Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.
(CNN) -- The annual festival of conspiracy theorizing, belligerent fist-shaking and anxious masculinity known as the National Rifle Association convention came to Houston over the weekend, and it was everything the organizers hoped it would be.
Tens of thousands of attendees perused 500 booths where you could look at guns, buy guns, learn about guns, talk about guns and maybe weep about guns, along with plenty of training courses to prepare you for the day when society breaks down and you finally get the chance to use that arsenal to defend your home against marauding gangs of cannibals.
One favorite was the trainer who advised people to keep a gun locked up in their kids' room. Because what could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah -- accidents. They could shoot each other, such as the 5-year-old who recently shot his 2-year-old sister, or the 13-year-old who shot his 6-year-old sister.
This being an NRA gathering, there were media figures and politicians aplenty. Glenn Beck, fresh off suggesting that a man who shot himself last week at Houston airport's was a part of a Reichstag fire-like conspiracy to pave the way for a fascist crackdown on Americans, gave the keynote address.
Prominent politicians who appeared included Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sarah Palin. They have something in common, beyond the fact that they've all run for president before or might in 2016. Like the NRA itself, they all camp out on the conservative fringe but are nevertheless convinced that they represent the mainstream.
Perry, who calls Social Security "a monstrous lie" and has flirted in the past with the idea that Texas should secede from the United States, thought that what Americans wanted in a president was Yosemite Sam without the intellectual pretensions. Turned out, not so much.
Jindal recently suffered a political setback when he proposed cutting the (progressive) income tax and raising the (regressive) sales tax, I guess because poor people in Louisiana have just been having it too easy. Even his conservative state recoiled, and Jindal's approval ratings plummeted.
Cruz has cut a McCarthyite swath through Washington in his four months there, leading to rare agreement between Republicans and Democrats that he's an enormous jerk. Naturally, he's seriously considering a run for president in 2016.
And as for the former half-term governor of Alaska? Well, you already know about her.
All of them believe they represent the real America, and if the country just had a chance to hear their unvarnished views, they could win the White House with ease. That most real Americans find that idea either laughable or terrifying doesn't seem to register with them. They're right at home with the NRA, which just selected as its president a man who still refers to the Civil War as "the war of Northern aggression," and has such a twisted view of liberty that he believes the freedom to buy an AR-15 at a gun show without having to fill out a form is as important as freedom of speech or religion.
Eighteen years ago, after a right-wing anti-government extremist bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 men, women and children, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre railed against the threat from "jackbooted government thugs" in "Nazi bucket helmets." In response, former President George H.W. Bush wrote the group an outraged letter defending those who work for the government, including one Secret Service agent killed in Oklahoma City who had worked on Bush's detail in the White House. "He was no Nazi," Bush wrote, and resigned his NRA life membership in disgust.
In the time since, the NRA has become even more extreme, even more paranoid, even more ensconced in its self-reinforcing world in which guns are all that matter. There may be a few Republicans who now have the courage to stand up to them. But there are still plenty such as Perry, Cruz and Palin, who will troop to their convention and jump into their festering pool of anger and fear. They don't seem to realize how it makes them smell.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.