Trump's loyalty to the NRA diminishes hopes for stronger gun control

  • When it comes to new gun restrictions in 21st century America, the smart bet is: not happening.
  • President Trump has dangled the possibility of change. He tweeted that he'll be "strongly pushing" Congress for tougher gun purchase background checks and a higher legal age for buying rifles.
  • Yet no one should count on the president facing down the National Rifle Association, which opposes the latter two steps.

When it comes to new gun restrictions in 21st century America, the smart bet is: not happening. President Donald Trump on Thursday dangled the possibility of change.

He reserved his greatest enthusiasm for supplying selected teachers with guns in hopes they could stop school shootings faster than police. But Trump also tweeted that he'll be "strongly pushing" Congress for tougher gun purchase background checks and a higher legal age for buying rifles.

Yet no one should count on the president facing down the National Rifle Association, which opposes the latter two steps. Throughout his tumultuous administration, Trump has consistently demonstrated unwillingness to challenge core supporters on the things they value most.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump drew 88 percent of the Republican vote by appealing to both principal voter groups in the party's coalition. He championed the blue-collar whites he calls "the forgotten people," and also the more upscale GOP pro-business wing.

Those groups have conflicting interests. Blue-collar voters oppose international trade deals that pro-business Republicans support; the pro-business wing opposes immigration restrictions that blue-collar Republicans support.

Trump has resolved those conflicts by saying "yes" to the top priorities of each.

Many of Trump's blue-collar backers resemble Democrats in their skepticism for Wall Street and concern about preserving their Social Security and Medicare benefits. But a post-election Democracy Fund study showed that his core supporters stood out for their strong sense of racial identity as whites, and less-favorable views of Muslims, Hispanics and blacks.

As president, Trump has abandoned his campaign promises to replace Obamacare with health care for everyone and protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from budget cuts. But he has held the loyalty of his working-class base with unwavering support for his travel ban and wall on the Mexican border.

Facing broad popular support for young immigrant "Dreamers," Trump recently pledged to safeguard their legal status. But he has not followed through.

Trump's pro-business supporters favor tolerant social policies enough that executives shunned White House advisory panels after the president praised participants at a white supremacy gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. But what they value most are policies directly affecting their profits and stock values.

So as president, Trump has aggressively rolled back business regulations in tandem with cutting taxes. Though his administration promised that wealthy Americans wouldn't get a tax cut, the bill he signed gave them more than anyone else.

For all his attacks on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the president has so far yielded to corporate America's desire to preserve it. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, he told my CNBC colleague Joe Kernen the U.S. might seek to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership after all.

That record augurs poorly for chances of Trump challenging the NRA, notwithstanding the emotional outpouring from students traumatized by the Florida school massacre last week.

Like support for the GOP, gun ownership is concentrated disproportionately among whites, men, older people and residents of small-town and rural America. That makes the NRA a bedrock Republican interest group.

Trump vigorously courted its supporters in 2016. Gun ownership rights are the NRA's foremost priority.

Thus the organization swiftly rejected Trump's call to lift the minimum legal age for buying rifles to 21. An NRA official explained that would deprive law-abiding 18-20 year-olds of their "constitutional right to self-protection."

On its website, the NRA legislative arm also opposes expanded background checks. Among other reasons, the organization says, "background checks don't stop criminals from getting firearms."

Given the NRA's influence among Republicans who control Congress, only a president determined to fight could overcome that resistance. Trump himself signaled how unlikely that is.

"What many people don't understand," the president tweeted, is that "the folks who work so far at the NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our country and will do the right thing."

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