But beyond the soundbites, Jones has a clear-eyed vision for how America can survive Trump’s presidency: To confront and constrain the incoming administration, he says progressives must move beyond their anger and disbelief, and band together in a what he calls a Love Army – with hearts open enough to embrace not only the vulnerable Americans targeted by Trump and Co., but also the rural voters that were “duped” into voting for him.
It’s little mystery why Jones, executive director of the Dream Corps, has emerged as a liberal hero of late. The Yale-trained lawyer from Tennessee rose to leadership in the radically diverse activist scene of late-Nineties Oakland, before embracing the environmental movement and leaping to D.C. to become President Obama’s green jobs czar. Ousted after a flurry of old-school red-baiting by then-wild-eyed Glenn Beck, Jones regrouped with an assist from Prince – yup, Prince – and ultimately found a perch in mainstream media.
At CNN, Jones has towered as a voice of progressive reason – a liberal rock in a televised storm of Don Lemons and Jeffrey Lords. He gave millions of election-night viewers a one-word phrase for understanding the outcome: “white-lash.” During the campaign, Jones also distinguished himself by listening to Trump voters in places like rural Pennsylvania, and fighting against blue-state snobbery that paints too many Trump backers with a cartoonist’s brush.
On Tuesday, CNN will air an hour-long Van Jones special called The Messy Truth, examining the raw state of our union in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.
Rolling Stone recently chatted with Jones about the path forward for progressives suddenly facing the prospect of years in the wilderness, and whether love truly can trump hate.
How do you understand the danger of President Donald Trump?
What he’s going to do at a policy level is much much worse than most liberals understand. It’s going to to be counter-revolution from above, against everything we care about – from climate, to women’s rights, to Social Security, to health care. At the same time, he will do a lot of things, optically, to throw the media off, and to surprise people, and delight people, and entertain people. You’re going to have a lot of bread-and-circuses from Trump. People need to start understanding how this guy operates.
One silver lining for progressives is that Trump comes in as an unpopular president – his approval ratings are mired in the 40s, and he lost the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes. You’ve also made the point that his governing coalition is shaky as hell.
It’s not a normal Republican government. It’s a populist-conservative alliance. Trump hates [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and doesn’t have a big problem with Social Security; Paul Ryan loves TPP and wants to privatize Social Security. Those are hard things to work out. Trump has also said things that don’t go together – like, he wants to crush ISIS and take their oil, and he also wants to stay out of wars overseas. The hawks in his party might have one set of expectations, and the libertarian isolationists might have another. How do you square that circle? He also says that we’re going to frack everywhere and bring back coal. But if you frack everywhere, you drive the price of natural gas down and you destroy coal. The internal logic is challenging.
And that’s just his governing coalition. Then there’s his voting coalition. If he starts trying to deport DREAMers, starts dragging college students out of classrooms and throws them overseas, there are business people who voted for him who would be 100 percent against him on that. If he starts attacking American Muslims, you’ll have veterans who voted for him that will say that’s un-American.
You’ve spoken to a lot of Trump voters, who themselves are the focus of a lot of liberal ire right now. What do you say to progressives who feel the nation is hopelessly divided?
I think sometimes progressives think that that all 60 million people who voted for him have signed on to an Alt-Right, white nationalist agenda. They think that we now live in a country with 60 million neo-Nazis. That’s just not true! Yes, the white nationalists were a noxious part of his coalition, and the fact that they weren’t thrown out is disturbing. But a lot of people held their nose and voted for Donald Trump – despite his bigotry, not because of it. And that should be reason for some more confidence than people have been showing recently.
Is it realistic for progressives to form common cause with Trump voters, as his coalition starts to fracture?
We have to build a bridge of respect to the Trump voters who don’t subscribe to every thing he ever said. For us, those crazy things were disqualifying. For a lot of his voters, they were distasteful but not disqualifying. We can overreact to that and say, “If you vote for a bigot, you are a bigot.” That’s just not true. That kind of language – and that kind of approach – is actually helping Trump to build his coalition. We’re pushing people away from us by saying, “If you voted for him then you’re no better than his worst utterances.” You’re giving away people who probably felt very conflicted voting for him. We need to build a bridge of respect, and part of it starts with actual dialogue.
Many of Trump’s positions are widely unpopular. As he makes his first moves, whether on immigration or on drug policy, millions of people are going to be up in arms. How do progressives harness that hornet’s nest of anger to build something with strength and structure?
Tight around Trump is a little hate army – not every Trump voter – but tight around him is a little hate army of very cynical, nasty people who took over our government. We have to build a massive Love Army that can take the country and the government back in a better direction. That is completely doable. Because there’s now many more people wanting to get involved than were trying to get involved a month ago, when it would have mattered. [bitter laughter]
The problem is not the abundance of people with bad intentions; it’s the superabundance of people with good intentions who don’t know what to do yet. The Dream Corps is where I work, and we’re going to launch a campaign, #LoveArmy. We have got to bet on the good in people, including people who voted for Trump, and build up a big Love Army.
How do you do that? We’re going to do national teach-ins starting very soon – once a week, every week, standing up for the most vulnerable people: Muslims, the DREAMers, Jewish people, women, trans people, black protestors. And once a week, give the whole country a chance to show a whole lotta love – both to demonstrate and deepen a solidarity with those groups, all under one hashtag. #LoveArmy is an opportunity to reassert at a values level.
It’s interesting that you’re starting with values, not policy.
There were five things on the ballot on November 8th, 2016: the presidency, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court and the character of the country. Progressives lost all five. But the thing that hurts the most is losing on the character of the country – the idea we’re going to be divisive as a country. So we have to start there, and reassert that we want to be an inclusive country where everyone gets treated with dignity and respect. I’ll tell you this: If you believe that “love trumps hate,” you can’t be marching around saying that and looking more hateful than Trump.
Everyone is going to want to fight – as they should – at the appointment level, the policy level. But it’s at the values level that we need to do a reset. And it has to be inclusive, by the way, of rural poor people, of people in coal country, red-state and industrial Heartland voters who are also going to be let down by Trump, who are also going to be in a lot of pain.
If you’re building a Love Army that includes all of the usual suspects that Trump went after and also people that Trump tricked, you start building a majority movement. That’s what I’m trying to do. The people that Trump attacked, but also the people that Trump duped.
That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree. On a whole bunch of policies, we’re going to disagree beautifully and passionately. That’s democracy. But we don’t have to hate each other, and we don’t have to call each other the worst names we can think of in every debate. We can have constructive disagreement.
Trump cannot survive in an atmosphere of constructive disagreement. Trump desperately needs everybody screaming at each other so he can get away with his agenda.
How do you react, personally, as a black man, to the appointments of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to a White House post and Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general – these men who are heroes to white supremacists?
Black people have survived way worse than Trump; and so have all of the vulnerable communities. But don’t be surprised when a lot of black people support Trump. Trump is a seriously tricky dude. This is Tricky Dick on steroids.
On the one hand, he’s going to be rolling back voting rights, he’s going to be siccing law enforcement on some of our communities. But he’s probably also going to be doing a lot of outreach at the economic level to the black business class and some of the black faith leaders. And you’re going to hear, “I’m getting more attention and respect from this guy than I did from the Democrats.”
He’ll do the same thing with the Latino community – he’ll unleash a bunch of deportation stuff and at the same time he’ll try to figure out another deal on the other side. He will attack a community with one hand and reach out with the other hand, and confuse and divide everyone.
Part of what we’ve got to fight against is this cartoon character of Trump as a Hitlerseque hatemonger – which means that all he has to do is be slightly better than that and everybody’s shocked. We keep making that mistake. But the fundamental nastiness and cynicism that is Trump’s calling card can be overcome by a beautiful, loving, determined opposition. There’s got to be a center of gravity that we hold that continues to insist that the America that we believe in is the real America.
You’ve also warned against a toxic elitism among some liberal Americans. What pitfalls does that pose as people organize going forward?
Both political parties suck right now. The Democratic Party has become a hidey hole for all kinds of elite snobbery, and Democrats won’t confess to it and deal with it. The Republican Party has become a hidey hole for all kinds of bigots, and they won’t confess or deal with it. It doesn’t mean that every Democrat is a snob or every Republican is a bigot. What it means is that neither political party seems to respect all Americans – and that is a big fucking problem. And people need to deal with their own party’s crap. And that’s the challenge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments have already received criticism. Watch here.