Van Jones on how he saw Hurricane Trump coming — and why "both parties suck right now"

In an interview, the CNN commentator says dialogue is still possible — and liberal elitism really did enable Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 6, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

 (Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch)
(Rainmaker Photo/MediaPunch)

Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton has fully broken open the many fissures that separate red and blue America. These divides existed before Trump’s victory. Conservatives and liberals do not live in the same communities or neighborhoods. The United States is extremely segregated, by race and class. This, too, amplifies divides in political values and ideology. The country is so divided that conservatives and liberals do not listen to, watch or trust the same news sources, a divergence that also extends to movies, television and other types of popular culture.

The extreme polarization that birthed the candidacy of Donald Trump — and that his time in office will quite likely make worse — has turned Americans against one another. Trump's actual or apparent embrace of racism, white nationalism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, bigotry and nativism has resulted in at least 900 hate crimes against people of color, Arabs, Muslims and other marginalized groups in the United States.

In many ways, Trump's victory suggests that Richard Hofstadter’s warning from almost 50 years ago that conservatism functions as a kind of religion for its followers has finally come true. In Trump’s world — aided and abetted by most of the corporate news media — social and political reality are twisted and upended to fit his will. This is one of the key traits of a fascist leader. If the American people cannot agree on basic facts, is there any way for them to move forward together?

Salon recently spoke with Van Jones, who served as President Barack Obama’s special adviser for green jobs and is a frequent guest commentator for news outlets such as CNN, in an effort to answer this question.

Jones, the author of “Rebuild the Dream” and “The Green Collar Economy,” is the president of a nonprofit called the Dream Corps, spent several weeks traveling across the United States in an effort to understand why Trump is so appealing to his voters and other supporters. Van Jones is hosting on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. a live town hall-style meeting on CNN called “The Messy Truth” that will feature such guests as filmmaker Michael Moore and former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. My conversation with Jones has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Like many people, I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton a great deal and have settled on the weather as an analogy. Is what happened on Election Day more like an earthquake or was this a hurricane we should have seen coming?

It was a hurricane that we should have seen coming. I posted a video in June on Facebook that was three minutes and 50 seconds long that I did with There I explained exactly how Trump was going to win. I named the states. I pointed out that the social-media gaffes were helping him and not hurting him.

I remember that, very prescient.

I pointed out that the demographic argument was very, very thin. I begged people to take him seriously. When Brexit happened, I did a 10-minute Facebook Live video that went viral where I literally said, “Run down the street in your underwear and slap your neighbor upside the head. This hate wave is coming to America.” And people put it on TV and made fun of it, like Van Jones is losing his mind — Samantha Bee and other people.

Sometimes people say "I hate to say I told you so," and they really mean they’re happy to say they told you so. I really hate to say, "I told you so," but I did tell people that this was a very serious thing. You had a rebellion in the Democratic Party: Forty-seven percent of Democrats voted against Hillary Clinton in favor of Bernie Sanders, a socialist. That’s how upset people were. She was going to have to put down two rebellions in order to govern — the Sanders rebellion and the Trump rebellion — and she wasn’t able to do it.

Do you think it was a function of "path dependency" among the mainstream news media, where they just got locked into this economic insecurity narrative — which I think is largely incorrect and flat — and they just could not see what was really happening?

Well, I do think it was a mix of factors. It is true that the Trump voters score higher on racial resentment than do most Republicans and most Americans, and that’s from the Pew Charitable Trust.

Also authoritarian tendencies as well as social dominance behavior.

There is a psychological profile that does tend to correspond with Trump support and that’s very disturbing. Also, Trump retweeting white supremacist organizations and never apologizing kind of seemed to wink and nod at some of these very nasty, very small but very dangerous elements in our society. All that stuff played a role, and that’s why I said it was a “whitelash” in part. People forget the “in part.”

I went to Ohio and I went to Pennsylvania and I talked to Trump voters before and after the election, including Trump voters who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. For those people, they didn’t have either set of reactions that I think a lot of liberals expected. For those people, the racially inflammatory, culturally and ethnically inflammatory language was not a turn-on, but it wasn’t enough of a turnoff either, and that’s a different problem. These are not people for whom these comments were delightful, but they also were not disqualifying. They found them distasteful but not disqualifying.

You literally have counties that went from blue to red in the Rust Belt. That is where the race was won and lost — in a handful of counties in the Rust Belt. When you go to those counties, the people who voted sometimes twice for Obama but then voted for Trump — they will tell you, “We didn’t like some of those inflammatory comments. We wouldn’t want our kids making those kinds of comments. We don’t think those kinds of comments are helpful. But we also did not feel that Hillary Clinton cared about us in any way or was going to do anything for us. She wasn’t talking to us. She was talking to everybody else but us and we thought that at least Donald Trump was trying, so we were willing to give him a chance.”

Now, that’s disappointing. That’s not the same as saying they’re all part of the alt-right.

You did something bold, especially as a person of color. You go into red-state America and you sit down in folks’ homes and talk to them directly. When you actually sat down with those voters, how did they feel about how they’re being described by the mainstream news media? What of the questions about Trump’s racial views or his character?

I think that the people who held their nose and voted for Trump felt that both candidates were flawed. I do think that sexism was operating at least as powerfully as racism if you read between the lines for some of these voters, especially the ones that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. The thing that they have in common is [they] voted for the two guys against a woman.

We tend to focus on the racial divides in the country, but I think that in polite company people don’t want to discuss some ambivalence that some men may have about either a woman not being competent or tough enough or a fear that she would be competent and tough enough and therefore what do you need men for?

It’s very hard for people who are cosmopolitan liberals, coastal progressives to understand how little the average person is thinking about how Muslims feel or how an undocumented family that’s contributing massively to our economy in the construction sector, service sector, agricultural sector might feel. Or how some African-American 19-year-old might feel hearing either the term “super predator” or “law and order.” They just don’t.

Real life takes up a lot of space. We can kind of stay in ourselves and feel outraged by the cruelty of it all, but the reality is that America has probably never been as segregated as we are. We’re not only segregated now physically; we’re segregated virtually.

Help me with this idea because I know I’m not the only one struggling with it. We can have all these national conversations about civic virtue and the need to come together. But conservatives are stuck in a feedback loop of disinformation and lies. I frankly do not think Trump supporters and conservatives en masse can be reached. I am also not willing to waste my time trying to do so.

Look, the premise of your question is not what I sign onto. I’m not trying to reach out to people to change their mind. I’m reaching out to people to change my heart. The main danger is that Trump pulls everyone down into a world of hateful suspicion and vitriol, including us. The first thing I’m trying to do is to make sure that my heart stays open and I’m actually listening — that I’m actually doing what I’m accusing them of not doing. It’s very easy for us to sit in our liberal bubbles and say these people never listen to anybody, these people stereotype people, they're all ignorant.

What if they believe things that are fundamentally not true?

Again, your premise is that there’s something wrong with them that we need to fix. My premise is there’s something wrong with us that we need to figure out because, first of all, we’re never going to convince 25 percent of the country that we’re right because they’re hard-core conservatives. If you gave them fake news, real news or no news at all they’re going to be right-wingers, so let’s not worry about that.

Likewise, if they’re sitting around trying to figure out how to convince us to be Republicans, they’re wasting their time. It’s the 50 percent of the people in the middle. Again, the people who went from Obama to Trump — here’s where I think we’re failing. We’re so focused on the people who are at the extreme, who are not going to move anyway.

A businessperson who voted for Trump but who would be outraged if Trump started dragging Dreamers off college campuses and throwing them into vans and driving them off in the middle of the night. Veterans who voted for Trump but [who] would be outraged if they started registering American Muslims who have done nothing wrong and would say, "Listen, I didn’t go over there to fight for this kind of stuff." It’s the people who are in the middle who voted for Trump, or maybe held their nose to vote for Trump, who we are now just shoving over into Trump’s camp.

We’re building Trump’s coalition for him by basically treating them all as if they’re all "deplorables" and irredeemables or stupid people who we need to fix, and that’s the problem. That’s the elitism. We are operating — listen, both parties suck right now because the liberals think we’re the party of the working people and the poor people and the downtrodden, but we have allowed a strain of very nasty elitism to take root in our party such that we don’t even see it anymore.

Then the Republicans suck because they see themselves as the party of color-blind meritocracy, but they’ve allowed a section of horrible bigots, including outright neo-Nazis, to take up residence in their party and they either deny it or downplay it.

Neither party now seems to be capable of actually respecting all Americans. This is a major problem. This isn’t a left-right problem; this is a right-wrong problem. This is a major problem. I’m trying to stick up for progressive values but also to build a bridge of respect back over to Trump voters because not all of them signed on to all the worst stuff that he said — just like not all of Hillary’s voters signed on to everything she said.

What are the right and wrong lessons that the Democratic Party can take from this defeat? Because some of the hand-wringing among the chattering classes right now is about the perils of “identity politics.” Is this something that the Democrats really should reconsider?

You have a huge consultancy class that is neither working class nor people of color — basically a bunch of overwhelmingly white guys that got a billion dollars and set it on fire in the Clinton campaign. They didn’t spend the money on black people and Latinos. Our turnout operations were underfunded. The organization Voto Latino ran out of money registering voters and couldn’t raise money because people were so busy giving money to the DNC to get points toward being ambassadors.

It’s not like the Democrats raised a bunch of money and spent it on people of color and now they need to stop doing that and start spending it on working-class white people. They didn’t spend the money on working-class white people or people of color. Now they want to pretend they did too much for us and now they’ve got to start doing something for somebody else. No, you didn’t do anything for anybody in the campaign.

The party that could have won would have been the party of underdogs of all races in red states and blue states. That frankly sounds a little bit more like Bernie Sanders has the better race analysis. That would have been an unstoppable freight train. It’s not that the party’s race politics were bad; it’s that the party’s class practice is horrible.

The class practice of just having people with advanced degrees sitting around talking to each other all the time and then focus grouping and polling all these other people and trying to interpret them through data as opposed to talking to somebody.

That’s a problem. You can have a robust defense and celebration of our racial diversity and uplift the incredible dignity and decency and honor of white males in the red states and be perfectly fine. It's not either/or. They didn’t do either and they want to blame us. There’s a word for that; it’s called "racism."

Wonderfully put. What do you want viewers to take away from your CNN special?

I hope people will be surprised by what they learn. I hope people will be surprised, first of all, by how good it is to see an actual dialogue and not just people yelling at each other. We’re going to disagree; it’s going to be entertaining but there should be a spirit in the room of people actually trying to understand each other.

[Former Pennsylvania senator and Republican presidential candidate] Rick Santorum and I have some real respect and regard for each other. We don’t agree on anything, but I kind of know his heart and I know he thinks he is doing right by his family, right by America.

I’m looking forward to having a conversation that doesn’t just devolve automatically into the same talking points and nonsense. We’ll see. We may not get it right the first time. I hope we can do a lot of this. We are going to try to see if we can discover a new way of handling difference. The disagreement is not the problem.

I’m not trying to get agreement. I don’t want everybody to agree. In a dictatorship everybody has to agree. I don’t want that. Democracy means nobody has to agree. I love that, but the disagreement needs to be constructive and not destructive and that requires an atmosphere of basic respect, which neither party is showing, and an atmosphere of a willingness to be surprised.

If you’re a right-winger and believe in markets and I’m a left-winger and believe in democratic government, we’re not going to agree. I’m not going to change my mind and you’re not going to change your mind, but we could come up with a public-private partnership through debate that’s better than your idea or my idea. That’s a constructive use of disagreement: I never changed my mind and you never changed yours.

That’s what’s been missing. Trump and people like him flourish in environments like the one frankly that the left is now contributing to, an environment of complete dismissal and disrespect of other people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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