By Jon Wiener – The Nation
How the president has changed the “law and order” debate.
Chris Hayes is the Emmy Award–winning host of All In With Chris Hayes on MSNBC, and an editor at large of The Nation. His book A Colony in a Nation is out now in paperback with a new afterword. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Ta-Nehisi Coates called your book “essential and groundbreaking,” partly because you ask the question, “What do we talk about when we talk about crime?” What’s the answer?
Chris Hayes: A lot of times we’re talking about preserving a certain social order. It’s been remarkable to watch the last year unfold with a president who, probably more than any president since Nixon, rhetorically invoked law and order. He talks about chaos, lawlessness, and criminality racking the nation, and he is coming to restore law and order. Then we have watched as person after person in his inner circle has pleaded guilty to felonies. There’s been a sort of orgy of lawlessness around the president of the United States. You have to wonder, was he really talking about the law? The answer is, no. This is obviously someone whose concern for legality, or lawfulness, is trivial to nonexistent. The point is that this is not hypocrisy. It’s actually an integrated world view, in which criminality is defined by who is committing what offenses, and which side they’re on.
JW: There was the interesting case of Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican who split with Trump, and Trump replied in a tweet that Jeff Flake was “weak on crime.” Is Jeff Flake really “weak on crime”?
CH: Donald Trump could not tell you a single vote on crime that Jeff Flake has ever taken. I guarantee it. Anyone he doesn’t like he calls “weak on crime.” What he’s saying is that Jeff Flake is not one of us, he won’t protect people like you, white people, who are scared of others’ incursions and depredations.
JW: We’ve talked about how “being strong on crime” has been a Republican tactic going back, at least, to Nixon. But I think we left out Bill Clinton.
CH: Not just Bill Clinton—it’s also been Democratic politicians up and down the ballot and across the country. It’s one of the amazing things about the high-crime years of the 1990s, documented with incredible care by James Forman Jr. in Locking Up Our Own, a phenomenal book. Black mayors in major cities sound as Nixonian as anyone when talking about the “drug thugs” and the “gun thugs” and drug dealers’ “acting like animals” and how we need more firepower and we need to lock them all up and throw away the key. All of this very dehumanizing rhetoric comes from Democratic black politicians in major metropolises from Atlanta to Washington, DC, to Baltimore to Cleveland in the 1990s. It is often a response to real changes, to extremely high levels of violence and homicide and victimization. You have, between 1966 and 1992, a huge crime spike in the country in which rates are doubling and then tripling. Then from 1992 to about 2014–15, you have a kind of symmetrical decline. In 1991, when I was starting to go down to Manhattan to high school, New York City had 2,300 murders. Last year it had a little more than 300. A remarkable change. This is true across lots of major cities and all different categories of crimes.
JW: Is that because we got tough on crime?
CH: The answer is maddeningly complex. There is no consensus, definitive view of why crime went down so much. Part of it looks like it was a cohort effect with the baby boomers. There were a lot of young men in their peak crime-committing years starting in 1966—and they got old. Part of it is the structure of illegal drugs and the war on drugs. Part of the decline in crime, particularly in the beginning, is incarceration. The obvious thought experiment here is this: If you put every male in America, age 18 to 30, in prison, you would almost certainly see a reduction in crime, particularly violent crime. That’s the cohort that commits the vast majority of it. Of course, that would be unjustifiable. But there are neighborhoods in which, essentially, an experiment like that was run. It’s just unbelievable to see percentages of young men of color who are being put into the criminal-justice system. Even as crime was coming down, we kept putting more, and more, and more, people in prison.
JW: You open the new afterword to your book saying there’s “a silver lining to the Trump Presidency.” What is it?
CH: Let me explain it this way: Mike Pence is an example of a traditional politician who has this faux earnestness to mask his real meaning. Donald Trump dispenses with that. He’s constantly saying the quiet part loud. My favorite example of this is that, at one point, he’s asked about a congressman from Pennsylvania who’s been appointed the drug czar, who has had very questionable dealings with opioid manufacturers; essentially, he deregulated opioids prior to the big opioid epidemic. The president is asked, “Why this guy?” The normal thing to say, the thing that Mike Pence would say, would be, “This guy’s an outstanding congressman. He cares about this issue. He knows it really well—and that’s why I appointed him.” In contrast, Trump says, “Well, he was an early supporter. I think he was one of my first supporters in Pennsylvania.” He doesn’t bother saying the guy is qualified. Trump is constantly enunciating the subtext. The first thing he says when he comes down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy is, “Mexico is sending rapists.” Later he said, “This judge can’t judge me because of his heritage.” All of that has been useful because it has revealed the driving force behind a certain kind of politics. It’s harder and harder for people to pretend, for instance, that the immigration-restriction movement isn’t fundamentally animated by some sort of bigoted animus. .
JW: One more thing: The title of your book, A Colony in a Nation, sounds very left-wing. Is that from Malcolm X—or is it Stokely Carmichael?
CH: Hilariously, it is Richard Nixon. In his 1968 convention acceptance speech, he talked about African Americans’ wanting the same thing as white Americans and not wanting to be “a colony in a nation.” I think that phrase was probably informed by the intellectual zeitgeist of Black Nationalism at the time. But ironically, he, as much as anyone, was responsible for precipitating exactly that state of affairs.