Many political junkies have seen it by now. The "it" here being the roughly five-minute exchange captured in the video above between Donald Trump supporter and former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord and CNN analyst and former Obama administration official Van Jones.
While in a CNN studio to discuss Super Tuesday election results, the two men got into a debate about the essence of Trump's campaign and what has propelled him to indisputable GOP front-runner status, the history of racial oppression and public displays of bigotry in the United States and the ways in which related ideas continue to animate American politics today. Yes, all of that really happened on live TV. And if nothing else, this should make fully clear to every American just how central bigotry -- combating it, defending it, relabeling it and employing it -- has become to the 2016 presidential election.
There will be accounts of this race written in the future that will not likely miss or minimize the fact that this theme has emerged in the first presidential election after the nation's first African American president became ineligible to run again. Few of us will be alive in 100 years to justify all that has transpired. The historical record will speak for us. The facts. The details. The footage. Our nation's economic and social well-being data. They will tell our collective tale. And that's all worth considering in light of that exchange between Lord and Jones on Tuesday night.
Some people unquestionably viewed the exchange between the two men as a rational but heated airing of two very different and equally valid perspectives. The Fix's Callum Borchers made this point pretty convincingly here. Borchers called this exchange "earnest, substantive, respectful and important." That's one perspective. Another is this: Only that last adjective is true. Hiding within that mini-debate between Lord and Jones was one American determined to deploy a series of shop-worn political memes and claims with only a loose relationship to the truth in order to avoid a more substantive, essential and urgent conversation about what bigotry is, how it has and can be deployed as a voter-motivation-and-distraction tool, and how it can undergird domestic terrorism as well as more subtle but certainly life-distorting policy and political activity.
What was laid bare for those who were listening closely was not just a nifty little difference in the way these two men understand U.S. history or which parts of it they view as relevant and important today. It was one of the primary reasons that the nation's major political parties -- and particularly the GOP -- have become basically racially segregated spaces in which so little agreement about the right course for the country can be found.
Here's the key section of the Lord-Jones exchange. We've included a lot of the CNN transcript here, because the written word is sometimes easier to process than that which we hear and see on video. It's long, but it's clearly captured the interest of many, and so it should be compelling reading:
LORD: Let's talk about what [Trump] said about the Klan. Here's a guy who disavowed this many, many, many times. You hear this statement from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan today. I like Paul Ryan. We both worked for Jack Kemp. Jack Kemp would be appalled at this. I hate to say this about the Republican establishment, but their view of civil rights is to tip the black waiter five bucks at the country club. This is atrocious. This is atrocious. This is why Donald Trump has the ability — because he's not going to patronize people.
JONES: Well, hold on a second. First of all, there's a lot of things you said that I could take you on about. But I want to be very, very clear. The things that Donald Trump has done — and not just in this race — are horribly offensive. You can go back with this guy for a long time. I want to talk. I want to talk. Because this is important.
LORD: I didn't say anything yet.
JONES: You breathed. You can go back to the Central [Park] jogger case where he came out and had innocent black kids winding up in prison.
LORD: No, innocent kids.
JONES: Hold on a sec — innocent black kids. Listen, hold on a second. We have a big problem at this point now. Because I agree with you about a lot. I think we have taken him not seriously, we have not respected his voters, but there is a dark underside here, and S.E. is right. He is whipping up and tapping into and pushing buttons that are very, very frightening to me and frightening to a lot of people. Number one, when he is playing funny with the Klan, that is not cool.
LORD: He didn't play funny with the Klan.
JONES: Hold on a second. I know this man when he gets passionate about terrorism. I know how he talks about terrorism. The Klan is a terrorist organization that has killed ...
LORD: A leftist terrorist organization.
JONES: You can put whatever label you want; that's your game to play.
LORD: No, it's important to history.
JONES: We're not going to play that game.
LORD: We're going to understand history.
JONES: No, you need to take a serious look at the fact that this man has been playing fast and loose and footsie — when you talk about terrorism, he gets passionate. He says, "No, this is wrong." But when you talk about the Klan, oh, I don't know, I don't know. That's wrong. And then you came on the air and you said, well this is just like when Rev. Wright was speaking. Rev. Wright never lynched anybody, Rev. Wright never killed anybody.
LORD: Rev. Wright is an anti-Semite.
JONES: Rev. Wright never put anybody on a post. And you guys play these word games, and it's wrong to do in America.
LORD: It is wrong to understand that these are not leftists. They were --
JONES: What difference does it make if you call them leftists? They kill people. They don't play games with that.
LORD: You're right. You don't hide and say that's not part of the base of the Democratic Party. That has been -- they were the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party, according to historians. For God's sake, read your history.
JONES: Listen, I'm not, I don't know -- I don't care who --
LORD: This whole attitude of dividing by race is still here. And this is how Democrats do the deal.
JONES: I don't care how they voted 50 years ago. I care about who they killed.
LORD: I care about U.S. history. It counts.
JONES: You have stood with Donald Trump. And you made a case for Donald Trump and nobody else wanted to. And you've earned the respect of an awful lot of people.
But when you do not acknowledge that he did not answer that question with the passion he answered with other terrorist organizations, you do yourself a disservice. You do --
LORD: He has made this point over and over and over again. This is a media thing here. Did he make a mistake? Sure. But he said this many, many times. I've gone back and looked. He's well on record, over and over on this.
JONES: It's worse than that, sir. The whole thing with the Central [Park] jogger kids, he got the entire city of New York whipped up on this idea that these kids had done [something] wrong. And then it turned out they were innocent, we all make mistakes.
JONES: He never apologized to those kids. That's a stain on him. You can walk through, time after time, where he's done stuff like that. The stuff he said about Native Americans, being criminal organizations and mafia. He said so many --
LORD: Van, but what you're doing right here, is dividing people. We're all Americans here, Van. You are dividing people. This is what liberals do. You're dividing people by race.
JONES: I'm not.
LORD: This is what liberalism is all about.
JONES: The Klan divided it by race.
LORD: You have to divide by race.
JONES: The Klan kill people by race and he had the opportunity and he didn't do --
LORD: And they did it -- they did it to further the progressive agenda. Hello?
JONES: That is, first of all, so absurd.
LORD: It is not absurd.
So, let's dissect that exchange, shall we?
Faced with Jones's claim that Trump has a long and not-at-all storied history of deploying and casually repeating all manner of horrible stereotypes, assigning group guilt and suggesting harsh and often illegal responses that predate his presidential campaign but have also become a central and apparently very attractive part of it, Lord pivoted. Lord countered with an idea that just so happens to bolster the Trump campaign claim that Trump is no politician -- that he will say and do anything, and that this combination is what makes him the best candidate for president. Lord advanced the notion that Republican leaders -- some of whom Americans have to hope may be sincerely and understandably horrified by the content, tone and aims of the Trump campaign -- have only condemned Trump because they do not want Trump to become the GOP nominee. Prominent Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are merely pretending that Trump has somehow failed to sufficiently distance himself from the Klan or the ideas, politics and cultural practices the Klan has violently but quite successfully advanced, according to Lord.
The fact is that Trump's record includes a long history of decidedly equivocal and rather gentle rebukes of the KKK, and his father was arrested after an actual Klan rally, even as what happened there is unclear. If that combination alone is not enough to make other Republicans want to seek some form of distinction between themselves and Trump or at least quite suspicious of his political ideology and platform, then America is in serious trouble indeed. Even as Trump restates his disinterest in the political support of the KKK or its current and former members, he followed that with a seemingly off-handed, "How many times do you have to disavow?" This is the public behavior -- the actual caught-on-tape evidence -- of a presidential candidate who seems to believe that there is some kind of reasonable middle ground, a moderate stance or minimal level of public deference that is due the KKK.
Then, Lord turned to one of the most popular Republican go-to arguments of 2016. It's a set of claims about the Democratic Party that thinking people should be slow to repeat. As this exchange continued, Lord moved from describing the Klan as an organization founded by men who were Democrats -- true, but stripped of some very essential context -- to calling the Klan a group trying to advance a "progressive" agenda. Lord did that so that he could move on to his final and real point: that the progressive agenda and its only occasionally direct discussions of racial inequality and even more rare combat against the many forms of institutionalized bigotry are divisive, dangerous and, most outrageously, equivalent to the violently racist oppression that defined the KKK.
Let us be clear: When the group of former Confederate soldiers who founded the KKK began their bloody tirade, many if not all of them were, in fact, Democrats. They were members of a party that at that time counted among its central goals the wholesale oppression, control, disenfranchisement and exploitation of black Americans. As such, the Democratic Party at that time and for nearly 100 years more did not include black voters but was the political home of much of the most virulently and violently racist white Americans.
It is also just as true that a substantial portion of these same voters and their descendants raised in homes where they were presumably exposed to the aforementioned ideas or their modern political progeny are today members of the Republican Party. They moved to the modern-day Republican Party as the Democratic Party and its establishment made the decision to become a progressive party, advancing the full social, political and economic inclusion of non-white Americans. And when the Democratic establishment did so, it caused an inter-party war and a mass departure of many, but not all, white voters, which continues to shape the nation's politics today.
One cannot pretend that only one-half of that story is accurate or relevant today. However, it is particularly cruel, if not deeply revealing, for any human being to gloss over the KKK's violent history of domestic terrorism in order to ignore the ways in which some of the organization's ideas continue to find political voice and import today. That is especially true if one has voluntarily taken up the task of defending and advancing the campaign of Donald Trump. It is also beyond ridiculous to engage in the utterly false and obtuse effort, taken up by Lord, to equate the deadly handiwork of the KKK with Rev. Jeremiah Wright's verbal and in-pulpit-critique of both the Republican and Democratic parties' continued failures to address racial inequality.
Wright, the former pastor and mentor of President Obama and a man whom Obama disavowed in a rather pointed and extended way in one of his more famous public speeches about race and bigotry, said some things about U.S. history that some people do not like. Some even consider his ideas more than an uncomfortable confrontation but an offensive race-based attack. That is their right. But there will never be a day when anything that Wright has said is actually equivalent to the multiple mutilated, burnt and tortured human corpses and utter political and social exclusion that the KKK left in its wake.
To pretend that the two are somehow equal or even remotely similar in the damage or influence that they have and continue to cause would be just plain silly if it weren't for the fact that there are living, breathing Americans with relatives who were killed by the KKK. There are also Americans who, in their lifetimes, have been kept from voting by those who were sympathetic to the KKK's causes or endorse policies aimed at disenfranchising large number of minority voters today. It would all be almost laughable if there were not also a man running for president in 2016 on a platform that seeks to codify group suspicion, exclusion, surveillance and punishment once again.