Van Jones: "There was only one white guy in Hillary Clinton's ad — and it was Donald Trump"

CNN commentator on the "orange asteroid that hit the earth," and the lessons we must learn to recover and rebuild

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 20, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

Van Jones   (Getty/Leigh Vogel)
Van Jones (Getty/Leigh Vogel)

Donald Trump's election was a shock and trauma to the American system of governance. It also caused great pain to the American people. Some observers have suggested that the "guardrails" of American society and government -- the checks and balances built into the constitution; the country's civic and other social institutions -- are holding firm against Mr. Trump and the dangerous forces he represents. This conclusion is incorrect. It underestimates the great harm that Trump's election has done to basic assumptions about democracy, governance and normal politics in the United States. He is a prototype for American fascism. Politics is a copycat game. Republicans will continue to flock to authoritarian racist nativist fascists such as Mr. Trump. He is them; they are him.

With the exception of the massive protests that greeted Trump's election in November and the punctuated outbursts of oppositional energy that have occasionally occurred in the months since, the American people are still disoriented and confused. In all, the threat of learned helplessness and what it signals about the normalization of Trump's regime looms large in America.

What will it take for the American people to engage in the corporeal politics of protests, strikes and boycotts against Trump and the Republican Party? Is the "Resistance" actually able to challenge Trump and the Republican agenda? What errors did Hillary Clinton make in the 2016 presidential election that allowed Trump to win? Are Bernie Sanders supporters and third-party voters also responsible for electing Trump? Will it be possible to bring Trump's supporters back into the mainstream of American politics and life? Or should they be left in the wilderness?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Van Jones, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, a two-time New York Times bestselling author and a frequent guest commentator for CNN and other news outlets. Jones is also the president of the nonprofit advocacy and organizing group Dream Corps. In an effort to mobilize and educate young voters, people of color and others about how best to resist and be politically active on both the local and national level in the Age of Trump, Jones is currently traveling the country as part of the We Rise tour.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page. 

Donald Trump has been president for about six months. Are things as bad as you expected?

I think that there are two things that are worse and one thing that’s better. Trump is much worse than I think even the most hysterical liberal thought he would be in many ways. He hasn’t been able to go full-on totalitarian dictator, but as far as somebody who is completely ruining America’s reputation and distorting young people’s view of what excellence is, I mean, he’s shockingly awful. Or maybe he’s just shockingly good at doing those bad things.

I actually think that liberals are responding less effectively than they potentially could. There were the great events like the Women’s Marches and the airport defenses. But now six months in, there is still a lot of disorientation and a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is not yet a great strategy to take advantage of his mistakes and to set us up properly for 2018 and 2020.

One thing that’s a little better than I feared is there’s a section of the Trump voters who are proving to be better than people thought. People believed that all the Trump voters were going to go and join the alt-right and become awful people. You’re starting to finally see his numbers starting to sink, with a section of Trump voters who are like, “You know, we wanted something different with Trump, but this may not be it.” It could be the case that disaffected Trump voters wind up being the saving grace for the whole thing.

Is it possible to convert Trump's voters back to the political mainstream and some type of political sanity? Or are they just lost?

You are talking about millions and millions of people -- and people are in different places at different points in time. I think part of the problem is that we now have this stereotypical view on the left of the Trump voter, and depending on who you are, that person is more or less deranged. Therefore, it is hard to have a good strategy. There was some polling data that came out that showed that about 20 percent of the people who supported Trump would be considered anti-elitist, but not necessarily anti-diversity. In other words, they probably would be more open to a Sanders, Elizabeth Warren type of a message. They tolerate the anti-diversity stuff. They may have some concerns about Muslims and immigration, but it’s not their main issue by far. When you actually get down to it, one out of five Trump voters would be open to the right kind of Democratic message. I don’t think that there are one out of five Democrats who are open to Trump’s message -- so I think we’re pretty solid. If you flip 20 percent or even half that number, then we’re back in business.

There seems to be a wave of passivity and surrender that has swept over the American public since the election of Donald Trump. What do we need to do to get folks mobilized, energized and protesting? 

When people could have done something about Trump they were arrogant and didn’t. In other words, it was when he was on the ballot. All these liberals who are now acting like the world has come to an end did very little. I ask people all the time, “OK, you guys are all pissed off about Trump. How many of you guys worked as hard in 2016 to stop him and elect Hillary Clinton as you worked in 2008 to stop John McCain and elect Barack Obama?” No hand goes up. I say, “Hold on a second. You worked harder to stop John McCain and Mitt Romney than you did to stop Trump. You thought that just tweeting and fanning yourself and complaining to your friends about Trump was somehow going to translate into an electoral victory.”

It does feel discouraging. Now the real answer is not in the resistance framework -- it is in the revival framework. That’s really what my new tour is about. This tour is basically saying, it’s time to stop flapping our arms about all the things that we’re offended by and don’t like and begin to get clearer and clearer about what in fact we want, and who in fact we are and how we can get together. We Rise is really our trial balloon on that idea.

There are some people who believe that Trump's presidency is some type of blessing in disguise. In essence, light is a type of disinfectant and something good can come out of Trump's election. 

That argument is probably too naïve by half. It is just an extension of the same argument that got liberals beat in the first place. “Oh, he’s unacceptable,” and at some point, we just point out how unacceptable he is, so people will stop accepting him. I just think that’s silly. People are perfectly willing to put up with a lot of nonsense from Trump if they think they’re going to get a big tax cut.

There were Bernie Sanders voters and other third-party voters who said their principles would not allow them to support Hillary Clinton. Now, Trump is president and they have someone who is far worse in almost every demonstrable way than she would have been. How do we reach people like this?   

Not without a better candidate. I think that argument should have been thoroughly discredited even back in 2000, but some people see it differently. I think you can vote completely idealistically in the primaries and you should vote pragmatically in the general election, and that you should vote every time – general and midterms. There’s nothing I can say that will convince people to do that, so I think at the end of the day we have to have better candidates.

There is a lot of goodwill out here, a lot of good people. But we should be much more critical of ourselves than we are of our opponents, because that’s how we’re going to improve. We also should be a lot more excited about the fact that you do have a ton of people who are now willing to get involved. They may not know how to get involved. We may not know what to do. Donald Trump is like this orange asteroid that hit the earth and created chaos and destruction, but he also cracked open the Fort Knox of people who want to get involved, people who want to do something. Now, those people, they may be discouraged, they may be disoriented, but millions of people now are available to do stuff.

The We Rise tour is trying to pull people back together. That’s what happened in 2008 with Obama. I’m saying to you, that current is out there. It may not show up at every protest. It may not have the best strategy on the front end, but we are finding just an outsize response from celebrities, from grassroots leaders, from elected officials, from young poets. Just an outsized response.

What are you afraid of for the future? 

I’m mainly afraid that liberals and progressives won’t learn anything. You still have a lot of liberals and progressives who are primarily critiquing the other team as opposed to trying to improve our team. We need to recognize that if you’re going to have an establishment candidate, you’re at a real disadvantage, unless that person has extraordinary political skills or represents something really special. Establishment candidates right now are just not going to do that well. There are a lot of lessons to learn before we get to whether or not Donald’s Trump’s son was talking to some Russian agent.

What are you hopeful for?

I’m hopeful that we’ll learn and that this breakdown will become a breakthrough and that the movement for hope and change will actually grow up and really prepare to govern. If we decide we really want to govern for all the people including those poor white guys down in Appalachia, we’ll be fine. We drew our circle too small. That’s all. There was only one white guy in Hillary Clinton’s ad and it was Donald Trump. You’re sending a signal, “I’m not going to govern for all the people. I’m going to govern for these new folks,” and then you’re mad that that signal got picked up. You call people “deplorable.”

If I looked at an ad and the only time I saw a black person in the ad it was a negative or they were not there at all, and somebody called me “deplorable,” I’m probably not going to vote for him. I mean some of this stuff is real simple. We like to make simple stuff complicated. I didn’t say, "Erase our circle and draw a new circle." I just said, "Draw our circle larger." Keep the circle you got. Keep sticking up for Muslims. Keep sticking up for immigrants. Keep sticking up for LGBTQ. Keep sticking up for black folk. Keep sticking up for women, but also stick up for all the Appalachians and everybody else who’s hurting and everybody will be just fine.

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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Bernie Sanders Cnn Democrats Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Liberals Progressives Van Jones We Rise