The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party

The best party ever is back for its tenth year.

Freedom is not about allowing people to do things that you approve of. Freedom is about protecting peoples’ rights to do things you find distasteful.

So said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute at its 10th Annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party last Saturday.

The ATF party – "the most fun, most politically incorrect event of the year" – invites members of the public to "celebrate the perks of adulthood" by partaking in a "PETA-friendly clay pigeon shoot followed by a clubhouse luncheon complete with whiskey and cigars in one of the last places available to smokers – the outside".

As reported by C-Span:

"This year the forum focuses on personal liberties and gun rights. Participants discuss government regulation of tobacco, food and drink, and are critical of what some speakers call the "Nanny State". Other topics include the New York City ban on trans fats, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on certain soft drink sizes, global warming and this year’s presidential campaign.

It would be easy to dismiss an event where one of the speakers, David Matosko, considers global warming "an aggressive hoax" as yet another case-in-point to the sheer lunacy of the American 'right'. But much more lucid speakers, such as David Kopel, the Institute’s Research Director, point to some unpalatable truths about the hypocrisy and intolerance that plague both sides of the partisan fence.

Kopel begins by criticising Mayor Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns as a powerful lobby for the prohibition of guns in general, rather than simply the prohibition of illegal guns. He goes on to state that the there are 19 members of the group "who have left office for felony convictions, or are under indictment (...). Mayor Bloomberg's organisation has a much higher crime rate than people who have permits to carry guns for lawful protection. I think in the interest of truth in advertising that the proper way to refer to this group is Illegal Mayors Against Guns.".

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the party is later sobered by Kopel's call to divert Colorado tax money from unconstitutional "corporate welfare" to more grassroots community projects. In particular reference to the Aurora shooting this summer, the speaker calls for more investment in mental health services.

He later highlights the glaring hypocrisy of a country that has banned smoking in films, but emphatically glorifies violent gun misuse. Kopel argues that violence is indisputably condoned, but the key is to encourage a responsible gun sports culture:

We are not only on the pro-choice side, we are on the pro-life side as well. What we do every day is to fight for those lifesaving values of safety responsibly.

The underlying ethos of the ATP is best summarised by Caldara himself – in many places, a liberal accepting gun culture is as socially unacceptable as being against same-sex marriage. In this sense, the ATP stands as an attack to the tribal, divisive, and outright illogical divide that keeps the USA in gridlock.

As Rob Dreher notes:

As with so much in contemporary American politics, the gun control issue is not about reason and dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's about emotional assertion and rhetorical bullying amid an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension.

The ATF logo. Photograph: Getty Images
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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism