In his new book, A Colony in a Nation, MSNBC host Chris Hayes argues that there isn't just one criminal justice system in the United States, but two: The nation, where along with affluence comes the kind of measured law enforcement one would expect in a democracy; and the colony, overseen by the type of regime that wouldn't look out of place in an occupied territory. In the nation, officers face accountability, and residents who have run-ins with the authorities are given more leeway, their civil rights never an afterthought. Meanwhile, in the colony — think Ferguson and Chicago's South Side — primarily minority populations aren't given the same due process or benevolence, and keeping order comes above all else.
While speaking recently at Scripps College in Claremont, California, Hayes shared what has shaped how this country views law and order and policing, and how politicians have played on people's fears to carve out these colonies within a nation. Before the event, Hayes spoke with The Week about his new book, as well as his day job covering the minutiae of President Trump's White House, and how it's changed the way he reports. Here's a lightly edited and partial transcript:
On the interplay of Trump and the concept of a colony in a nation:
I think that he is very much a creature of law and order politics, very much a creature of New York City in the 1980s and '90s. He famously took out the full page ad about the Central Park jogger case, calling for the death penalty for people who would later be exonerated. He signed an executive order that was very much in line with the law and order rhetoric. He's talking about getting tough, he's talked about how he's going to send the feds to Chicago, about how the Chicago police are having a hard time because they're too politically correct. Everything about his rhetoric and politics points towards a more punishing sort of occupying force; he definitely endorses that entire framework.
That said, it is the case that administration of the colony and administration and construction of the criminal justice system in the country is not really done by the president. It's done by thousands of different municipalities. One of the most remarkable things about the system we built is how many different entities had to cooperate in its construction — every county, city, town, state legislature, district attorneys, from line district attorneys sitting in an arraignment court all the way up to the elected prosecutor to the attorney general. Everyone during a 30-year period essentially was pulled by the same force of politics. The threat of him is less what he does politically — although there are some bad things he can do politically, particularly on the drug war — and more about him empowering a kind of political rhetoric that has this kind of magnetic force throughout the entire system.
On trying to cover social and public policy issues in the age of Trump:
The Trump administration eats up the news cycle every day. What I will say is that there are more and less substantive stories about him, and I think one of the things we've been trying to focus on are the more substantive ones. To me, the health-care fight was fascinating because it was both a big, dramatic, news-grabbing fight, and also deeply substantive and important. The details of the bill mattered, the fights were about the substance of the bill, it wasn't about a thing he said in a Saturday morning tweet. I think that's one of the things we try to do is make sure we're always keeping our eye on the ball in terms of the actions of the administration, whether it's the executive order or a story we broke about plans to expand family and immigrant detention by 600 percent. That tends to be the focus of the show.
On the one question he most wants to ask the president:
On Friday, the question I wanted to ask him was — I even tweeted this at him, somewhat trollingly — I would just love someone to engage him in an interview about the details of the bill that he was pushing. For instance, how do you think the requirement of community rating provisions in insurance markets will interact with withdrawing the essential health benefit requirements? Those two things are in serious policy tension, there's a possibility you'll essentially cast the sick out of the system, do you think that will happen? You would not get anywhere because he would redirect. All he says about the bill is that it's terrific, and we know from behind closed-door meetings it was the same, he had no command, but I would like to just try to engage him in that.
On how covering Trump has changed him as a journalist:
I would say I've never worked harder than I have in the last 60 days in some ways. It requires a huge amount of attention, the sheer amount to consume and synthesize has grown, but I also think that in some ways the most important thing is to just kind of double-down on your basic process, priorities, and principles as a journalist — a commitment to clarity, to rigor, to good faith, to skepticism of official claims, all of these basic things that you have to kind of double-down on, that become even more important in covering.
On the timing of A Colony in a Nation, taking into consideration the country's political climate:
It's funny, there's one mention of Trump in the book. The book is very much not about Donald Trump, but I feel like it actually has added urgency because it's precisely about a kind of cultivation of a particular mindset in voters, particularly white voters and white fear, evocation of the possibility of order, the idea of needing someone to secure you from the threat of constant decline. All of these things that have produced the mass incarceration system that we have are precisely the most profound rhetorical registers in which he operates, and so it seems to me like it's sort of more important now than ever.