Van Jones poses for a portrait in blue lights backstage after filming “The Messy Truth” for CNN in Los Angeles in February. (Ivan Kashinsky/For The Washington Post)

Standing backstage, downwind of a cloud of blush and hair spray vapors, political commentator Van Jones is getting ready to tape an appearance on ABC’s “The View.”

Blurred Lines” blares out of a studio sound system, a controversial 2013 hit whose title seemed appropriate for the activist-turned-bridge builder.

Some of the women in the audience start squealing and chair dancing. A young, white host — a member of the “The View’s” all-women, hot-topic-debating roundtable — spots Jones. She needs to thank him. On “The Messy Truth,” his CNN special, Jones’s declaration that President Trump’s supporters aren’t a cauldron of bigots was so very right, she says.

“Well, wait a minute,” Jones said. “I actually do think some Trump supporters are racists.”

The host’s face fell. 

Soon, it’s showtime, where Jones knows the stakes of saying things committed to tape better than most. A few weeks earlier on election night, he had uttered a word that history may forever associate with Trump’s win. 

“People have talked about a miracle,” Jones, 48, said on CNN. “I’m hearing about a nightmare. . . . I have Muslim friends who are texting me tonight saying, ‘Should I leave the country?’ I have families of immigrants that are terrified tonight.”

Then, he emphasized, “This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country, against a black president.”

Clips of Jones’s whitelash soliloquy bounced around the Internet for weeks. But if the nation thought it had him pegged as the voice of unwavering opposition, that soon proved wrong. 

Jones began talking about the left’s responsibility to form a “Love Army,” describing the power of love and listening to resolve problems, bind us and build solutions. He started a program and called on Americans to sign up for #LoveArmy events.

In December, he told a conservative radio show host that Republicans are the party of colorblind meritocracy. He described a portion of Trump’s congressional address in February as one of the most “extraordinary moments in American politics.”

Jones exemplifies a quandary facing the left. Caught off guard by Trump’s victory, the president’s detractors have grappled with how to respond: Some have gone to battle, calling out racism and bigotry or participating in protests. Others have focused on listening to and empathizing with the white working class, sometimes suggesting that the group’s economic challenges are unique from those of other working-class Americans.

Critics have called Jones’s shift between those options dizzying, self-interested and gutless. Supporters have showered him with laurels, saying he’s a political commentator with a deserved cult following for his ability to bridge the political divide. 

“I’ve spent my whole life being half bomb-thrower, half bridge-builder and as a result, pissing people off on both sides,” Jones said. “I think sometimes people see me as the black anti-Trump crusader, but that’s not what I’m there to do all the time. Sometimes, I’m the crusader against liberal arrogance or lack of empathy or insight.” 

Jones laughs with Bill Maher while filming “The Messy Truth.” (Ivan Kashinsky/For The Washington Post)
The hard edge

Nothing about Jones’s trajectory surprises his twin sister, junior by four minutes, Angela Jones.

Their teacher mother and school-principal father raised the twins in Jackson, Tenn. Jackson, today home to about 67,000, sits an hour and a half drive northeast of Memphis. As a lanky, cerebral boy with glasses, Anthony “Van” Jones was targeted by bullies. 

Angela Jones, now a social worker in Tennessee, was his protector. As a child, Jones spent hours reading X-Men comics and other stories about outsiders and underdogs. By high school, he was fascinated with student government and systems — how things work and fail, why groups have certain experiences. 

“Looking back, I see he’s always really been interested in figuring out how to get people to play nice and get along,” his sister said.

 But Angela Jones isn’t oblivious to the suspicions that her brother is shilling an intentionally watered-down version of his progressive ideas.

“I obviously don’t believe he’s an Uncle Tom or anything like that,” she said, her voice breaking as she starts to cry. “That’s ridiculous to me.”  

 Van Jones graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin before heading to Yale University Law School in the early 1990s. There, one of his works of graphic art offered an early example of his penchant for bridge building, classmate James Forman Jr. recalls. Forman — now a Yale constitutional law professor — remembers Jones standing next to a poster Jones drew and hung on a wall law students pass on the way to class. On it: a group of four white adolescents standing on a corner near a boombox above the words, “a group of teens,” and a group of black adolescents engaged in the same above the words “a teen gang.” 

The poster homed in on the existence of implicit bias

Usually, white papers and essays were posted on that wall early, before too many people were around, Forman said. Instead, Jones stood by that poster between classes for days, talking with anyone who wanted to engage.

“To me, Van is someone who started as an activist,” Forman said, “and has become more focused on that very broad audience. There’s probably a way that you inevitably give up some of your hard edge. But that does not mean you abandon beliefs. Van certainly hasn’t done that.” 

After law school, Jones worked in the Bay Area fighting police misconduct and briefly participating in a socialist collective. In 1996, he co-founded a nonprofit organization in Oakland — the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — focused on reducing mass incarceration.

When the organization challenged a state plan to build a massive youth prison, Jones decided to work with a group of wealthy, largely white homeowners who lived near the proposed site. They opposed it on grounds Jones said were mostly, “you know, racism.” Jones thought the group had political contacts and leverage others didn’t. Many of his allies were appalled.

California officials ultimately scrapped the plan.

In 2009, President Barack Obama named Jones special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. Some considered Jones’s history in radical political circles — as conservative political commentator Glenn Beck suggested — proof that Obama was suspect. Beck insisted that Jones had signed a petition saying that George W. Bush’s administration allowed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

The White House offered to fight, Jones says. He resigned. Although the organization behind the petition listed Jones’s name on its website, the group later said it could find no evidence of Jones’s signature or support for the petition’s statements

Jones reacts while filming “The Messy Truth.” (Ivan Kashinsky/For The Washington Post)
Decoding Trumpism

On “The Messy Truth,” Jones serves as host and, effectively, coastal America’s political ambassador to what some now describe as “real America.” The program began as a Web series and Jones’s personal project. 

Jones was still Jones — unfailingly polite and affable. Bits of Southern aphorisms, such as “Fight till the last dog barks,” roll off his tongue. But, at critical moments, he’s direct and instructive.

In the first Web installment, published Nov. 6, he appears in the living room of a family of white Trump supporters in Gettysburg, Pa. He listens as they describe Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as a habitual criminal and the election a last chance for “us” to “save” the country. One member of the family says a Clinton win would set off a civil war. 

 Later, a woman in the family says “racist” has lost meaning. The country is so “sissified,” she says, dressing up as a Native American for Halloween is racist. Jones challenges her, telling her she should not dismiss other people’s pain and expect them to believe she respects them. 

Soon, the woman starts to cry.

Jones brought “The Messy Truth” concept to CNN. In the weeks after the election, the network began to produce a version with extras: experts, celebrities, a town hall format and a live audience.

On Dec. 6, in the first post-election installment of “The Messy Truth” and the first to air on the cable news network, Jones stood on a stage with an image of Mount Rushmore against a red, white and blue backdrop. 

The nation needs to talk, Jones says. He takes viewers with him via video to an Ohio community that has lost thousands of jobs. Jones sits around the kitchen table with a white family, some of whom are two-time Obama voters backing Trump because, they suggest, Obama let them down by allowing the unemployment rate to rise. One says people like them built the country. 

They’re assertions that often begin debates about race, such as the role slavery played in building the U.S. economy. In a Facebook video the day after the election, Jones noted how responses to unemployment in white communities differed from others: “African Americans lost their jobs with globalization, but we didn’t go and join any fascist movement.”

But on this day, Jones didn’t object to the family’s comments.

He later explained that the segment was an attempt to understand Trump voters.

“I’m not in every instance trying to debunk Trump and Trumpism,” Jones said. “I’m trying to decode Trumpism. I’m trying to make it legible on, more or less, its own terms. And a lot of liberals just can’t stand it because every single time someone says something they disagree with, they want us to get down and basically get into a fistfight.”

Jones prepares to begin filming. (Ivan Kashinsky/For The Washington Post)
Bridging divides

Jones has faced criticism from many directions. Much of it is on Twitter, in all its snarkyruthlessanimated GIF glory.

It’s coming from the left, the middle and the right. The blog TheBluestI has described Jones as playing the part of “the magical Negro” in public discourse — an archetype whose primary purpose is to rescue, comfort and impress whites. (The blog’s author has since limited access to the site.) Responding to Jones’s comments about Trump’s February speech, a GQ headline asked, “What the Hell, Van Jones?” A piece for the Conservative Review called him a “race-baiting agitator.”

Herbert Hines, a sociologist and professor at the State University of New York at Cortland who studies social change, says the criticism is more reflective of the times than it is of Jones.

“I don’t see anything particularly heretical in what he is doing,” Hines said. “We are simply so in­cred­ibly polarized right now that the very act of Jones listening, on TV, is called controversial.” 

Jones dismisses the criticism.

“It’s not about coddling or cozying up,” he said. “It’s reality. People of color have always had to bear the burden of serving as this country’s moral consciousness. Through that we’ve shamed, and yes, demanded many of the rights we are due.”

Back in New York, Jones moved toward the door of the beige box on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where “The View” tapes. 

“Thank you, brotha,” he said, lifting his arm in a friendly wave toward a security guard stationed near the building’s entrance, one of several warm gestures directed toward the mostly black and Latino staff who work the doors and desks of the city’s buildings.

“I see you, brotha. Keep doing what you do,” the guard said, as Jones made for a black car waiting at the curb. Then, under his breath, the guard added: “Just try to give those white people a little more hell.”

Later, the guard explained his mumbled advice.

Jones, the man said, “talks to Trump people like they are delicate things that have to be washed in cold water, gentle cycle only.”