On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Chris Hayes, the host of All in With Chris Hayes, which airs weeknights on MSNBC, and the Why Is This Happening? podcast. Hayes has been covering the Trump administration since it began, and recently reported from the border as part of his extensive coverage of the child-separation crisis. Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss how Trump is changing the American left, what Trump cannily understood about GOP voters, and what the “civility” debate revealed about the American media.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: Where do you think we are as a country after 18 months of the Trump administration?
Chris Hayes: I think that the president has successfully solidified his hold on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I think that he actually has a preternaturally astute sense of what binds the Republican coalition together and has been very ruthlessly transactional about keeping that coalition together and bound to him. He also, I think, has a very good sense of what actually fires the bellies of the base of the party, which is essentially racial anxiety about demographic threat and the future of America as a white country, fundamentally. He has mixed all that together to solidify the Trump coalition as a coherent entity. That’s a formidable thing.
The solidification of the Trump coalition as a distinct and cohesive coalition, which it is—it’s basically the Republican coalition put together in a somewhat different way, I think—has also inspired solidification of the opposition, which you’re seeing in the dynamism and also intracoalitional fights happening in the Trump opposition in the center-left. Things in a weird way are kind of clearer, and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. And the outcome remains undetermined from a political-governance standpoint to me.
What you just said seems like a paradox, which is that Trump solidified the opposition, but at the same time, it’s brought up cleavages within the center-left and left.
The coalitions of Trump-opposing forces in the country know who they are. The lines are drawn. But what they are, or what they stand for and what they will lead with and what they will politic on, remains in fervent dispute. I think that the halves of the country, as it were, one being slightly bigger than the other, which is the Trump-opposing forces, know which side of the line they’re on, but the intensity of the debate is about what those politics are, what that represents in a broad sense, and I think that is both a necessary and brutal and continuing debate.
Does this solidification make you think we’ve gotten to this point where both sides have solidified so much that when one side is taken over by someone like Trump, it doesn’t matter as much because partisans will always be partisans?
That’s one factor, so the basic polarization of where you define yourself as an opponent to the enemy’s camp, or the rival tribe’s camp, I think there’s some of that, and I think that there’s some of that on both sides. A lot of that is a very intensely human impulse. It’s cultivated by lots of institutional features of the political landscape. It’s definitely something that applies as a psychological and sociological effect to liberals as well as it does to conservatives.
There’s an asymmetry that’s profound, which is that it’s the conservative coalition that nominated and elected Donald Trump. [Laughs] There is no corollary for that on the other side. That’s because there are particular pathologies to the way that conservatism in America works. One is the centrality of essentially white racial grievance, bigotry, and ethnic rivalry as a vital and defining feature of what the coalition does. There is the fact that conservative media has a bunch of particular attributes that I think are particularly insidious, particularly Fox News. There is no corollary to Fox News anywhere in any media landscape of any subgroup of people the way there is for older, white, conservative men.
Right now, a great example is just watching conservatives fall in line behind the idea that Republican, Trump-voting, Jim Jordan–supporting former wrestlers from Ohio who go out of their way to say how much they love Jimmy and he’s a good guy, but that, yeah, he knew the doctor was fondling them. To watch the epistemic machinery of conservatism work to produce a situation in which politician after politician is coming forward to say these guys are all liars—there’s a whole institutional machinery that exists on the right that produces the ability to do that.
It seems like there’s a danger in itself when your coalition is made up of one dominant ethnic group, which obviously explains the racial resentment. It also seems like partisanship wielded by a group of people who share this common characteristic has certain dangers that a partisanship on the other side will never have, or is less likely to have.
Yeah, I think that’s partly true. Trump is actually extremely canny, intuitively, about what the party is and what it’s not. The reason he won the primary is because he was untethered from the orthodoxy of Ryanism that essentially has no domestic political constituency. It is extremely instructive that none of the Republicans running in competitive races are running on the tax cuts. None of them. It is extremely instructive that Donald Trump knows that what motivates the base is a sense of populist victimization and grievance, and not Ryan’s vision of privatizing Medicare, and tax cuts on capital gains.
I want to ask you about the child-separation crisis. There have been certain moments in the last 18 months, like this, and like Charlottesville and the president’s response to it, where it felt like a giant chunk of the country, even beyond the liberal base, had risen up and expressed its disgust, and it dominated the news. And if you think speaking up for white supremacists or separating children from their parents is disgraceful, it feels really good. It happened with the Muslim ban at the beginning of the administration. Then over time, things continued. Maybe they get slightly better. People forget about it. I’m wondering what you think those moments tell us about where the country is. It shows that there’s something in the country that is repulsed by what’s going on, but it also in another way doesn’t give me much hope that, in the long term, people who are worried about these things are able to fight them in a sustained way.
That well articulates my feeling about it. It’s heartening that the reaction to the child-separation policy was heartening: the widespread condemnation, the polling on it, the activism, the people taking to the streets. That continues. We should say that there is sustained action on this. But the kind of moving on–ness that I think you’re identifying—and I think from an elite perspective particularly and a media perspective, a desire to move things back to equilibrium—it happened in two cases in very clear ways that I think are quite related, which was Charlottesville was followed by a whole news cycle about Antifa and leftist violence. Child separation was followed by a whole news cycle about civility. In both cases, you’re seeing this gravitational pull to get back to the middle, to restore equilibrium, to come back to something that looks like normalcy almost in a kind of embarrassed way after everyone followed the natural, correct, conscientious impulse in the face of, for lack of a better word, evil, to condemn that said evil. That instinct is a troublesome and dangerous one.
Do you think it’s media-driven?
I don’t know. Media is such a sloppy term, obviously. I hate when people use it as a stand-in. Mainstream, ostensibly objective, large-audience media organizations, let’s say. I think that it’s a combination of instincts. I think it reflects a way a lot of people think [who] are outside the media. I think there’s a certain kind of, let’s say, people of a certain elite, professional, educated class that are disproportionately represented in those media organizations and have a desire for a normalcy and equilibrium, and worry about extremism in response to extremism, which I think is not a crazy worry, by the way, that ends up really manifesting in intense and acute ways in the wake of particularly egregious violations of basic core matters of conscience …
I think that what you have seen is that while there’s a kind of elite-media instinct to pull back toward that center or find that equilibrium or say, “Well yes, kidnapping children, and referring to them in terms that compare them to vermin that must be extinguished, is wrong, but it’s also bad to ask someone to leave your restaurant,” that instinct does not penetrate to what you might call the Democratic Party base or the progressive base or the center-left coalitional activist class right now, which is normal people, for lack of a better word. These grassroots activists, people that make phone calls and knock on doors, don’t feel that way. [The people] who feel like the country is in a national emergency have displayed an ability to endure in that feeling and channel it as demonstrated by a whole lot of outside observable empirical metrics.
I thought the most interesting thing about the civility debate was the way it showed the divides in the Democratic Party, actually. I think a lot of the debates Democrats have been having, and liberals have been having, really map nicely onto the civility debate, not in terms of content but just in terms of the way you saw people, especially older members of Congress, people in the Clinton administration and Obama administration, respond with outrage or shock that Sarah Sanders would be asked to leave a restaurant. From younger people, people online, political activists, there was disgust that those people responded like that.
Yeah, I think that’s a kind of temperamental one that partly has to do with proximity to power, right? Partly it’s: Can you imagine yourself as Sarah Sanders? Partly it has to do with norms of professional-class liberalism, for lack of a better word. This plays out in all kinds of ways. There’s a fascinating sociological process of elite formation that is asymmetrical between liberals and conservatives as well, which is that, by and large, the folks that get produced as the elite and powerful liberals in America—and I went through this process as well. I went to a magnet public school. I went to an Ivy League college. I have a large platform, so I’m not exempting myself from this—I think are inculcated with a bunch of, for lack of a better word, class norms that conservatives have a very different experience with, because often conservatives inside those institutions view themselves as a kind of aggrieved minority that is much more prone to have to argue all the time, want to argue all the time, be fighting all the time. I think there’s a kind of interesting sociological story about the people that end up being the powerful people at the top of the conservative coalition versus at the top of the liberal coalition or center-left coalition versus center-right coalition and how they think about civility, conflict, extremism in very different ways.
How much do you think Democrats and liberals should focus on the structural disadvantages they’re under in terms of the Electoral College in two of the last five presidential elections, the Senate and its role, gerrymandering and the fact that liberal voters tend to congregate in big cities, et cetera? Is it important to think about these issues as much as anything else?
Yes. I basically think that you have to think about democratic equality, like democracy inequality. Those two things. Democracy, which itself has a kind of egalitarian ethos, right? One person, one vote. Pushing for democracy, that means, like, fighting things like the Electoral College, the gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, expanding the electorate, passing things like automatic voter registration in states that have unified Democratic governance, doing everything possible to achieve universal enfranchisement, getting rid of felon-disenfranchisement laws, et cetera.
That as a principle, like that as a good in and of itself that should be aimed for, even if it helped conservatives, would still be something you should do. [Laughs]. But also, from a Machiavellian standpoint or just a sheer matter of political strategy, it will empower forces that are within the broad center-left coalition in American life. So yes, they have to think more about that. I think you’re seeing a turn toward thinking more about that. I think more generally the solidification of Trump and the Republican Party as a coherent and unified coalition and threat to the center-left is forcing people to think more comprehensively and structurally about what has to be done.