Van Jones starred in a few memorable exchanges with Donald Trump supporters on CNN during the presidential campaign, but one remark by the Democratic strategist stands above the rest.
“This was a rebellion against the elites. True,” Jones said of Trump's victory on election night. “It was a complete reinvention of politics and polls. It's true. But it was also something else. ... We've talked about everything but race tonight. We've talked about income. We've talked about class. We've talked about region. We haven't talked about race. This was a white-lash. This was a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president, in part.”
Jones spoke with The Fix about how the comment has made him a target in the conservative media, revealed the one question he forgot to ask Trump booster Jeffrey Lord, and talked about his hope for “more constructive disagreement.” If you're wondering what constructive disagreement looks like, check out Jones's Web series, “The Messy Truth,” in which he visits voters in their homes. Jones will host a live special by the same name on CNN Dec. 6.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
THE FIX: I have observed in past two weeks that you have been cast as a boogeyman by the likes of Breitbart, particularly because of your “white-lash” comment on election night. I'm curious whether that's something you pay attention to or whether it's something you choose to block out.
JONES: I take everybody's point of view very seriously, and I think that shows in my commentary on air. I don't dismiss anybody's point of view. I also know that there's a branch of our media that has to be mad at somebody, so I worry less about that than where the overall conversation is going in the country. My concern is that we have two political parties that have pretty significant blind spots. The liberals seem to be blind to the very distasteful strain of elitism that seems to have found a home in our party, and the conservatives have a blind spot for a very nasty strain of bigotry that has found a home in their party. That is not to say that every Democrat is an elitist or that every Republican is a bigot; it is to say that both parties have some real work to do to have parties that respect all Americans.
THE FIX: Is the “white-lash” term something you thought up in advance or did it just come to you in the moment?
JONES: I'd had a conversation a week prior about what was going on across Europe, and the term came up in that conversation. This whole thing is very much tied to what's going on throughout the West: white working classes reacting against globalization and immigration across the West. And I say white working class because African American, Latino and Asian workers are not joining in large numbers. Why do you keep playing the race card? Well, because you have to be accurate. The black working class embraced Hillary Clinton. The Afro-Caribbean populations in the U.K. were against Brexit. So there is a race and class characteristic that you have to talk about. Any term, if it's going to cut through the clutter, has a chance to be misinterpreted, but it's a conversation we have to have.
THE FIX: Take us behind some of your on-screen debates with the pro-Trump crowd. You and Jeffrey Lord had some really dynamic exchanges during the campaign. You and Mary Matalin just recently. Is all of that spontaneous and authentic in the moment, or do you talk about your points beforehand and know you're going to go at it?
JONES: No, I think you can tell all that stuff is unplanned. The first one with me and Jeff, we were still getting to know each other on the air, and we were both caught off guard because our realities are so totally different. It was like a matter/anti-matter explosion whenever we would stumble into the topic of race. There was never a time when we were like, “Okay, now Jeff and Van are going to go talk about race.” What would happen is we'd be talking about something else, and one or the other would mention something from our perspective, and that would trigger a discussion of race. And I'd find out that from his perspective, the Klan is a liberal organization, which I thought was bizarre. My only regret is I never got a chance to ask Jeffrey on air, if the Klan is a liberal organization, then why were they endorsing Trump? I had that in my back pocket that if he ever raises the Klan again, I'm going to ask him. But then I'd get so mad, I'd forget to ask.
THE FIX: I was checking out some of the previews of interactions you had with Trump voters for your “Messy Truth” special next month, and I'm wondering how hopeful you are about being able to have productive conversations with people who don't see the world the way you do.
JONES: I think I'm one of the few national Democrats who has a very long track record of working with the right. ... I worked very hard to develop and maintain friendships with all the conservatives and Trumps supporters who came on our air and probably talked more to them during the campaign and after than I did to most national Democrats. I grew up in the rural South, in a red state, all public schools and church on Sunday, so I really understand the frustration a lot of conservatives have with the way that the coastal elite sees them. So I know that there's a lot of room for more constructive disagreement. I'm not aiming for agreement. In a dictatorship, everybody has to agree. In a democracy, nobody has to agree. I'm not aiming for agreement; I'm aiming for a more constructive disagreement, and I have high hopes for that.