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Why Is This Happening? Processing the attack on the Capitol with Ta-Nehisi Coates: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author Ta-Nehisi Coates about what we witnessed as a nation on Jan. 6, 2021.

One day after the attack on the Capitol, Chris Hayes and author Ta-Nehisi Coates sat down to process what we witnessed as a nation and what it reveals about the fragility of American democracy.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You really saw... I mean, you saw the effects of that yesterday because the inability to picture, frankly, a group of white people overrunning the Capitol is a lack of acquaintance with American history in and of itself.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. You know, here on WITH Pod I like having this podcast as a place that is apart in some ways from the news cycle. Sometimes we're closer to it, sometimes we're very far from it, we're doing... Like last week's discussion of bourbon, which I love, because, obviously, my other job, one of my other jobs, which is hosting All In With Chris Hayes, 8 P.M. weeknights on MSNBC, it's extremely tied to the news cycle and yet I think as you'll see in this podcast, there are times when what's happening feels so overwhelming that it's weird to talk about anything else.

That happened I think during... There was a period during the initial COVID lockdown where we were just living and breathing COVID and COVID stories all the time, and we were doing that on the podcast. You know, right now I'm talking to you on January, 7th. It is one day after an armed, violent, insurrectionist mob overran the Capitol after being incited quite directly by the President of the United States in order to achieve the purpose of blocking the certification of the democratic election of the next president, and to try to interrupt or forestall the peaceful transfer of power from a government that had lost an election and had been rejected by the people.

There's not really a great... I mean, I think all of us are struggling a little bit with what to do with what we saw yesterday. In this sense, it's not the most important debate in the world of what to call it. I don't really care, it's extremely bad, extremely dangerous. What it means, what it means about where this country is and what this country is, and the stories we tell ourselves about what this country is. What it means about American democracy and its fragility, its recentness, which I think is a really important theme, and what it means about where we go from here as we head towards the inauguration of Joe Biden and a Democratic Senate, which I remember spending, it feels like eons ago, I think it was after the Georgia race was cleared, just sort of digesting the improbably good news that Democrats would have a chance to get some stuff done, and confirm some nominees, and staff the government and all this stuff. Then that quickly gave way to the insurrection.

We planned another conversation, which we're still going to have, but as this was all happening I was texting with my good friend, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is a very busy man and who had been wanting to get on the podcast and he was like, "All right. It's time. We got to talk about what the hell is happening right now."

You probably know who Ta-Nehisi Coates is. He's won every award in the book. A writer, a thinker. He works on everything from essays to novels to comic books to screenplays. I've known Ta-Nehisi for, I don't know, over a decade now and have been in dialog with him through I think both of our careers as writers and public thinkers. I always come away from our conversations with a lot more clarity. Ta-Nehisi, it's great to have you on the program.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks for having me, Chris. Pleasure to be here.

CHRIS HAYES: I guess, first, as you watched what unfolded yesterday, there's a bunch of different things to process, but I'm just curious what you were thinking as you watched it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think it's what I told you in the text. Look, if you believe that Barack Obama was not a legitimate president, that he was some sort of Muslim Kenyan sleeper, you then have to believe that you've suffered under eight years of a stolen presidency recently. If you believe that Hillary Clinton was either the head of, or somehow involved in, a cult that specialized or exulted in child pornography and came within a hair's breath of inhabiting the White House, that'd be pretty scary.

If you believe that mere weeks ago the presidency was outright stolen, that there was a plot that spanned across states, that was of such a level of sophistication that somehow the votes for the president were fraudulent and yet for other people on the ballot, they were not, if you believe that you are facing an enemy that is somehow capable of that, then the reactions yesterday are correct.

I don't know what else one would expect. You know, these are not... As I told you, these are not fringe positions. You know? These are the positions of people that are actually, or were actually, working in the very house that got invaded yesterday. In some cases, they're just majority Republican positions. Birtherism was a majority Republican position.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, yesterday after that happened, a majority of Republican House members voted to block the seating of electors.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So then what? Either the election is being stolen or it's not. Either we suffered under eight years of an illegitimate president or we did not. You know? I don't understand how people who either trade in these lies, at the minimum, advance them, in other cases, can somehow be surprised or condemn the actions yesterday. If a significant portion of the Republican Party, and its leader, by the way, and leadership, says its true then a coup d'état is the correct action.

I don't know why it wouldn't be justified. I don't know how on the one hand you condemn the actions of the crowd yesterday, and then on the other hand, support everything we've been told about the election and elections past up until now.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. It's a great point that if the premises are true, which is that the election was stolen...

TA-NEHISI COATES: Stolen.

CHRIS HAYES: Stolen. Fraudulently stolen by a cabal of shadowy forces that have wrenched away the rightful winner and replaced it with the loser, which, again, is actually trying to happen in the opposite direction...

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. Right. Who says go sit at home and let it happen again?

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's the thing I was thinking. Here's the thing I was thinking. One thought I had yesterday was to run the thought experiment in the other direction, which is this. Let's say Trump pulled it off. Let's say that enough state officials cooperated or he had majorities in both Houses that would do it, where he basically was able to knock out electors and whether through just sheer majority votes in both Houses that seat electors that were these sort of alternate slates, these ridiculous sham electors, let's say he pulled it off. What would the proper response of anti-Trump forces be to that? You shouldn't draw your gun on the Capitol, but there should be millions of people in the street for sure.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, the thing is you have to compound it, though, Chris. You have to compound it. I mean, the Republican Party line is not just that one election was stolen. It's that one election was stolen, the last one was almost stolen, and after eight years there's not been a legitimate... You know what I mean? ...Democratic candidate in 12 years. It is that the opposition party is totally illegitimate and is in the hands of shadowy, unseen forces... I don't know what the basis of a nonviolent response is at that point.

I don't think nonviolence is something you just say because it sounds nice. I mean, it rests on very real grounds. Violence is horrible. Oftentimes, people who you consider to be most deserving are not the people who often suffer. It is a spirit that one is very rarely able to control at all. There are all sorts of great reasons for nonviolence but it's not a thing you just say because. You know what I mean? There are reasons for that.

CHRIS HAYES: It's also the case that... One thing that was interesting is that... This is something that you've written about and I wrote about in the second book, A Colony in a Nation, it's like today I see Rush Limbaugh talking about violence and about how, well thank goodness that nonviolence wasn't the path that Thomas Paine chose, and the founders, and yesterday a lot of 1776 references, and a lot of Gadsden flags, the Don't Tread On Me flags, and it's like they are right in a sense.

TA-NEHISI COATES: They are. They are.

CHRIS HAYES: The nation was very much founded on violence. It was founded on violent insurrection. We don't study this part of the founding but it was unruly mob violence a lot of times. It was like British customs officials being dragged through the streets and tarred and feathered and beaten to death as crowds cheered on. It was real gnarly.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: I do think there's just this weird... One of the things that was so crazy to me yesterday was, and one of the things I found really difficult is, there is such a buy-in to this sort of American exceptionalism about our special distinctness. Even on the wrong factual grounds, people saying, "Our judiciary is independent.

It's like, yeah, there are independent judiciaries all over the OACD. What do you think liberal democracy is? We're not the only liberal democracy in the world. People will cite things about the American system that are so special and distinct and it's like, there's literally dozens of countries that have those features. What are you talking about?

You just saw yesterday the sort of failure to reckon with what the actual history of the country is and, as you said, what it would mean to believe the premises that are being sold to people all kind of papered over with this, "Well, that doesn't happen here," and, "This is not what we do here."

There's part of it that I think is actually laudatory and noble. Like it's aspirational for the political class to come together and, as one, condemn what happened. That's correct. It also just felt so detached from the reality of what we're seeing unfold before our eyes.

TA-NEHISI COATES: The problem is I think there are significant... As a piece of political rhetoric, as you said, an aspirational sort of thing that you say to yourself, it's the kind of thing you say to a football team at half-time, it makes sense. It makes sense.

I strongly, strongly suspect that a disturbing number of people, not just regular Americans, but people in leadership actually believe it. I'm not convinced, for instance, when Barack Obama would say that he was feeding a line. I'm not convinced that Joe Biden is feeding a line. I'm just not... Obviously, I differ with that but I think then you have to have a very, very different argument, which is that it is not simply that ordinary American citizens haven't reckoned with the history. It's that you're in the hands of leadership who haven't quite reckoned with the history.

You really saw... As you just pointed out, I mean, you saw the effects of that yesterday because the inability to picture, frankly, a group of white people overrunning the Capitol is a lack of acquaintance with American history in and of itself. You know, Chris, you said something when you were doing the intro that I really, really think we should zero in on, and that is the newness of American democracy, the recentness of American democracy.

If you'll allow me here, I think it's worth just disentangling this for a second. You're talking about until 1865, you have huge, huge swaths of the country that is basically written out of citizenship altogether, 40% of the southern states, and it's not simply that 40% of people in the southern states are written out. It is that the laws and the Constitution are written in such a way that it actually favors the people who are slaveholders at that particular time. A disproportionate number of the first Presidents are actual slaveholders. If you look at who was holding office and where they were, who was in the Supreme Court, who was appointing the people in the Supreme Court, it favored slaveholders.

It's not that we start off from a basis of anti-democracy. It's that the anti-democrats actually hold disproportionate power, as one would argue they might today. After 1865, you have a century in which African Americans, again, at least in the South, are written out of history. This is to say nothing of half the population not being able to vote until you're granted women's suffrage.

The problem is we are building a country during that entire period. We get into this debate about the New Deal a lot, but I don't think the point is that the New Deal was a bad thing. It wasn't created in an egalitarian, democratic environment. It was made possible by wiping out nearly half the population of the southern states. You would not have a solid South without that.

If you start in, I don't know, some time in the 1960s, Voting Rights Act, I guess you can take it from there if you wanted to, and even then you are talking about still a kind of chancy democracy because they are vestiges of the anti-democratic spirit. Felon disenfranchisement, by the way, people think this came up during the period of the Crime Bill. It didn't. It's a vestige of redemption. It was founded as a tool to disenfranchise Black people and in many states, it's still on the books. You are talking about roughly, 40, 50 years during which you can say you have democracy but even then it's challenged. It's a fight. It's not a fact. It's not a state. It's a fight that's being had. It's a process.

There's this picture that we paint of ourselves as this oldest democracy, hallowed institutions, et cetera. It really doesn't match. If you understand that, if you understand that this isn't the first attempted coup in America, there may have been successful coups in American history, there were all through, as you know, Chris, during the period of redemption, if you grapple with massive resistance in Virginia, why is this shocking?

CHRIS HAYES: Right. I mean, the way to tell the story, to me, that sort of synthesizes these is that both... It's the yin and the yang, right, of American history. I think Frederick Douglass had an incredible vision of this. And DuBois. I mean, both of them. Right?

That an aspirational vision that sometimes is ascendant and sometimes made real through whether it's the Union victory, and the subsequent occupation of the South, and the radical Republicans with their super majority putting through Congressional Reconstruction for a period in which you had actual education, literacy, public works for African Americans in the South, and citizenship and voting rights, which was then squashed by violent insurrection, essentially. There are moments of this really elevated, incredible, aspirational, democratic widening that happens, and then there's retrenchment, and the two forces fight each other, not with one side guaranteed to win at any moment or in any sort of destined way. Sometimes one side wins, sometimes the other.

In the long arc, we have widened the circle of democratic enfranchisement to the point where for the last 50 years we're, I would say, a real democracy in our modern terms, but as you said, that's contested and constrained

I mean, even take it this way, the person that won more votes didn't get to be President last time around and the party that won fewer votes has won the presidency.

TA-NEHISI COATES: They appointed three Supreme Court justices.

CHRIS HAYES: Appointed three Supreme Court justices. The Senate. There's all these ways in which we're fighting uphill against these kind of minoritarian institutions. To see what happened yesterday when the Capitol is overrun where they say... This question of who will rule, right?

And who is a citizen and who you allowed to be in citizenship with. It's the oldest question in the country. It's always contested. Yesterday was an example of that. Then at the same time it's like that shit was wild. I've never seen anything like... I also just think we all have a hard time processing what we saw because, like so much of the Trump era, it was both goofy and terrifying at the same time.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah but you know our good friend Jelani Cobb uses an example. Hippopotamuses look goofy. They kill people too.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly.

TA-NEHISI COATES: They kill people, man.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, and Jamelle Bouie had a great... Jamelle had a great thread today where he's like, "People saying this is cosplay or LARPing, role play", he's like, "What do you think the Klan was?"

TA-NEHISI COATES: What do you think the Red Shirts were?

CHRIS HAYES: Right. They had their stupid costumes, and their stupid catchphrases, and their stupid passwords, and their stupid little rituals and they thought they... Then they actually successfully terrorized the South in restoring white supremacy.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right. That's right. I just want to push you on something. I want to offer actually a note of optimism, weirdly enough, even as I push, it is the yin and the yang but I would argue that there's been a little more yang than there's been yin in American history or a little bit more yin than yang, however you want to take it.

The period that we draw hope from really is... There's this period that you would say after the Voting Rights Act and that period of Reconstruction, but we have a lot of anti-democratic history in this country. Just a lot and we've done a lot.

Now at the same time, I think you're kind of correct because one of the things that I think we should always be clear about, even as we talk about the force and the power of white supremacy, it is fundamentally a minoritarian ideology and it always was. That's actually not a new thing. We think this happened because folks looked up and saw the demographics and then suddenly... No, no, no. It always was. There was a civil war because it was a minoritarian ideology.

You know, it's not even the case... This is why the borders are contested so violently and so brutally. It was never the case that they could get 100% of white people. That was always the problem in the South. If they could, they'd be fine. They'd be fine. There was always tension even among white people over this, which again is why we had a civil war in the first place.

You are correct. I mean, this was always, always challenged. I mean, this period of Reconstruction that we admire, that Loomington government that was overthrown, it was a fusion government. It looked like Joe Biden's presidency. That's what it looked like. This has always been a minoritarian, anti-democratic movement.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a really good point and I think also important in terms of placing the current moment in history, which is that... There does end up being... This is a theme I come back to again a lot on the podcast, I think because we have the space for it, of we just have a tendency because race is so central, correctly, and because demographics are so central, correctly, and because multiracial, pluralistic democracy is such a contested thing, that there just end up always being a lot of shortcuts that we take in our terminology about blocks of voters and Black people and white people and things like this.

It's always contested among the polity in a million different ways. As WrightThompson was saying last week on the program, Kentucky was a Union state.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: You know what I mean? West Virginia exists because it was a Union state. That's not to say that the white people of those states were committed to the cause of white and Black equality, but it is to say there's complexity and contestation in a million different directions about what the democracy will be and who it will be for among white people stretching all the way back.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Because as it turns out, the requirements of retaining a white supremacist government is not just, "I really don't like Black people." You actually got to do quite a bit more. It was not enough that one being in the South and say, "I don't really like slavery but I would never get in your way of holding slaves." Abraham Lincoln tried that. It's not enough to be tolerant of bigotry. You actually have to do active things. There were slave states where it was compulsory to serve on the patrol.

It is not as if there is one side in which folks are just openly bigoted and racist and this other side where you have these racial egalitarians. White supremacy requires things of white people. There has always been a significant number of white people who, however they feel about Black people, just don't feel like doing that. Just don't feel like doing that.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, that speaks to these dueling vanguardisms too because, I mean, one of the things I thought yesterday... The first thought I had yesterday morning when I watched what was happening, first, I was taking in the Georgia victories, which were... The Georgia Senate victories were genuinely shocking to me. I have to say.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Yeah. It's remarkable.

CHRIS HAYES: It is remarkable and it's remarkable because, structurally, there's no way the Democrats should win those seats. The deck is stacked very hard against them. The fact they won them both... Again, Martin Luther King Sr. took over the church as pastor, Ebeneezer Baptist Church that Raphael Warnock is the reverend of, in 1927 when people were getting lynched and his son would then share it with him, and his son would have his funeral there after being assassinated, and the guy who is the pastor of that is going to go to the US Senate as the first Black senator directly elected, elevated to the seat through the election of the people in the old confederacy.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's incredible and it's beautiful.

CHRIS HAYES: It's beautiful and it's incredible. I'm sitting there and I'm looking at that and then I'm looking at and I'm thinking like, "Man, come through, Georgia." That's amazing. It's amazing what happened... And a Jewish man too. The old civil rights coalition sort of embodying these twin figures. I thought they both ran great races. I thought they both refused to be cowed. I thought they did a really good job of not getting on their back heels when they ran negative oppo dumps, and I thought Ossoff actually played a crucial role in this, who ran behind Warnock, so Warnock in some ways was the...

The two of them standing together I thought was so key. They tried to do this thing of like, "What about this sermon? He said this and here's this scary Black man," and then they would go to Jon Ossoff and be like, "What about ..." He just absolutely refused it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Just thinking about that Warnock/Ossoff race. What I love, and I hesitate to heap praise on Stacey Abrams because it feels like everybody is doing it and it's getting into this dehumanizing sort of thing so I don't want to add to that.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you see that tweet about, the challenge is to talk about Stacey Abrams that doesn't make you sound like the dad from Get Out?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. At the same time, at the same time, one should not allow people's over-exuberance and even fetishization to keep you from saying the truth and the truth, as far as I'm concerned, is she had this remarkable ability to at once not be naïve about what was being faced in Georgia, to not pretend as though voter disenfranchisement was this thing that they could just magically leap over, and then at the same time say, "And yet we're going to fight and we're going to win." The odds are against us... You know? It's a remarkable ability to hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time, to not be naïve about the opposition.

CHRIS HAYES: I think she's also an underappreciated part of that race she ran in 2018, and I think actually, which is true of Warnock's race too, she's a good politician. She was very disciplined. She engaged on the issues she wanted to engage on, which were the issues where she knew she had majority support and she hammered those.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Warnock did the same thing.

Which is not to say that you apologize or shy away from or disavow your anti-imperialist statements from the pulpit or things like that. You stand for what you stand for, but part of politics is focus and what you put focus on and what they try to put focus on. Abrams was disciplined in that race. It's why she got so close. Warnock and Ossoff were disciplined in their races about healthcare, $2000 checks, these are popular things and these are what we're going to try to deliver for you.

Again, in all of the despair I think we often feel about the state of American democracy and, particularly, when you look to those folks who are, where we started the conversation, essentially, hived off from reality, at the margins, persuasion matters. You know?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm. No. It does.

CHRIS HAYES: People are capable of being persuaded. There's not a ton of them. The way they're persuaded can be pretty weird and kind of gnarly, and some often politically problematic, but you can move people with the right focus and arguments. That is the opposite of what we've seen in the sort of rump minority caucus but that, to me, is the... That's the thing that I want to talk to you about too is like… I almost don't want to say this because I don't want to call it into being but watching yesterday, and then connecting it to what we saw in the Michigan State House when they walked into the Capitol with their long guns, I fear that we are watching the birth of a template for what essentially armed QAnon inflected Tea Party movements will look like now. Like armed intimidation of elected officeholders as a tool of American politics essentially.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Again, I think because of the haze of the way we see this country it's very hard for people to grapple with the idea that not only has this been a minoritarian movement, it's been a violent movement.

This is why, and I don't know when this is going to get broadcast, but this is kind of why I really feel like no matter what Congress has to act. They really, really have to act.

CHRIS HAYES: Agreed.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Because I am not particularly confident in prosecutions and what that's going to bring in terms of what happened yesterday. The danger, as far as I am concerned, is not simply that someone will try this again at the Capitol, they might well, by the way. It's all those statehouses, man. You know what I mean?

CHRIS HAYES: Yup.

TA-NEHISI COATES: This actually happened in Michigan over the summer. They shutdown the legislature. That happened. I mean, even before the kidnapping plot... Again, I don't know how you tell a group of well-armed people that they have been victimized and will be, by the time the Biden presidency ends, for a decade and a half plus and they do nothing. What is the expectation for that? Why would that be true? How can this not end up in some sort of violence?

You know, I respect what you're saying in terms of not wanting to call it into being but I just think it would be wrong to be naïve about that. You're not the one calling it into being.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. No. The thing I've been really focused on... That Michigan moment was really important I think because... I said this I think, I don't know where I said it, on the show or on Twitter, but if I show up at your door and I ring your doorbell, okay? I'm a neighbor who's got a problem with you. Your fence is broken, and you open the door and I'm like, "Hey, look", now that's one thing.

Now if I do that and you open the door and I have an AR-15, we're just having a completely different interaction. I mean, no one can deny that. That's not a difference in degree. That's a difference in kind.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Kind. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Those are two different universes where I ring your doorbell and say, "You need to fix your fence," and I ring your doorbell with my AR-15 and say, "You need to fix your fence."

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: I just feel like we have slipped into the latter in a lot of these places. When those folks show up with their guns and they stand holding guns, looking down from the gallery in the Michigan statehouse, that is the... I'm stealing this from someone, but that is the second amendment cannibalizing the first.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: At that point, the question of what peaceable assembly is really becomes murky, because if you're showing up armed, the threat of violence just hangs over all of it. That's what we saw yesterday, dude, because, honestly, part of the reason when people say compare the way they treated the folks yesterday versus, say, a BLM protest, there's a lot of reasons for that, sympathies of law enforcement and their politics, race. One of the things, though, is that those Capitol police knew those people were carrying.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: By and large, that's not the case at George Floyd protests. If you come in wielding your batons and pushing people around, tear gassing, you're not going to get shot, but they knew what they were dealing with yesterday. Once they got past the barriers and they're roaming around, you got to assume everyone is carrying. It just puts things in such a different space from a democratic perspective when you add guns to organized political action.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. No. No. I totally agree. I want to just broaden this out a little bit because I have a question for you and I. I know I text you about this all the time. Just permit me to go a bit afield here. The other thing, Chris, because this is an opportunity to do this, that when I watch your show every night that I feel like you have been deservedly passionate about is COVID... I was going to text you the other day and say, "Man, you got to write a COVID book."

I mean, I think you've been clear about that. When I think about yesterday, and I think about the summer protests, and I think about what the police response was in that case, and I think about what the police response, obviously, was to the protests over the summer, and I think about how the events of this summer are still going on, when I think about Chicago where the mayor was just found to have covered up this tape where they no-knocked on the door of this woman and left her nude I believe for like 90 minutes, it was something crazy like that, when I think about Rahm Emanuel before that, who obviously covered up the killing of a child and was being considered... It felt like the left had to basically marshal all they had to keep him out of the cabinet. I don't know who it is that absolutely loves Rahm or makes Rahm essential, but apparently he was and covering up the murder of a child was not enough ...

I think about how some of these politicians have been traveling during this period of COVID. I want to ask you a broader question about the kind of leadership class we have and whether you've been thinking about that. I'm saying this, obviously, in reference to Twilight of the Elites, which I think about all the time, all the time, because on some level... To place the focus off of yesterday, by the way, obviously, is the Republican Party of leadership.

Josh Hawley is an Ivy League dude, right? Or a Stanford dude.

CHRIS HAYES: As Ivy League as they come. Stanford and then Yale Law and a fancy fellowship.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Ted Cruz is a Harvard Law dude or something like that.

CHRIS HAYES: He is Princeton, Harvard Law. He's Princeton, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerkship. Josh Hawley is Stanford, Yale Law, Supreme Court clerkship.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Boy, oh boy. I just wonder what you think or whether you have insights on our leadership class right now, especially in light of "Twilight of the Elites."

CHRIS HAYES: That's a great question and I'm going to give you my answer right after we take this quick break.

You're asking about the leadership class and I think you and I first had this text exchange when the Gavin Newsom thing was... No, it was Deborah Birx.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: It was Deborah Birx... There was like 12 people at her family holiday thing. It's like what the hell is wrong with you people?

TA-NEHISI COATES: But it was on the heels of Gavin Newsom.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, first of all, one level, for myself, I think that my own... I have a certain amount of moral vanity and narcissism, which I don't think is a particularly elevated thing. It's actually kind of a little skeezy but ends up checking behavior like that because I would be so embarrassed.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: My own self-regard would be so punctured if I was ever busted on something like that that it keeps me in check. I go back and forth about the degree to which the leadership class... Whatever you want to call it. Like the folks that have power in our society and their deficiencies, which I think are quite profound, are the product of our institutions or a reflection of democratic society or just the way it always has been, that people are very flawed, people in positions of power aren't actually that different from other people, and other people are flawed and people are messed up and hypocritical and lie to themselves and things like that.

Here's where I do think there's something that is true. We touched on this in an earlier conversation and this is part of the theme of Twilight of the Elites. There is one system in American life that basically produces people with power and that's what we call the meritocracy.

Now there are ways around that... Like it's one of the things I find most fascinating about, for instance, LeBron James. LeBron James is just a fricking fascinating and brilliant human being, independent of the fact that he is an incredible athlete. Part of what makes him so interesting, to me, is he is a person with tremendous amounts of wealth, power, vision, who achieved those completely outside of all those institutions, right?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: Everyone else, from Josh Hawley to Gavin Newsom, to me, I'm a product of it too, we don't have... I think it gets at part of the resentments of the right, frankly... I mean, the promise of democracy is that the people rule and that we all have a say in what we do, but we have a very stratified society and a pretty inbred elite class that is produced by the same core set of institutions even when they have wildly different worldviews and politics.

The vast majority of people are on the outside of that and there's something deeply inegalitarian to that. In the tension between those two, we haven't resolved it and I think a lot of resentment builds up and I think a lot of elite failure builds up.

At the same time, people will argue, "Be careful what you wish for with more democracy." It used to be the case that parties were much more closed off and they would make their choices for nominees behind closed doors and then we opened that up to democratic input and now we have primaries that produce Marjorie Taylor Greene.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. But, see, I would take that back to the minoritarian argument. I don't think more democracy is actually the problem, right? If we had a straight up and down vote, our politics would look very different.

CHRIS HAYES: That's true. Yes. That's right. The politics of voting ends up empowering vanguard small movements in a million different ways. Dude, this is true... I mean, this is a place where I think this is actually something that I think is a real problem on the left right now and I think is one of the things that's promising about AOC and the Justice Dems and even the DSA is that... One party rule is bad. It's just bad.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: You need competition. To me, the ultimate example is the ANC in South Africa, which, obviously, one of the great successful, moral movements in recent American history and is pretty corrupt and moribund after decades of essentially one party rule.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: You need competition for any of this to work. Look, there's so many democratic seats are not competitive, they're not challenged, they don't have to fight for those votes, they don't have to work for it. You see this in a lot of the governing failures in very liberal blue cities where there's essentially... There's no organized opposition. Now you don't want an organized Republican Party opposition because I think you know the Republican Party is, essentially, useless, but you need competition.

There's just huge parts of our politics... It's a weird thing I think that's happening around polarization, which is the more you polarize, if you polarize and you have a two party system then you end up with just a Balkanized universe of one party states.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. I think the reason why... I think about this and it's like if you have... Again, I think the road to yesterday, it probably began before this but if I had to choose something in the immediate present, I think it began with birtherism, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think the acceptance of that led inexorably to where we ended up. One of the alarming things, to me was the fact actually that the Republican Party took it so seriously and really made very, very little efforts to tamp it down and when they did it was this kind of, "I don't believe this but it really would help if Obama would..." You know what I mean? Those sorts of humoring responses.

Man, I don't know that Democrats themselves took its destructive power seriously. I think, again, this goes back to that haze. What I'm saying is I don't know that the leadership class itself understood how bad allowing an open lie to take seat in the majority of an opposition party, like how bad that was.

What you have to imagine is imagine... You just were talking about LeBron. Imagine the Lakers facing off against the Heat last year, and the Heat just say, "No call unless it favors us is legitimate.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Now, look, calls are contested all the time. People fight, people get mad at refs. But there's a reason why if you touch a ref, you get automatically ejected from the game, no ifs, ands or buts about it. There has to be something uniform.

CHRIS HAYES: Correct.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know what I mean? A place where you guys agree. I don't know if media is necessarily that, but what I'm saying is once people commit wholly to superstition, what is the grounds for the kind of nonviolent governance that we hope to have?

CHRIS HAYES: That is the question. I mean, that is the crisis beneath all the other crises, because if you have 35% or 40% of a population that's sort of hermetically sealed off and thinks that it's all rigged and a conspiracy and fake news, what democratic governance looks like under those conditions... I mean, we are living the experiment. It looks like Donald Trump.

TA-NEHISI COATES: We are. We are.

CHRIS HAYES: What does democratic governance look like under those conditions? The answer is yesterday at the Capitol with the guys in the fur hat, topless with the Norse/fascist tattoos sitting in the seat that was occupied by the Vice President an hour before, before he had to be evacuated.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Or the guy walking through Statuary Hall with the flag of insurrection and traitors.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. That image. That was just the most perfect thing I've ever seen.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It really was. It really was.

CHRIS HAYES: There he is. Someone truly representing that flag for what it stands for.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Giving that flag its proper and appropriate meaning.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right. That's right. Chris, this is why, for me, I don't think this ends with the kind of broad condemnation. I saw you yesterday going off and totally in agreeance with you because I don't think this just ends tomorrow.

See, the problem is whatever law enforcement does, whatever impeachment or not impeachment happens, those folks are still out there. There are a lot of people who are predicting doom for Josh Hawley. I'm not so sure.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Me neither.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I'm not so sure. That constituency is still there. You know? As long as there are people who feel it's fine to feed it. I try to imagine, for instance, responsible "Black leadership" going out right now and saying, "Yeah, the vaccine is poison. You're right. This is another Tuskegee experiment."

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know what I mean? That would be so destructive. You know what I mean? It would be so suicidal.

CHRIS HAYES: That is a great example.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know? It's not that there aren't elements like that in the Black community. Of course, there are. We tend not to elect them to the House of Representatives, though.

CHRIS HAYES: That is a great example that nails some of the symmetries because it's like, of course, that stuff exists. That sentiment exists. You can find it in lots of places. It percolates because both based on very good historical reason and also a universal allure of conspiracy that exists in all societies and all times. There's something universal about that. We want to make sense of the world. Sometimes we come up with theories that make the world make sense, even if they're not connected to reality and that's, I think, a pretty universal human impulse.

But this question of what the leaders do or what gatekeepers do... You know, the example that I've always given is, is 9/11 truth? Because that's the one... I talk about it on the podcast all the time because that was the one I lived through where it was like I was part of the left at a moment where that was a very powerful rising movement, and people had to actively dismantle and ostracize it. You had to have the fight and be like, "No, get the fuck out of our event."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: "No, don't sell your inside job books here because that's false. It's not true."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: You know, you were called a sellout or whatever you were called but that stuff matters and so if you just give in... I mean, yeah, imagine if the Democratic leadership in the days after 9/11 was like, "Bush knocked down the towers."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: If just one party was like, "Oh, this was clearly an inside job by George W. Bush."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: What would the country do?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. That question of what do you do when the people... I don't know if you saw it but I actually thought this was a great Mitt Romney moment yesterday, where Mitt Romney just said... It's such an obvious point but he just said... Basically, he's talking to Hawley and Cruz and they want to say that you would say that we're not respecting the tens of millions of people who believe this. The way to respect those people is to tell them the truth.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Tell them the truth.

CHRIS HAYES: It doesn't show them respect to condescend to the lies they've been fed.

It shows them respect by saying that it's not true. It was a really good moment.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. No. It was. It was. You know, the other thing I wanted to ask you, I know this is your podcast but, what does 2022 and 2024 look like to you? Because I have all of these dark ideas floating in my head. Mitch McConnell was being saluted for his statesmanship yesterday. And I was like maybe? Maybe, but...

CHRIS HAYES: No.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Actually what he probably understands is like, "What the fuck? Why am I going for the Hail Mary?" You know what I mean? "When I'm up. Why would I do that?" You know what I mean? "Why would I do that?"

CHRIS HAYES: I thought Alex Pareene had an amazing tweet that was like his gloss on the McConnell speech, he said, "McConnell speech was saying that the right way to steal an election is to put together an argument you can get conservative justices to buy, and if you fail at that then you're just doing dumb stunts like the Democrats do."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: That was basically what that speech was.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. You’ve got Hawley like, "I'll show you how to steal an election."

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. Like this is a pathetic spectacle, like the kind of thing that impotent Democrats do, you idiots.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: I really don't know. I'm worried about it. I'm very worried about the future. I feel really... I mean, part of I think the... You were referencing what I said on air last night. I totally understand the impulse towards normalcy, both as a kind of comfort and also as a kind of, you can will it into being by asserting it, kind of. I get that. There are a lot of people I think making a calculation in positions of power in the Democratic Party that you want to marginalize this and not lend it more credence and you want to sort of, through a kind of sheer will, push the institutions back into working, push us back towards democratic normalcy, but I also think there's just something so disconnected from reality about that and dangerous. Yeah. I'm really worried about the next few years. I'm just really worried.

Now, again, who knows? There's just so many unknowns and I'll leave with this one thought, which is a tease to a piece I think that's going to be out in The Atlantic soon, which wrote up some of my thoughts post-election, a thing that I think is kind of happening in a fascinating way is that the Republican Party is so obsessed, that coalition is so obsessed with the question of who rules, who controls power, they care less and less about what the agenda is.

I actually see a world in which the Republican Party, weirdly, starts to moderate on policy because it doesn't matter to them. It matters who rules and everything else they don't care. It's like, to me, the Josh Hawley standing up there in a week, pounding the table for $2000 checks and pounding the table for overturning the will of the people in the same breath, is like a perfect encapsulation of it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I will offer just a little pushback on that. I think they legitimately care. I think this goes to your question of who rules. I think they legitimately care about disenfranchising Black people.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, no. Totally. I agree with that. I think the things they care about when I say radicalizing against democracy. I think the things that they will be more extreme on is enfranchisement... You know, the voting, voting integrity, all that stuff.

What I mean more is all the Reagan, Romney, Ryan, the budget, "We're going to fix..."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Don't you think they care about tax cuts? Don't you think it's a significant, they actually care about that?

CHRIS HAYES: I only think the donor class does.

TA-NEHISI COATES: But that's a powerful element in the Republican Party.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, no. It's a powerful element. I just think those people that overran the Capitol yesterday and, increasingly, the mass base of the party could give a shit about any of it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: They don't care. Yeah. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: In fact, I think probably want $2000 checks. I just think that that aspect because the mass base has gotten so detached from whatever they used to tell themselves Reaganite conservatism was, that there's tremendous space for policy and entrepreneurship where you can be like, "$2000 checks to every American is the real conservative thing," and they'll be like, "Sure."

I even think, honestly, I think I was fascinated by how Donald Trump kept hammering his criminal justice reform, which in the grand scheme of things was tiny, but I even think there is space there on things like that. I think the thing that they are going to not... To your point is like voter enfranchisement... They are going to get worse and worse, more radical and more anti-democratic, even if whatever the substance of the agenda of when they get to control things is more wide open in some ways than I think it has been in a while.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, of course, the flip side of that, though, if we go back to our past, is there has always been a constituency in this country for revoked democracy.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. Yes. That's the Josh Hawley...

TA-NEHISI COATES: There you go. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: That is what he's pushing.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. You get policy but maybe you write it in such a way that at the state level folks can cut out who they want to cut out. You know? That's not the case with these $2000 checks but if we're looking forward.

I sent you on that pessimistic note. One thing I do want to highlight, because I don't like just to be this, there's a great opportunity over the next two years. There really, really is. I know there probably isn't much appetite for this in the Biden White House but, Goddamn, DC statehood, man. DC statehood. The way to fight this is more power.

CHRIS HAYES: I could not agree more and it should be just make DC a state. Do it. I think there's appetite for it. I think there's maybe the votes for it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You think there is appetite for it?

CHRIS HAYES: There's definitely appetite for it. The question is if there's votes for it. Yeah. I couldn't agree more. Again, I think thinking creatively about power, which is what part of that is, is going to be key for basically everyone. We have to be thinking about ways to strengthen and enlarge American democracy. That's upstream of everything else.

That's the threat right now that we saw when the mob overran the Capitol because they didn't want the will of the majority of Americans to become the governing party.

All right. Ta-Nehisi Coates, what is your next... I mean, people should read... I will give a plug for The Water Dancer, which is an incredible book, which is Ta-Nehisi's first novel.

TA-NEHS Coates: Thank you, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Which I got to read in advance and loved and then I gave to Kate and she read and loved. It was great too because I don't read enough fiction so I was glad to have that opportunity. What are you working on these days?

TA-NEHS Coates: The screenplay adaptation to that. I don't know how the hell this happened but somehow I've become a screenwriter.

CHRIS HAYES: I love it.

TA-NEHS Coates: Hopefully, not for much longer, man. I really miss books and I can't wait to get back to them. Screenwriting is a much more collaborative exercise. I miss the selfishness of books. I'm enjoying any time I'm creating but I don't know...

Anyway, there is some time ago I signed up for an adaptation of Wrong Answer, which was this New Yorker story about the Atlanta teacher scandal.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Incredible story.

TA-NEHS Coates: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I will say this, I will say this, and I think you and I have talked about this before. There is something a lot more rewarding about, say, dealing with my thoughts about charter schools and what's happening in terms of public schools and what the politics of that have been through a screenplay as opposed to not even a tweet storm but writing out a non-fictive argument.

CHRIS HAYES: Yup.

TA-NEHS Coates: There's something about getting into the minds of the actual people who are dealing with this, the kids that are actually there, is deeply, deeply pleasing.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I also think this is true of... I think about Tony Kushner, who is a huge hero of mine, who is a writer, where it's like fictional worlds allow you to layer in a level of complexity and contrasting ideas, holding them together in your head, in a way that is harder in non-fiction.

TA-NEHS COATES: Yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm working on a screenplay for a pilot right now with a friend, which I've been working on for years but I find the same thing because it's about a topic that's ostensibly... It is political but allows for a whole bunch of layers that I find pretty rewarding.

TA-NEHS COATES: Yeah. You just have a... I don't know, man. I think what I've been dealing with... Even yesterday. People were like, "Are you going to write something? Are you going to write something?" It's like I really don't know what to say beyond the obvious.

CHRIS HAYES: Dude, welcome to my world.

TA-NEHS COATES: I don't know what to write beyond...

CHRIS HAYES: I've been saying the same God damn thing for an hour five nights a week.

TA-NEHS COATES: Good God. Good God.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, particularly with COVID. I just go on and I'm like, "What are we doing here, people?"

TA-NEHiSi COATES: Right. You guys know what I think.

CHRIS HAYES: Why are we letting people die? You know. Believe me, I'm sympathetic. All right. Well, I'm excited about that project and anything else you have and come back soon and when we're both vaccinated we'll get dinner.

TA-NEHS COATES: Definitely. Definitely. Thanks so much, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again my great thanks to my friend Ta-Nehisi Coates. You can always check out his work in any bookstore or book ordering website in America. "Between the World and Me," which is his extremely brilliant, amazing, I think sort of instant classic and acclaimed open letter to his son, "We Were Eight Years In Power," a collection of his essays, "The Water Dancer." You can also watch the "Between the World and Me" adaptation on HBO, and I guess "The Water Dancer" is coming to movies at some point. Check it out. He’s not on Twitter because he’s wise, wiser than the rest of us. He does his writing, he goes offline, and then he comes back into the world of digital insanity and then he moves away from it, very smartly.

Send us feedback, hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. "Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBCNews produced by the "All In Team" and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.