Even by the standards of the current political culture, it was an amazing image: the talking trains of the children's television program "Thomas & Friends", with hoods from the Ku Klux Klan.
That was what viewers saw on the online video channel of the National Rifle Association when Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the gun rights group, took charge of the program to diversify her cast.
"They have decided that the next stop is Virtue Town," Loesch said Friday on "Relentless," the NRATV program she presents. She was responding to the news that the children's program was adding several female and international characters.
The segment echoed the complaints of some that the additions amounted to politically correct procuring. But it confused many others who wondered why a spokeswoman for an organization known for its fierce defense of firearms rights would influence preschool programming.
In the segment, Loesch, an open conservative commentator, questioned the decision to add a new Kenyan train to the new characters, including Nia. How, he asked, could the children's show present "ethnic diversity" when its anthropomorphized characters are mostly trains?
"I'm really struggling to understand how in the world there is no diversity in any of this," he said, before showing a picture of several characters in the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan in front of burning fire.
"Right, I understand," he said without expression in response to the image. "Thomas the Tank Engine has been a plague in race relations for far too long."
The segment attracted the beloved children's franchise, whose history was created more than 70 years ago, to the increasingly partisan debate on diversity and multiculturalism.
In response, Mattel, owner of the Thomas the Tank Engine brand, said that "it has always been a priority" for the company to promote inclusion and kindness.
"We are not associated with images that promote hatred and denounce any image of our brands that is being used to convey a message that is not in line with the values of the company," he said.
"Thomas & Friends" had announced on Friday that it was adding the new characters in partnership with the United Nations, as part of an effort to present its new cultures and problems to its preschool audience.
In the next season of the show, which begins this month on Nick Jr., the main character, Thomas the Tank Engine, will leave his home on the fictional island of Sodor for the first time in the history of the series. You will travel to China, India and Australia, where you will meet other trains. The program will also add several new female characters.
The character Thomas the Tank Engine was invented more than 70 years ago by the Rev. W. Awdry, as a story for his son. Awdry made history the first of many books in 1945, and in 1984, Thomas became the star of a new British animated show that was narrated by Ringo Starr. The show made its American debut in 1989 on PBS.
The NRA did not respond immediately to a request for comments.