On Monday night, a day before travelling to Las Vegas to cover the final Presidential prizefight, the left-leaning CNN political commentator Van Jones took the stage at Southeast Missouri State University, in Cape Girardeau, to debate his right-leaning CNN counterpart Kayleigh McEnany, in front of a thousand Trump-leaning students. Jones is a forty-eight-year-old Yale Law School graduate and the president of a social-justice accelerator called the Dream Corps; he worked in the Obama Administration and supported Bernie Sanders before Clinton won the nomination. McEnany is a twenty-eight-year-old Harvard Law School graduate who interned in the second Bush Administration and has supported Donald Trump since the primaries. This was the first time they’d met on a stage, at lecterns, with their own debate moderator—Rick Althaus, an avuncular professor of political science at the university—to discuss what Jones later described to me as “this dumpster fire of a campaign.”
Despite their obvious differences, Jones and McEnany are friends. After walking onto the university stage—Jones in a charcoal suit and his usual rimless glasses, flashing a peace sign; McEnany in a blue dress and heels, waving queen-like to the crowd—they embraced. There were humorous digs here and there: McEnany, after coughing loudly, said, “I guess I have more in common with Hillary than I thought.” Jones, after McEnany cited what he considered suspect economic figures, said, “I’m as anti-establishment as anybody, but I’m not anti-math!” But their debate, which ran a little more than an hour, was as amicable and consensus-oriented as the actual Presidential debates have been pejorative-laden and divisive. This was what Trump would call a love fest.
The most striking moment of accord came toward the end of the debate, when Jones gave an impassioned civics lesson on two words from the Pledge of Allegiance. Republicans are strong proponents of liberty, he said, but unchecked liberty can lead to the tyranny of corporations. Democrats, meanwhile, prioritize the pursuit of justice, which can result in the tyranny of the government. “See, that back and forth: liberty and justice,” he said, gathering momentum. “That’s America. And it’s tough business. And it’s back and forth. And it’s heated. But when we do it right you get Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. You get Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. When you get it right, you get a great country.” He paused. “Your generation’s job is not to never fight. No! These are important issues. Like Kayleigh said, you’ve got to fight. But you’ve got to fight the right way. What we’re doing now is not the right way.”
McEnany nodded her approval as the audience roared. “My friend Van Jones is the real deal,” she said. After the debate had ended, as the crowd was filing out, a young man in a John Deere hat turned to another young man and said of Jones, “I’d vote for him straight up, right now. At least he knows his shit.” When told of this comment later that night, Jones responded with a pundit’s wry chuckle: “I’m not running for office. I’d rather be the stick than the piñata.”
We had repaired to the hotel where he was staying. There, Jones contrasted the influence that Trump is having on the national discourse with the influence once wielded by a friend of his: Prince. A decade ago, Prince made a large, initially anonymous donation to one of Jones’s green-energy nonprofits. (Given its size, Jones insisted on knowing its source.) Within a few years, Jones was spending time at Prince’s Paisley Park home near Minneapolis, talking politics and playing the tambourine or cowbell (“terribly,” he says) during mandatory-participation jam sessions. “At a Prince show,” he said, “it was every color, every class, every gender, every sexuality, every age. All of them of one accord. Like, he could hit that one note and see every person united. So he knew it was possible. And he wanted us to see that.” He added, “When you’ve seen the Prince effect night after night, and then you see the Trump effect—everyone divided by someone with the same gift for mystique and attention-grabbing—you can’t be quiet. Because I know people can get past all this stuff to a different place.”
McEnany told me she’d been conservative since she was sixteen. “I carried around a Ronald Reagan quote book,” she said. But she and Jones had found common ground. “Among Republican circles, people are, like, ‘Van Jones, that left-wing energy guy for Barack Obama,’ ” she told me. “But he’s so much more than that ideological profile. When I met him, the first thing he said to me was, ‘Oh, Kayleigh, you’re wearing your cross. That’s so great.’ He appreciated the outward expression of my faith. It was so kind and welcoming.” Jones, she said, has since helped her better understand the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over the past year, Jones’s conciliatory approach has resulted, notably, in a moving five-minute exchange with CNN’s conservative pundit Jeffrey Lord, on Donald Trump’s relationship to the Ku Klux Klan. (“I really wanted to make my point, but I also really wanted to not break community, because that’s what these demagogues want,” Jones recalled.) He has also won over young Trump supporters working for the Web site Infowars, who engaged him in a half-hour “street debate” that could have easily turned ad hominem, this past July. His willingness to criticize élites in both parties, including Clinton, tends to bolster his credibility. As does his firm belief in the dialectical process.
“You want to have an ecosystem of ideas, not a mono-crop,” Jones said. “A lot of times, NPR liberals are, like, ‘If only everybody thought like us, everything would be great.’ Sometimes we on the left get so indulged or outraged that we actually break community with our conservative sisters and brothers, and it’s just arrogant how it comes across: ‘If only these dumb Republicans were better educated, they’d vote like us.’ I hate that.” Also, he added, “I actually want us to be challenged.”
So, a challenge: How would Jones approach a debate with the Republican nominee, which he’ll analyze on the air tonight? “I wouldn’t study any policy at all,” he told me. “I’d study Trump’s children. That’s what he cares about, his family. And I would try to figure out a way to make my points so that every one connected back to something his children had done or cared about. That would be it. Literally, I would say, ‘I want to quote Ivanka Trump on something.’ You put him in a position where, in order to attack you, he’s got to attack his kids. And then he’d get very quiet, because he’s not going to do that.”
After the final Presidential debate, McEnany told me, she and Jones and the rest of the CNN commentating team will more than likely share some pizza and beer. “There’s something to be said for good old-fashioned getting in a room together and hammering out a solution over a long conversation and developing a mutual respect,” she told me. “But, with these candidates, I don’t see that happening.” Then she said goodnight to Jones and left to catch a plane to Vegas.