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Discussing democracy on a knife's edge with Bart Gellman & Sherrilyn Ifill: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Bart Gellman, a correspondent for The Atlantic and Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, about the fight for American democracy.

It’s a special edition of our podcast: our first crossover episode with "All In with Chris Hayes," which airs at 8pm weekdays on MSNBC. We’re sharing two full conversations, portions of which aired on "All In," with two people at the forefront of one of the most important stories of the moment: the fight to save our democracy. Lucky for us, Bart Gellman, a correspondent for The Atlantic, and Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, joined to walk through this very pivotal moment in our nation’s history and how we can move forward amidst immense distrust, uncertainty and dwindling morale.

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

Barton Gellman: There are at least two things that journalists are allowed to be for and to defend. And one of them is the truth, and one of them is the fundamental tenets of democracy.

Sherrilyn Ifill: This actually is the opportunity to decide will we, as things unravel, have a chance to build, not rebuild, but build what we actually want. And there's only one way to do that. You don't do that from the margins, you do that from the whole doggone thing caves in on itself, which is what is happening.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me, your host Chris Hayes. It's a very special edition of our podcast today, our first crossover episode with my TV show, All In, which airs at 8:00 p.m. weekdays on MSNBC. And you know us, we like to do new things, try new things here at WITHpod.

So today, what we're going to do is we're going to share two full conversations, portions of which aired on All In with two people who were kinda on the forefront of what I think is arguably the most important story of the moment, which is American democracy resting on an ice edge. And you can only hear these full conversations here on WITHpod. So without further ado, here's our hybrid crossover.

Of course, the year 2021 begins with the first ever insurrection, the second time in American history that we had, like, sustained violence around the transfer of power, the first being Fort Sumter, the second being January 6th. The aftermath of that insurrection, the attempts by the Republican party to put into place a means of stopping future peaceful transfers of power and democratic accountability, and the onrush towards a future and a president which the Republican party, one of the two major parties, has become essentially anti-democratic in a profound way.

And so in this episode, two people who have been really at the forefront of identifying, warning, and then fighting against these tendencies. One of those people is Sherrilyn Ifill, who might be familiar to you if you watch All In with Chris Hayes.

She's actually stepping down after nearly a decade leading the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She's one of the most remarkable lawyers, legal thinkers, social critics that we have, one of the very best voting rights lawyers in the entire country.

And so I got to talk with her about the state of civil and voting rights in the country at this moment and the nature of American democracy: what it has been, what it is now, and what it could be. We're gonna bring you that interview in just a moment.

First, I spoke with Barton Gellman. He's a long time reporter. He was at The Washington Post for a while, wrote a great book about Dick Cheney. He's one of America's most respected journalists. And he's kind of pivoted off of beats he used to do (he was sort of a national security reporter for a while), to kind of be full-time on the democracy beat at The Atlantic.

And Bart wrote one of the most seminal, influential, and important pieces on this topic before the election. In fact, before I think it was apparent to a lot of people what was happening. It was a piece that got a lot of attention, and I think some criticism for being unduly alarmist.

It was written in September, 2020. It was published in September, 2020 so that's, you know, two months before the election. It was in The Atlantic. He's a correspondent for The Atlantic. And the piece was called The Election that Could Break America.

And basically, you know, it's always risky to write about the future if (LAUGH) you're a journalist, because the future's unwritten. You don't know what's gonna happen. And you could end up looking very, very silly. I myself have made predictions about the future that ended up being very, very silly.

Bart wrote a piece called The Election that Could Break America that was the opposite of that. In fact, it was remarkably prescient and remarkably prophetic because it basically laid out a blueprint for how Trump, with sufficient allies in the Republican party across the country would attempt or perhaps be successful in overruling the democratic will of the American people and essentially steal an election or steal an Electoral College majority to keep himself in power, even if a majority of Americans both in the popular vote and in terms of electoral votes voted against it.

And he lays this out. It seems, like, hair-brained and nuts. And yet it is, in many ways, ends up being precisely accurate blueprint of the steps that Donald Trump and Mark Meadows and all of his collaborators took in the run-up to January 6th.

And in December, he wrote another piece, a follow-up basically saying, "Look, it didn't stop after January 6th." And, you know, as you know if you watch the show or you listen to the podcast, we cover this all the time, that it kept going. That piece, which was published just a few weeks ago called Trump's New Coup Has Already Begun, part of a special issue The Atlantic did about American democracy is about how adherence to the big lie, adherence to the notion that Joe Biden's illegitimate, that in a broader sense the Democratic party's illegitimate has become orthodoxy in the Republican party. And so as we were thinking about this podcast, I thought to myself, "There's almost no one I want to speak to more than The Atlantic's Barton Gellman

So I was going back through the article that you wrote, like, The Election that Could Break America. And so there's a few interesting things there. I mean, you documented this, but others have as well. This wasn't, you know, a secret necessarily. They're already talking about this idea of taking the decision of who the state electors are away from the voters of the state, and putting in the hands of the state legislature, before the election happens.

Barton Gellman: Right. Before the first vote is cast.

Chris Hayes: Before the first vote is cast, which, I mean, even though when you take a step back, like, that itself is just, like, wildly offensive (LAUGH) to any democratic intuitions we have.

Barton Gellman: No, it's extraordinary. And it is, it's profoundly anti-democratic. "We're going to fire the voters and decide for ourselves in the state legislature who gets the electors from our state." It's something that the founders would've recognized, but has gone outta style for 150 years or so now for the legislature to make decisions for the people.

Chris Hayes: Well, it's also gone outta style and the state laws have been passed, right? I mean, it's more than gone out of style. I mean, they started developing, and this is a right-wing legal theory that goes back to some of the decisions in Bush v. Gore, that the Constitution gives the state legislature, and the state legislature alone, the ability to determine where the electors go.

Barton Gellman: Yeah. That's something that has never been squarely decided in the Supreme Court. But there are four justices that have indicated their sympathy with the idea that the legislature has plenary power over the allocation of its electors.

I mean, just the whole idea that you send people out to vote, what, 6 million in Pennsylvania, vote for president of the United States. And then you say, "Never mind. Your votes don't count. We're going to send the electors for Trump, even though you voted for Biden."

Chris Hayes: It's the same thing, you know, with the Pence plot, which we'll get to, which is that it's obviously a preposterous notion, like, that you have a presidential election and the $1 billion it costs and the multi-millions (LAUGH) of dollars and earned media around it and everyone traveling around, it amounts to a sort of like sot recommendation (LAUGH) that the state legislature and the vice president could then, like, take under an advisement. Like, obviously, that can't be the case.

Barton Gellman: Your vote is a suggestion.

Chris Hayes: Exactly. Your vote is a suggestion, as opposed to self-rule. It's, like, you're just sort of expressing, like, where you're at and then the people who really hold the power are gonna decide.

Barton Gellman: Yeah. It's impossible, actually, to justify it badly in its own terms, what's actually happening. It can't be justified. And that's why they talk about fraud and irregularities and failure to make a choice. No one's willing to defend the idea flat out that the legislature should disregard the public vote.

Chris Hayes: Okay. So I'm glad you said that 'cause that's where I wanted to go next about, like, the kind of philosophical architecture of what they've built, because there is some structure to it. So your piece is published September 23rd. This is before anything.

You've already got two things in the piece. They're talking about, "Can we get the legislatures to just bypass the people," and then you've already got the Trump team taking the position that the vice president, again, with this sort of, like, plenary power as opposed to just, like, administrative, can just, like, decide, like, "I don't like those electoral votes." They're already talking about that in September.

Barton Gellman: Right, because the idea of stealing an election that you didn't win is with them from the beginning. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Exactly right. So this is I think what's key though: they already are thinking about stealing, and then comes all the ridiculous empirical claims about fraud. And my question to you is, like, what role is that playing?

Barton Gellman: That's a really interesting question. It's justifying the idea that the state legislature has no choice. "What could we do? Our hands are tied? No one knows what the vote really is because it's so tainted by vote rigging and fraud, that we don't have any idea who the people voted for. So we're just gonna have to make that choice ourselves."

And remember this: the whole thing strategically is based on the fact that there are, what, six or seven battleground states where Biden narrowly won, but where the state legislature is controlled by the Republicans. So if you can say, "The people don't get to decide, the legislature does," you are turning seven states red that were voting blue.

Chris Hayes: Right. So, but my point here is that, like, as articulated in your piece, right, is that they're already thinking about how to steal it in this sort of facially anti-democratic way before any votes are cast, right? Then the votes are cast, and then there's this, like, frenzy whipped up around individual allegations of this fraud and increasingly insane theories, like an Italian Seattle of the ghost of Hugo Chávez, or whatever is inhabiting the machines, right? I guess my question is, like, what I think that goes is, to your point, is it gives a predicate because the anti-democratic nature of what they're after is so indefensible, they need to rest it on this foundation, right?

Barton Gellman: Yeah, predicate. "Predicate's" the right word. They are setting up a storyline in which they're not overruling the people, they're just, "We can't figure out what the people wanted because there are so many spaceships that are beaming votes (LAUGH) down and dumping ballots in the middle of the night." I guess there are very few politicians in America who are willing to stand up and say, "I don't think you should have the vote."

Chris Hayes: Right, even Donald Trump?

Barton Gellman: Even Donald Trump won't say it. That's true.

Chris Hayes: Then the question becomes to me, and this I think carries through to where we are now, right? I don't know if this matters, but I suspect it does because there's something interesting happening with the nation's deep, core democratic ethos, the offensiveness of the idea they're floating and the role voter fraud plays in of bridging the gap, right?

It's, like, it's not acceptable to us as Americans across ideological class lines, whatever, to, like, just take away our vote and say, like, "No, we get to decide." That's actually what you want to do because you want to invalidate the legitimacy of a majority that votes in the wrong way. That's not for you.

And so the bridge you build between those two things is fraud. And I guess my question is, like, of the people now, the tens of millions of people who've been radicalized against democracy, and maybe it doesn't matter, but, like, do they believe the fraud story?

Barton Gellman: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Chris Hayes: They believe it?

Barton Gellman: I think there are tens of millions of people who believe it in their bones. Who, if you ask them to--

Chris Hayes: If you took a lie detector test, like?

Barton Gellman: Yeah. Bet their child's life, they'd be that sure. I've talked to someone who said, "You know, if you're asking me whether if I'm wrong about this you could just shoot me, I'll say, 'Yeah, there was fraud.'" They're completely convinced. They're overwhelmed by the volume of propaganda and all the technical language of it and, you know, talking about terabytes of data and sixth order polynomials.

These are supposed to be explaining the voter fraud. It's exactly what snake oil salesmen have done since the dawn of time, use fancy language and snowball all these details. And I guess people in Trump's base figure, "If this one's not right, then the other one is. There are too many. They can't all be wrong. This much smoke, there's gotta be fire."

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I think that's well said. The barrage of propaganda on this, really. I have had the experience often in my life, and this is in some ways what being a journalist is, and I'm sure you've had this too, where, like, there's some expert debate about a thing, and you don't know anything about it.

And you're, like, "Well, I don't know who's right on this. These people are fighting about a thing." And then you start to wade in. Part of the fun of reporting is, like, "Well, what's goin' on here," right? You call people. Ultimately, what ends up happening is a lot of that is how you figure out these trust relationships. Who's trustworthy and who's not? And there's no escaping those trust relationships in how we form any of our beliefs around the world. And there's tens of millions of people who just trust untrustworthy people.

Barton Gellman: Yeah. And this is something that troubles me greatly as a journalist because I don't know how to reach those people. I've always thought of myself as someone who is reporting and writing for someone with an open mind, who's willing to use common sense the same as they would use in their everyday life.

I mean, they wouldn't trust this snake oil salesman if he was selling them a used car. Their spider sense would tingle and they would say, "How come you haven't mentioned anything about the carburetor?" And they wouldn't fall for it if someone just snowed them with talk. But that's in their everyday life. And somehow, when they're thinking about politics, their brain just works in a different way.

Chris Hayes: Well, you said something recently about your role as a journalist that I found really fascinating, just in terms of your training and the tradition that you've come in, the situation you find yourself now in. I will just editorialize. A great journalist, a journalist who is truly one of our best and someone whose work I've admired and followed for years in a bunch of different capacities and you're, like, a real reporter's reporter. You're just very, very good. You're a model for what we do.

And you wrote these two pieces. You wrote a piece before the election kind of warning what could happen, which proved quite prescient. And you wrote another piece a little more than a year later saying Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun about the steps taken after January 6th, after the election, to further embed this sort of authoritarian, anti-democratic, big lie machinery in the actual apparatus of power that administers elections and administers the Republican party.

And you said something, I think it was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross maybe. You had a quote about how you've come to view your role as a journalist, and this question of objectivity. And I'm curious to hear you say it again, and then sort of follow up on.

Barton Gellman: Yeah. Terry surprised me with the question. And I sort of blurted out an answer, but I don't regret it. It's uncomfortable for me to talk about the way my role has changed as a journalist in these recent years because I grew up with sort of mainstream training to keep myself outta the story, to keep my opinions outta the story, to take no side when one side is fighting with another.

And I realize that there are at least two things that journalists are allowed to be for and to defend. And one of them is the truth and one of them is the fundamental tenets of democracy, that the people get to make their own choice about who leads them. We're in favor of that. We're pro-democracy. We're allowed--

Chris Hayes: You're allowed to have that take?

Barton Gellman: Allowed to have that opinion. It has not been--

Chris Hayes: There's a hot take--

Barton Gellman: --surgically removed--

Chris Hayes: --from Bart Gellman.

Barton Gellman: And the problem is we have only one party right now that is pro-democracy. You have only one party that is small D democratic, that is willing to lose an election, that is willing to uphold the rules and stay within the safeguards. And so if I point out that mainstream positions in the Republican party are simply lies or are authoritarian or anti-democratic, I'm not doing that because I'm trying to put myself on the side of the Democratic party. I'm just tellin' the truth.

Chris Hayes: And there's also the fact that the nature of American electoral politics, the two-party system, is fairly zero sum at a certain level. And I mean that in a few different ways. It's zero sum in terms of electoral outcomes. Like, it's also zero sum in terms of, like, this democratic ethos, insofar as, like, if you say, "My core commitment as a journalist and as an American citizen," which I would say for myself even trumps my job as a (LAUGH) journalist, "is democracy." And, like, one of the parties is abandoning that as an ethos, like, one plus one equals two there. Like, (LAUGH) there's--

Barton Gellman: Right. And it's an emergency.

Chris Hayes: Right, that's--

Barton Gellman: It is. It is an emergency. It is the biggest story there is. And it needs to be treated that way, both by journalists and by society at large.

Chris Hayes: How much do you think it's getting that treatment?

Barton Gellman: Not enough, I would say. There's been a lot of good journalism done on individual stories about what's happening in the state of Wisconsin. There's actually a great piece in The Washington Post about that.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, there's been great reporting.

Barton Gellman: But I don't sense that there is a tone to it or an overall context in the journalism that says, "Red alert: our democracy is at risk here." It's sort of hijinks and bad behavior in state parties and one side using bad smelling efforts to seek advantage. But it doesn't look to be like the scale of the threat is reflected in what's being said.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And one of the things that's strange and surreal about this moment, there's a lot that's very surreal about this particular moment where we are in the midst of, like, once in a century pandemic and a unprecedented democratic crisis in the midst of a climate crisis (LAUGH) that's never happened in the history of human civilization, so there's a lot going on.

But one of the weird things is that we have essentially normal and abnormal politics, like, next to each other, right? So it's I'll come up from doing the show, and I'll come up to take my makeup off and change. And we've got, you know, the cable networks up.

And I'll look up, you know, what Hannity's doing at 9:00. And it's, like, sometimes it's, like, "Inflation's high. You should vote against, you know, Joe Biden." It's, like, that's fine. That's normal politics. Like, that happens in all kinds of (LAUGH) democratic societies.

You know, I don't think the arguments are correct. You know, there's a certain amount of spinning. But, like, yeah. You're mad at the incoming party 'cause inflation and gas prices are high. Normal politics. So all of that's happening, where you're having competition between two parties in a democratic environment where people make arguments and fight about stuff.

And a lot of it's bad faith and cheap. And, you know, sloganeered. But that's politics. That's democratic politics. And then beside that and underneath that is this sort of anti-democratic motion that's happening. And it could be a little hard to figure out, like, 'cause I think a lot of political coverage is still on this track.

Barton Gellman: And you totally put your finger on it. That's what I was searching for before. What you're not seeing in the coverage is an underlying message: this is abnormal. This is beyond the pale. This is off the tracks. Something's going on here that we haven't seen before and that leads to a very bad place. That's the context that's missing.

Chris Hayes: The place where I see this most squarely, and there's a bunch of different examples, to me is the Georgia primary with David Perdue, where you've had a crashing together of the normal and abnormal because David Perdue was, like, ten years ago an ostensibly normal Republican politician.

I wouldn't think of him as, like, a dangerous, anti-democratic force in American politics. And now, he's primarying Brian Kemp for governor of Georgia on essentially an explicitly pro-coup agenda. And that's, like, again, that's five alarm fire stuff.

Like, Donald Trump said, "My beef with Brian Kemp is he did not overturn (LAUGH) the will of the voters and steal and election and deliver it into my authoritarian hands. Ergo, he should be challenged." And David Perdue rose to say, "I will challenge him."

Barton Gellman: And meanwhile, "I will join a lawsuit to try even now, even though it's not a thing that happens under law, to overturn the results of the last election." A purely performative claim that Biden stole the state, even now, even a year into the administration.

Yeah, I mean, everything that's happened in Georgia politics is abnormal in this way. And what you see is you see Perdue in a very opportunistic way seizing on a very powerful undercurrent in Republican politics. Now, Trump's greatest source of strength is that he has convinced many tens of millions of people that the election was stolen. And that's a cataclysm, right? I mean, you know, if you believe that, what isn't allowed to you?

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Barton Gellman: I mean, you know, there's an imposter in the White House who is a tyrant, who stole the office. That's an extraordinary thing to believe. And Trump has managed, along with this whole ecosystem around him, to convince tens of millions of people of that. Now, if you were to administer truth serum to--

Chris Hayes: David Perdue--

Barton Gellman: --Republican elected officials, to David Perdue, they would say, "Yeah, okay. Well, Biden won fair and square." But that's not what the base thinks. And they're afraid of the base. And some of them are happy to take advantage of the base to advance their careers, which is where I think I'd put Perdue in this one. And that's a powerful force in the Republican party, so much so that the people who try to buck that trend are driven outta the party.

Chris Hayes: Well, and again, we come back to the kind of, like, moral epistemic bedrock of the big lie, (LAUGH) right, which is, like, your point there, which I think is important, it's, like, I think of the Dostoevsky line, like, "If God is dead, all is permitted."

Like, if the election is stolen, then all is permitted. If it actually is the case that this grand conspiracy managed to essentially install a tyrant, Joe Biden, against the will of the people, you know, all bets are off. And that belief, I mean, this sort of brings me to this other question I keep toying with, which is I definitely think Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of this sort of anti-democratic radicalization, democratic decline. You know, we go back to the ACORN stuff and the voter fraud (UNINTEL PHRASE) and the fact that one of George W. Bush's scandals was Karl Rove reaching in to fire U.S. attorneys who were not bringing enough voter fraud--

Barton Gellman: That's right.

Chris Hayes: --prosecutions, right? This is longstanding stuff. "If those people over there win, well, they musta cheated." But I also think he's a cause. And I do think that if he, like, got on a ship to Mars tomorrow, disappeared from American politics and consciousness, it would make things better on this front. But what do you think?

Barton Gellman: Well, it would make things better. He is a huge accelerant of the trend that you're talking about. The trend does date back decades. It is just about exclusively on the Republican side. You know, there's a foundation here in which Republicans don't believe that they can win as often if everybody votes.

And so it has been about suppressing the vote for decades now. Voter ID and all kinds of complicated rules, they have been about suppressing the votes of people who are on the younger side, on the darker side, and in certain neighborhoods.

And they have been using voter fraud as a pretext for all that time. But no one has ridden this wave like Donald Trump. And we've never had an incumbent president or presidential candidate who flogged this horse at all, let alone with the effectiveness that he's had. I mean, Trump is a genius at gaining and holding attention. And he's put his attention on this above all else.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, the malformation that he is an accelerant to, I agree. It's both and, right? It predates him, and he's made it much, much worse. And again, I mean, one of the ironies here when you look back, and I don't know, now I'm, like, applying rational thought to a situation that's sort of fundamentally in another realm of human activity, (LAUGH) but here you've got a pandemic.

You've got all these states that take these extraordinary measures to make voting easier because we're in the midst of a pandemic and there is no vaccine and big, crowded places are gonna be places of probably potential virus, right?

Barton Gellman: Common sense.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And in this context, the Republican party does fine. Well in certain ways. They won a bunch of Congressional races they didn't think they would win. This idea that they have is just not even empirically correct, which is that, like, "If everyone votes, we're toast."

They're (LAUGH) a very competitive party. There's lots of conservatives in America. And so what you end up with, to go back to this sort of normal-abnormal thing next to each other is part of what's so fraught in this moment about covering politics is that this feeling that there's this apocalyptic doom on the other side of what should be normal pendulum and thermostatic movements.

So it's, like, yeah, the out party's gonna probably kick the butt of the in party in a midterm election. I've covered that numerous times in my career. It's kinda how things work. Happens in other countries too. But in this case, it's, like, well, what will they do with that power? Will they foreclose the ability to run free and fair elections in the future? And so you've got this crazy thing where the stakes of the normal politics become the actual, full, total democratic health of the polit.

Barton Gellman: Well, right. If you have to worry about what one party is going to do the first time it gets into power with the ability across the board the next time it gets into power, then the stakes change completely. And normal politics don't suffice.

Chris Hayes: What does suffice? What do you do?

Barton Gellman: Wow. (LAUGH) You know, I've--

Chris Hayes: People have ask me that, and I have the same reaction. Like, I'm just out here ringin' the alarm (LAUGH) for some other time. You know, what I have is a megaphone, so I shout it into it every day, you know?

Barton Gellman: Yeah. I feel much the same way. I mean, it's hard enough to figure out what's going on and state it clearly and analyze it intelligently and to say, "Hey, there's a big problem here, everybody. Let's pay attention to it." It's asking a lot to also know what all the solutions are.

But the first one is that people have to look at this with a sense of urgency, have to notice what's going on, and have to say, "Wait. This is not something that is okay. We have to do something about this." I mean, I know what I would do if I were, you know, working for the other party and trying to organize my precinct or my county or the my state.

I'd be paying attention to these local races to supervise the election because the Republicans are putting a lot of attention into it. And they are essentially infiltrating what were bipartisan or completely nonpartisan institutions, you know, like the, you know, election supervisor for the township of whatever and saying, "We can't let the election be stolen the way it was last time."

They're avowed believers in a completely nonsensical claim that the election was stolen. And they're gonna go in there and fix that. I mean, God knows what they'll do if they actually have the power to decide whether to certify or not certify votes. So I mean, you would wanna see small D democrats organizing as much as the anti-democratic forces are organizing, and they're not.

Chris Hayes: Barton Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic. You can read both those pieces. You should go back and read The Election that Could Break America, which was published in September of 2020 and his latest, Trump's Next Coup Has Already Begun. That was great. Thanks, Bart.

Barton Gellman: Thank you very much for having me.

Chris Hayes: Journalism is one American institution that's had to fight and improve itself and figure out a way to hold ground for the preservation of American democracy and the expansion of American democracy against the forces that seek to undo and undermine.

The courts have been another. And that's been a whole other battle. One of the wisest and most brilliant people in all of American public life and also one of the most prominent voting rights lawyers in the country, and one of the most righteously ferocious defenders of American democracy is a woman by the name of Sherrilyn Ifill who runs the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the august body that has a long lineage fighting for true American democracy going back to last century. And Sherrilyn Ifill joins me for a conversation about this moment in American democracy next.

Chris Hayes: Sherrilyn Ifill is one of the premiere voting rights lawyers in America. She's argued before the Supreme Court. She's brought cases before the Supreme Court. She's had a variety of roles. She's currently the head of the NAACP Legal Defense fund.

She started in 1988 working on issues of voter rights. And as you're about to hear, we live now in a moment where the right to vote is under assault, where democracy itself is under assault in a nearly unprecedented fashion in certain ways, but is in line with a long history of pro-democracy and anti-democracy forces in American life, often that have revolved around the color line, specifically around white supremacy and anti-Black racism.

And she has been part of that fight and the lineage of that fight in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stretching back to Brown v. Board and cases like that that were pushed by the folks at the NAACP. She has a really unique perspective about what this moment is.

And I will say we sat down together for this conversation. I was feeling a little down about where things are, which is a thing that could happen I think when you spend all your time thinking about it. And here's someone who has a far more august career than I have had, and who's spent more time in the trenches fighting on behalf of American democracy. And she gave me a charge of hope. So it was a great pleasure to get to sit down and talk to Sherrilyn Ifill. NAACP Legal Defense Fund, you have been running it since 2013?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Since January 22nd I think.

Chris Hayes: And you're gonna step down?

Sherrilyn Ifill: I am gonna step down. It's a big deal.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It's been a tough ten years. (LAUGH) I'm gonna tell you the joke that I was gonna make, which I made earlier, but I didn't wanna make in front of you 'cause I thought you would take offense. But I think it's funny. So the joke that I was gonna make is in basketball there's a stat called plus-minus. Plus-minus is independent of how the player's playing. Like, what the score does while they're on the floor. (LAUGH) And I was, like, "Sherrilyn Ifill's plus-minus (LAUGH) is a little rough."

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, Chris, I think you're making a different calculation than I'm making, right? You're making a different calculation than I'm making. I actually think (and this is the part that I feel good about), I feel incredibly pleased and gratified and actually even surprised and hopeful about the progress that's been made in helping millions more people understand the issues that I've devoted my life to than ever before in my lifetime. That is pure plus.

Chris Hayes: The issues you work on, voting rights and the protection of multi-racial democracy, have never been more--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's right.

Chris Hayes: --a centrally activating issue that people talk about in my lifetime.

Sherrilyn Ifill: And many more millions of people who understand the reality, or at least have a sense that there is something that is real and systemic about racism in this country, and that it is dangerous to this country. That has not been the understanding certainly of most white people and even some Black people who believe, you know, get the Black president and everybody's doing so much better. Really didn't understand the depth of it.

And for the 30 years that I've been doing this work, I've never felt more affirmed and equipped to have conversations with people about creating a world that we want, which I think before people were inclined to think, you know, "It's kind of okay. It's doin' okay. What? Of course, some things happen. Of course, there're some bad people."

And so I can't complain because, honestly, I started out at LDF in 1988 as a voting rights attorney. Nobody knew what voter suppression was. And very few people outside of our realm and in the communities that we serve cared. In fact, while voter suppression was being unleashed against Black and brown communities, and particularly in the south, not in swing states as they're now understood, very few white people paid any attention to it. And that is not about just Republicans or Democrats, it's just in general. But as I've always said, what they workshop on us is the stuff that's coming for the whole republic. So--

Chris Hayes: It's a profound and true--

Sherrilyn Ifill: So at the end of the day, what has happened now, and the reason that you and I and maybe many others feel so overwhelmed or feel like this is a catastrophe that we can't get out of, is because the U.S. is now Alabama, which if it didn't check Alabama, it was always going to be.

So you want me to be sad about the fact that not just the people that I represent are living in a place that is anti-democratic? I am not. I am actually hopeful that the metastization of this terrible thing means that we will actually make a change.

And that change will be for all people, including the people in the communities I represent, the 52% of Black people who live in the south, so that when people say they wanna write off red states, and "Why don't we just separate from them," they're actually talking about a majority of the Black population in this country.

If people now understand that their fate is tied to our fate and that whatever is happening and being tried out on marginalized communities is the stuff that they're coming for the whole republic with. I don't know that there was any other way to get there, right?

I don't know what would drive tens of millions of people of all races into the streets in 50 states, except the video of the torture and killing of George Floyd. It's an awful thing to say about this country, but it happens to be true.

Chris Hayes: Well, and I would say, just to reaffirm your point, that it was more than the video because it was the work that you and others have done to create the context. And I was thinking about this yesterday because when I was speaking to you today, yesterday we lost the great bell hooks.

And it was really profound and moving, that here's this writer that I encountered first in college as a young, straight, cis white liberal, radical. Blew my mind, but also felt like from Mars, right? (LAUGH) When I was encountering bell hooks' writing, it wasn't, like, "Oh, well, right." And then to watch 20 years later, she, like--

Sherrilyn Ifill: The outpouring on social media.

Chris Hayes: The outpouring, but also people just--

Sherrilyn Ifill: But across the spectrum--

Chris Hayes: Her language. Exactly. The consciousness. Her language, her way of formulating things, her conceptualization of the problem as a thing that is in, if not quite the mainstream--

Sherrilyn Ifill: So yes.

Chris Hayes: --far more central than it was 20 years ago--

Sherrilyn Ifill: So I'm going to demand that you rethink your plus-minus, counsel, (LAUGH) because--

Chris Hayes: It was a dumb joke.

Sherrilyn Ifill: I mean, and this is something, you know, we have to discipline ourselves to do. And I just said this to a couple of the lawyers on our team in the office. Are we fighting to get back to 20 years ago? I mean, I started this in 1988, okay? So what part of the last 50 years have existed when LDF hasn't had a full docket of voting rights cases, of criminal justice cases, of education cases?

So this actually is the opportunity to decide will we, as things unravel, have a chance to build? Not rebuild, but build what we actually want. And there's only one way to do that. You don't do that from the margins. You do that from the whole doggone thing caves in on itself, which is what is happening. I don't want it to happen. And I've done every--

Chris Hayes: But we just went through an insurrection--

Sherrilyn Ifill: But we just--

Chris Hayes: --for the first time in American history--

Sherrilyn Ifill: But it's happening. It's while we're in the middle of a global pandemic that won't end because of a concerted misinformation campaign and because the stickiness of white supremacy can be tied to anything. You can attach it to anything and it has legs.

So now it's attached to masks and it's attached to schools and it's attached to vaccination and all of that. And so that's kind of what, as I leave and am trying to write this book, is kind of what I'm writing about, is that the stickiness of this thing, if we don't get that thing under control--

Chris Hayes: Well, I wanna talk more about that. I wanna talk about the vision of solidarity that you're enunciating here because I find it very hopeful in a moment where, like, I'm maybe feeling a little--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's what I'm here for. That's my business.

Chris Hayes: You are delivering. (LAUGH) You know, there's people you come to really trust in public life. A thing that I've found as I've gotten older is that I used to value intelligence above all. That, like, smartness was everything. And then I sort of realized that, like, there's a lot of smart people and that judgment actually is everything. And you are obviously a brilliant person, but I just think your judgment's incredible. I always look to you--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Oh, that's nice.

Chris Hayes: No, really. Your conception of politics, the way that you're able to blend a kind of radical analysis with a very pragmatic vision of how to move forward has been a real North Star for me. And hearing you enunciate the case for optimism (LAUGH) is actually very affecting for me, honestly. And I think, you know, one thing that I keep coming back to is American liberal democracy in the way that we think of what an actual liberal democracy is, is basically a, you know, 46-year experiment.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: It's not the majority of the time. It's a small, little thing. I want you to say more about the idea that we're not trying to rebuild things, right? Like, the idea is that we actually wanna make something new, which is, like, an actually equitable, just, flourishing, through multi-racial democracy in the 21st century in a way that we've never actually had multi-racial democracy--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That is correct.

Chris Hayes: --before.

Sherrilyn Ifill: And, you know, people can be snarky about this, but it is a big global experiment. There's no country we're modeling ourselves after. It's one of the reasons why, you know, I always hue to the history and I revere, you know, the Thurgood Marshalls and the Polly Murrays, because there was no blueprint. They weren't trying to create something that exists in some--

Sherrilyn Ifill: What in 1940 said, "Yeah, maybe you could. What I'm gonna do is I'm gonna create this organization of Black lawyers and then we're gonna, like, march through the system. We're gonna use the tools." And, I mean, really? You know, what was the thing that made them think it was possible?

So I do feel like that's the space where we need to be, where we're imagining something that doesn't exist and we feel okay about that. We're willing to take that chance. We're willing to be strategic. We're willing to fight for short term gains, but we have a long game in mind. And we also recognize that it's not fun, you know? Listen, Chris, I think this is--

Chris Hayes: Oh, it's so much fun.

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know why I say this all the time? Because I think, for those of us who grew up, like, watching the civil rights movement, I mean, for me, it's the reason why I became, you know, a civil rights lawyer, where I wanted to. It looked amazing. I don't mean, like, fun. I mean, it looked so noble. It looked so beautiful.

It was, like, they knew what they were doing. They had a plan. They had a strategy. And people always say to me, "What's the strategy? They used to have a strategy." You know, when I took this job, I got, you know, a little bit nervous 'cause I knew people would be asking me that all the time. And I went to a talk one night that Taylor Branch was giving, the great chronicler.

Chris Hayes: I was just about to invoke him.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. And Taylor Branch said on the stage in Baltimore, he said, "You know, during the civil rights movement, leaders and activists," how did he describe it? I think he said, "were eternally," or, no, "perpetually anxious about what to do next." And that was it for me. It was, like, yeah. They too were tryin' to figure it out as they went.

Chris Hayes: It's so funny because the moment that you talked about that conceptualization of these sort of moments of peak nobility, not fun--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. Yes, no.

Chris Hayes: --but, like, peak, get it?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Peak nobility is, that's great.

Chris Hayes: The Edmond Pettus Bridge is not fun--

Sherrilyn Ifill: No, no.

Chris Hayes: --but it elevated.

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's right.

Chris Hayes: It is a sublime moment of democratic sacrifice, physical sacrifice for this beautiful ideal. And the Taylor Branch books, where he will chronicle over 25 pages a meeting in a church for nine hours with no AC where people were at each other's throats. I mean, they ran John Lewis (LAUGH) out of (UNINTEL). Like, John Lewis. Bring John Lewis. Like, outta here.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. And I think because we have come to (not "we," but the civil rights movement) has come to be used in the service of a narrative about this country, right, of nobility, of a place of opportunity and so forth, that actually we gave them that they have used to their own advantage, and we've covered everything in sepia and it looks so beautiful and it's so wonderful, and we forget how painful it was. We forget how absolutely painful it was.

Chris Hayes: I mean, the thing that I find reassuring because sometimes I feel like there's so much intra-conflict and people are beefing about everything all the time, and then I think, "Well, that's social media." And it partly is. But it's also just, like--

Sherrilyn Ifill: No.

Chris Hayes: --it's the nature of democratic politics.

Sherrilyn Ifill: No. Well--

Chris Hayes: People have conflicts. Even people who are allied--

Sherrilyn Ifill: --here's the thing--

Chris Hayes: --or agree on things.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --not only does it inevitably happen, it's actually part of the things we believe in, right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sherrilyn Ifill: So when people say all the time, "Well, the right. They're so disciplined. You know, they're all on message. They clearly all got the memo." Right. Well, if you wanna be in a cult, you're right. Discipline is absolutely one of the major qualities of people who are lockstep in a cult. People who are interested in--

Chris Hayes: Democratic--

Sherrilyn Ifill: --a progressive vision and a democracy not only want outcomes, but they also value process. That means we necessarily value dissent. I mean, things that are just not fun, right? Dissent, engagement, input from lots of people, deliberation, notice, transparency. See? You're getting exhausted, right?

Chris Hayes: Just ticking through that--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Right?

Chris Hayes: --personally.

Sherrilyn Ifill: All the things that make it hard to get to an answer quickly, that make it hard to have everybody onboard, that makes it hard to have the kind of discipline that the right does. And we have to accept that. And I will say this to you. It's part of the journalist class, is that, like, the constant, you know, "The Democrats never have their crap together. The Republicans always," listen, I'm not saying the Democrats always do have their crap together. Often, they don't. But, like, what they're trying to do--

Chris Hayes: Is different.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --around the set of principles--

Chris Hayes: It's different.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --is a completely different enterprise than what the Republican party is tryin' to do.

Chris Hayes: And the other thing is that gets overstated too. Like, they fight with each other all the time. Like, I mean, yes, the idea of A, making space for conflict, but that point, which is really a profound one, that the process is part of--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Is actually part of--

Chris Hayes: --the value.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --the belief. It's the belief system. It's not like low taxes. No. It's, like, how would you get to a decision about low tax, we also care about that, right? And we also care about the caucus that wants to say why we shouldn't lower. Like, that's part of what we believe in. And so it's always gonna be harder for us.

Chris Hayes: The coalition's harder to keep together. It's a harder coalition to keep together.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. Yes. It's a true Big Ten.

Chris Hayes: It really is a Big Ten.

Sherrilyn Ifill: It's a Big Ten.

Chris Hayes: People love to, like, ride in on this thing of, like, "Oh well, you know, you don't know that actually, older Black voters in Queens don't wanna defund the police." It's, like, no, I know that. Yeah, I get that.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, I'm from Queens.

Chris Hayes: Right, I do.

Sherrilyn Ifill: So I understand.

Chris Hayes: Then it's, like, "Oh, these liberals, they don't," it's, like, no, no, no. If we're talkin' about tens of millions of people from lots of backgrounds. They have different conceptions--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's exactly--

Chris Hayes: --of the good.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --right. And in fact, you know, Black people have always had lots of conflict within our own--

Chris Hayes: There are many of them. (LAUGH)

Sherrilyn Ifill: So listen, so all of that is to say that I think that for me, it has been very helpful to be a student of the real civil rights movement, rather than just the, you know, McDonald's commercial one because it shows you the kind of conflict that goes into making something that is worth it, something that is noble, something that is true, something that is democratic. And it ain't fun all the time. Now, I will say this though. We have a ball at LDF. I mean, just like you and I are laughing right now, not because we think any of this is funny, like--

Chris Hayes: No.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --we do.

Chris Hayes: You're a profoundly joyful person, in my interactions with you.

Sherrilyn Ifill: We have fun. We have fun.

Chris Hayes: You know, I'm gonna say something. I don't know if you've watched the Beatles documentary Get Back.

Sherrilyn Ifill: I haven't, but I've seen the clips of it.

Chris Hayes: It's pretty amazing for a lot of reasons. But now, this is the realm of art as opposed to politics, but again, you're seeing this place, like, they're fighting with each other. They're almost breaking up.

Sherrilyn Ifill: And they're making songs.

Chris Hayes: They're making songs. They're doing something. They love each other. They love each other.

Sherrilyn Ifill: They do love each other.

Chris Hayes: And they're in conflict with each other. And they're doing something sort of beautiful together. And all of that is together.

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's a great metaphor.

Chris Hayes: That's kind of like good, democratic political work is like that too. There's tough periods, (LAUGH) you know?

Sherrilyn Ifill: This is one of 'em. And I say to people, you know, "Oh, the last five years and we can't recover," and I say, "You know, the civil rights movement, if we count it from Brown in 1954," and that is now to ignore everything that happens before Brown, and obviously there's a lot--

Chris Hayes: There's a lot.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --right? "But let's just take it from 1954 to 1968, when Dr. King's assassinated. Fair Housing Act, last big civil rights bill of the period is passed. That's 14 years. So we're talkin' about the last five years, like, oh my goodness, you know? Well, how do you think it felt in 1963, you know?

"How do you think it felt when the four girls were blown up in the church? How do you think it felt when Medgar Evers was shot on his driveway?" Like, there are all these moments. And I've said before that every major piece of civil rights legislation was proceeded by some horrible act of violence, right?

The Voting Rights Act was the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Civil Rights Act of 1964 we had the four girls. We had, you know, even 1957 Civil Rights Act was, like, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had started. So it's always something that, like, pushes us into this. And so that's what we have to be able to tolerate. We have to be able to tolerate the painfulness of it. Now, I will say losing 800,000 people in a year in this country--

Chris Hayes: Two years, yeah. A year.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Two years, yeah. I didn't have that one on my Bingo card. And I can't even talk about it in a way that, you know, makes any sense. It's a horrible thing. And it should not take that. It shouldn't take that. And so that makes the work urgent because we can see what is collateral to. This is what happens when you're in an authoritarian regime, right? This is what happens. You can't even protect the people, really.

Chris Hayes: I mean, the big lesson to me about this pandemic is that, like, there are certain problems that only can have collective solutions--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's right.

Chris Hayes: --and not individual solutions. And understandably. I mean, I even do it too. Like, "What should I do? What's my individual risk?" It's, like, there's stuff we can only do together. And even then, it's gonna find its way, you know? I mean, there's also things that are just difficult.

Sherrilyn Ifill: There's also science.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, science. (LAUGH)

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, that, like, is what it is.

Chris Hayes: Let me ask you this final question on the court, because you just mentioned, you know, Thurgood Marshall and Polly Murray, two of many sort of brilliant visionaries who understood and crafted a legal strategy that was not the only part of the civil rights movement by any means, but was one key part that, you know, struck down--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Apartheid.

Chris Hayes: --apartheid in the U.S. Now, the court had been, for most of its life, all of its life, essentially an apartheid court, a reactionary institute that upheld white supremacy at almost every turn. Then it has this period where it does the opposite.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Brief. Brief.

Chris Hayes: A brief period. What are we in now?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I think now we're in something quite reactionary. You know, this is the most conservative court that we could I think have imagined in the last, you know, 50 or 60 years. There's no question about it. And there are lots of elements of the way in which this court operates that should concern us, and that concerns me as a lawyer.

And so it's not just the outcome of the cases. But it's also the process. And if you actually believe in the legal process, which I do (I'm kind of nerdy about this stuff), then you are alarmed about, you know, the conduct of the court with the shadow docket.

You are alarmed about not just that section two of the Voting Rights Act was weakened by the Brnovich decision, but that a majority of the court was willing to give the pen to Justice Alito to arrogate to himself the ability to rewrite the test that the Senate wrote and included in the Senate report that accompanied the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, that he could rewrite the test himself for how judges should apply section two to vote denial cases. So these things should bother us as well. And so it's not just that the outcomes of these cases are alarming.

Chris Hayes: There's a kind of lawlessness, a sort of--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yes. It's almost reckless I would say. It's almost reckless. And I think that's why you see some of the language of Chief Justice Roberts, because I think he does see the recklessness--

Chris Hayes: He does.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --of it. But, you know, I grow increasingly concerned, to be frank, that the mindset is truly a state's rights mindset. And so they are okay with giving up some of their power. And in fact, that's why when Chief Justice Roberts rings the bell and says, you know, "You're gonna weaken the court," I think it may be that some of them, maybe a majority, are okay with that.

Chris Hayes: And it's not even just the state's rights. What I've found fascinating is a development of this sort of, like, state legislature supremacy doctrine--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Oh, oh, oh. That was the sign.

Chris Hayes: They're, like--

Sherrilyn Ifill: That was the sign.

Chris Hayes: "--this is what we love. That's the (UNINTEL PHRASE) that's perfect for us."

Sherrilyn Ifill: That's the Gorsuch thing, right, you know, 'cause the governor could (UNINTEL PHRASE), not trustworthy, you know?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Maybe I don't know about, you know, the courts in some of these states. So that is super creepy (LAUGH) and I think, you know, we have to watch that very closely, a court willing to abdicate its responsibility. And as I said the other day on social media, you know, when we get to the point where we're takin' another look at Cooper versus Aaron, right, the Little Rock Nine case, you talked about moments of nobility, right?

Moments of great nobility. Nine kids, you know, supposed to go into Central High School, greeted by the mob. You know, President Eisenhower how to figure out what to do. He is not in favor I'm integration. In fact, he is mad at integrationists who he thinks, you know, are pushin' and goin' too far, and so on and so forth.

But he calls in the 82nd Airborne, right, because we can't have it, right? States have got to obey the law, right? They have to obey the federal courts. And we have this amazing decision, which is essentially a reaffirmation of Marbury versus Madison, you know, the decision that essentially makes the Supreme Court, in which the Supreme Court, you know, is clear that, "We get to say what the law is. We get to interpret the law and say what it is." Cooper versus Aaron is the 20th century analog to that. And so when you hear then Justice Roberts just last week saying, you know, "They call them judicial opinions 'cause that's what they are, opinions," it's, like, well, really?

Chris Hayes: Did Roberts say that?

Sherrilyn Ifill: No, no, no. Gorsuch.

Chris Hayes: Oh, okay.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah. You know, he's in this fight with Justice Sotomayor, right, about what happens when, you know, a decision of the court is defied, right?

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Sherrilyn Ifill: And he's kind of going in his textual route. "You gotta see it in the text." That's a super, super dangerous set of ideas. And yeah, I think--

Chris Hayes: I feel like there's a movement among liberals on the left that's, like, "Screw the Supreme Court. It's a reactionary institute. Marbury versus Madison was wrongly decided. Judicial supremacy--"

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well--

Chris Hayes: "--is--"

Sherrilyn Ifill: --I suppose I am not--

Chris Hayes: "--a reactionary (UNINTEL PHRASE)--"

Sherrilyn Ifill: --quite part of that group because I believe that the rule of law is actually a critical component to any healthy democracy. You know, just like a free press is critical.

Chris Hayes: I didn't take that view, just--

Sherrilyn Ifill: But there's a lot of elements of the press that, you know, I don't care for.

Chris Hayes: You said it right here, Sher. (LAUGH)

Sherrilyn Ifill: Oh, but I do actually think that it's essential to a healthy democracy. So it's of no moment what I think about one--

Chris Hayes: One--

Sherrilyn Ifill: --you know, outfit or--

Chris Hayes: --particular.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --another. Yeah. It doesn't matter. So, you know, we have a system. Other countries have other systems. But we have this one. It imagines this court, which is written into the Constitution. It doesn't mean that there's nothing that can be done with the court.

I've obviously just been on a commission. There's been conversations about court expansion, all kinds of stuff. There are also conversations about various procedures used by the court as well, with suggestions for how things could be improved and greater transparency.

And so the court does not have to be static. It is not static. It changes over time. And so I'm not of the view that, you know, therefore, we just, you know, tear down the legal system. It is possible that it is not functioning properly, either the court or elements of the profession, for example. You know, I don't think we should get rid of the legal profession because of, you know, who are these lawyers who Trump passed?

Chris Hayes: Sidney Powell. Sidney Powell.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Sidney Powell. Yeah, so, I mean, right? So I'm not saying, "Well, therefore, there should be no lawyers." I'm saying, "Whoa. What is the profession gonna do about the fact that people are using, you know, kind of the legal system to engage in this kind of warfare, despite all of our ethical standards that are supposed to control our profession, despite, you know, the oath that we take, despite the fact that we're officers of the court?" We all know, those of us who are lawyers, what we are required to do and what we are not allowed to do, right? We know that we're not allowed to--

Chris Hayes: Lie.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --you know--

Chris Hayes: Go in and lie.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --to lie, to abet a client in the commission of a crime. You know, we know all the stuff. We're not allowed to make false representations to the court. We're not allowed to assert frivolous arguments without a well-founded basis for believing that there should be a change in the law.

I mean, you know, I could just run it out, right? So we all know that. At least I thought we did. So when the profession is silent as these excesses, and in some cases abuses unfold, yes, I have questions about, well, what do we need to do to change the profession, not that we should throw out the legal profession, but what do we do about a government lawyer like Bill Barr, who does what he did? We've not even begun to touch that yet. You know, 'cause we've got January 6th.

Chris Hayes: He's ridden off into the sunset.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, one hopes not. I think it's never too late because we're part of the profession. And what do we do when someone uses their power to release people who they believe are friends of the president, I.E., Manafort, Stone, right? You know, I made a big deal about them, you know, releasing Manafort because of COVID while they were sending the Baltimore mayor, Cathy Pugh, down to federal prison for selling, you know, bibs and books. And they sent her to Bessemer, Alabama to a federal prison, you know, at the same time that Manafort was cut. She was 66 years old, you know? So what do we do about--

Chris Hayes: That's a good point that we have to revisit Barr.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah. But all--

Chris Hayes: A lot.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --the elements. And so a democracy's made up of all the component pieces. And one piece is the political piece. There is a piece about the professionals that I'm a part of. And so I'm not gonna let it go. You're a professional and the journalists haven't done their truth and reconciliation. And so we're gonna be in the same position again if journalists don't pause, and I don't mean individual journalists--

Chris Hayes: No.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --I mean the media--

Chris Hayes: Collective.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --itself collectively, and take a look, an examination at its own practices and how they contributed to the unraveling of democracy. These are the elements that have to take responsibility. And so I think we have a lot of work to do.

And that's kind of where my head is at right now. It's, like, what's the work we can push ourselves to do to clean up these elements that allowed this to happen? Trump didn't just ride in and just roll over the country. He was given the opportunity to unravel the country. I describe him as an accelerant. But, you know, the sticks and the twigs were already stacked. And there were many people who saw it that, you know, he was a fire starter and thought it was kind of a fun show.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Sherrilyn Ifill's the president, director counsel NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, now writing a book. And it's just always a great, great pleasure to get some quality time with you. So thank you--

Sherrilyn Ifill: Thank you so much--

Chris Hayes: --for making it happen.

Sherrilyn Ifill: --Chris.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Sherrilyn Ifill, president, director, counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bart Gellman, correspondent at The Atlantic. I really hope you enjoyed our first crossover episode with All In and we hope to do more in the future.

Why is this happening? It's presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Edie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/WhyIsThisHappening.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.