Throughout the election, CNN commentator Van Jones has been a leading voice for progressivism, a smart critic of failings within the Democratic Party, and an unflinching tribune against the bigotry exhibited by the Donald Trump campaign. On election night, Jones—co-founder of Color for Change and president of the social justice incubator Dream Corps—spoke for many when he said that parents who’d told their kids not to be bullies or bigots were dreading how to explain the outcome to them in the morning.
On Friday, I spoke with Van Jones about where we go from here.
Clara Jeffery: On election night, you said it was pretty clear that this was a “whitelash” against not only Barack Obama, but also due to the unease that whites have of losing their demographic choke hold.
Van Jones: That part got the most attention because I was the only person on national TV willing to call out the elephant in the room. The vast majority of white people voted for Trump, and the vast majority of people of color didn’t. That’s been true in presidential elections for a while, but in a race where even Paul Ryan said there were textbook examples of racism coming out of the mouth of the Republican nominee, we have to accept that some very toxic stuff was marbled into the Trump phenomenon.
Now, the Trump phenomenon has a lot of really good stuff in it, the anti-elitism, the concern for America’s economy in the Rust Belt, the desire to see better days for the country. That’s all great stuff. Some of that stuff is Bernie Sanders stuff. The problem is that it’s marbled through with xenophobia and misogyny and bigotry. The problem that we have in the country now is, some people only see the positive stuff and wave off the toxic stuff, and some people only see the toxic stuff and wave off the positive stuff. You can’t have an honest conversation.
For the past 30 years, elites in both political parties signed off on trade, deregulating the banks, building all these prisons, getting into these dumb wars, et cetera. Both parties. When somebody comes along and says, “I think Washington, DC, sucks,” that’s not wrong. The problem is that in Trump’s case, he also demagogued around racial issues. Now I think liberals have gone from underreacting to Trump and saying that Trump is just a clown and a buffoon, and that Hillary Clinton’s going to kick his ass, to now overreacting, and saying, “Oh my God, 60 million people consciously endorsed a white supremacist for president.”
Neither of those are true, okay? I put out a video on MoveOn.org explaining how Trump was going to beat us. I had insufferably arrogant people from across the Democratic establishment and innumerable regular NPR liberals tell me I was crazy. It has been the most frustrating year and a half, trying to explain to people who think that they’re so smart and think the red-state people are so stupid that they are the ones sitting on train tracks. That the rumbling sound they’re hearing is not a Beyoncé song. Okay? It was ridiculous.
Now, these same people are completely panicked and they think that Trump has power he doesn’t have. Trump is holding together the shakiest coalition that you could conceivably govern on. It is a conservative, populist alliance that agrees with itself on very little. Now, he’s a great deal-maker with a lot of momentum and it will do a lot of damage to us. We are in grave peril and it’s going to be terrible.
But, Paul Ryan wants to privatize Social Security. Trump says he wants to keep it, save the program. How does that get worked out? Trump wants to tear up TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership]. Paul Ryan is 1,000 percent for TPP. How do the conservatives and the populists govern together? Now they will agree on a whole bunch of terrible stuff, trust me, they’re going to put pipelines everywhere if they can. They’re going to town militarizing stuff. Civil liberties, immigration, there’s a whole bunch of terrible stuff to come. But this idea that 60 million people all want to join the Klan and now have absolute control of all three branches of government and that America’s over is just ridiculous.
CJ: Sure, we can’t think all Trump supporters want to join the Klan—it’s much more complicated. Some might be really drawn to the messages of bigotry, but for most it’s probably just that…
VJ: Those kinds of comments were not disqualifying for a lot of voters who were basing their vote on other reasons.
CJ: But we have seen attacks on people all over the country, people who are Muslim or Latino or whatever. What should our level of panic be about Trump supporters who think they have permission to act like that.
VJ: One, we should take it very, very seriously. We are on track now for a tragedy. There will be a Muslim Trayvon Martin within the next six months on our present trajectory. Some completely innocent Muslim, possibly a female, who gets gravely injured, if not killed, by somebody who feels empowered by white nationalist extremes of the Trump phenomenon. So we should take it very seriously.
Number two, we need to try to get as specific and concrete as we can and gather the evidence, because one or two stories circulate on Facebook, bounce a thousand times, and it can sometimes feel like there’s more going on than there is. We want to make sure we’re accurate in what we’re describing.
Number three, we need to put pressure on Trump, to speak out very forcefully that he’s the president of all Americans including Muslims, and that his administration, including his law enforcement, is going to take very, very seriously any crimes against any Americans based on their race or their faith, including Muslims. He needs to send that signal very, very soon and very, very clearly. Otherwise, he’s going to be seen as culpable. And his silence may be interpreted as encouragement, rightly or wrongly.
I think we have every reason to hope for the best but expect and prepare for the worst. It is conceivable that maybe he won’t feel the need to throw so much raw meat at his base and might govern reasonably, but it seems more likely that he’ll follow the usual pattern of demagogues. The usual pattern of demagogues is to promise the moon, fail to deliver, and then blame vulnerable others for those failures. He’s promised the moon. Now he has power. He’s going to fail to deliver. He’s not going to be able to bring a bunch of coal jobs back and a bunch of factory jobs back in this global economy. Period. Because you can’t. It’s not going to happen.
When he fails to deliver and the economic pain is the same as it is right now, he’ll have two choices. He’s going to have to spend a bunch of money on infrastructure jobs, which, frankly, I’m not mad at. Especially if they’re not only in the red states. That will have, against the overall economy, some multiplier effects, but relatively limited impact. He’s not going to want to pay for it, so he’s going to have to do that depth of finance, which will have some economic consequences, maybe mild. Then he’s going to start blaming people. He’s going to start a war, he’s going to start attacking immigrants or Muslims or Black Lives Matter or whatever. Because he’s going to have to distract them from the no jobs. I think we have every reason to hope for the best but to expect and prepare for the worst.
CJ: There’s obviously a lot of infighting—everything from bitter animosity to heartfelt soul-searching—about what went wrong within the Democratic Party. What should the next Democratic National Committee chair do?
VJ: Well, you know, try to rebuild, but the problem wasn’t the DNC. The problem was the arrogance of the Clinton camp, which showed up in a thousand different ways. The whole email server thing was just a debacle. She shouldn’t have done it. Then the way they stopped the Sanders’ rebellion, which was 80 percent fine and 20 percent bad.
Listen, Sanders lost because he didn’t get enough black support. Period! End of story, we’re done. Black women in the South stuck with Hillary Clinton and stopped his rebellion. You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t have to do all kinds of hijinks and stuff like that. In fact, do the opposite, and tell your people to do the opposite.
CJ: Do you feel that that came from Clinton herself, from her circle? Or from Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC?
VJ: Hard to know, but the Sanders insurgency felt it was treated like garbage. The candidate said nice things, but…Let me just tell you how it should have been. First of all, look, you fight. You try to win. You try to win based on your own advantages and your own stuff. Hillary Clinton, in two debates, pulled out unfair attacks that made it seem like Bernie Sanders was supporting the Minutemen. Distorting attacks when people already don’t trust you is not smart.
Then when the thing went down at the Nevada caucus, where allegedly chairs were thrown, but no chairs were thrown…Sanders had an opportunity that he blew and Hillary had an opportunity that she blew. Sanders should have come out and said, you know, in one statement just, “Any violence or threats in my movement, I don’t want.” Period, full stop. Then come back four or five hours later and talk about being concerned about the denial of the [convention] rules. He didn’t do that.
She had an opportunity to come out and say, “Any shenanigans that are going on, I don’t want.” She and Bernie and Debbie should have held a press conference and said, “We want every vote to count. We are concerned about this and we’re looking into it. Bernie and I don’t agree on very much, but we both agree on democracy, and we both agree that every Democrat matters. I’m appointing a special team and so is he and we’re going to oversee this thing and we’re going to make sure none of this happens again.”
Because listen, this played huge for the Sanders people. That’s where, “This thing is completely rigged” came from. It came out of how Nevada was handled. That’s really where it got accelerated.
CJ: Well right, and the primary and caucus system is so crazy. Especially to people who are new to politics.
VJ: Right, the Clintons just felt like “we can ignore people’s complaints about the process, because the process is always bumpy and we’re going to win this thing and move on. Just like in 2008, when we got on board with Obama, these Sanders people will have to get on board with us.” Then we see nasty, inflamed comments all over the internet against the Sanders people…
CJ: Although in fairness there was also some really vicious stuff coming from some Sanders’ supporters.
VJ: Listen, but guess what? A lot of all that stuff was Russia. This is the first election we ever went through where an enemy deliberately disrupts our democracy, and everybody keeps acting like it didn’t happen. The Russians have had and continue to have an active program to undermine American society, and a part of that was accelerating all this online stuff. It hacked the DNC but not the RNC. We’ve never seen Donald Trump’s email. All of this stuff was part of the disruption, so yeah, there were some Bernie bros who were saying bad stuff, some horrible behavior. I’m not trying to excuse it, but what I am saying is that…
CJ: You think some of the online nastiness from each camp was in part stoked by or was actually the work of Russian disinformation?
VJ: This is what top American intelligence officials have been saying the entire time, with the mainstream media ignoring it. And Donald Trump saying that he doesn’t believe it, even though he was briefed on it over and over again. We’re in the middle of a cyberwar with Russia. Yes, there was terrible behavior from some Sanders people. But Hillary Clinton was almost certainly going to be the nominee. I think they really misread the Sanders voters.
The most enthusiastic, the hardest-working, the best of the Sanders campaign had a very hard time making that turn. Here’s the thing: Hillary Clinton did try to reach out to the Sanders voters with policy concessions, but Sanders voters, especially his most activist core, are process people. They’re not policy wonks. They’re people who want big money out of politics. They’re people who want fairness from the DNC chair. They’re people who want every vote to count. They’re the people who don’t like Wall Street money. Right? They’re primarily about the process of politics and whether or not it’s fair and whether or not big-money elites are rigging things in your favor. They don’t care how many zeroes you add onto your promised education college policy if they don’t trust you in the first place.
You saw this tragic thing, where Hillary Clinton thinks she’s handing roses to the Sanders people by making policy concessions. That’s how it appeared to her. These people are actually probably allergic to roses and wanted chocolate in the first place.
So you wind up with this train crash inside the Democratic Party. I tell people all the time, “Well, they had no place to go but Trump.” I said, “Have you ever heard of Pokemon Go? Have you ever heard of Netflix and chill? They can go Netflix and chill and play Pokemon Go, they don’t have to do what you say. They don’t have to come vote.” Guess what? Six million Democrats didn’t come vote.
CJ: Are you in the “Keith Ellison for DNC chair” camp? How are you feeling about the candidates that have come forward so far? [Editor’s note: At the time of this conversation, both Rep Keith Ellison (D-MN) and former DNC chair Howard Dean’s had both been floated for DNC chair. Labor Secretary Tom Perez had not yet signaled interest.]
VJ: I’m for Keith Ellison to head the United Nations, but if he decided to turn that job down, he could deign to be the DNC chair. Keith Ellison is the future of the Democratic Party, the future of the progressive movement.
CJ: Howard Dean said the DNC chair has got to be a full-time job. What do you think about that?
VJ: I don’t know. There’s how hard you work, and there’s what you would do when you got the job. You have both problems right now because the party’s been decimated. Since 1992, the fundamental center of gravity was the Clintons and the Obamas. Now the Clintons have been obliterated and Obama’s going to have to go and be quiet for at least two years—because you can only have one president at a time and he doesn’t want to be a jackass like Dick Cheney. That means there’s just a big gaping hole. Who’s going to inspire us and point us in the right direction and encourage us? And some of it is practical: How are we going to organization ourselves and raise all the money and find all the candidates? It’s really hard to say which one is the bigger problem.
I love Howard Dean, it’s just that Keith Ellison’s the future of the progressive movement. The future of the progressive movement is Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison.
CJ: What would you encourage ordinary people to get involved in right now?
VJ: Local politics matters a lot. Local, state, an effort to rebuild the farm team from the ground up, because we lost so much during the Obama years when it comes to Congress, when it comes to state legislatures. Anybody who’s mad should run for something. Let’s get that going. I also think that also sometimes we overemphasize the political system. There are other ways to make a difference. There’s technology, there’s media, there’s business. We need a more diversified portfolio of change-making tools so that we don’t just get so freaked out by whatever’s happening in the political corner.
This is a horrific setback—there’s going to be horrible consequences for a generation or more. The country may never fully recover from this, but it’s not all bad and it’s not over yet, and the American people may recover their senses.
First of all, almost half the people didn’t vote at all. Of the half that did vote, Hillary got more votes, and of the people who voted for Trump, only probably 10 percent of them endorsed all this crazy stuff; the other 40 percent were just giving a middle finger to either Hillary Clinton, DC, or PC stuff run amok, whatever that means to them. That doesn’t mean that they all want to privatize Social Security or even build a wall, in fact. If you take the people who didn’t vote, cut them in half, and assume that some would have voted for Trump and some would have voted for Hillary, and then if you take her voters, that’s like 150 million people. That’s a lot of people who cannot be rationally included in the Trump camp at all. Then if you take the half of his voters—or more, probably—the vast majority of his voters who aren’t into a lot of his crazy stuff, you got a lot to work with.
CJ: Where do you feel the media screwed up the most?
VJ: The catnip of the ratings, it’s just hard to shake off. He’s a hell of a performer, he’s a hell of an entertainer. If you put him on and let him say his crazy stuff, you’re going to get a lot of viewers. If you take him off and have some sober discussion about what’s going on in Syria, you’re going to lose 80 percent of your audience. When you get $1 billion of free advertising, it’s hard not to have anybody buy the product.
You have a new media system and he emerged as a new master of it. FDR was underrated, but he understood radio and he dominated. JFK was underrated, but he understood television and he dominated. Obama was underrated, but he understood the internet and its capability to bring out small-dollar donors and to push viral videos. Trump was underrated, but he understood social media and he understood reality television. We thought he was leaving that world of entertainment and climbing over the wall into politics. In fact, what he did was he pulled the world of politics into the world of reality television. Basically, we all just had to live in the Trump reality television show, and now we’re kind of stuck there for at least four years. Maybe eight.
He understood the dynamics of the new media system better than the people who ran the old media system. You don’t get fewer followers saying outrageous stuff on Twitter. You don’t get lower ratings playing the villain on reality TV. Playing the villain gets you higher ratings on reality TV and saying outrageous stuff on Twitter gets you more followers. All the old rules—if you say some crazy stuff you get your show canceled or you get your campaign ended—don’t apply in the world of social media. They don’t apply in the world of reality TV. He just played everybody.
CJ: At 3:30 a.m. on election night, you said a lot of Americans were struggling with what they were going to tell their kids. It’s been really hard for especially young kids to process the fear that grown-ups are feeling and a lot of cases that their classmates are experiencing. If you have any wisdom for America on that front, I’m sure people would like to hear it.
VJ: I think that this should give us a lot of empathy for the kids in Syria and other wartorn countries who want to get away from crazy and to come here. Like, just the fact that someone who said mean things was able to become president traumatized a whole generation of children. No building got blown up next to them. They didn’t see their dad get torn apart in a car bomb. Just one mean person saying mean things, being put in a position of power, traumatized half of a generation of kids. So it should give us a little bit more empathy for people scrambling to leave these war zones. Rich countries do civil wars with tweets and votes. In countries where there are real civil wars, people go through a lot, and we should be willing to go through a lot to help them. Hopefully this will open up our eyes to how fragile democracy is and how key civility is to civilization. Civility isn’t just some optional value in a multicultural, multistate democratic republic. Civility is the key to civilization. Everybody got through it with their kids as best they could. If you’re a Muslim parent, if you’re a Latino parent, you’re still going through it. For the rest of us who have a little bit of privilege, maybe we should be a little bit more tender-hearted.