20 per cent), making Republicans 57 per cent of all gun owners in the United States.

Strikingly, Republican gun owners almost unanimously see owning a gun as “essential to their freedom”—91 per cent, compared to 43 per cent of Democrats. They overwhelmingly favour expanding concealed carry laws, are twice as likely to belong to the National Rifle Association—which is the most prominent U.S. gun lobby group, but is far from the only one—and 63 per cent approve of the NRA’s influence. A further 28 per cent think the group has “too little” influence in America.

That last stat can be confusing, because Republican gun owners also said they supported barring people on no-fly lists from buying guns and expanding background checks to gun shows and private sales, two policy positions the Democrats have repeatedly pushed and the NRA has repeatedly rejected. But it’s a disconnect that’s unlikely to end. Last week, one poll showed 80 per cent of Republicans still believe the NRA supports policies that are good for the U.S., even if the general public’s view on that question dropped five points to 43 per cent. A separate poll showed GOP support for stricter gun laws has grown to 53 per cent in the last week. Among whites, only 48 per cent viewed the NRA negatively, compared to the vast majority of Black Americans, at 80 per cent.

The point here is the Republican slogan of defending second-amendment rights is not simply an established policy point like, say, free trade—witness Trump’s aluminum and steel announcement this week—which can be warped by Trump’s whims. It is not among the fashions of presidential norms Trump has tossed aside, to the shrug of his base. It is a point of view that’s embedded deeply in race, in identity, in the very idea of freedom, and even in the land; almost half of gun owners live in the Republican stronghold of the South, at 43 per cent.

The mass shooting at a Florida high school last month may be changing minds in America—polls continue to show rising support for gun control among the general public—but its impact on the GOP and its base appears minimal. We only need look to the right-wing and far-right media, the ecosystem that has buoyed Trump’s presidency through countless controversies, to see how his base will view this arms-wide-open embrace of gun control laws.

Betrayed,” ran one headline on the conservative site RedState, which claimed Trump had abandoned the NRA. A writer at Townhall called the bipartisan meeting a “total disaster,” in a piece headlined “Wait–Did Trump Just Give Pro-Gun Control Democrats Everything They Wanted?” AWR Hawkins, the second-amendment columnist at Breitbart News, credited Trump with an unlikely level of conniving politicking, suggesting it’s “impossible to avoid thinking [Trump] might be setting up the Democrats via a gun control ‘rope-a-dope.’ ” And Fox News’ Tucker Carlson delivered a monologue last week to his millions of devoted viewers—even before Trump’s gun control love-in with Democrats—that they were witnessing a “class war.” “The left hates rural America, red America, gun-owning America, the America that elected Donald Trump. They hate them,” he said. Progressives “despise the autonomy of an armed population,” he went on.

You and your guns are one in the same, he told them. The left is coming for you. The NRA itself could hardly have crafted a more alarming message.

Right on cue, and just as with his dalliance with Dreamers, Trump is changing his tune. The day after his gun control roundtable, he tweeted a far less enthusiastic review of a meeting with “many ideas, some good & some not so good,” ending it with a blustery, “Respect 2nd Amendment!”

By Thursday night, he and Pence were welcoming the NRA’s head lobbyist, Chris Cox, in a previously unannounced meeting that left little doubt about the once-again changing winds of Trump’s plans. “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!” Trump tweeted Friday morning. In his own tweet after the meeting, Cox declared that Trump and Pence “don’t want gun control.”

Not that we should be surprised. This is, after all, the man who last spring gave the first speech of a sitting president to the NRA since Ronald Reagan, promising a “crashing end” to gun control efforts.

This doesn’t mean Trump will do nothing. It’s possible the GOP could rally around the NRA-supported—and Trump-endorsed —plan to arm teachers in schools, a plan that has been roundly rejected by Democrats but has a 72-per-cent approval rating among Republican voters.

Perhaps, as has been the case with a Dreamers bill, Trump will do nothing, yet be able to claim that he tried and his desire to succeed where other presidents have failed likewise lead him only so far. What appears to truly fuel Trump is the love of those Americans who Barack Obama infamously accused in 2008 of “clinging to guns or religion.”

Trump’s cult of personality is powerful, but it has its partisan limits. Even now, after Parkland—and after Las Vegas, and after Orlando, and on and on.