America’s real law-and-order problem is racism

A conversation with Senator Chris Murphy about the origins of American violence, Trump's willful killing, plutocrats, GOP confessions, and the emotion Biden stirs that's more important than passion

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Today, a riveting conversation with Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, author of the new book "The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy."

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In his morning newsletter this week, David Leonhardt offered a simple frame for understanding where the presidential election stands.

“If the campaign is a referendum on the coronavirus, Trump will probably lose,” he wrote, citing new polling from swing states. But there is another potential issue vying for primacy, and in American politics, it’s referred to as “law and order.” Because of what Leonhardt describes as a “combination of police violence, racial injustice, peaceful protests, and rising crime in many cities,” the race is less certain than it otherwise might be.

Astonishingly (at least to me), Leonhardt reports that, in the four swing states polled, “a larger share of voters said ‘addressing law and order’ was a more important campaign issue to them than said ‘addressing the coronavirus pandemic’ was.”

There is, of course, a long history of “law and order” concern in American politics. As Geoffrey Nunberg once explained, Richard Nixon’s embrace of the phrase for his 1968 campaign reflected a new reality in American politics: in the wake of the civil rights movement, racist appeals needed to be concealed:

This was a new maneuver in modern American political rhetoric. Even in the South, most Americans had repudiated explicit racism. Now, crude appeals to bias had to be replaced by phrases that obliquely brought racial images to mind. People often describe these phrases as racial dog whistles, which send a signal that's only audible to one part of the audience.

The phrase lasted for a few decades, picked up by Democrats as well as Republicans, before eventually fading from usage — until Donald Trump revived it in 2016. Ruminating on Trump’s re-appropriation of the phrase, Nunberg wrote: 

Trump's single-handed effort to revive the slogan "law and order" is the key to creating the perception of a new crisis of crime and violence; it weaves together assaults by those he calls radical Islamic terrorists, inner-city thugs and illegals. The racial overtones of the phrase are even harder to deny now than they were in the Nixon years.

When pollsters ask voters about “law and order,” or when leaders promise to secure it, here is what many white Americans seem to have in mind: pure, placid, milk-colored communities living in perfect harmony, until darker-skinned people violently intrude.

In the minds of many of the suburban white voters who, in our peculiar system, have a disproportionate influence over election outcomes, peace is the default condition of white America, and violence is something that bubbles up from Black and brown communities that must be kept in check.

And so it was striking to me, in interviewing Senator Chris Murphy some days ago, that he rightly turned the law-and-order issue on its head. America, he notes in his new book, is the most violent country in the advanced world, and long has been. And he makes no bones about why: white people’s racism. Because from its earliest days America committed itself to an economic model dependent on chattel slavery, Murphy told me, “it took just massive, mind-numbing amounts of violence to keep America's economy running. It stands to reason that we became anesthetized to that violence during that period. I don't think that we've ever got our sense of feeling back.”

So America does have a law-and-order problem, but it’s nothing new. And the nature of that law-and-order problem is being the most violent country in the rich world. And the genesis of that violence isn’t Black and brown communities rising up against friendly, overwhelmingly white suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s white America, from the founding days of the republic, committing to an economic and political model that made violence a daily, systemic necessity.

In short, those fighting to make America less racist are not our law-and-order problem. America’s real law-and-order problem is, and always has been, racism.

This was just one of the things I spoke to Senator Murphy about in a conversation that took me by surprise. I have interviewed enough legislators to know that they seldom say anything real. They are abundantly trained in avoiding that error. But I found Murphy refreshingly candid in this interview. He talked about his own sense of being corrupted by having to raise money from rich people. He subtly criticized his own state’s decision to give billionaire financier Ray Dalio power over the state’s education system in exchange for a philanthropic gift. He talked about the Democrats’ shortcomings as a party obsessed with nuance and subtlety. He talked about how the Black Lives Matter movement has made him wonder if a white man in an influential position like his should change his style of leadership. He talked about what his Republican colleagues tell him they really think about Trump, and how they rationalize their cowardice and capitulation. It was one of the more thought-provoking conversations I’ve had since the time I sat next to Courtney Love on a flight to Brazil.

ANAND: You have said Donald Trump's plan is to kill people. He's deliberately killing people. Explain.

CHRIS: I don't see how you can't read intentionality into what the president's doing. He knows that creating a culture of social distancing and mask-wearing saves lives. He knows that by encouraging people not to engage in that behavior, he'll kill people. He has no good countervailing reason to act irresponsibly.

To me, I draw the simple conclusion: his intention is to kill people. Somewhere deep inside him, he must have a reason. My assumption is that it's likely connected to his hatred of President Obama and anyone who opposes his own policies.

I just think it's time we call it like it is. I think we've in general been way too kind to the president. We've been way too unwilling to explore his motives. Given how clear the science is on the difference that mask-wearing makes when I watched him at the convention — his biggest audience and his greatest chance to save lives — he chose to do the opposite. That looks purposeful.

ANAND: You write in the book that humans are the most violent of mammals, and Americans are the most violent of humans among comparable rich countries.

You offer a provocative and, I think, correct assessment of one of the main reasons why: anti-Black racism. Can you explain why that has given America a special propensity toward violence?

CHRIS: I think it's interesting that, as violent as America is around the revolution, we don't start to become a global outlier of violence until the slave population explodes. There's a ton of violence in America in the 1600s and 1700s, but from the data we can glean, it looks like America's homicide rate doesn't start to go into the stratosphere until we have so many enslaved Americans that violence is the defining feature of the American economy.

To me, violence explains a lot about how America has ordered itself from the very beginning. But, for many of our formative years after the Constitution's signing until the eradication of slavery, it took just massive, mind-numbing amounts of violence to keep America's economy running. It stands to reason that we became anesthetized to that violence during that period. I don't think that we've ever got our sense of feeling back.

ANAND: In that sense, violence was not a bug in the operating system. It was a feature if that was the kind of economy you wanted.

CHRIS: We decided to take a shortcut to economic prominence. We decided to use epidemic levels of violence to enslave an entire race of people to create cheap goods that we could send worldwide. It was a choice we made, but the choice required us to brutally subjugate millions of people in this country. It ended up making violence an acceptable mechanism to maintain economic and social order.

It's no coincidence that, during the 1800s, white-on-white violence was dramatically elevated, especially in the South, because it just became a much more normal course of behavior once you were using it so regularly against slaves.

ANAND: As more and more Americans are taught a more honest version of American history, it in a way becomes harder for people like you who run for office to tell a true story, and to tell a story that inspires people and lifts people up. I wonder how you think about this twin obligation — to tell a true and dark and blood-at-the-root story of America, and yet not be a Debbie Downer whom no one wants to vote for.

CHRIS: This reckoning we're having with our past is necessary, but it also comes with real consequences for one of the few threads of fabric that unites the country. As we all retreat to our corners, as we all get our information from different sources with different spins, our founding ideals and founding mythology are among the few things that we have left in common. Now, we're not even sure what that mythology is.

Here's how I think about it. Notwithstanding the fact that there was an enormous amount of violence necessary to stand up the American economy in the late 1700s, and notwithstanding the fact that most of our founding fathers were part of that slave economy, their ideas were nonetheless revolutionary. The developing idea of America, as we brought in people from all sorts of different places in the world, is no less revolutionary.

I think we can acknowledge the unconscionable flaws at America's founding while still recognizing that these two ideas — a government based upon the self-determination of a people, and a multicultural society in which everybody gets to be an American but also retain part of their heritage — those are off-the-wall ideas. We should accept that we are always in the process of getting better and getting closer to actually realizing them.

ANAND: I was actually unfamiliar, until recently, with the fact that President Trump knew what critical race theory was. It turns out not only does he know what it is, he's trying to purge it, along with anti-racism and The 1619 Project. There was a time when Republicans used to do racism by talking about the deficit. What do you make of the president of the United States going after critical race theory?

CHRIS: One of the perverse silver linings of this president is that he has destroyed all nuance around American racism. It is now out there in the open for us to see, and the president has no shame in making clear that he's pursuing policies that are driven by a fear of those who have a different skin color or a different religion. The result has, unfortunately, been to draw a lot of other people out into the open, and our debate is more coarse and more hateful than ever before.

ANAND: In the book, you link the special propensity for violence in America to our heterogeneity and how it intersects with in-built human tribalism. As America becomes a majority-minority country in the ensuing decades, if we don't do some of the big course-changing things that you advocate for in the book, would you expect us to become more rather than less violent?

CHRIS: The data show that violence tends to increase when you have large numbers of new entrants to America competing for scarce economic space. That makes sense, given that overall violence does tend to track poverty. As this one man told me on the streets of Baltimore, "Hunger, it hardens your heart." 

To the extent that white Americans are still the dominant power class in this country, as there become more non-whites and more threats to the white hierarchy, it stands to reason that there will likely be more chances for violent outbreaks. That means it's incumbent upon us to reduce the number of firearms and reduce the chances of police brutality so that there are fewer mechanisms by which to allow in-groups to perpetuate violence against out-groups.

It also means that we’ve got to be serious about creating less economic scarcity. If our history tells us that economic scarcity can lead to violence, then let's create a system in which more people can access economic success.

ANAND: We're living through this uprising of Black Lives Matter, and we're seeing the National Guard and federal agents deployed against protesters, as well as local police. There are arguments at each of the extremes: "All cops are bad," on one hand; "All cops are heroes," on the other, and various shades of opinion in between. I wonder how you see the systemic problem — if you do see one — in law enforcement that goes beyond bad-apple cops. Do you think that the problem of excessive violence in Americans which you chronicle is also a problem of excessive violence in our police?

CHRIS: I think the police in America grow up amidst a culture that celebrates violence. We celebrate it on TV and in the movies. We celebrate it in the conduct of our foreign policy. We celebrate it in the way that we have fetishized firearms. Police grow up in this context in which, for centuries, Americans have been taught that violence is a mechanism to order society.

To the extent that we have a systemic policing problem, it's our overuse of police. We've come to expect that police are everything. I introduced a bill a month ago to stop federal funding for police in schools. It resulted in a real outcry back in Connecticut. There's a lot of people who simply can't understand why the police shouldn't be in schools.

My question is: Why should a police officer with a gun and the power of arrest ever be in our schools? What service are they providing that another professional without a gun or the power of arrest couldn't offer? I think we've just come to rely on the police to solve all sorts of problems that don't require that level of professionalism. It puts them in untenable, unwinnable situations. 

ANAND: Is what you just described a senatorial version of—

CHRIS: Of “defund the police”?

ANAND: Yeah.

CHRIS: Over the last three months, I've called up many of the defund-police activists in Connecticut because I was eager to get into a conversation with them. For many of these activists, the police have become so illegitimate as an institution that policing needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

That doesn't mean they don't acknowledge the legitimacy of some law enforcement. It's just that, to them, the existing structure is so badly broken it can't be rebuilt. Listen, we probably are at the moment where we need to wipe the slate clean and rebuild our law enforcement model because what we're doing now isn't working. To me, that's not defunding the police, but that does require a pretty radical conversation about the future of law enforcement. 

ANAND: I was very heartened to see that you had read my book, and I joke-tweeted that you were brave to support my plutocrat-bashing since you represent Connecticut, where an enormous fraction of the plutes live. I'm curious how the critique of plutocracy — and, to an extent, of the political establishment’s, including the Democratic Party’s, complicity in plutocracy — landed with you.

CHRIS: I spent an awful lot of time on the phone with millionaires as I was building my political career. I spent a lot more time on the phone with millionaires than I did with people who are making a minimum wage. The reason for that is simple. I was trying to raise money, and I was at times running against self-funders, people that could write themselves a $50 million check. To advance my progressive agenda, I had to get really close to people who were deeply anchored in the status quo.

That always made me so uncomfortable. I've gotten out of that because I've been able to build an email list that is big enough that I can raise money now from thousands and thousands of small contributors rather than big contributors. That is a huge problem in modern politics. 

ANAND: Does making those calls, spending time that way, change how you think? Does it distort your sense of reality? Does it corrupt you?

CHRIS: It absolutely distorts your sense of reality. Had I not been on the phone raising money, I probably wouldn't have talked to a single constituent about the issue of carried interest. The only reason why I talked to anybody who wanted to maintain preferential tax treatment for hedge-fund and private-equity managers was because I was on the phone raising money from people in Fairfield County. 

When you're hustling for votes, and you're in a swing congressional district, they tell you that you should be on the phone raising money three to four hours a day. That's the time that you should be spending being at committee hearings and reading books by smart people, and talking to folks about their difficulty paying the rent in the poor neighborhoods that you represent. You can't do any of that, because you're only calling people who have the ability to write you a thousand-dollar check. 

ANAND: What I was trying to go after was this win-win paradigm that obviously dominated the Republican Party, but has in many ways dominated the Democratic Party as well. No one denies that we have a problem with a broken opportunity ladder. But in the win-win paradigm, you can help all those people down below without cramping people's style on the top, without giving them a significant economic haircut, without reducing their wealth and power. 

When you have Joe Biden starting a campaign saying, Nothing will fundamentally change for those kinds of folks, you're very much in that paradigm. If you think about your wealthiest constituents in Fairfield County, do you think they need to be less wealthy and less powerful for justice to be done in America?

CHRIS: Yes. I don't see any way to fix what is wrong with this country without acknowledging that we have money spread in an unsustainable way. You can't ultimately run an economy with this small number of people having access to this amount of wealth. Now, you can transfer that wealth from generation to generation. If there are billions upon billions of dollars transferred from one generation to another and are unavailable to folks who are trying to make their fortune from nothing, then we've just ripped the guts out of America.

In Connecticut, we've got the folks that you talk about in your book. We've got folks who want to be very generous with their billions, but they want to have a big say in how their money is spent on good causes. I still believe in one person, one vote. When it comes to how dollars are spent through government, no billionaire should have more say than my poorest constituent.

ANAND: Do you think Bernie Sanders changed the Democratic Party?

CHRIS: Yes. What's interesting to know about Bernie is that he says the same thing inside the Democratic caucus that he says up on stage. He doesn't pull punches.

I think now everybody understands there's a huge reservoir of support for the worldview that he's expressing, and thus his courage in saying that privately and saying that publicly has a lot more impact now. I think it was Bernie saying those things in private before he was ever a national candidate that made me rethink how I conducted myself politically. It made me more uncomfortable with how much I relied on big donors and political action committees for money.

ANAND: When you are in touch with your constituents these days, do you detect passion for Joe Biden as a candidate?

CHRIS: Yes, I do. I run into a lot of people in Connecticut who are deeply loyal to Joe Biden. It's not the same passion that people had for Barack Obama, and it's not the same kind of passion that people had and still have for Donald Trump. There's a connection that people feel to Biden that they may not register to pollsters as enthusiasm but is still deep and meaningful.

I think they see the pain and hurt in his eyes that reflect some of the same pain and hurt they have. I get it: People say, "Nobody's enthusiastic about Biden." The polls tell us that there's an enthusiasm gap. That's not the emotion that Biden has ever engendered in people.

People trust him. They feel a deep connection to him. In the end, that's won him a lot of elections. It is probably what's going to win him this election. It's different from a million people showing up for you, but it doesn't mean it's less important.

ANAND: What do you think he could do to be a better candidate in the home stretch?

CHRIS: I hesitate to give somebody advice who's up by several points in the polls. Let me say this as a general critique or a piece of general advice for the Democratic Party. I think there has got to be more people willing to call out this president as a killer. I don't understand why we don't see the writing on the wall. There are nearly 200,000 Americans dead. We could be living with the consequences of this for generations. We still normalize the idea that the president can get away with willingly and purposefully refusing to do anything meaningful about the virus, and, in fact, taking steps that he knows will get more people killed.

ANAND: Do you think that Democrats need to do a better job of being willing to play to base instincts, play to the reptile brain, play to people's outrage in the service of good and noble things?

CHRIS: I make this case all the time to my colleagues, mostly behind the scenes: you’ve got to meet people where they are. What Republicans are great at doing is telling you who's to blame. Whether it's big government or Mexican immigrants or Muslims, Republicans are going to tell you who's doing the bad things to you.

Democrats, we believe in subtleties. We don't believe in good and evil. We believe in relativity. That needs to change.

Some not-so-good actors are not doing great things, whether it be the billionaire class that wants to hang onto the status quo, or the pharmaceutical companies ripping us off, or the tech companies that are polluting our debate. We've got to be honest about the folks who are making off with billions at your expense. It's deeply antithetical to our nature as a party. We are in love with subtlety.

ANAND: Tell me about the secret inner life of your Republican colleagues. I imagine there are some relationships you have never had or don't have anymore, but are there some relationships you have with Republicans where you know privately what they actually think of Trump? Are they in agreement with you about Trump in private, and then go out and say the opposite thing?

CHRIS: I had one Republican come up to me early in the president's term. He had just listened to me say something particularly outrageous about Trump on TV. He approached me at the very back of the Senate chamber. He said, "I envy you." He was like, "If only I could say the things you could say." I think as a group it’s shrinking, not expanding. There's a cadre that knows exactly who he is and has decided to hold their nose, but are not unwilling to talk about that behind the scenes.

They still tend to think that we're worse and that we're more dangerous, which is, I think, how they justify their silence.

ANAND: If you were to view them as friends and colleagues, not people you're also going to war with, I wonder what you think this has done to them. What does it do to you for three or four years to suppress everything you think, to live this kind of lie? 

CHRIS: That's a psychological inquiry I haven't done yet.

It's disfiguring to be on the receiving end of a demagogue. It's also likely disfiguring to be an enabler of the demagogue. I think we've all been transformed by this experience. Listen, they rationalize what they're doing. Their rationalizations are hard to listen to, but they're not 100 percent impossible to understand.

Their favorite rationalization is that he'd be worse if we turned on him. We're influencing him from the inside. He would have started a war with Iran if I wasn't talking to him. The other one is, You see what this guy did to Corker and Flake? He ran them out of town once they crossed him.

ANAND: One of your Republican colleagues, Joni Ernst from Iowa, pushed this debunked QAnon conspiracy theory that only 6 percent of those reported dead from coronavirus actually died from it. What's your personal deciding line for which Republicans you can have relationships with versus who's crossed the line for you?

CHRIS: I mean, 52 of them have crossed the line.

ANAND: Is there anybody you won't talk to as a result?

CHRIS: No. There's nobody I won't talk to. I am intent on maintaining relationships with these guys. They wouldn't give a crap if I stopped talking to them. I don't really see it as my job to socially cut off people or professionally cut off people, because the Constitution is not suspended. I still am required to find 60 votes for the things that I care about.

If I eventually want to pass background checks that save lives, I've got to have relationships with these guys. 

ANAND: You wrote the book over the last couple of years, but in the introduction you say that you want to be a forceful ally in this new civil rights movement that rose this summer.

In so many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement is really an educational moment, I think, for many white people in particular. It's not just a classic protest dynamic. It's an educational dynamic. I wonder if you can speak personally to what you've realized through this movement's ascendancy that you have gotten wrong in the past, or didn't see, that you now feel you see better or see differently.

CHRIS: It makes me more interested in finding the right role for my leadership. What's my role right now? Is it to get out front and lead on police reform questions and broad economic reform? Is it my responsibility in a position of power to help lift up others from communities of color, Black people, Latinos who can speak for themselves and lead?

I haven't answered those questions yet, and that's why I've spent a lot of time on the phone with a lot of these young leaders in Connecticut in the last four months because I'm trying to search for what I'm supposed to do with this power I have. Am I just supposed to go off and work on the legislation that will change things, or am I supposed to help build a movement? I'm leaning towards the latter, not the former.

A couple of years ago, I would have said, "Well, I've been elected to lead, so now I have to go off and pass a bill, work with my colleagues, and bring it up for committee hearings." Now I think, No, I think maybe this position I have comes with a responsibility to put others in the position to speak, rather than speaking myself.

ANAND: It's a change in your understanding of your job.

So I was struck by something you said recently: "Democracy is unnatural." It's a surprising perspective to have as a senator. Why do you think so?

CHRIS: I believe this 100 percent. We need to recognize that 0.1 percent of humans have lived in a democratic society for the last thousand years, and that's no coincidence. We should remember that there's almost nothing else in our life which matters that we run by democratic vote.

We're perfectly comfortable having a CEO run our company. We are very comfortable as humans and as Americans being part of hierarchical organizations where one person has enormous amounts of authority. We should admit that. We should recognize that it's miraculous that we've chosen to run the government through a democratic vote. 

We sometimes act as if this is inevitable or that it's here to stay. There's nothing in world history, and there's nothing within the context of how we organize the rest of our lives, to tell you that this is permanent. 

We should remember that you’ve got to work like hell to protect what we have and improve it. You’ve got to stomp down on anybody who tries to poke massive holes in it like this president's doing.

ANAND: The writer Valarie Kaur has this question that I love and feel so appropriate in this time of darkness that we're all experiencing. She asks, "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?" How do you think about whether this is a moment of American death, of that kind of democratic expiration you're talking about, or whether this feels like some kind of very awkward rebirth?

CHRIS: I don't know that it's either. I think there's a chance that there is an American reconstruction that happens on the back end of this, but I also think it's possible this was an anomalous leader, and we get back to the old trajectory that we were on, which is, for many of us, not satisfactory.

Steven Pinker's book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is the most optimistic piece of history that I've ever read in my life. The basic supposition is that over the long course of human history, humans are finding ways to get along, ways to live longer, ways to spread prosperity, ways to figure out means to address grievances other than violence.

Over the long term, we find ways as human beings to make things better. There are lots of peaks and valleys along the way, and there are lots of people who lead really shitty lives even amidst a trendline that looks better for humanity. I don't know what's in store for America in the next one hundred years. I'm going to work like hell while I'm on the earth to try to make sure that this democracy survives and improves its foundation.

Chris Murphy is a Democratic senator from Connecticut. He is the author of the new book “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy.”

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Some recommendations:

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  • A translator-in-chief: Joe Biden has much to prove in terms of his willingness to fight for real change, but his climate speech — endorsed by Sunrise Movement leader and The.Ink interviewee Varshini Prakash — showed the talent that could be helpful if he becomes serious about an FDR-sized presidency: translating the left’s language of justice into folksy c’mon man ’Murican. [C-SPAN]

See you soon!


Photo: Getty Images / Barcroft Media