As a student at the University of Mississippi in the late '90s, Chris McDaniel often spent his free time stowed away at Oxford's Square Books, reading the likes of Willie Morris, John Kennedy Toole, William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. It was a time when the UM marching band still played "Dixie" as Rebels fans unapologetically waved the Confederate flag. Just after he graduated from UM Law School, the newly minted alum found himself talking to a journalist from across the country about issues of politics, race and Confederate history—a preview of things to come.
"The flag is not a symbol of racism," McDaniel told a Newsday journalist who, in October 1997, was reporting on the school's continued use of the sounds and symbols that so many associate with American slavery. "Twelve percent of our students are African American. We want them here, we welcome them here. We want them to play football."
More than 20 years later, McDaniel still spends a lot of time talking to the press about flags and race. In his 2018 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat that Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to in April, McDaniel has made fighting efforts to change the Confederate-imagery-bearing Mississippi state flag a signature tenet of his campaign.
On the evening of Oct. 9, the Jackson Free Press met up with him in Flowood, Miss., where he accepted the endorsement of the Mississippi Tea Party. Though the state's most viral Republican politician was visibly exhausted from an arduous day of campaigning, he was eager to sit for an in-depth discussion to go beyond the sound bites the press knows him for and to discuss not only his ideas on race and flags, but also on other timely matters like sexual assault, tariffs and criminal-justice reform.
What do you think of the #MeToo movement?
I think any time there's a movement of voluntarily associated Americans that are seeking to better their conditions or lives, that's a positive thing. I've never minded seeing people banding together to petition their government. I think that's very important. I think it's unfortunate that it's gotten so caught up in politics, because I think that anyone who values individual autonomy would naturally value people who have suffered at the hands of others. I think it's primarily advocating for more government and more (Democratic) policies, as opposed to more individual liberty and more dignity for everyone.
In a 2016 Facebook comment, you called Trump a "liberal."
Trump was always my second choice behind Cruz. I do think that a lot of my comments that were made in '16 have been misconstrued. I was never hyper-critical of Trump. I always respected his ability to bring change.
You attacked him for his position on tariffs but now support them.
As a general rule, tariffs are not a positive thing. What you prefer is trade among countries, which brings voluntary cooperation and freedom in markets that has a way of benefitting people over time. When we find imbalances in trade the way we've seen with China, sometimes it's necessary to play your strong card. And in this instance, the strong card was tariffs.
If you go back to "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith, even though he was generally against tariffs, he did suggest there would be times when tariffs would be necessary to negotiate better trading terms. I think that's what Trump has done. So it's working right now. Granted, no one wants to see that stay in place a long time, because there will be detrimental effects on Mississippi's agricultural industry.
In that same 2016 comment, you criticized Trump for supporting bailouts. He's spending $12 billion to bail out farmers hurt by China's response to his tariffs.
I think he felt that, based on the extraordinary circumstances of the bailout, it was necessary. And I don't have any strong objections to that at this stage because of the nature of the effects the tariffs were causing. The preferred approach is to alleviate the regulatory burdens our farmers are experiencing. Now, this was an extraordinary measure, and I hope it's not something we replicate in the future.
Republicans talked a lot about the deficit when Barack Obama was president, but under Trump, it's risen from $587 billion in 2016 to $779 billion this fiscal year so far.
It's frustrating. When you talk about balancing the budget, Republicans are supposed to be very serious about balancing budgets. We haven't been in an awfully long time, and that breaks my heart. People in my own party are sometimes offended by me, I suppose, because I'm very serious about balancing the budget.
Sen. Rand Paul offered his penny plan—one penny per dollar per year—to balance the budget over time by phasing in the decreased spending. Cindy Hyde-Smith voted against it.
All we're asking for is consistency in approach. It doesn't matter at this stage ... whether Democrats are in control or Republicans are in control. They, basically, behind closed doors, have no intention of balancing the budget. And I blame that squarely on Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell who talk good games about balancing the budget but spend at record levels. It's indefensible.
I believe in my heart of hearts that this government is corrupt, that it's incorrigible, and that it's controlled by lobbyists and corporatists and special interests. And I believe the money-changers are controlling the temple, and it frustrates me to no end that, regardless of which party is in charge, we can't seem to get rid of the corruption.
Regular people like you and me, Mississippians, we're not being heard by either side. We petition the government, and they give us lip service, but they have no intention of hearing us because we don't have a big enough campaign donation to give them, and we don't have a lobbyist working for us. That's frustrating.
Neither of Mississippi's senators hold town halls where constituents can ask questions, nor do they agree to debate their opponents.
I get so fired up about this. I get so angry about it. These men and women who run for office are supposed to be our employees, but they get elected, and they believe sincerely in their heart of hearts that they're better than us, that they're elite, and that somehow their position gives them an advantage. It does not. I don't believe we have rulers. I don't believe we have leaders. I believe they're supposed to be led by us. They campaign one way, govern another, but never face the people and answer questions.
I'll debate anyone, any time, anywhere. When I'm elected, there will be town halls. I'll be happy to stand before the most liberal crowd and the most conservative crowd, and defend my positions even if that means people are angry. I value civil discourse that much. We're supposed to be a country built on dissent and debate, and we're not there anymore. We're just screaming at one another.
What do you think of the initiative to legalize medical marijuana?
I trust the people of the state to make that decision. I believe that it's supposed to be a state's issue. I don't believe the federal government should have a say. I will respect the wishes of the people.
If Roe v. Wade were overturned, should states retain the right to keep abortion legal, or would you advocate a nationwide ban?
As a person who believes strongly in life, I believe the states have the right to protect life. The big problem with Roe, constitutionally, is that it removed the ability of the states to take these actions. In Roe, the court took it upon itself to create a fundamental right that was not deeply in our nation's traditions and history. It removed a great part of the regulatory power of the states. So under our federal system, if Roe is reversed, then California, for example, would then have the right to experiment as it sees fit on that issue, just as Mississippi would. I would not like at all that California allows that, but I'm not a citizen of California. And I trust that the people of California would not like Mississippi's conservative approach as well, but they have to respect that decision.
Do you support exceptions for abortion, like when a woman's life is jeopardized by a pregnancy?
I can't imagine any government that would mandate that a woman's life be placed in jeopardy. I think the woman's life has to be preserved, and if there's a medical doctor that indicates that a woman's life is in danger, then that's a treatment that makes sense to me. Doesn't everybody agree with that? If I had a serious medical condition, I would certainly want the state to defer to a doctor. I think even the most ardent Republicans would agree with that. As far as other exemptions and exceptions, I'm just going to say I'm pro-life and leave it at that.
You've been accused of racism on multiple occasions, including by leaders of your own party.
It's always been incredibly upsetting to me when I'm accused of racism. I don't get it. I've been painted with this broad picture, and then the very people who paint me that broadly will say, "We want to be judged as individuals." And that's what I'm asking for: Judge me as an individual.
I don't see race. I see souls, and they're all special and unique, and they deserve to be respected. They deserve our love and attention. It seems in this day and age, the press is more concerned about gotcha moments than talking about issues. I want to try to move past that by valuing individuals.
Do you think the GOP establishment has itself used racism to divide the electorate (such as the use of the "southern strategy")?
Not to the extent that the Democrats have. I think, unfortunately, there's a movement in our country to divide us along collectives. And I think the Democrats especially have taken advantage of that, and they place people in their own unique boxes, and they try to drive wedges. Conservatism rejects that.
Social science data show stark differences in how our justice system treats white people versus how it treats people of color. Do you see systemic inequalities in our justice system as a problem?
I think there is some data out there to that effect, but when I hear the term "systemic inequality," I have a hard time applying that word to a system where Barack Obama was the chief law enforcement officer of that system for eight years, and whose attorneys general were Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. I don't see it as systemic inequality. I think there are some problems, and I think unfortunately we do tend to criminalize nonviolent crime at a much higher rate than other nations. There is some room for criminal-justice reform.
In so many ways, laws don't address those issues very well. There's something about the human heart that has to be addressed. I'm a very flawed and imperfect person, so I'm not very good at judging people. But I know for a fact that as a whole, we have to learn to value each other again. As Christianity has been pushed to the margins of our society, the value and worth of individuals has been eroded.
Now, some people claim that may be the result of religion. I disagree. I think that as we've ostracized it and become hostile to it, we've devalued one another. I don't think a law can address that. I do reject the idea of systemic inequality. I think it's individuals treating each other with a lack of respect rather than a system that drives that. If it was a system, one would think President Obama would've rectified it in his eight years. So it's a question of the human heart in my mind.
Almost all of the great atrocities throughout history, whether communism or fascism, it's government—too much government—that's the problem. These systems didn't value the individual at all, and that's where tyranny occurs. Power brings out the darker side in people. You look at Bernie Sanders. He sees the same corrupt nature of government that conservatives see, but his solution is to empower it more. That seems counter-intuitive. Our solution is to disempower it and to diffuse that power.
You said there's room for criminal-justice reform. What does
that look like?
I sense that there's a problem, and I want to correct it. I'm reading studies and trying to understand incarceration rates, and trying to understand why we have so many young people who are incarcerated. These individuals that are incarcerated, we don't need to throw their lives away because of one mistake. There has to be a way to redeem and restore people to be functioning members of society.
So I'm looking at the best ways to do that, and most of that is going to be state related. What I would suggest from a federal standpoint is that we begin to return these criminal powers back to the state.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" last month, a panelist asked you what you would say to the 38 percent of Mississippians who are black to earn their support. Your response was: iAfter 100 years of begging for federal government scraps, where are you today?i
I was talking about Mississippi as a whole. If you go back and watch the video, I started to say "We've been dead last" before I was cut off by the boos. I said "We've." Meaning us, as a state. I've been very clear about this. You cannot build an economy on welfare in which we all have prosperity, opportunity and upward mobility.
There was a study done by Harvard several years ago when conservatives were trying to ban earmarks, or pork, on legislation. Harvard went into this study trying to demonstrate that earmarks stimulated local economic activity. They followed senators and congressman and, sure enough, as they rose in seniority, more money began to flow in their respective districts and states. Harvard anticipated that flow of money would increase economic productivity. Instead, it depressed it. They took it a step further: Why was economic activity depressed? The answer: It crowded out private investment. It turns out, in most of these state-controlled economies, the people at the top manage to take care of their buddies and the donors and the corporatists and the lobbyists, but the people seldom get the benefits of that federal spending.
When state legislatures are addicted to federal spending, they aren't proactive in creating environments for free market growth. So what happens is, you get stuck in a system. The same way individuals can get stuck in welfare systems, governments can get stuck in welfare systems. And Mississippi is stuck in that system. And I would challenge anybody to think about how our system has worked in the last 100 or so years, which is what I was referring to in the clip. It's the same people. They used to have Ds in front of their names, but now they have Rs. But it's the same families, the same power structures, the same power bases, the same contracts, the same donors. We've done it this way for all these years, in which we've rushed to Washington, given some guy the power to beg for money, he brings it back, and we keep anticipating different results. The Harvard study suggests that could be the very thing depressing economic productivity.
Now, this is where the American left and right get mad at me. They think we're just going to go overnight and cut all these programs. That's not the idea. We can do it responsibly and phase this out over a period of time where we can still balance the deficit and pay down the debt and make sure people don't experience massive discomfort. If we don't phase it out over a period of time, and we keep burying our head in the sand and pretending we can do this indefinitely, there will be periods of massive discomfort. We want to avoid that, which is what we're trying to do with a more prudent fiscal approach. That's what I was addressing, but everyone heard the 38-percent part.
You've mentioned former 1964 presidential nominee Barry Goldwater as a historic Republican figure you admire. You've also been endorsed by former Congressman Ron Paul. Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Paul said he would have opposed it because it made it illegal for businesses to discriminate on the basis of race.
Those were extraordinary measures. I would have supported them. I understand the constitutional concerns they expressed, but my position is that was such an extraordinary moment in our nation's history that something had to be done.
There is no justification for government allocating resources based on someone's immutable trait. It's one of the most egregious things imaginable.
I would've been fighting tooth and nail for equal treatment. You cannot take away someone's civil liberties based on race. That's mind-boggling. It's barbaric. It's a sin. It's a sin against man.
Would you like to see this new conservative majority on the Supreme Court reverse the Obergefell decision, which overturned state bans on marriage equality for
I don't believe that decision was well-founded. I'm an originalist. I think you leave that to the states to experiment as they see fit. I believe that Colorado and California and New York have the right to impose domestic institutions as they see fit without federal interference. I believe what that decision did is it created a fundamental right which under the original Constitution would not have existed, so I disagree with it because of that. However, the way states decide to proceed doesn't give me any heartburn at all. I don't trust courts to decide it, and I certainly don't trust the federal government to decide it. I would defer to the states.
So you disagree with the idea that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution should
cover gay people?
Not in the classical sense. I think states have to decide that. You're talking about the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, right? The only way to make that clause make sense in my mind, as originally intended, is for immutable traits. The thing is, it would seem to me that the equal-rights-protection argument was being won by gay marriage advocates. Look at how many states had already legalized it before the Obergefell decision.
What's your position on the issues of police-officer-involved shootings of unarmed individuals that groups like Black Lives Matter have brought to the forefront?
Obviously, I'm a conservative, so law and order is very important to me. I never want to put our officers into a situation where they delay unnecessarily and put themselves in danger.
At the same time, we have a Constitution, and we have due process that must be protected. It's a delicate balance. A lot of times, these officers have to take force. We saw the recent tragedy in Brookhaven. So I do stand with law enforcement, and I'll defend law enforcement, but we must have due process, and we must ensure that individuals and their rights and dignity are respected. I think it's wise never to jump to an immediate conclusion that way people do in this political environment.
When you were at Ole Miss, you defended the use of the Confederate flag on campus. Where do you stand now on the state flag?
I see it the way the majority of Mississippians do, and the way the majority of people around the country do: I see it as a symbol of Southern pride, and I recognize that other people see it differently. My father taught me early on to question and debate everything. Part of debate is we don't censor or remove. We encourage the discussion. To the individuals that are offended, we should talk about it and move forward together recognizing our history, good and bad.
Who's a former Mississippi senator that you like or admire?
I don't know. As a general rule in my life, I don't make it a habit to admire politicians. I think we trust politicians too much. We depend on them too heavily, and they almost always are less capable of making a decision than we are ourselves. I've become more cynical the longer I've been around it. That doesn't mean I dislike them. I like a lot of people. ... So my knee-jerk reaction of late has been just to accept everybody and not ... put anybody on a pedestal.
Now, President Reagan, I fell in love with him when I was a little boy at 13. It's like Ryne Sandberg, I fell in love with him in the same time period. He'll always be my favorite baseball player. I loved the Cubs, and I love Sandberg because it was that magical moment in my life when all those things converged. Now, I don't put politicians and baseball players on pedestals. I'm older and more experienced now, and I know they're just men, and they're doing the best they can, and they're going to be flawed and imperfect.
You've said you support term limits. If you don't win this U.S. Senate race, will you term-limit yourself in the state Senate?
If only the people that believed in term limits were to term-limit themselves, you'd never get term limits. It's systemic term limits we're after. Frankly, I don't think a single person stepping down would do the trick systemically. I want to see them all stepping down. I can't give you an exact answer, but from a systemic standpoint, 12 years is more than enough for anybody.
I never saw myself as a politician or a career politician. I want to be a basketball coach again. That's what I've always wanted to do. Before that, I wanted to be a federal judge. Those days are over. I could never be confirmed now, right? I could be very happy being a judge somewhere or a basketball coach somewhere. It's just that God has me at this place at this time for this moment, but it's not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I love art, I love music, I love travel, and I love to try new restaurants, and it's not something you can do trapped in an office somewhere.
This interview is edited for length and clarity. Read an interview with Mike Espy at jfp.ms/2018elections. Cindy Hyde-Smith has not accepted our invitation.
Mississippi State Senator since 2008
Running in Mississippi's U.S. Senate Special Election
Chris McDaniel is a Republican candidate running for U.S. Senate in the special election for the seat former Sen. Thad Cochran retired from in March. Since 2008, McDaniel has served as a Mississippi state senator. In 2014, the Jones County native narrowly failed to unseat Cochran in the Republican Party primary for the seat Hyde-Smith now holds.
Elections for Mississippi's U.S. Senate seats are Nov. 6. In the special election for Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's seat, if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the election goes to a runoff on Nov. 27. Voters must bring a valid form of photo ID such as a driver's license or student ID to vote. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Comment at jfp.ms/2018elections. Email Ashton Pittman story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ashtonpittman.
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