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.