Mini-Episode: The Pandemic Broke Our Brains, with Chris Hayes
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Today, Andy calls journalist and political commentator, Chris Hayes. Chris has been carrying the burden of seeing the pandemic coming long before America began to address it. He had to talk about it before it was real to most people and is still talking about it now that many have grown weary. They chat about how Chris thinks about his job in the news these days and the emotional toll it’s taking. They also scrap about coffee mugs.
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Find Chris Hayes at https://www.msnbc.com/all (All In with Chris Hayes)
[00:40] Andy Slavitt: Hi, it’s Andy Slavitt with Zach Slavitt. Welcome to In the Bubble. Welcome to our mini-conversation with Chris Hayes today. Chris is the anchor of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. I’ve been on this show a couple times. He’s a really decent guy who I think you’ll see kind of really, really lets out his personal side today in a way that I found to be quite remarkable. We talk about everything from how you get yourself up in the morning on days when there is just horrible news, and then drag yourself into the studio and face off to the public in a crisis like this, when people are really counting on you and looking to you to lead them through this. I found his remarks to be something that I related to and I assume that many of you will as well. So it took a couple of interesting turns. I really, really hope you enjoy the conversation.
[01:36] Andy Slavitt: Hey, Chris.
[01:37] Chris Hayes: Hey, Andy.
[01:40] Andy Slavitt: You’ve been like, in some ways — I wanted this conversation to be a little about the role of the newsman or newswoman, but in this case, newsman in this really kind of once-a-century-type news-cycle. And, you know, you were a little bit the Paul Revere from what I remember. You saw something and you started talking about it when most people were still talking about impeachment or Kobe Bryant. What did you see?
[02:08] Chris Hayes: I think there’s a few things. I think, one, there was a finance person I know who I’d started talking to this about in early, early February. And through him started just reading some of the public health analysis and some of their early modeling. And you know, there was that period where there really was this question, the SARS question, which is, basically, is this going to achieve escape velocity to become a global pandemic or can we keep it basically contained-ish? So that was the sort of first phase was like I wasn’t really covering it that much, covering it sort of occasionally, but I was just interested in it as intellectual pursuit because it was sort of fascinating and eerie and upsetting. And the political ramifications in China were fascinating. And there was a sort of open question. And then to me, the real Paul Revere moment is the final week of February and the first two weeks of March — basically, to me, there’s three weeks that cost tens of thousands of American lives.
[03:07] Andy Slavitt: I saw an estimate today that said if we were one week earlier, 60 percent of lives would have been saved. If we were two weeks earlier 90 percent of lives would have been saved. Now, I have seen the assumptions around that. But assuming that’s roughly right, that is at absolute demonstration of the power of exponential math and why speed matters.
[03:24] Chris Hayes: And to me, it was like once you got to, OK, we have community transmission in the U.S., and we confirmed that in the beginning of the last week of February, basically. At that point I had started breathing deeply on it and talking to a bunch of public health experts in various platforms, and some policy folks, particularly New York, and was sort of — you know, you’ve been doing this incredible thing where you just sort of talk to folks and then you break it down on Twitter. It was sort of like that. I was just talking to people all the time over a bunch of different platforms. And so in the beginning, it was this sort of intellectual curiosity. It was an interesting story to me. It was scary, but it was — and then when it becomes clear that it has escaped, that we have community transmission here — and I would say the consensus among the experts I talked to was so striking, and there was such a gap between their consensus — which is epitomized by Messonnier somewhat, not casually, but saying, look, we’re gonna have to start large-scale mitigation. I talked to my principal about tele-school, you know, remote schooling. And everyone at that point is like remote schooling? What the hell are you talking about? And so the weirdness of the gap between what knowledgeable experts were saying and what the news, political and policy conversation was enormous. And I was just trying to close that gap.
[04:45] Chris Hayes: And what’s really frustrating about it, too, is like — and what I found in the curve of this, and I wonder if you feel the same way, which was in a weird way from the moment that community transmission started until I would say a few weeks ago, I feel like the future has been very clear to me. Like I had a conversation with my parents the Sunday night — Italy goes into lockdown, I think Monday, March, whatever. And it was the Sunday night before that where I like just they were actually staying over helping watch the kids. And Kate was — she did a visiting professorship at Northwestern, which was like right before the school closed. And I just said to them, look like, here’s what’s gonna happen this week. Like Italy will close the entire country down tomorrow. The stock market is going to crater. Like I just sort of went through what will happen. We will start to have an outbreak here. We will have to lockdown. And they looked at me like I was utterly insane.
[05:36] Andy Slavitt: Right. But you were positive.
[05:39] Chris Hayes: And I was positive. And so what I mean by that is only that from the time the community transmission starts to, I would say, about a week or two ago, our future has been relatively clear in terms of what’s out there. Now, where’s a lot of things that have been you know, there’s lots of mysteries about the virus and lots of mysteries about the policy response. But one thing that I found really difficult about the last few weeks, and the place we’re living in now is like, I just have no idea what the future looks like.
[06:02] Andy Slavitt: Well, we’re living today, as you look out the window, we’re living in a little bit of a time warp because we’re living with the decisions we made three weeks ago. So what we see in front of us is essentially the result of our past efforts. So it’s easy to get either lulled into a sense that things are better than they are when you’re before it, or I suppose if you really do make an effort, that is worse than ever. But, you know who this was really obvious to, and this is someone who is very well-known to the people who listen to this podcast, was my 18-year-old son Zach, who’s our co-host, who is sitting here. Because he’s more recently studied algebra than the rest of us. And he’s like, do adults that understand exponential math? And you only thought about it. Our brains don’t work that way.
[06:43] Chris Hayes: They don’t work that way. And nothing in life, basically, nothing in life moves exponentially. And I think, you know, every time that you see those two months ago, six deaths, one month ago, 6,000 deaths, now 65,000, like, yeah, your brain breaks at that because most things in life don’t move exponentially. Like things don’t go up that way. They move in different versions of linear fashion. And we’re used to thinking that way. And so I said on a podcast, you know, in February about, well, there’s you know, there’s only 50 cases in the U.S. right now or something. I guess it was even before I got like shook out of my own sort of torpor on this.
[07:16] Andy Slavitt: When there were 3,000 deaths — when we passed 9/11 — I said it won’t be long before that’s what we do every day. And still, I said it and had a hard time believing it. And, of course, you hope that you’re wrong and that something happens. And to bring it back to cable news — we’ll be watching TV and there’ll be like “breaking news: record number of deaths today” and then Zach would say, yeah, that’s kind of how the math works. Every day is going to be a record.
[07:42] Chris Hayes: Yeah, I have tried to be charitable towards our political leadership in some ways because it’s a genuinely hard problem, and lots of different governments of different ideological dispositions and different configurations in terms of governing institutional structure made similar mistakes. Right? So the mistake I think is grounded in two twin impulses: not wanting to believe the worst and refusing to sort of get your head around exponential math.
[08:10] Andy Slavitt: You’ve got this kind of role where for many people you’re their primary news source. You also interpret the news, you’re an analyst. You’re also investigative. You hold people accountable and you got to also entertain people. When something like this happens, how do you think about balancing those different jobs?
[08:30] Chris Hayes: One thing that was liberatory is that the entertainment necessity kind of went away. Like I just stopped thinking about that. There was a period of weeks where the problem itself was so urgent, and I think the exogenous forcing mechanism on people’s attention — like people were starting to wake up to it. So you don’t have to be like, “hey, guys, come watch my show tonight.” Like, it was like, whoa, what’s going on here?
[08:56] Andy Slavitt: Do you think people are worn out from just all of this news?
[09:01] Chris Hayes: I feel worn out. I think we all do. And I think that like that divide between consensus public health opinion and the national political policy conversation has reemerged — the one that I think you and I both identified in late February — and then came together. Right. Then it was like all of sudden was like, oh, wow, OK. Well, right. Exponential growth. Crazy models showing unprecedented death and destruction, hospitalization system meltdown, yada, yada. And now they’ve started to diverge again where it’s like, all right, let’s open back up. And it’s like we haven’t — if you take out New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the rest of the country has not hit its peak yet.
[09:41] Andy Slavitt: It’s still growing 17 percent a week outside of New York. It is true that there is this divergence, but I wonder to what extent to blame you guys for this divergence. And here’s what I mean by you guys: I mean the way the news kind of works in general. And one of the weird things about the virus has been there’s no visible enemy. Trump can make China the enemy and for sure in the political cycle, the Democrats and Republicans will make each other the enemy. But, you know, for the time being here we were like, oh, we’re all fighting the same thing. And as you could predict, people would say, well, I’m not happy with this. This is too constraining. This is holding back my freedoms, et cetera. And I’m not sure that that represents — that the people who actually went out and carried guns and made a big thing at the state capitals represent that much of the public. In fact, most of the data says that 80 percent of people are actually feeling like we’re on the right track, and just would like to be supported and sustained through this marathon a little bit. But it felt to me like — and having talked to a number of governors, they felt that the news coverage of these folks was helping put pressure on them that they couldn’t resist.
[10:51] Chris Hayes: Yeah, I think that’s true of a lot of coverage. I mean, we were trying really hard to, in all of the coverage we did, was just stress that this is a — I mean, we even did an a-block about a silent majority, the whole thesis of which was the silent majority. And we’ve hit this home time and time again. Across ideological lines, across partisan lines, most Americans are committed to trying to do what it takes. And I think that the objects of the protest was a very successful vanguard-est kind of Leninist moment. Leninist on the right. Where, you know, you create these pictures and I think that the media did play a role in sort of amplifying that.
[11:35] Chris Hayes: The one thing I will say, though, on the other side is like if you look at some of the data, like I was looking at data for like Apple Maps directions in California. Like people asking Apple Maps for directions. And like they’re creeping back up. And, you know, the thing I keep saying to people is like basically the worst outbreak and longest lockdown was Wuhan, which was about 10 weeks. And that lockdown was much stricter than anything that has happened to the U.S. You know, one person per apartment going out once per week for groceries with like facial recognition software checking them and things like that, mandatory third-party, third location quarantine, constant daily temperature checks. That said, a society that is used to incredibly overwhelming state force and surveillance for decades — in fact, for millennia — was able to sort of maintain that level of lockdown for about 10 weeks.
[12:24] Andy Slavitt: Yeah. Liberal democracy clashes much too heavily with the kind of restrictions they put in place in Wuhan. But I think what we’re seeing some of is that the missing ingredient, the missing block, is a leader who engages people, tells them the truth in a way that includes the bad news that people know they’re going to need to hear, but does it a helpful and somewhat hopeful way. I mean, Governor Cuomo is one example of that being done well. But what I’ve found, and what I think this show In the Bubble is a bit about, is trying to emphasize that there is a shared calling in this moment. You can’t just basically leave people alone and say you’re locked in, no hope, et cetera. But if you can say to people, look, we’re all playing a role here, and this is hard and we’re not going to sugar coat it, but in times where there’s great sacrifice, there comes opportunities for people, and it doesn’t always have to feel all bad. It’s very different than what we’re used to. And we’re all going to be going crazy at various times. But if you want to sustain something, which sadly we’re probably going to need to sustain longer than the human condition is wired for, or at least the American human condition for sure, then we’re going to need to figure out how to do stuff different.
[13:40] Chris Hayes: That’s right. And I think that there has been a lot of very beautiful sort of cultural mobilization around that. But, you know, not enough. And I think you’re right about like the enemy point and war. It is so striking to me how differently we interpret this than an attack. And I’ve said this before. I’ve said it on Twitter. I said on the show. If after 9/11 you went around on TV or just in conversations being like, well, you know, the flu kills 60,000 people a year, so I’m not quite sure what everyone’s all worked up about. Like, you would probably get punched in the face, or you would almost certainly lose your job on television. But more than that, people would view you as a sociopath. And you wouldn be a sociopath if in the wake of 9/11, you went around telling people the flu kills 60,000 people per year. I’m finding it actually the hardest part of this, from the combination of my job and just like a human standpoint, is that like I’m finding the grief really hard to process. Both in personal terms, because we have numerous staff members who have lost family, and we had a neighbor who succumbed to it last week. And I lost an uncle not to it, but in the midst of this, and so he couldn’t mourn him properly. And I find that the lack of national mourning, the inability to kind of grieve collectively, to do things like sit shiva, to do things like deliver a eulogy. And then processing it all the time — thinking about it, I’m just finding it — like, I am at a psychological breaking point with respect to that right now,
[15:05] Andy Slavitt: It’s hard. So what do you do for help when you get to that point?
[15:08] Chris Hayes: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m doing a Zoom session with my therapist after this podcast actually.
[15:16] Andy Slavitt: That’s smart. I mean, I can’t tell you how much I would encourage people to do that. Whether it’s a therapist, your friend — and by the way, then you’ll pay forward. Because there’s going to be time, Chris, when you’re going to be feeling just fine. I mean, these things go in waves, as you know, and there’s going to be someone else who’s going to be looking at you like, I can’t frickin’ deal with this anymore. And I think we have to play that role for each other because it’s going to ebb and flow and some pretty nasty ways.
[15:42] Chris Hayes: I think that’s exactly right. I think playing that role for each other. And I also think that like to go back to sort of where you kind of started this part of the conversation about like sort of leadership and how we grapple with this, both policy and then political communication and then leadership and then culturally and then a civil society, to kind of like try to sustain a thing that we’re not wired to sustain for very long. I do want some kind of more concrete collective mobilization, an expression of solidarity in the best way that has just not been happening at the national level.
[17:24] Lana Slavitt: We are very grateful for the support of our listeners. So far, over 100 of you have already signed up to support In the Bubble on Patreon. Thank you. If you’re enjoying In the Bubble, please consider pitching in to help the show continue to grow. You can sign up as a member for as little as five dollars per month at LemonadaMedia.com/InTheBubble. Your support will cover the costs of production, and any remaining profit for Andy and Zach will get donated to Covid relief efforts.
[18:01] Andy Slavitt: You kind of represent a normality to people. Like they switch on the show, you know, the people who watch your program, they watch it religiously. And to some extent, like, you know, you’re walking in and maybe you’ve seen piece of news that just freaked you out or, you know, these things keep piling up and they become very difficult. What I think you do quite well is have an honest broadcast, but also one that balances that with kind of delivering the goods. Is there a trick to that? Am I describing that kind of tension right?
[18:33] Chris Hayes: You’re describing it perfectly. I mean, from the beginning of this, it’s like we don’t want to leave people feeling deflated and defeated and just bummed. And we also don’t want to sugarcoat things and not be honest about what’s happening. And that’s a tough tension. It’s also very hard to — one thing that I’m really struggling with is it’s hard to communicate science in real-time when the process of scientific inquiry is a process of fits and starts. It’s a process of patience. It’s a process of falsification and replication. And that’s not the way journalism is built. So it’s like “study finds X — study finds that pets can get coronavirus. Study finds” — and not that the studies are wrong. A lot of times some of them are peer-reviewed and some of them are pre-publication. And they did find the thing that headline says they found. But the problem is, that’s not how science works. Science works on, you know, a collective stabilization.
[19:34] Andy Slavitt: You know, the expression that we could hear more is just “we don’t know.” We don’t know yet. And it’s not as satisfying, but it’s realistic.
[19:43] Chris Hayes: What I try to do is I try to say, look, there’s areas of pretty robust consensus, and then there’s areas of real disagreement. But a lot of people have sort of used the fact that we are learning in real-time, and there are things we don’t know, and there are things that experts have gotten wrong, as this kind of really bad-faith wedge to like drive a spike in — you know, you have this entire world of Covid truthers and contrarians and cranks.
[20:08] Andy Slavitt: Right. In five or 10 years, we will know everything about this virus. And by the way, if you think back five years ago, I mean, you know, it sounds like an awful long time when you look forward, but when you think back, it’s really not that long a time. And if you believe a virus is coming in two years — I mean, just think back two years ago, it was 2018, that wasn’t all that long ago. So it feels horrible to be in it, but these things get figured out in time. All you can do is sort of get through the moment. And if we get to that end-point and we’re like, hey, we’ve figured all this out and here we are. And you look back and say, you know, what was I doing then? If the answer is going to be reasonably satisfying, you’re like I was trying to help. I was helping people. I was, you know, yeah, I was scared under my bed one day a week, but the other six, we were doing some really special things. Let me shift, just a couple more questions for you. This question has but on my mind, for a couple, maybe more than a couple of years now, it’s just been sticking with me. And it’s about coffee mugs. I think you know where I’m going with this, Chris, which is one time I was in your studio filming with you. And, you know, I was waiting. They gave me this beautiful All In coffee mug to drink. And I asked if I could take it at the end. And they said, oh, no, no, no, you can’t take the coffee mug. What is with that?
[21:16] Chris Hayes: You know, there is an even crazier story. At one point there was someone who took one. And then someone like went and chased them down. I don’t know the answer to why that is. Like, I don’t know. I don’t know why that’s the case. I think that that has been solved. I think the our version of the testing kit bottleneck, which is the All In mugs, was solved at some point. And so like people can take mugs. But it’s very weird when you’re in the studio at like, you know, one of the largest core corporations —
[21:49] Andy Slavitt: Your producers are super nice people and they’re big, beautiful red mugs. And like, it’s impossible not to ask for it because it says All In with Chris Hayes on it. And they’re like, hell no.
[21:59] Chris Hayes: No. There was a period where those were like as precious as gold. They were in just hilariously short supply.
[22:06] Andy Slavitt: It was really fun talking to you. It’s fun coming on your show. And I’m really glad you came onto this.
[22:10] Chris Hayes: All right, Andy, great to talk to you.
[22:14] Andy Slavitt: Thanks to Chris for such an honest conversation about topics I think a lot of us wonder about. And I also want to thank Chris for being candid about the difficulties, the mental difficulties, the emotional difficulties that these situations cause all of us. It’s one of the reasons, to be honest, why instead of a number of others that we could have sponsoring the show, we have people who are really doing things that we think are helpful to our listeners. And Teladoc is one of those companies, it’s not by accident. So thank you, Chris. And thanks to all the behavioral health, mental health, social workers, psychiatrists out there who are there for us through whatever means or platform we need them. You know, my philosophy is if you need help, ask for help. And if you’re in a position to provide help, provide help. And that’s going to help us all get through this. So we’ll talk to you on Wednesday with an exciting new full episode.
[23:16] Andy Slavitt: In the Bubble is a production of Lemonada Media. Niccole Galteland is our producer and Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. Zach Slavtii is our co-producer and my co-host. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me on social media at @ASlavitt on Twitter, @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, tell your family and friends, but tell them at a distance. For now, stay safe. Share some joy. We’ll get through this together. And #StayHome.