NYT Magazine: Van Jones Can Empathize With Trump Voters

Interview by Ana Marie Cox 

It seems as if what you’re best known for, at least in pop culture, is being the guy Glenn Beck hounded out of the White House, and also for owning Jeffrey Lord on CNN. What would you like to be known for? I’m a serial, successful social entrepreneur. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about being known for something. I spend a lot of time trying to solve problems.

What you actually do — opening the solar industry to communities of color, bringing urban youth into Silicon Valley, among other things — is largely trying to tackle fairly intractable problems. Where have you seen the most growth? It’s amazing how much progress is possible if you remember that most people, on all sides, are fundamentally good. Most people spend their time defining the problem. If you start with the solution — Hey, let’s get these kids jobs! — people quickly find an enthusiasm to work together across all lines.

I also believe that people are fundamentally good, but this election cycle has tried that hypothesis for me. I have a great deal of empathy for the Donald Trump voters. When you listen to them talk about feeling hurt, scared and left behind, they sound like the Black Lives Matter activists.

How so? The elites have failed the people so thoroughly that tens of millions of people, on any side of any issue, can legitimately say they don’t think the system is working for them anymore, if it ever did. Now, I don’t like bigotry. We have to beat Trump. But hurt people holler. I will fight Trump, but I don’t want to fall into this cheap reverse-­Trumpism, where liberals are just as rude toward the Trump voters as Trump is toward them.

How do you envision bipartisan respect, even in disagreement? Even while you’re trying to win on the battleground, you should be trying to figure out the common ground. Everybody’s thinking about Tuesday, Nov. 8. I’m thinking about the day after. Neither Clinton nor Trump voters are leaving the country. Liberals need to take responsibility for our role in the polarization from the left. We’re so invested in being correct, but we’re not right about everything.

A lot of people are mocking the idea that you can explain the bigotry at a Trump rally by writing it off as simply a response to economic anxiety. There are elements of racism, xenophobia and misogyny in the Trump movement, and there’s also all kinds of legitimate of anxieties. The rise of Trump is a judgment on the progressive movement that has adopted a style that doesn’t leave much room for a 55-year-old heterosexual white Republican living in a red state to feel that he has any place of honor or dignity in the world progressives are trying to create. We see the disrespect coming from them, but there’s a subtle disrespect coming from us, the NPR crowd, that is intolerant of intolerance. Nobody wants to feel as though they don’t count.

What does the left need to do to include that sort of person? In a sane world, it would be like a marriage, with respect for what each partner brings. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, we just have to understand and respect.

I worry that if Hillary Clinton wins, she’ll think there’s no need to listen to the left, just as there’s no need to listen to the right. Do you remember that song from the ’80s, “It Takes Two”?

Sure. “It takes two to make a thing go right.” That’s my understanding of politics. It takes two kinds of leadership. It takes a president who is willing to be moved, but it also takes leadership in the streets to do the moving. This fantasy that all you just have to do is elect the right person — this is not “The West Wing.” Come on. This is reality.

I’ve read that you’re a science-­fiction and comic-­book nerd and that you’re close with Newt Gingrich, who has written a few novels about alternate histories. Why do you think a lot of people who love policy wonkery also have an interest in science fiction? Because we’re all nerds.

(via NYT Magazine)