Throughout the 2016 campaign, Van Jones became something of a progressive hero for his commentary on CNN. While the network was being mocked by right and left for giving a megaphone to hacks and lackeys, Jones emerged as the rare voice capable of discussing both policy—he is known for his advocacy work in fields such as environmental protection and criminal justice reform—and the broader importance of what America was undergoing. (Jones labeled Donald Trump’s victory “a whitelash against a changing country.”)
Now, with Trump’s campaign promises being put forward as policy, and amidst full-on opposition from the American left, Jones, in his commentary and on his CNN show, The Messy Truth, has continued speaking out on progressive issues, and against the Trump administration, but lately he’s taken a more pragmatic, if not conciliatory, tone. Jones was ripped by liberal commentators for his partial praise of Trump’s first address to Congress, during which he said, in reference to Trump’s honoring the widow of a Navy SEAL, “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.” More recently, he has expressed the concern that Trump’s bad behavior was “driving liberals insane.”
I spoke to Jones by phone this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what Trump is doing to liberal discourse, what it’s like to come under fire from your own side, and what CNN’s Trump surrogates are really like.
Isaac Chotiner: You said a few days ago that you’re concerned Trump is driving liberals insane. What did you mean by that?
Van Jones: I mean that there are two ways that Trump can be normalized. One is for us just to get used to him saying crazy things, lying, and attacking people, and that’s a big danger. There’s a more insidious danger, which is a danger of his becoming normalized at an emotional and social level. He is completely fear driven, he is completely polarizing, he is completely caught up in his own drama, and I’m starting to see liberals act the same way. We’re almost trying to fight polarization with polarization at this point, and I’m afraid that we’re feeding what we’re fighting.
What exactly do you mean?
Have you noticed that most of my fellow progressives are completely beside themselves most of the time?
Yeah, well, we have a lunatic in the White House.
Yes. There’s always a danger that you become the thing that you’re fighting. We could absolutely oppose all of his policies and his crazy personality, but, at the end of the day, we’re trying to assemble a governing majority. You can take your eyes off that prize. We needed 70,000 more votes in three states and then we would’ve had the White House. We already are getting 1.4 million more votes, 1.4 million more people come out to vote for Democrats than Republicans for Congress, but gerrymandering nullifies that outcome. We probably need another million people. I’m focused on trying to figure out how do we fight him but do so in a way that leaves a bridge open to definitely motivating more liberals, but also, understanding and converting more people who are right now in the Trump camp.
OK, but when you say you don’t want liberals to become like Trump, what specifically are you worried about?
A complete inability to self-reflect. I’m concerned that introspection, nuance, complexity are usually the hallmarks of liberals, and I’m seeing a death of that capacity. We are now as black and white as I’ve ever seen us, and more willing to engage in a kind of bigotry than I’ve ever seen. Every person who voted for Trump is, by definition, an ignorant, mouth-breathing, toothless idiot and a bigot, every single person. If you don’t agree with that, then you’re enabling or normalizing Trump. Well, that’s not a very nuanced, sophisticated view of the world or of human beings and it sounds like Trump.
I think people forget leaders have a tremendous impact on the culture. When Reagan was in office, everybody wanted to run to Wall Street and make a bunch of money. When Kennedy was in office, people went to join the Peace Corps. When Obama was in office, you had a real backlash, but during that eight years, you went from people being afraid to even say the word marriage equality to it being a fact. You have to be very careful, when somebody gets that level of power, that it doesn’t begin to affect you in ways that you can’t track. What I’m saying is that progressives need to be better progressives. We need to fight even harder for what we believe in, but how we’re fighting needs to be aligned with our own principles.
Isn’t there a difference between viewing issues like the Muslim ban as black and white, and figuring out how to talk to people (and about people) who support Trump in nuanced ways?
Yes. Absolutely. I think I’ve been as outspoken on the question of treating Muslims with dignity and sticking up for Black Lives Matter and sticking up for trans people. What’s interesting is that people are in such a state of pain, such a state of fear, that things that I’m saying, which are ordinarily inarguable among progressives, sound like a threat. If I say, “Listen, let’s fight against all these policies but do it in a way that is respectful toward people who voted for Trump, and let’s actually look for common ground wherever it may show up with Trump supporters, not Trump, but with his supporters,” that actually sounds like a threat because right now anything other than blanket and wholesale opposition to everything Trump has ever done or said and everyone who’s ever supported him, even marginally, is required now by liberals. I just don’t think that that’s in keeping with our traditions.
I mean, you can fight very, very, very hard, I don’t know, like Dr. King did, like Nelson Mandela did, people who fought and gave up their lives and their liberty for these causes but still somehow managed to convey a level of grace and a level of empathy, even for their opponents.
You wouldn’t have known that from Mandela’s opponents, who branded him a terrorist.
It doesn’t matter what your opponents do; your opponents are going to do whatever they do. What I’m saying is that, and this is such basic—I mean, we’ve been so unmoored from just our basic traditions. Listen, I don’t say to extend some love and empathy toward those Trump voters to make the Trump voters better. I’m saying we should do that to make sure that we don’t become worse. That’s the big danger is that we all fall off this cliff along with him.
Listen to Isaac Chotiner’s discussion with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on his new podcast I Have to Ask:
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You said on your show, about liberals, “I don’t really want y’all to be in charge either.” What specifically is your fear about what will happen if the left keeps going down this path?
I don’t have a utilitarian concern; I have an ethical concern. I want us to be good people. I want our kids to look at us and say, “Hey, when things get bad that’s how you handle it.” You will not give up one inch of rights or progress, you’re absolutely inflexible when it comes to defending the democracy from this authoritarian threat, and yet you conduct yourself in a way that any fair person would have to say, “You know what, those are good and decent people who deserve to be in charge.”
I think part of the problem is people look at the Republicans over the past eight years and they see a party that put unified and often decidedly not “decent” opposition to Obama, and then nominated a racist vulgarian. And now they’ve won the White House and Congress and have complete power. In those circumstances, it’s hard to tell the people you need to act in a dignified way and only then can you regain power.
Well, listen, there might be any number of ways to regain power, that’s not my preoccupation. Perhaps by being more horrible and hypocritical than Trump and the Tea Party combined, we might get some power. We need power to defend our communities that are under attack. I understand the temptation, but I also think that it has been our tradition to question means as well as ends, and the heroes we admire the most are the ones that had more harmony between their means and their ends. I am fighting to keep Trump from drowning our traditions. He’s already destroyed the Republicans, the best of the Republican traditions. Republicans used to be patriotic. Now, they’re willing to look the other way when Russia attacks the country. Republicans used to be respective of the Constitution.
When was that?
Well, I mean, at least rhetorically. I mean, listen, this is a party that was founded to end slavery and now they put up with neo-Nazis in their ranks.
You got a lot of grief for saying nice things about Trump’s address to Congress. A lot of people on the left felt like he was using the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in Yemen, especially considering the haphazard nature of the raid. Do you think the reaction to your comment was an example of what you have been talking about?
I mean, it’s certainly one sign of it. I’ve been warning against this for a long time. Look, people didn’t like what I said, but I will point out some very uncomfortable things. First of all, presidents put people in those boxes for their own political purposes every single time. They’ve been doing that since Reagan. The idea that Trump is somehow violating presidential standards by doing that is ludicrous because every president, including Obama, did that. That’s what that whole thing is for.
OK but look—
I can hear in your voice you have a level of emotional tension.
Well, you don’t feel emotional tension right now?
No, I do not.
Because I’ve been black for a long time, and we’ve been through worse than this. The people who got us through did not act the way that the people are acting right now. I will tell you with a certainty that there is a way through racist authoritarian governments. My family lived under one for eight generations and they did not act this way, not when we were effective.
I don’t have any response to that, that’s totally fair. But I understand why it enrages people when Trump is doing things like pursuing bigoted policies and separating parents from their children.
Yeah, except most of the people who are really angry didn’t watch his speech or the coverage.
If you want me to, I’ll send you the clip, the full clip, of what I said, not the statement that became the click bait. I gave a very nuanced minute and a half, I gave a very nuanced statement about what he had achieved in that speech. I gave it as a compliment to him but a warning to others that if he continues in this way, we’re going to have problems.
How much damage do you think can be done at the federal level to the environment in the next four years?
Well, most of the momentum toward clean and green energy has come despite the federal government being sort of held at bay, but we don’t know how much damage an aggressive, unified federal onslaught can do. Listen, there are three scenarios. One scenario is what we were hoping with Obama in 2008: The federal government would get behind this bus and put some nitro in the tank and push it. We didn’t get that. The second is that the federal government at least stays out of the way and lets the entrepreneurs drive things forward, as they’ve been doing quite well. The third scenario is that the federal government starts trying to puncture the tires, and that’s really what we’re faced with now and we don’t know the outcome yet.
In terms of criminal justice reform, how worried are you that the harsh policies sure to come from the federal level are going to filter down to the state and local level and reverse a lot of positive trends in criminal justice reform in the past couple of years?
I think we’re in some peril for a couple of reasons. We fought hard to take the term bipartisan criminal justice and turn it from an oxymoron into a cliché so that it was just absolutely safe for anybody and everybody to get on board with smarter approaches. Trump, when he first started running, was an outlier in his own party in his opposition to any kind of thoughtful approach. There is a danger that his backward view contaminates other people’s good thinking, but we are redoubling efforts. I mean, my organization, #cut50 just did a national day of action in, I think, 40 states. I called it a day of empathy on a bipartisan basis, sticking up for progress. I think we’re going to have to redouble efforts, but I think the jury is still out on so many things.
Finally, what are Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski really like?
Jeffrey is a complete sweetheart, and Corey is not.
When I see the Trump people on CNN I always think, kind of, maybe, deep down, they’re playing a little bit of a role.
Not Jeffrey, not Jeffrey. Jeffrey says what he says on set, during the break, in the men’s room.
But Corey’s not the nicest guy?
Corey is not a sweetheart.
OK, thank you.
Look, I really need your help. I’m still a follower of Obama and her husband. “When they go low, we go high.” That’s us, that’s who we are, and I am not going to let him take that from us. I think we can beat him both ways. I think we can beat him politically and stop this stuff, maybe not before the midterms, and maybe it’ll take four years, but I think we can reverse a lot of this political damage. We also need to be concerned about the cultural and spiritual damage of having us, the best people in the country, abandon our best traditions.