Female Reporter 1: Greg Abbott has declared the border crisis an invasion, and invokes Texas' constitutional right to self-defense.
Brooke Gladstone: Is the Texas governor's defiance of the fed's politics as usual or something more dire? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. America's view of our immigration problem is so focused on Washington and the border, we think that's where we'll find a quick fix.
Jonathan Blitzer: There's this fantasy of a silver bullet. If only the administration could just turn off immigration at the southern border, the problem would be solved, then obviously it doesn't work like that.
Brooke Gladstone: Plus, Chris Hayes of MSNBC makes the case for more and better coverage of candidate Trump.
Chris Hayes: I don't think we're ever going to go back to The Wall coverage of 2016, and that's a good thing. I just think the pendulum swung too far in the other direction.
Micah Loewinger: It's all coming up after this.
Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Amid a surge of migrants at the southern border and a Supreme Court ruling that did not go in his favor, Texas Governor Greg Abbott last week offered the federal government the rhetorical middle finger.
Female Reporter 1: One of the strongest acts of defiance for a modern-day governor, Greg Abbott has declared the border crisis an invasion, and invoked Texas' constitutional right to self-defense.
Governor Greg Abbott: The authors of the Constitution knew there would be times when the federal government would not live up to its duty.
Brooke Gladstone: Greg Abbott.
Governor Greg Abbott: Texas has a right as a state to stop criminals from coming into our state.
Brooke Gladstone: This came after the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration by lifting a lower court injunction that had prevented federal Border Patrol from clearing the real grand of deadly spools of razor wire put there by Abbott along with buoys to stop migrants attempting to swim to the US border by almost any means necessary. Here's Abbott on a conservative podcast.
Governor Greg Abbott: The only thing that we're not dealing is we're not shooting people who've come across the border because, of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.
Brooke Gladstone: Donald Trump approves.
Donald Trump: When I'm president, instead of trying to send Texas a restraining order, I will send them reinforcements.
Brooke Gladstone: And the heat of Republican governors.
Female Reporter 2: 25 out of our country's 26 Republican governors are publicly supporting Governor Abbott's defiance.
Brooke Gladstone: So what's all this about? In this week's Atlantic, staff writer Adam Serwer noted that Abbott's defiant statement mirrored the language found in the Texas Declaration of Secession written in 1861. Mostly about slavery, that document also claimed that the federal government had betrayed Texas by failing to protect the lives of Texans against "the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico."
Here in the present, Abbott referred to the invasion clause of the Constitution that gave states sovereign power to mount troops in its self-defense against foreign aggression, plainly likening the surge of migrant families to the border to a military invasion.
Adam Serwer: That's exactly what he's doing. That language of engaging in war makes it clear that this is not about a figurative invasion.
Brooke Gladstone: Adam Serwer says that's not the kind of crisis the clause was intended to address.
Adam Serwer: It refers to an invading army or an invading military force. It is not referring to people trying to come to the United States to have a better life. It's meant to allow states to defend themselves from an actual military invasion until the federal government arrives. That doesn't mean that states can't do anything on their own with immigration, but they can't usurp the federal government's authority in that area.
For that reason, it should have been a pretty open-and-shut case. The Texas National Guard has been setting up razor wire at areas where migrants are likely to cross. In this particular instance, there was a woman and some children who were trying to cross the river and they drowned, and they were prevented from reaching them by the Border Patrol. Now the Border Patrol's legal obligation is to apprehend migrants and process them when they cross the border illegally. The federal government was arguing that Texas was unlawfully preventing them from enforcing federal law. This is not the first time this has happened.
Brooke Gladstone: The notion that the states have the right to defy the government in this regard expired long ago.
Adam Serwer: That was settled by the Civil War. The Union is perpetual, the federal government is sovereign. It's a very bizarre escalation. In rhetoric, that's basically neo-secessionist.
Brooke Gladstone: Meanwhile, there had been ominous ramblings about the looming constitutional crisis, but Serwer says it's too soon to tell.
Adam Serwer: This is an expression of lawlessness, honestly, that is rooted in this idea essential to the ideology of Donald Trump, which is that the only people who can legitimately wield power are Republicans or conservatives. Therefore, when a Democrat is in office, you can simply defy that authority. It's important to go back to that conservative narrative that Joe Biden is deliberately allowing the rise of migration to destroy the country that justifies extreme measures in response. How important it ultimately is and how much of it is a performance, we don't know. I think if it's not a performance, things could get dangerous, but I don't think we know that this is more than politics at the moment.
Brooke Gladstone: What may be most discouraging here is that four out of the nine High Court justices sided with Abbott's neo-secessionist declaration, perhaps encouraging all but one of the nation's Republican governors to jump in.
Adam Serwer: I think it was a mistake for the four justices to not send a unified message to Texas that they are not allowed to usurp the immigration powers of the federal government. The Supreme Court does not want to make itself irrelevant. They do not want to lose their power. If they send a message that their rulings are optional, especially if they send that message to their political allies, they're going to undermine their own authority.
Brooke Gladstone: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Jonathan Blitzer covers immigration for The New Yorker and is author of the new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here. He's been watching the framing of the three humanitarian emergencies at the southern border in recent years onto the last three presidents in 2014, 2019, and 2021. He's observed that, tellingly, each of these crises is experienced by the American public as separate, unrelated events.
Jonathan Blitzer: That's right. There's this feeling of, "Okay. Well, that was Obama's crisis. That was Trump's crisis. This is Biden's crisis," as opposed to understanding that one story that's unspooling in the region and in the wider world.
Brooke Gladstone: I assume that the media have a big role in that misapprehension.
Jonathan Blitzer: It's understandable in a certain sense that the decisions made in Washington would be responsible for what we see at the US southern border, but the politics of this issue, which are so irresistible to cover, are so bruising that tends to dominate the conversations, sort of what the consequences will be for a particular administration? Does this sabotage other elements of their agenda? We gloss over what's led to the situation at the border in the first place.
Brooke Gladstone: What drops out of the narrative?
Jonathan Blitzer: The actual circumstances driving people to leave their homes in the first place and come to the US border, those dynamics have changed over the years. Right now, we're actually in a very interesting moment. We've seen crises in 2014, in 2019, in 2021. For the most part, each of those crises have had to do with Central American children and families coming to the border seeking asylum. Now, what we're seeing is an even expanded version of the problem, Venezuelans, principally, Cubans, Nicaraguans, people from all over South America and the world.
The over-fixation on the Washington dimension of the story mean that we tend to think it's just a function of whether or not the current administration is sending a message of permissiveness or harshness that's dictating people's decisions to move, when in fact people have been on the move for years before we start to see the situation play out at the border.
Brooke Gladstone: You say that the system hasn't been reformed or modified since 1990, and you said the border's a pressure point that the asylum system was never meant to sustain.
Jonathan Blitzer: This is a problem that the successive administrations and congresses are responsible for creating.
Brooke Gladstone: I think that's why you said out in your book to tell the story of the immigration crisis going back some time, but you find the story really begins in 1980.
Jonathan Blitzer: 1980 was a key moment for one reason above all, and that was the government passed the 1980 Refugee Act. In the past, the US government tried to provide protection to people fleeing persecution and upheaval and wars and all sorts of things across the world, but there had never been a systematic policy. For the first time, you had a concerted effort to give some sort of order to this broader ethos.
You have a split screen in the United States that's happening at that moment. You have, on the one hand, this very noble ethos that brings the United States into accord with international law and human rights in an immigration policy, but you also have in the early 1980s the Cold War raging at its peak. The United States government was simultaneously engaged in propping up right-wing regimes in Central America on the logic that these right-wing governments, even though they were perpetrating all sorts of atrocities in their countries, were nevertheless allies with the United States to help contain the spread of communism.
Brooke Gladstone: We're talking about the Salvadoran Civil War that was from '80 to '92. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from the late '60s to the early '90s.
Jonathan Blitzer: Exactly. It should be said that these military governments were receiving not just diplomatic cover from the United States, but military aid, resources, advisors, and so US foreign policy essentially created a new demographic of immigrants coming to the United States seeking asylum and refuge.
Brooke Gladstone: You say the wars lasted longer because of US involvement.
Jonathan Blitzer: Exactly. In the case of El Salvador, civil war extended from 1980 to 1992. The US was propping up the Salvadoran military, which at the time was battling a group of leftist guerillas. For all of the resources that the US poured into that war effort, the Salvadoran government essentially fought these guerillas to a stalemate, and in the process, 75,000 people died.
Brooke Gladstone: Given, as you say, the split screen, the pressures of the Cold War on one side and the drive to get into accord with international norms on the other, how did the US asylum system work?
Jonathan Blitzer: The way it was supposed to work, according to the law, was that people's claims were supposed to be analyzed based only on the question of whether or not they were being persecuted based on their identities. Technically, now, a law existed that required the US to extend protection to people seeking relief at the border, but a large number of people who were showing up at the border seeking relief were fleeing repressive governments that were allies of the United States. You started to see, very, very high rejection rates of asylum claims from people coming from El Salvador and Guatemala. At a time when, on the whole, about 20% or so of asylum seekers had their applications granted, you had for Salvadorans and Guatemalans who were applying for asylum grant rates that were less than 2% and less than 1%.
Brooke Gladstone: This ultimately led to a court settlement where the US government had to admit that it had systematically discriminated for geopolitical reasons.
Jonathan Blitzer: Just one incident in a long historical pattern coloring the way in which immigration law and practice actually played out. The broader history, as you zoom out over time, is the fact that just as during the Cold War, you had the US government making all sorts of allowances for Cold War allies that perpetrated all sorts of atrocities. Fast forward a couple of decades, you have a similar phenomenon playing out where the US now is willing to make allowances for governments in the region that also perpetrate all kinds of atrocities, that are guilty of all sorts of corruption because they have vowed to help the US limit the spread of migration to the US southern border. There's a second iteration of that realpolitik.
Brooke Gladstone: Let's take Honduras today. It's oppressive. The government's openly corrupt.
Jonathan Blitzer: One way of summarizing what's gone on in Honduras in recent years is this. Later this month, the former president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, who was a US ally, over the course of two successive American administrations, is facing drug charges in a federal court in New York.
Brooke Gladstone: Ah, so we are not averting our eyes as much as we used to.
Jonathan Blitzer: Yes and no. It took more than a decade for this to come to pass. When he was president of Honduras, the corruption was transparent, the ways in which he repressed the broader population, it seems highly likely that he committed fraud in the 2017 election. All of these things were accommodated by the US government because he said all of the right things on the subject of fighting crime, drug interdiction, and immigration. It became very easy for regional leaders like this to play the United States because the US interests were so obvious.
Brooke Gladstone: When you say, "They said the right things," what kind of things do you mean?
Jonathan Blitzer: This is, I think, something that's very often overlooked. For the US to be able to deport people back to their homes, depends on an agreement with the government of those countries to receive the deportees. When those governments have been at odds with the United States, they can cause real chaos for the Americans. An example, until fairly recently, the Venezuelan government would not accept American deportation flights.
US authorities were in a real bind because they had large numbers of Venezuelans showing up at the southern border, the enforcement-minded agenda of US to apprehend them and deport them, but they couldn't deport them. There's all kinds of international cooperation that's out of public view that dictates how the US prosecutes its immigration agenda at the border. This goes back to why I think it's so important for media conversations to take into account these broader issues.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. President Clinton, you noted, was working on an immigration bill that drew a distinct line between legal immigrants seen as upstanding and illegal immigrants treated as unworthy. You think that debate in the '90s set up the framework for how we talk about immigration today?
Jonathan Blitzer: That was a real watershed moment in the 1990s. You had all kinds of converging political imperatives for a White House that saw its job as essentially needing to outflank Republicans in an election year.
Brooke Gladstone: That was the essence of a lot of the Clinton administration.
Jonathan Blitzer: There was an extremely harsh law passed in 1996 that basically made it much easier for the government to deport people and to strip them of their legal status. One of the characters in my book, actually, had a green card that he lost because he was convicted of a drug crime. This particular law was passed by a bunch of conservatives in Congress who themselves ended up getting so shocked by how many people were rounded up that they wound up appealing to immigration authorities and asking them to moderate the very law that they had passed.
Brooke Gladstone: Wow.
Jonathan Blitzer: There were these legal bars that the law created that said that if you had crossed the border unlawfully and/or if you had overstayed a visa, or if at any point your legal status had lapsed, you would be barred from the United States for either 5 or 10 years. Now, we accept as part of the landscape, the fact that there are 11 plus million undocumented people living in the United States. The size of that population was, in large part, created by this law in 1996 that trapped people in this country and denied them avenues to regularize their legal status. The size of the undocumented population, decades later, reflects the consequences of that law in the mid-1990s.
Brooke Gladstone: Then, in 2015, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions released the immigration handbook for the new Republican majority, and you say that was a sea change in the GOP's immigration policy.
Jonathan Blitzer: Now, it seems so fateful. At the time, it seemed like a very strange blip. You basically had, in 2012, Obama's re-election. He beats Mitt Romney for president. The common wisdom was that Romney's greatest liability, the real reason he lost was that he'd used issues like immigration way too conservatively and alienated broad segments of the electorate.
While that was the broad consensus following the 2012 election, you had hardliners like Jeff Sessions in Congress, who actually took the exact opposite lesson. Sessions' read on the situation was, "We lost in 2012 because we were not harsh enough that there was a real constituency out there who would love to see us crack down even more on immigration." For the most part, sessions was in the political wilderness until the arrival of Donald Trump who recognized the potential to weaponize the immigration issue, to whip up fear, and to ride that to the White House.
Michael Lowinger: Coming up, the second half of Brooke's conversation with Jonathan Blitzer.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.
Michael Lowinger: This Is On the Media. I'm Michael Lowinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Picking up on my conversation with Jonathan Blitzer, in his new book, Everyone Who's Gone is Here, he traces the root causes of record-breaking migration at the southern border. Now, our focus shifts to the 21st century, and specifically the weekend of Mother's Day 2014, when decades of Central American history came crashing down at that border.
Jonathan Blitzer: 2014 was a major moment because that's really when you had seemingly suddenly the arrival of large numbers of Central Americans seeking asylum at the border.
Brooke Gladstone: Families.
Jonathan Blitzer: And children, populations that were extremely vulnerable, that administratively required a lot of attention. This was the culmination of decades of US foreign policy and US immigration policy. A lot of what these Central Americans were fleeing in 2014 was gang violence. That gang violence in Central America was the result of US deportation policy in the 1990s. Americans were deporting gang members who had been hardened on the streets of American cities.
Brooke Gladstone: That sounds a little simplistic. Are we really responsible for the gang violence?
Jonathan Blitzer: In this instance, I have to say, while American complicity in the horrors of the region is often indirect, this is one instance where there is a direct throughline between US immigration policy and crime in the region. All throughout the 1980s, you had hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Central American asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants arriving in the United States, and a lot of them arrived in inner cities across the country. In Los Angeles at the time, the Salvadoran population that arrived was immediately brutalized by a vicious racial hierarchy, Black gangs, Mexican gangs, and a lot of young Salvadorans started to form their own groups, and gangs as just a form of self-defense. Over time, elements of these groups grew increasingly violent in their own right.
For example, gangs like MS-13, which now is such a widely known name because President Trump talked about it incessantly, that gang began on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The United States in the '90s as it was cracking down on crime and as it was also trying to show itself to be tough on immigration matters, started to deport a lot of these gang members who had really come into their own on the streets of American cities. The issue was that the United States didn't warn Central American governments about the types of people it was deporting. There was just a kind of callousness and neglect.
Take a country like El Salvador. This country was just reeling from 12 years of civil war. One of the agreements that emerged in the peace talks was that the state would have to dismantle the police force because it had engaged in all kinds of abuses during the war. They were slowly building back the police. The state itself was weak. The country's economy had cratered. At that moment, you started to have the mass arrival of very violent criminals from the United States. You had instances in which Salvadoran presidents complained to Clinton at international summits that the US wasn't giving them a chance to adequately prepare for the types of people now who were arriving and who were causing chaos and mayhem in Salvadoran cities.
Brooke Gladstone: Hence, the repeated wave of refugees. Now, that is fascinating. I mentioned earlier that there was an attitude that arose during the Clinton administration that legal immigrants are fine. Illegal ones, they shouldn't be allowed in. Nowadays, conservatives say that, "Oh, immigration is fine, and all, my grandpa," yada, yada, yada, but the law is the law.
Jonathan Blitzer: There was always an element of bad faith in that argument that I think in recent years, we've now finally seen for what it is. The standard bearer of the Republican Party, the former president, Donald Trump, made his administration into a war on immigration of all forms. The Trump administration worked assiduously to cut legal immigration to the United States. They can no longer credibly claim that what they're trying to do is just be harsher and follow the rule of law for people who are attempting to cross unlawfully. In fact, what they're trying to do is make it harder for anyone to come to the United States.
Brooke Gladstone: They did two big things. The Remain in Mexico policy was one of them.
Jonathan Blitzer: The premise of it was that rather than extending people protection when they sought asylum at the US border and letting them enter the country, as was their legal right to do, the US government instead would shunt them to northern Mexico and basically say, "Okay, you have to wait here for however many months it takes for your case to make it through the backlogged American immigration courts." There were no measures taken to see to the general welfare or protection of asylum seekers while they were in northern Mexico, a notoriously dangerous region.
We're talking about 70,000 people over time, stuck in tent cities along the border in miserated conditions, often preyed on by criminal gangs and cartel elements. Trump really worked to put the lives of these migrants at the border out of sight and out of mind. Any government that succeeded Trump that attempted to reengage with this issue, guided by a sense of the law and basic human decency, was going to face this problem of bringing a situation that had been kept out of view back into the fore of American public life. That's one of the things that contributed to this sense that Biden was bringing chaos when he took over. This stuff was all building south of the border. It was just out of plain view.
Brooke Gladstone: Remain in Mexico was one of Trump's big policies. The second one was to use the pandemic to make it almost impossible to apply for refugee status at all.
Jonathan Blitzer: We really live with the legacy of that now. What the Trump administration did was it invoked this obscure public health authority to say, "Look, we're in the start of a pandemic. We have to see to the protection of federal workers and Americans, and we can't process people coming to seek asylum." We've since learned, of course, that public health officials did not support the use of this authority and that they got strong-armed by the White House at the time. But what's so significant about it was it did a few things that Biden has now had to reckon with and hasn't fully overcome.
The first was that because this policy just expelled people en masse without processing them, it led, actually to more repeat crossings because they had nothing to lose. If they got turned away the first time, they were so desperate, they may as well try a second time. They weren't going to be detained. They weren't going to lose a case that then became a mark on their record.
It's also become an issue for the Biden administration, which was opposed to the policy in theory when it took office, but was slow to end it because it was very seductive for members of the current administration to hold on to this authority that promised to allow the government to expel anyone and everyone they had to whenever they wanted. The result was that this idea somehow got normalized such that just the other day, you heard President Biden say that he's willing to shut down the border if that meant gaining control.
Brooke Gladstone: In your view, what did Biden do well, and what has he not done well?
Jonathan Blitzer: What Biden has done well, he has stood the legal immigration system back up after years of its deterioration under Trump. It has stood back up the refugee system, which was a program that the Trump administration had deliberately run into the ground. Now the United States is resettling large numbers of refugees at levels that we saw prior to the Trump years. There have been all sorts of administrative regulations that the administration has put into place to reverse some of these more technical Trump policies and also interior enforcement.
ICE continues to make arrests and to deport people but in a more targeted way. Of course, it's a double-edged sword for the Biden administration, because here is something that they could really credibly say, particularly to democratic voters and members of the progressive left, that, "Look, we have actually been increasingly humane in how we carry out interior enforcement in the country," but they don't want to sound like they're being too soft on immigration because the border looms large.
These successes that I'm describing, the Biden administration has been slow to tout. The area where the Biden administration has really struggled is at the border, is figuring out how to deal with this historic number of people showing up seeking asylum and figuring out ways of dealing regionally to try to manage the flow. That is an immense problem, particularly now, as Congress is resisting requests from the administration for more funding. Their goal here is to make the situation worse because it plays better politically for them.
Brooke Gladstone: Would you say there's some denialism on the part of some progressives about how serious the problem is at the border, which is partly why it's been such a winning issue for Republicans because at least they're acknowledging there's a problem?
Jonathan Blitzer: I think that that's right. Republicans are capitalizing on the fact that people think, "Oh, the fact that Republicans are able to say that there is a problem means that they're clear-eyed about a solution." That is not true. The proposals that Republicans have put forward in Congress are not credible solutions.
Brooke Gladstone: Who says they're not credible?
Jonathan Blitzer: Well, I'm glad you asked because often the way this issue plays out in the media is we say, "Oh, well, Republicans say X, and Democrats counter with Y." In fact, if you talk to career officials at Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, what you hear a lot of them say is that the things Republicans are proposing are not workable. They're impractical.
Brooke Gladstone: Like what?
Jonathan Blitzer: In example, you hear Republicans say that one of the problems we have is that so many families are showing up at the border seeking asylum. The solution to that is to detain all the families. This is an impossibility. There aren't the resources to detain families at that scale and it's not clear that that would really stem the flow of families who are desperate to reach the border. What it would do is it would overwhelm resources. It would consume a great deal of money. It would take a long time to set up the facilities that would be necessary to act on that premise. It would also mean that you would have to release certain single adults, for instance, in order to make room for families. It is nonsense.
If you talk to people who actually engage in operations on a granular, daily level at the border and beyond, they say as much. That doesn't mean that Democrats aren't to blame for failing to come up with more credible alternatives. They've almost sat out the policy debate over the years and it's a policy debate that is ugly. Every operational idea for how to deal with what's going on at the border has countless trade-offs. It really is a complex tangle. The way through it is to engage rather than to disengage. I feel like that's been historically the problem of Democrats. They've pulled back rather than doubled down.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. At the end of 2019, a million migrants were arrested at the southern border. You quote the head of Customs and Border Protection saying, "These are numbers no immigration system in the world is designed to handle."
Jonathan Blitzer: I'm glad you cite that moment in 2019 because you'll remember Trump is still in office and that is the year following the harshest border enforcement policy we have ever seen, which was the separation of families. The premise of that policy was, if we treat families harshly enough at the border, enough of them in the region will take stock, and they will stop coming. What did we see? The numbers reached historic heights. Until we get away from the idea that pure enforcement by the border has a demonstrable impact on mass migration patterns in the region and the world, we are going to be in this endless cycle.
Brooke Gladstone: What does that mean?
Jonathan Blitzer: Regional cooperation that we've never really seen before at a meaningful scale, it would mean trying to reimagine what asylum looks like, acknowledging the fact that you can't process everyone at the border and there need to be more concerted efforts made to deal with people in their home countries. That stuff that quite honestly is going to take years to set up. The politics are so reductive and so bruising in the meantime that we're stuck in this terrible loop where the things that we need to try to consider are just too long-term to withstand the immediacy of our present-day politics.
Brooke Gladstone: There are a lot of characters in your book, but you conclude with one, Juan Romagoza, and I wonder if you can tell me about him, why you chose him.
Jonathan Blitzer: Juan was a surgeon by training who in 1980 in El Salvador, where he's from, was tortured by the Salvador National Guard, brutalized to incapacitate him so he couldn't practice medicine again.
Brooke Gladstone: Why?
Jonathan Blitzer: He had helped rural peasants whom the government at the time thought were sympathetic to the leftist guerillas. He ended up escaping, spending a few years recuperating in Mexico, where he helped Guatemalans fleeing the Guatemalan Civil War, travel through Mexico and reach the United States, and get linked up with American sanctuary activists. Juan eventually reaches the United States himself, ends up applying for and getting asylum, a real rarity at the time for Salvadorans, and becoming a community leader and a public health advocate first in LA and San Francisco, and then eventually in Washington DC.
In the early 2000s, there was this incredibly important human rights case that was tried in a federal court in Florida where two Salvadoran generals, who by then were in their late 60s, early 70s, were finally taken to task for their involvement in war crimes. Juan was the main plaintiff and witness in that case, and that case led to the eventual deportation of these two Salvadoran war criminals in 2015 after years of their having lived in the United States, thanks to the intervention of the US State Department in the 1980s.
Juan's the beating heart of this story, a moral presence, also an embodiment of history, and illustrates something that's very central to the reporting here, which is the US and Central America are deeply entwined. You can't disentangle the United States and the wider region and the more American lawmakers have tried, whether through politics or foreign policy or immigration policy, the more tightly bound the US and this region become, and Juan really exemplifies that.
Brooke Gladstone: Jonathan, thank you very much.
Jonathan Blitzer: Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and author of the new book, Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up, why maybe it's time to start covering Trump more.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. The failure of Congress to address the immigration crisis can be no surprise. What's new though is the influence of one particular former president.
Female reporter 3: In a closed-door meeting yesterday, minority leader Mitch McConnell poured cold water on the deal saying, "We don't want to do anything to undermine him." Him as in Donald Trump.
Micah Loewinger: New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker observed last week, while Biden is the incumbent for the 2024 campaign, "Mr. Trump has been acting as an incumbent in a fashion too." Trump is setting the GOP agenda while still contesting the last election. But despite his looming presence in politics, the media's great Mea Culpa, circa 2020 means lots of reporters and outlets are trying not to spend every waking moment covering him and amplifying his lies. A development that we at OTM have welcomed and encouraged, but--
Chris Hayes: That decline in attention to him has actually helped him considerably politically.
Micah Loewinger: Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. In a recent Rolling Stone interview on his own show, Hayes has begun making a case for why journalists should pay closer attention to Trump.
Chris Hayes: There are two different aspects of why I think it's important to cover him more. One is the substance of what a Trump presidency would be like. He's calling for basically across the board 10% terrorists, which would be like a tax hike on all imported goods. What percentage of Americans know that he wants to raise the price of every good purchased in America by 60%? None of them. He has a knack for wriggling free from the specifics of policy.
Another example is the current Israel-Gaza War. If it were 2012 and this were happening, Mitt Romney as the nominee would've already probably done an event where they released like a one-pager or a little briefing paper and a speech about what Barack Obama was doing wrong with respect to US policy in the Middle East and Israel and what he would do if he were president. Donald Trump's never going to do that.
Micah Loewinger: Are reporters really not going to him and not asking him these questions that feels hard to believe?
Chris Hayes: They are, but again, the problem is they've asked him a few times and he said things like, "Oh, it's a bad scene. It's a bad situation. It wouldn't be happening, if our president wouldn't be happening." Then the question is, well, then what do you do without it? Again, there has been really good coverage on this. I want to be clear that a bunch of media outlets have done a really good job of trying to construct what the Trump policy vision would look like, but I do think in terms of quantity, it's not been enough and has not been dogged enough. I haven't seen a ton of coverage of what would a Donald Trump administration be doing with the war in Gaza.
Micah Loewinger: What about Trump, our media ecosystem, our political environment has led you to want to reexamine how you and you feel other journalists should cover the ex-president?
Chris Hayes: One huge change, and I think this is really counterintuitive, and what I'm about to say is going to be controversial, but I stand by it, is Twitter. Take yourself back to Trump and Twitter. We all hated that relationship. It felt like he was using the platform to jerk the media's attention around, and it was unpleasant.
Micah Loewinger: It made us dumber.
Chris Hayes: I think it made us dumber, but also one, it wasn't politically helpful for him. There was a reason that even in focus groups with Trump voters, even in polling of Trump voters, what was the unanimous complaint about Donald Trump? Stop the tweeting. They hated the tweeting. Now, some people who liked Donald Trump would view the tweeting as a personal weakness independent of who he was. Like Ulysses S. Grant's drinking. When he's not drinking, he's a great general and a good president, but the drinking's a problem. There's people who viewed Trump's tweeting that way.
I strongly believe that Trump's tweeting wasn't like that. Trump's tweeting was the most honest, authentic expression of his very nature and being. The reason it was so politically problematic is who he is is actually unappealing to a vast majority of Americans. The Trump tweet news cycle, we all are happy that we left it behind, and yet he has ended up with this best-of-both-worlds situation. He can't help himself from expressing himself in that way, and yet now he gets to basically yell into a pillow.
Micah Loewinger: If we stipulate that coverage of Trump's tweets helped unseat him in the last election, we also have to acknowledge that it was oppressive media environment too. A crowded-out, substantive coverage. It was exhausting for not just people on TV or people on the radio, but everyone. There was also a 2020 Stanford study released a couple of months before January 6th that found that exposure to Trump's voter fraud tweets likely decreased belief in election integrity among his supporters. Covering the tweets risks further radicalizing his supporters. What do we do about that?
Chris Hayes: I think you put your finger on the dilemma and it's not one that like is easy to escape. Yes, it's the dilemma of all coverage of him, particularly live coverage, which is it is a kind of poison, particularly when he's doing things like lying about the election, lying about the nature of American democratic and electoral integrity when he's fomenting hatred at specific people. It is a good thing that the platform he's using to incite harassment, and I would even claim violence against various prosecutors and court officers, that it's not happening on a bigger stage.
At the same time, his consistent incitement of harassment and violence to those people probably should be a bigger story than it is. I do think there's a happy medium. I totally agree with you. I don't think we're ever going to go back to the wall-to-wall coverage of 2016, and that's a good thing. I just think the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Every time that I dip in to watching parts of his rally, or reading stuff on Truth Social, particularly, I am struck anew by what an absolute crank he sounds like.
What ends up happening is because the media has put itself in its role of mediating, because I think the argument, correctly, the critique was, you were allowing him to communicate in such an unmediated fashion it was literally dangerous. The problem is, the challenge of mediating him necessarily involves some scrubbing off the rough edges. The version that emerges on the other side is nowhere near as wildly crankish as the raw feed.
Michael Loewinger: Let me ask you about that, because Jay Rosen, the press critic, has tried to insert a mantra into this election and past elections. He says, "The press should talk less about the horse race, more about the issues, the stakes, the consequences." What criteria do you think we should apply to determine that one of his lies or Truth Social rant posts actually gives us a clear sense of what he believes? Because it seems like once we reopen that Pandora's box, it's easy to twist ourselves into thinking that the latest bigoted, outrageous thought that has left his mouth is worth the attention of our viewers or our audiences.
Chris Hayes: Jay Rosen saying, "It's the stakes, not the odds," which I agree with, by the way. Let me give a concrete example of this. The threats to court officials. There is a court clerk in New York Court who was getting dozens of phone calls a day on her personal phone, who has been targeted by Trump, and Trump's lawyers, and Trump's followers for constant harassment. This is a clerk. She needs full-time security now. That story, which is being done, effectuated through his social media channels, that is nowhere near as covered as it should be for what it means about the stakes of the election for this kind of person being present.
Michael Loewinger: That's fair, but that's a story of him making a threat against a person. There's a who, what, where, and when, an afterlife of consequences after he makes the post. That, to me, is a good example because it's a clear story happening out in the world, but what about just like the stream of vitriol? What are the guardrails?
Chris Hayes: What about the guardrail? What I'm trying to say is, here's an example of something that fulfills both, and I think it's getting undercovered because it exists in a universe that people aren't seeing all day. Honestly, it's the difference between it being on Truth Social and it being on Twitter. If every reporter and editor was sitting there watching what he's saying about Engoron, and Chutkan, and Smith, and the clerk, and understood what was being done, which is like those people's lives are being put in danger, full stop, there would be more coverage of it. There hasn't been. The day that he was in New York Court, last week or two weeks ago, the day started with a swatting call to the judge's residence.
Michael Loewinger: This is part of a pattern.
Chris Hayes: It's part of a pattern. What I'm saying is, I totally hear you. We need some guardrails. There's got to be some theory or framework for what rises to the level of newsworthiness other than there's this just unending river of sludge. What I'm saying is, here's an example, these sorts of threats, these kinds of attacks on the court system, court officers is being done on a platform that is outside of public view, and because it's being done there, it is being undercovered as a story, even though it's, to me, one of the most significant stories of this year so far.
Michael Loewinger: Another suggestion from NYU Professor Jay Rosen is, "You don't broadcast Donald Trump live. You don't assume that you can fact-check him in real-time." I fear that some people are going to hear Chris Hayes at MSNBC says, "Cover Trump more. Let's just throw the guy on the livestream again."
Chris Hayes: Look, it is a really difficult dilemma. It's one that our network has wrestled with, and I think has been admirably transparent about. We took him live the other night in New Hampshire because again, it is newsworthy and important to see what the nominee is going to say. Then he lied about who won New Hampshire within a few minutes.
Donald Trump: We won New Hampshire three times now. Three.
Donald Trump: We win it every time. We win the primary, we win--
Chris Hayes: We came back out after he did that.
Rachel: This is part of the issue here. Donald Trump saying that he won New Hampshire not only in previous primaries but that he won New Hampshire in the general election is not true.
Chris Hayes: Rachel has been very clear on this on air. She basically said, "This is a policy we revisit all the time. We think there's a cost to a news organization to air false claims," which there is. It's hard to not be exhausted by his presence. I think a lot of people would rather not think about him. I would rather not think about him, but he really did try to end American democracy in its current form, and he really is promising to do it again in no uncertain terms.
Michael Loewinger: That's the kind of thing that you can say on your show at MSNBC. It's a liberal opinion show. You're not pretending to be objective. Covering Trump for traditional news outlets is obviously so much more fraught. When it comes to The New York Times, for instance, they don't want to seem too biased.
Chris Hayes: Totally.
Michael Loewinger: Sometimes you read a piece, and if you're not reading carefully, you'll miss the extent to which his statements and beliefs have been sanitized by bothsidesism, or the news copy has just been written in such a way that it completely softens the content of what he actually said. To the extent that you are encouraging others in the press to cover him more, and to push their audiences to see what he is really saying and planning to do on day one, what can those outlets do to cover Trump without falling into this same old trap?
Chris Hayes: Here's a great example. I thought The Sunday Shows did a good job of asking their guests about the E. Jean Carroll verdict.
Tim Scott: The average person in our country, Martha, they're not talking about lawsuits. As a matter of fact, what I have seen, however, is that the perception that the legal system is being weaponized against Donald Trump is actually increasing his poll numbers.
Martha Raddatz: I understand that they were jury trials. They were jury trials. They started when Donald Trump was president. That gives you no pause, whatsoever.
Tim Scott: The Democrats don't pause when they think about Hunter Biden and the challenges--
Chris Hayes: This used to be the sort of thing that we went through this kabuki, people got asked about nasty things Donald Trump said or did, and Republican politicians pretended they didn't know about it, or they made excuses. We all found it a little exhausting, but actually, it was important.
Michael Loewinger: Journalists got tired of asking it because?
Chris Hayes: They got tired because his level of behavior is so aberrant it's exhausting to constantly ask people those questions. Yet when you stop asking, people stop remembering just how aberrant he is.
Michael Loewinger: What do you say to listeners right now who might be thinking, "It sure sounds like Chris Hayes just wants to recapture that sweet, sweet Trump bump."
Chris Hayes: [laughs] Yes, I've been accused of talking my own book, but I don't actually look at ratings and I haven't since COVID, since 2020, which has been a transformation. My life is great.
Michael Loewinger: Wait, why did you stop looking at ratings?
Chris Hayes: I stopped looking at ratings because there was a moment where I could see in the numbers the audience's fatigue with COVID, totally understandably, and yet it still wasn't done, and I was getting wrapped around the axle of what to do.
Michael Loewinger: Do I stop covering the biggest story of our time because my audience isn't feeling it?
Chris Hayes: Exactly. I just decided that it was a once-in-a-century pandemic and I was just going to stop looking at ratings and I haven't looked since 2020. I know, in a generalized sense, where audience demand, what's compelling television, what's not, but day-to-day I just don't look and I don't know. At the most basic level, I can't tell you whether what I'm saying would lead to higher ratings, no change, or lower. I don't know. Literally, all I know is it's the most important story in America and American democracy this year.
Michael Loewinger: You argue that when it comes to the impact of Trump on our democracy, "There's a degree to which luck has been mistaken for providence or stability." What do you mean?
Chris Hayes: Oh, I mean that the pipe bombs didn't go off outside the DNC and RNC when the MAGA bomber tried to bomb a dozen of the people that he thought were Donald Trump's biggest enemies, he didn't kill anyone. On January 6th, the capitol police officers showed insane restraint. There was one woman who was shot and killed with a single shot fired by one police officer when she breached the chamber into which actual members of Congress were, but there could have been dozens killed that day.
Mike Pence could have been grabbed by the mob and dragged to the gallows, or 500 of the rioters could have been shot and killed by cops. All of that's 100% plausible. We got super lucky that didn't happen. We've gotten super lucky that none of the figures that Donald Trump has painted a target on have been assassinated. It feels almost taboo and terrible to even invoke that because obviously, it's a monstrous thought to think about. I think because it's so terrible to imagine and it hasn't quite happened yet, although we've come very close, we have a very false sense of how lucky we've been.
Michael Loewinger: Chris, thank you very much.
Chris Hayes: Thank you.
Michael Loewinger: Chris Hayes is the host of All In With Chris Hayes on MSNBC.
Michael Loewinger: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant.
Brooke Gladstone: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Michael Loewinger: I'm Michael Loewinger.
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