MSNBC’s Chris Hayes: ‘Life’s Too Short’ to Argue With Trump Hacks
Before he interviews Ted Cruz for his podcast live this weekend, Chris Hayes spoke to The Daily Beast about impeachment, 2020, climate, and his Fox News rival Tucker Carlson.
Chris Hayes has never been busier. In addition to his nightly primetime show All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, the 40-year-old New York native recently helped moderate that network’s Climate Forum 2020 event and hosts a weekly podcast called Why Is This Happening? that digs into thorny issues with experts like Michael Lewis, Stacey Abrams and Samantha Power.
This weekend, Hayes will launch a four-city live podcast tour beginning in Austin, Texas, where he will sit down with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Saturday night, Sept. 28. “We haven’t really done a podcast with someone I basically disagree with on almost everything,” he tells me. “I want to have a conversation that doesn’t skate over those differences but also isn’t an hour of us arguing, which just seems exhausting for all involved.”
When I reach Hayes by phone this past Tuesday afternoon, Nancy Pelosi has just approached the podium to make her announcement that she is beginning an “official impeachment inquiry” into President Donald Trump. The MSNBC host is clearly distracted so he agrees to call me back when she’s done talking. We jumped right in.
Does this feel like a big moment to you?
Yeah! It’s an enormous moment. I mean, you know, the country’s been around for 240 years or so and there have only been three impeachment proceedings and this would be the fourth. So yeah, it’s an enormous deal. It’s a real kind of hinge moment in the history of the country. It’s inordinately consequential given the constitutional stakes.
There have been many times over the past couple of years when something happens and people say, ‘Maybe this will be it, maybe this will be the thing that gets Trump out.’
There’s no such thing as ‘it.’ There’s no ‘gotcha’ moment. I think it’s been true that there’s been lots of fantasizing and daydreaming about that, but I think it’s always been clear that Trump has fundamentally been a political problem and the solution to him is political. And that political solution can take different forms, but I think the most likely outcome by far is that the president is impeached and that he’s not removed by the Senate. In fact, Mitch McConnell might not even have a trial. But it still strikes me as enormously important and consequential to lay this marker down.
The fear of some on the left is that if the Senate doesn’t vote to impeach him, or vote at all, that that somehow exonerates him. But do you think that it’s worth getting the Republican senators on the record?
I don’t know how the politics of this play. I don’t think anyone really knows. I think the most likely thing is that it’s like [Brett] Kavanaugh or the [government] shutdown, where it’s essentially a wash. The shutdown was definitely bad for the president but then two weeks after it was done, everyone forgot about it. So I think the most likely thing is that it’s a very polarized country and attitudes towards the president are incredibly hardened. I don’t see an impeachment inquiry allowing him for the first time to really rise in people’s estimation. I mean, maybe? Maybe there’s a backlash effect? Anything’s possible, but opinions about the president are pretty hardened and I don’t see much moving it one way or the other. We tend to overrate how long people’s political memory is. Like, do you remember the shutdown?
I mean, the shutdown was only seven months ago. No one remembers the shutdown! No one’s voting based on the shutdown! It was the longest shutdown in American history, it went on for 40 days. It was a huge deal and no one remembers it. I just think that the political consequences are both unclear and difficult to predict, but most likely not massively consequential in either direction. The equilibrium of the polarization of the country is such that everything is essentially a draw. So in that sense, I think that you should just focus on the substance. Do you think that the man has committed—or possibly committed—impeachable offenses that constitute high crimes and misdemeanors and an abuse of office that requires you to pursue the only constitutional remedy or do you not? Wherever you come down on that in good faith is how you should think about this.
Is it safe to say that you don’t think any Republicans will be swayed in the direction of impeachment based on this?
I don’t know. You know, people keep pointing out how dynamic the Watergate trajectory was. I mean, there is already one Republican who’s come out in favor of impeachment and because he came out in favor of impeachment he essentially had to leave the Republican Party, Justin Amash. And they did pass this unanimous consent non-binding resolution 100-to-zero to turn over the whistleblower complaint to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is not nothing given how implacably and resolutely they have obstructed and run interference for the president over there.
At the same time, Joe Biden is obviously at the center of this as well. Do you think this ultimately helps or damages Biden’s chances in the 2020 primary?
I think there’s two arguments. One, the argument I think [Team Biden] will make is that ‘he’s so scared of me and I’m so formidable that he’s going to extraordinary lengths to sabotage my nomination campaign.’ It’s definitively the case that there was no finding of wrongdoing on the part of Hunter Biden or Burisma, which is the natural gas company he served on the board of. Those investigations were not just dropped, they were ended, in the same way that other investigations are ended when you don’t have sufficient facts. Despite all that, the vice president’s son essentially buckraking in Ukraine is not a great look and will muddy the corruption message and I think there’s something to that. It’s sort of dangerous territory to the extent that if another Democratic primary candidate makes an argument they seem to be tacitly aiding and abetting the president’s argument. So I think that will be a very tricky case to prosecute.
So you just co-hosted a big Climate Forum on MSNBC last week. How do you feel like that went and what did you learn from talking to candidates about this issue?
I thought it went well, I learned a lot. The striking thing to me was that every single candidate up there, the ones I talked to, the ones Ali [Velshi] talked to, have really devoted sustained thought to the scope of the problem, the solutions, how to get it done. There is a lot of consensus, there is some disagreement. With respect to this issue, you can just tell that it’s pretty close to the front of the consciousness for these folks. It’s not just a thing that they read a briefing book about or that they know what boxes to check. They have thought about it. And that matters a lot. That’s not true of every issue. There’s only a few issues that can kind of occupy the mental space of these candidates fully and I think climate is one of them. That’s encouraging.
Yeah, and if you look at how people are paying attention to Greta Thunberg this week, it’s also an emotional issue in a way that it wasn’t a couple of years ago.
Yeah, I think the emotion is key. And that sort of generational emotion is key.
It’s been over a year since your tweet calling climate coverage a “palpable ratings killer.” Do you feel like you have seen a big change since then?
Yes! There’s just much more attention, people are much more keyed into the issue. I think that’s also been driven by there being news on it. It really helps when there’s active conflict and news on it: the Green New Deal, the climate strike and the campaign have all been driving actual news on the topic as opposed to just as a thing that is out there. Immigration’s a great example of this. We tried to cover immigration pre-Trump and didn’t get a ton of traction from a ratings perspective. Trump took that issue and made it an extremely live issue because there’s now active conflict, active changes around it. There’s dynamic things happening and that’s the nature of how coverage tends to follow what’s happening. And I think the climate activists, the Green New Deal folks, the freshmen in the Democratic class have all done a pretty good job of essentially picking fights, drawing distinctions, creating news around climate.
How much in general do you have to think about those issues of ratings and incentives of what does well on cable news?
You don’t ever escape it. In some ways, it would be a dereliction of duty to completely escape it because part of your job is to get people to watch your show. So like, you guys probably have a traffic backend, right?
And you know how your stories do?
I don’t think it’s dissimilar. In fact, in many ways I think the internet has gotten more like TV over time. In the same way that you don’t choose your pieces or pitches solely based on what you think will get the most traffic, it’s also the case that you know what your traffic is and are aware of it as a basic background context. And it’s basically the same for us.
Do you feel like your podcast is an escape from that in some ways? Or a way for you to do things that couldn’t do on TV?
Yeah, partly because of the time constraints, because you can go much longer. The other thing that’s great about the podcast as a medium, that’s part of why it’s been so popular for both listeners and creators is that it feeds the kind of habitual consumption that’s a little like what one has with The New Yorker or another print magazine delivered to your door. The kind of tacit relationship you have with, let’s say The New Yorker, when it arrives is that there’s going to be some stuff in here that seems super random to me. But I trust them and some of it I’ll just skip over because it seems too random, like, here’s a big, long profile of this classical conductor in Belgium. But a lot of times what you do is say, well it’s The New Yorker and then you read it and it’s fascinating. And so what you’re not doing is sitting there with an itchy trigger finger the way that you deal with Twitter and social media where you’re like, what captures my lizard brain to get me to click? You say, I trust what you guys are up to, I trust the quality and I’m going to allow myself to be taken in directions I wouldn’t necessarily choose myself.
And I think there’s something extremely similar in the podcast space. People create a habit of listening to you. And sometimes it will be topics like the plight of China’s Uighur minority that you wouldn’t seek out or wouldn’t click on if it was a link scrolling across but you’ve kind of gone in for this contract where you go, OK, I’ll give this a listen. And what we see on a traffic level is that it’s remarkably consistent. There are some things, like when we had Rachel Maddow or Ta-Nehisi Coates, there’s a big bump, because those are big names. But that aside, people will consistently download and listen to the podcast week to week on a real range of topics. And there’s a great freedom in that. And it points to the fact that we need a variety of different models of journalistic consumption, some of which, like The New Yorker or the podcast, push us as consumers and listeners and readers to venture outside of what our own attentional preferences might be.
So your podcast is going on tour and the first stop is in Austin where you’ll be interviewing Ted Cruz. Why did you decide you wanted to have him on?
I thought it would be an interesting experiment. It’ll be new and different. Most podcast conversations have either been experts I want to learn from or thinkers that I’m generally sympathetic to, though in some cases sympathetic to but have differences with. We haven’t really done a podcast with someone I basically disagree with on almost everything. I want to have a conversation that doesn’t skate over those differences but also isn’t an hour of us arguing, which just seems exhausting for all involved. I think one of the modes we’ve been in at All In and our rapidly expanding universe between the podcast, live shows, the nightly show, special events we do is trying new stuff, taking risks, trying new formats and seeing how it works.
In a nice way, I think I’m at a point in my career here where there’s a certain amount of basic formal mastery I’ve achieved. Not total, but a certain comfort, six or seven years in. And a certain ability not to worry about the downside risks of taking risks, trying something different, doing things that may or may not rate, that may or may not work or could even be sort of disastrous. I think I had that experimental thirst and ethos when I started and I think the process of learning how to do a nighttime show knocked a lot of that out of me just because it was so difficult to just do the basic part of it. And so I feel like I’m at a point now where I have enough experience, mastery and comfort to stretch in different ways.
You mentioned that you don’t want the interview with Ted Cruz to be the two of you arguing for an hour. And I don’t see that a lot on your show, but it has become kind of a staple of cable news on some other networks. There’s this habit of airing long segments where people just shout at each other. What do you make of that? Is there value in it or is it a problem?
It’s real case by case, sometimes there’s value, sometimes there’s not. I think sometimes it’s just spectacle. I do think that longer in better—I mean, shouting at each other for four minutes is probably less illuminating than shouting for 20 minutes in some ways, depending on where you can go. It’s not my favorite experience but I also think that it really varies case by case, whether that time is being used well.
There are also questions about the value of hosting some of these people either from the administration who are known liars or someone like Corey Lewandowski, who recently admitted he has “no obligation” to tell the truth to the media. Do you think there’s a way to do it that’s informative for viewers or is it generally unwise?
I don’t know that I have a resolved answer on this. My basic framework and instincts on all of this is the distinction between good faith and bad faith. There are people who really believe that abortion is evil and they believe that in good faith. I guess there are people who oppose the Iran deal in good faith though a lot of people who oppose the Iran deal seem to traffic in a lot of bad faith. I think there are people who believe we should restrict the total amount of immigration in the country in good faith. To me, the distinction between good faith and bad faith is an elemental one and I just can’t deal with bad faith hackish spinning. But I like exchanges with people on the territory of a good faith exchange about something we disagree on, I enjoy mixing it up that way. I hate running around in circles with people who are just gaslighting you, like Corey Lewandowski. Life’s too short to argue with Corey Lewandowski.
So you go up against Fox News’ Tucker Carlson every night. He’s gone after you, not too long ago, basically questioning your masculinity for caring about climate change.
And also for having glasses, which I thought was particularly funny. I didn’t realize he was a Pol Pot adherent.
What is it about you, beside the glasses, that seems to trigger Tucker so much?
I don’t know, I thought it was sort of weird and interesting. Tucker is very good at what he does. The product he sells, he’s good at moving that product. And he’s sold a bunch of different things throughout his career and sold all of them relatively well. They’ve been different things, he’s changed a lot over time. I think he has a pretty good sense of what the zeitgeist is on the right at various moments.
How would you describe the product he’s selling now?
Essentially a form of laundered, somewhat highbrow Trumpism. Tucker’s a lot of things but he’s not a dummy. So I think he works very hard to take Trumpism and make it into something more coherent than it really is. Although, I will say that he’s apparently been one of the people talking the president out of starting a new war, which is probably good. If it comes down to that then you sort of take what you can get.