The M Word: Exclusive Interview with Van Jones
Van Jones is a celebrated commentator, activist, and, as we find out in this interview, a practicing lawyer. In a wide-ranging conversation, Jones and playwright Wajahat Ali, advisor to The M Word, discuss the remains of American democracy and plot a spiritual road forward.
Wajahat Ali writes: “This is the biggest threat to democracy that we’ve faced since the Civil War, but in the Civil War the champion of democracy was in the White House.” Those were just some of the blunt, passionate mic drops Van Jones delivered during our recent conversation discussing President Trump, Steve Bannon, and the Age of Carnage. The activist, attorney, and CNN host is no stranger to controversy, having courted it when he said Trump’s win was a result of a “whitelash” against President Obama. But Jones is trying to elevate himself above political partisanship and aggressively reach out across the aisle to the Rust Belt and Republicans, not just the “smarty-pants people who went to college and listen to NPR.” Although some call the endeavor noble, they think Jones is naive. Regardless, Jones is recruiting Americans to join his grassroots “Love Army,” resist polarization, and launch an activism rooted in spirituality and not reciprocal hate. In this conversation, we discuss the “totalitarian” Trump presidency, the rise of far-right, white nationalism, the dangerous ideologies of Steve Bannon, how to win over Trump voters, and why Islam and Muslims are at the fault lines for claiming the soul, freedoms, and future of America.
WAJAHAT ALI: Is it safe to say that the hate army [currently occupying the White House] could also be called the troll army? Or am I being too harsh?
VAN JONES: Well, all I know is that we can do a lot better than them. Frankly, the conservatives need to be better conservatives. Real conservatives actually respect our Constitution and would stand up to an authoritarian. Real conservatives believe in clean, limited government and would stand up to anybody who is basically setting up a kleptocracy, nepotism, and crony capitalism. And real conservatives are actually strong for America and not weak for Russia. So we actually need conservatives to be better conservatives and we need liberals to be better and stronger liberals.
ALI: It’s interesting that Donald Trump, who is politically incorrect, goes tit-for-tat; is strong on national security; has managed in 12 days to tweet against John Lewis—a civil rights icon—fellow Republicans, Meryl Streep, Hamilton the Musical, and the CIA. But do you find it disturbing that he refuses to do a single, critical tweet of Vladimir Putin? Or am I reading too much into it?
JONES: I don’t think you’re reading too much into it. There seems to be a passive alliance between the Russian president and the U.S. president and that’s unprecedented in its form and dangerous in its content, because Russia is our most dangerous geopolitical opponent because of the desires that they have in the Middle East and because of their desire to break up Europe. And in the United States, we spent a lot of blood and a lot of treasure trying to keep Europe intact and democratic, and trying to keep the Middle East from being only influenced by people who are massive fans of [Syrian President] Assad and massive fans of the Iranians. So it’s an amazing, negative series of challenges that this new president is already pulling from.
ALI: Let’s do a brief audit of the past 12 days going off of what you just said. President Trump said he’s open to ending the sanctions on Russia, he thinks NATO is obsolete, and he seems fine with the European Union dissolving because he praised Brexit when he was with Theresa May. These are all talking points of Putin, but at the same time, he seems to have escalated a trade war with our ally in Mexico; he seems convinced that 3 million undocumented immigrants somehow voted for Hillary Clinton, giving him the popular vote; and an executive order just came out which, I’m going to go ahead and editorialize, to me looks like a Muslim ban. And speaking of ban and speaking of maybe being compliant to people, there’s now a trending hashtag #PresidentBannon. How much do you take stock in the fact that what we’re witnessing in the past 12 days is the ideological vision of Steve Bannon working through Donald Trump?
JONES: Well, it’s clear that Steve Bannon is the architect of the entire blitzkrieg that we’re seeing against American values and the American people. Bannon is clearly somebody who has studied not-normal politics and the Constitution and the Electoral College. He is somebody who has studied Hitler and Lenin and a lot of people who have seized power and unleashed blitzkriegs from above and created tiny cabals of power concentrated in a tiny group at the top. That’s what authoritarians do. It’s right out of the playbook. The problem that we have is that most Americans don’t even study American history, let alone Pinochet, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and all these guys, so they don’t see. You know it’s not “you have to see it to believe it”—sometimes you have to believe it to see it. You have to know what you’re looking for when you’re seeing signs of an authoritarian takeover of your country, and for most countries right now, the only question that the population would be asking is OK, this is clearly a coup, which side is the military going to be on?
JONES: Because so many norms are being violated. So many. You’re going to put Bannon on the National Security Council?
JONES: He wasn’t even a Boy Scout let alone somebody with a military background. [Bannon served 7 years in the Navy.] This is the biggest threat to democracy that we’ve faced since the Civil War, but in the Civil War the champion of democracy was in the White House. So, even then, we were probably in less danger as a country than we are right now.
ALI: That’s a stunning statement you just said to me, that you think this is the biggest threat to our democracy since the Civil War. And speaking about the Civil War…
JONES: I don’t think that, I don’t think that. That is an objective fact.
JONES: That is an inarguable fact, because if you know what authoritarian takeovers look like, right, like, “Hey doc, I think I’ve got a head cold and my wife thinks it’s allergies,” and you look at it and say, “No, this is actually cancer.” OK? If you know what you are looking for, this is what an authoritarian takeover looks like. Listen, the guy basically fired, you know, half the State Department. I mean why do you do that?
“This is the biggest threat to democracy that we’ve faced since the Civil War, but in the Civil War the champion of democracy was in the White House. So, even then, we were probably in less danger as a country than we are right now.”
ALI: You cleanse the opposition and you put in ‘yes’ men.
JONES: Yeah. So, that’s what you’re looking at. So, it’s not a hyperbole, it’s not liberal snowflakes avoiding the bed, it’s a pulled assessment based on history of what you’re seeing.
ALI: There’s a stunning quote of Steve Bannon that I wish more mainstream journalists would bring out, and it’s from the summer. It was for The Daily Beast, where he described himself as a “proud Leninist,” and he wants to bring the entire system crashing down. He wants to see the entire establishment come down, [including] both Democrats and Republicans. And, like you mentioned, he is now on the National Security Council, the chief strategist and the ideologue for Donald Trump. So, what’s the next step? What does that mean? Map out the next three months of America for me.
JONES: First of all, you’re going to continue to see really, really bold action. Audacity is the currency for authoritarians. You know, it’s like you’re playing tennis with somebody and then they come out with a large chair and chainsaw and jump the fence and start beating you up. You’re like, well, hold on a second, that’s a foul, [laughs] this is no longer a tennis game. It takes society a while to figure out that the people who are in power are no longer playing by any of the rules. The fact they are just ignoring court orders already, setting up a constitutional crisis, and the only question is whether or not Congress is going to see it as such. So you’ll see more of that, you’ll see more protests and resistance. You’re going to see more of a divide in the media where, essentially, just like in many countries, the media starts to look either pro-regime or pro-opposition. It’s very hard to do normal politics in a situation like this.
Part of what you need to understand is that we’re forced to look back. You had the importation of third world or developing world conditions into the United States because of a bipartisan elite consensus for neo-liberalism. In other words, you had both political parties, the smarty-pants in both political parties said, hey, let’s do these crazy trade deals. What could possibly go wrong? Deregulate the bank because what could possibly go wrong? And then you bring in the neoconservatives saying, hey, let’s start these double wars—what could possibly go wrong? Let’s build prisons from coast to coast—what could possibly go wrong? And because you have an elite bipartisan failure at the top on all these major issues, what that resulted in was the creation of third world and developing world conditions inside the United States, especially in the Rust Belt, and that created the basis for, frankly, politics that looked more like developing world politics.
You had a socialist get 47 percent of the votes in the Democratic primary: Bernie Sanders. You have an outright white nationalist populist who is now in the White House with an authoritarian strongman who has no regard for facts, no regard for tradition, and no regard for the Constitution. That is what you get when you import third world conditions. You get third world politics, and that’s where we are now. If you want to understand what’s going to happen, you can’t look in the rearview mirror into the United States’ history, because that’s done now. You have to look out at the rest of the world and look at the history of the rest of the world, and what you’ll see is demonstrations and counter-demonstrations are going to become the norm. We’ll have a big march, then they’ll have a big march, we’ll have a big rally and they’ll have a big rally. That will be one of the features. Again, a pro-regime and pro-opposition media system, that will become a feature.
ALI: So if we’re looking at the rest of the world, Van, and we’re looking at the trends, there was a Quebec shooter, a terrorist who opened fire at a mosque, killed about six people, and what they’re saying is that he was a Trump supporter and a Marine Le Pen supporter. Of course, Marine Le Pen, far-right nationalist French leader of the National Front Party with roots originally in anti-Semitism, is also a friend and ally of Donald Trump. And what we’re witnessing in France, in the Netherlands with Geert Wilders, with UKIP in Britain, with Austria—thankfully the Freedom Party lost—is a far-right white nationalism responding to what they say is multiculturalism, Islam, immigrants, and globalization. Are we witnessing the death rattle of whiteness around the world? And by whiteness I mean white supremacy.
JONES: Well why would you call it death rattle if it’s on the march and taking over capital after capital?
ALI: Because, that’s just me being the optimist, Van. That’s just me being the optimist [believing] that a child is most loud before being put to bed. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the resurrection, maybe it’s the loudest rattle of white supremacy.
JONES: Yeah, look, I think liberals like to rock themselves to sleep telling themselves silly, little stories like that. That’s not a death rattle, that’s a death march. Look, Trump is much, much worse than people understand. A lot of his supporters are actually much, much better than people know. Most of his supporters are not signed up for an authoritarian coup. Most of his supporters are signing up for better jobs for themselves. They might be sick of some of this PC stuff, but they they’re not consciously wanting to see misery imposed upon millions of people. And so, his supporters are much better than people know. But Trump is much, much worse. I’ve been saying this whole time. He’s much, much worse than people understand. In his ideal world, you would have an alliance between Trump, Putin, Marine Le Pen, maybe a right winger might knock off Merkel in Germany, and you’d have this sort of, essentially, a nationalist populist alliance that can only be made sense of when seen as a right-wing, white nationalism against the world. Because, who do they want to fight? They want to fight Asia and China, they want to fight Latin America and Mexico, they want to fight…
JONES: …in the Middle East, picking the version of Islam they don’t like and saying everyone from Indonesia to Dearborn and ascribing to that. And, the only way to make sense of it is that this is right-wing white nationalism against the world. And consciously, that’s where they’re going. And to say that’s a death rattle, when the worst form of politics is on the march for state power throughout the West, I don’t get that at all.
ALI: That was me trying to be an optimist, but I agree with your analysis. That will keep me up at night as well. It might actually be the death march and the rise and it’s been growing. You mentioned that you’ve spent a lot of time with Trump supporters, and I appreciate the fact you’ve tried to reach out to them through your show, “The Messy Truth,” and you’re trying to bridge these divides. The question that a lot of people of color, a lot of women, a lot of LGBTQ, and white allies have had since the election is if indeed the Trump supporters and voters aren’t racist, why did they vote for such a racist platform, or why didn’t they take Trump seriously when he said openly, “I am for a permanent ban of Muslims,” “I am for building a wall,” “Black America, what have you got to lose, this the worst time for you ever ever ever.” Why were they OK with that?
JONES: Well, there’s three groups of Trump supporters. Some were absolutely delighted by [what he said]. Those people are called bigots. There is, unfortunately, too large a number of people who are just outright bigots in America. They’re nowhere near a majority. They’re a small number. But there are people who are in the Alt-Right who are just straight up bigots. They loved hearing that stuff and they wish they could say it in their workplaces without getting in trouble. But that’s not the majority of the Trump voters. Then you had another section of Trump voters who did not know what to make of it. They thought maybe he at least was stirring the pot, at least he was raising the issues. They didn’t necessarily agree, but [they] just kind of admired the chutzpah to stir the pot. Mainly, they were hearing that he was talking to them and for them.
But then he had another section of people that actually found a lot of that stuff very distasteful. They didn’t like that he was saying some of those things, wouldn’t want their kids saying those things, didn’t agree with those things, but those comments were distasteful but not disqualifying. Because they also feel very strongly about being anti-choice. And they also feel very strongly about their own economic circumstances being left untouched by anyone. And, frankly, the Democrats didn’t do a good job of going into the Rust Belt and Appalachia and trying to make the case there.
ALI: And Clinton didn’t even go to Wisconsin, once.
JONES: She didn’t even go. And you had Democrats not paying attention to the fact that both in Michigan and Wisconsin, labor unions had been greatly weakened by Republicans. Their assumptions were just all wrong in terms of the trends. But let’s just be very, very clear. This election was lost because a total of 70,000 people—out of 120-130 million votes—in the Rust belt, but as a result we’re in the calamity.
That calamity comes from a lot of things. It does come from a tolerance of bigotry in the Republican Party that is unacceptable. That’s not to say that every Republican is a bigot; it is to say that they’ve tolerated bigotry in their party and sometimes even played up and played on bigotry in their party for too long. But it also is a result of a certain amount of elitism in the Democratic Party where they’re tied to the sensibility of the college-educated, multicultural crowd, of which I’m a part, which has created a sense where it’s OK to say, “All the red state voters are stupid, they’re all dummies, they’re all racist, they’re all backwards mouth-breathing knuckle-dragging …” all that stuff. And that kind of elitism, which is first of all not true, is also not fair. It’s also dumb strategy.
JONES: People can tell if you don’t like ‘em. African Americans can tell we’re not welcome in the Republican Party no matter how many times they say we are. All the signals that it’s a party that tolerates anti-black racism is very clear. All the signals that the Democratic Party is a party that tolerates snobbery and bigotry against, frankly, a lot of traditional Christians, a lot of white guys who work hard every day and who don’t feel that they are on top of the world, those signals are clear and it’s a turn off. And that old Bobby Kennedy 1968 form of liberalism where you could be holding hands with the Appalachian family on one day and then be in Harlem the next day and nobody thinks it’s weird, that is something that isn’t as strong. It was strong in 2008. It hasn’t been as strong since then. That’s just a reality that we have to deal with that it’s not just that the Republicans ran a terrible candidate who had bad ideas, it’s also that the circle of love and affirmation that we have as progressives can sometimes just not be big enough. It’s become fashionable to put down people who we then expect to vote for us.
ALI: But, Van, I got this response from a lot of friends who are shell-shocked by this election, they say, Van says, “Reach out and help these Trump voters, reach out and get to know this Rust Belt.” But at what point should I reach out and try to empathize with people who are for my marginalization and dehumanization, and why should I help them? The people who ask this question aren’t mean, aren’t elite, but are very empathetic and care about justice and they’re like, “Why should I help these people who went for such an egregious platform that will marginalize me and my children.”
JONES: Well don’t, if you don’t want to, and see how that goes. The question is so stupid that it’s hard to even take it seriously. It’s not about helping people—it’s about you need a million more people. If you had a million more people you could govern forever. Do you want a million more people? Then go get them.
ALI: Win them over.
“You can’t lead anybody you don’t love. You can’t do it. It’s not possible.”
JONES: To me, I don’t understand that logic at all. First of all, this was a political thing. For me, it’s a moral thing, a spiritual thing to talk about. But even from a political point of view, it just reflects so little about all these smarty-pants people—who went to college and listen to NPR and think they’re better than everybody else—[who] are so stupid when it comes to basic coalition building. If people leave your coalition, whose fault is it? It’s your fault. You have to build a coalition that’s attractive to people. And it’s not the person who left’s responsibility to like the party that you threw. So, that’s just reality, OK
Now, we can live in this little, liberal bubble bath where everybody’s supposed to like everybody and do all this stuff and understand our pain and know our history. But that, maybe, works in your dorm, that doesn’t work in the real world, and people need to get out of all that.
Listen, here’s reality. It is completely unfair and absolutely necessary that people who have been oppressed and marginalized have to lead everybody. That is MLK, that is Dolores Huerta, that is Fannie Lou Hamer, that is Ella Jo Baker, that is Nelson Mandela. You walk down the line. The people who were completely justified in telling everybody, black, white, and otherwise, to go straight to hell, were the ones who said, “You know what? If I do that, we’re all going to be in hell. And I’m going to have to take on the completely unjustified and unfair but absolutely necessary burden of leading everybody.”
And guess what, here’s the tough part: you can’t lead anybody you don’t love. You can’t do it. It’s not possible. The laws of spiritual physics will not allow you to lead somebody that you don’t love, that you don’t care about, that you resent, that you look down on. That’s why the Republicans can’t lead black people. And that’s why Democrats increasingly can’t lead these straight, white, male demons that we hate so much. It’s karma. We’re getting back what we’re putting out. And I’m not saying that don’t fight racism. I think I’m the guy that said “whitelash”
ALI: Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re the guy who said “whitelash” and pissed off [CNN Commentator/Trump Supporter] Jeffrey [Lord].
JONES: And a few other people. But my point is you can fight racism and sexism and homophobia more effectively if you’re doing it from the position that you’re standing for the dignity of all people, and that you’re actually standing for the underdog in the red states and the blue states. I think it’s more effective when you’re anti-racism and anti-sexism and anti-homophobia and that is the centerpiece for a project to uplift all humanity, and frankly to defend and uplift the children of all species. But I am 100 percent on the side of insisting that white people step up to a different level of consciousness and commitment and the great gifts of the West and the great gifts of white culture and white community be used for a better purpose than this nonsense of supporting Trump. I insist on that. I refuse to accept that. I refuse to accept that we are going to give over 60 million people over to this guy.
I want him to fight for every single one. But I also want to be fighting for them. I want the coal miners, who’ve been American heroes, who kept the lights put on for black people and white people for a hundred years, and who now are too sick to work, I want them to be able to go see a doctor. I don’t care who they vote for. I don’t care if they vote for a Tea Party Republican, I’m fighting for you because I voted for you to live in a country where we don’t have disposable people. And I’m an environmentalist, and I don’t want you to have a disposable aluminum can. I sure as hell don’t want to have a disposable worker and I don’t care who you vote for. You’ve got to have that as a moral position. Otherwise, my concern is, all we are is this petty interest group people who can’t say anything back to a petty interest group of white nationalism. If all we are for is black people and white people who like black people, then I have nothing to say to Trump who is only for white people and black people who like him. I am for literally all of the underdogs that I can command and demand better of everyone, including myself.
ALI: As an American Muslim, as a student of spirituality, I am deeply concerned when I see the dearth or lack of spirituality in modern day activism. How can spirituality play a role in nurturing this positive activism that empowers all people? And how can we bring back, or should we even bring back, spirituality when it comes to this modern activism, when it comes to this social media activism, when it comes to people keeping it real, but not really remembering the spiritual ideals and values of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Gandhi? How should we bring back this type spirituality and infuse it with modern day activism to truly uplift people?
JONES: One thing we might do, I don’t know, I have to think about it while you are talking, maybe we should launch a Love Army.
ALI: Well played, sir. Well played.
JONES: I think we should launch a Love Army that is based on all that stuff. Let me just say a couple of things: Religion has gotten a bad rap for good reasons. Often, there are a lot of people—women, LBGT, and others—you know, hierarchical monotheism has been a real source of a type of oppression. I get that. And at the same time, what I want to say and insist is that a one-sided analysis of anything always leads you into the wrong direction. There is great wisdom, there’s great strength and there’s great beauty in all of our religion, and those should be marshaled for good. And we should not allow the fundamentalists and the bigots to take over and speak for the great faiths any more than we should let them take over and speak for the great nation.
And so, I am a proud Christian who has been greatly tutored by Hindus and Buddhists and Sufis and others, and I stand and I speak from that place. And I do think it’s dangerous when you are overly secularizing, and sometimes you get very smart, and sometimes [you] gain a lot of smarts, but you lose a lot of wisdom. What I saw during the Hillary Clinton campaign with data dummies who were more concerned with polls than people, they were more concerned with donors than voters. And it wasn’t a lot of heart felt on that campaign and I think it left us vulnerable.
For me, I think that the struggle around how to deal with Islam in the United States is the defining moral struggle of this half of the new century. I think that America could not become America until it dealt with the disenfranchisement of women and African Americans in the last century. It had to. America could not become America until it dealt with that. And did it deal with it perfectly? No. But it had to confront it. America cannot be America in the new century until it deals with these new questions of gender, including the trans issues, and the questions around faith and Islam. And God, in my view, God chooses community sometimes to bear an unfair burden to force us to rise to the next level of consciousness and understanding. I think the African American community, the Latino community, the Native American communities have borne an unfair burden in the last century, and continue to. And I think the Muslim community is now being asked to bear an unfair burden to save a great faith from the fundamentalists and a great nation from bigotry. And every person with a pulse has a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community that is on the front lines fighting against groups like ISIS, both militarily and ideologically, every day, and now on the front line of standing up for civil liberties and civil rights to make America great. [They] are the best insurance for the safety of all Americans. Because it is the Muslim community that has the best chance of stopping and checking and pushing back on people who are trying to politicize their own faith. So this attack on Islam is an attack on a great faith. It undermines the people who are trying to rescue this faith from these horrible people. It endangers every human being on earth because it accelerates the radicalization of some and emboldens the worst elements of that faith. So this fight is a fight I think that we have to take on.
“And every person with a pulse has a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community that is on the front lines fighting against groups like ISIS, both militarily and ideologically, every day …”
I will say this one more thing which is this: if I didn’t have my grounding and the deep spiritually of a Dr. King and the secular spirituality of Mandela, Mandela was never a religious person, so you can feel that deep spiritual grounding that Mandela had and other people of my community… Ella Jo Baker, and the list goes on. If I didn’t have that deep grounding, it would be very easy for me to just be someone who is consumed with anger and hatred. And that would be Trump’s great victory: to turn us into replicas of him, just on the other side of a wall screen. I refuse to let me or my family or my movement or my friends be turned into the opposite of Trump. I want to be the antidote for Trump. Hatred of the people who hate you, that is the opposite of being the enemy. I want to fight fire with water wherever I can. And that’s really what I’m talking about.
ALI: Van Jones, when are you running for president or Senate, sir?
JONES: Oh. I thought you liked me. [laugher] I thought we were making a connection there.
ALI: We are connecting, we are connecting. Look, on behalf of a lot of people who feel ignored by Trump and his administration, they told me to say thank you for speaking up for them. On behalf of a lot of American Muslims who have been following you for the last 2-3 few weeks, they say thank you for standing up for them. So I have to convey that message. This is Van Jones who is a private, not a general, in the Love Army, which is looking for recruits to resist and hope in the age of potential totalitarianism and looking for love and spirituality and growth and healing.
The M Word is a two-year series of public events launched in September 2016 to provide a platform for Muslim-American writers and cultural figures to address audiences on their own terms—highlighting the art forms, narratives, and identities that influence their work—and to challenge the prevailing narrow representations of highly diverse Muslim communities comprised of more than three million Americans. The M Word is supported by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges program.