Van Jones is keenly aware of the political pressure that a new president can face. He joined up with the Obama White House in its first year to be its "green jobs" czar. But just months later, he was pushed out under pressure from the right. (His name had been on a "9/11 truth" petition that had circulated a few years earlier — though Jones has said this was erroneous and that he gave his name to a group that never told him what he was signing on to, and the group later admitted they had no evidence that he'd signed it. He had also been recorded on video calling Senate Republicans "assholes.")
But during this election cycle, he’s emerged as an incisive and perceptive CNN political commentator, all while working with his nonprofit Dream Corps on economic, environmental, and criminal justice reform issues. Jones analyzes politics primarily through the lens of movements, and that’s led him to be ahead of the curve in understanding the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
I called Jones this week to get his views on the lay of the land, and on what political challenges Hillary Clinton will face if she beats Donald Trump this fall. And he told me he thinks she’s going to face some very difficult problems indeed, with an energized left that will hold her to a different standard than they held Obama to, as well as millions of Trump supporters who are not going anywhere. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
The political challenges Hillary Clinton will face if she wins
Andrew Prokop: Let me start off with a pretty broad topic. How divided do you think the Democratic Party is right now? And what did we learn from the primaries about the state of the party today and the key factions within it?
Van Jones: If Hillary Clinton wins, it will be because she put down two insurgencies: the insurgency in the Democratic Party led by Bernie Sanders, and the insurgency on the right in and beyond the Republican Party led by Trump.
So that means governing is going to be hard for her. She’s going to have serious challenges on the left that Obama certainly never faced, at least not in his first term. Even though her politics are likely going to be decidedly to the left even of Obama in his second term!
She’ll be elected on a platform to Obama’s left, she will almost certainly at least attempt to govern at least somewhere in the neighborhood of that platform, and will be met with ferocious opposition in the streets and in the Senate — at least from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren there — for any backsliding whatsoever.
And that is something Obama never had to face. Everybody keeps talking about the Republican Party, and Lord knows they have a thousand problems too. But she’s going to have her fair share.
The three most volatile forces in American politics
AP: I’ve been getting the same sense as I’ve been talking to Democrats and activists lately, that the party is not as united as opposition to Trump may be making it appear right now. So how do you see this playing out specifically? Where might these flare-ups arise?
VJ: The economic pain in the country is really, really severe, and I think it’s very hard for the liberal coastal elites to understand. When you can’t buy your daughter a prom dress even though you’re working your ass off, the level of humiliation that you feel is just white-hot. The day-to-day humiliation of working harder and falling further behind, so you’re literally having to choose between putting your mom in a nursing home and sending your kid to college.
Those kinds of problems do not bedevil the Clinton wing of this party personally. And so they continue to misjudge the intensity of the Sanders people, and the Trump people, and the Black Lives Matter people. Those are the three most volatile forces in American politics, and two of them are in the Democratic Party. And there’s not going to be any honeymoon for [Clinton], because the most determined and passionate parts of the Democratic constituency are just not waiting.
Black Lives Matter is not going to wait. We’re going to have Black Lives Matter and the DREAMers with not even the fig leaf of a person of color anywhere near the White House. If you think BLM was on the march under Obama, what do you think they’re going to do when there’s not even the psychological comfort of having someone who looks like you in the White House?
The Sanders people — you can draw a straight line from Occupy Wall Street to Elizabeth Warren’s rise to Bernie Sanders to whatever comes next. But they’re not going to sit around!
And the elites in both parties have just completely discredited themselves because all of their ideas just prove to be so fucking stupid. They said deregulate the banks, and Hillary Clinton was right with them. They said we’ll go win this stupid war, Hillary Clinton was right there with them. They said these trade deals are going to be wonderful for everybody, and she’s right there with them.
So when you have an unbroken series of failures by the elites that have left ordinary people with so little hope, it’s very difficult. It’s going to require of her world-class leadership on a scale that we really haven’t seen in American politics. It would take an FDR or LBJ level of political skill to manage all these contradictions in the Democratic Party.
These are very tough political challenges. You haven’t seen a leader who’s able to manage all that — and all while dealing with a completely unhinged right-wing opposition!
Can Clinton bring her convention’s model to the administration?
AP: So the primaries have been over for a couple of months now, and we’ve seen how Clinton tried to navigate those tensions within the Democratic Party, both with reaching some kind of accommodation with the Sanders campaign and with the platform and the convention generally. How do you think she did?
VJ: She did great! I’ll put it this way: The kind of deft touch that you saw at the Democratic convention, that will have to be the blueprint for her being able to govern. She doesn’t start off with veterans and all the conservative stuff; she very wisely starts off with Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter and all that stuff.
This is the opposite of the Clinton brand for the '90s, which was, "Rub Jesse Jackson’s face in dog shit and laugh." There was none of that in 2016. So that new model of, give the economic populists and the racial justice champions and the LGBT folks and the climate activists their due first, and then from there you have the strength to figure out how you’re going to deal with the moderate elements — that’s going to have to be her formula going forward.
And if she decides she doesn’t wanna play that way, she’s going to have a very interesting experience. Because there was almost like a prohibition on protesting Obama, from the left. There will be no such prohibition with Hillary Clinton.
AP: What do you think she should do if she wins? What are the main tools she can use to try to address these challenges?
VJ: Personnel is policy, and symbolism matters. She’s going to have to really think carefully about what kind of a team she can build around her that will have credibility with these key constituencies and can hold the party together.
I don’t know where she’s going to find them, since her tendency has been to go to older, whiter, more established people, because she’s a wonk and she’s going to want to go with people that speak her language. But she’d be smart to reach down and grab some of these young folks, younger, browner, more female people, and put them in position so there are some other voices on TV speaking with the authority of the administration.
(Update: After this piece was published, Jones reached out to me to say he thought he'd been too harsh on the Clinton team here, and that in fact they've already hired many nonwhite people and women in key roles for the campaign. "So she gets it. She has to stick with this strategy and expand it," Jones writes.)
She’s gotta figure out early, can she champion some criminal justice reform to keep the black community happy? Can she do any deal with Paul Ryan? Could she do some of his anti-poverty ideas and some of her infrastructure ideas, and do a little bit of tax reform?
AP: But when it comes to making a deal with Ryan or other Republicans, any sort of deal is going to contain something that some part of the party or the base really, really hates. Compromises will be necessary in some form. So the question is what do you compromise on, what do you hold firm on, what do you push on?
VJ: I think criminal justice and poverty are the big obvious bipartisan pickups. Paul Ryan’s ideas about poverty, his particular solutions, might be galling, but the fact that he’s concerned — she could do right out the gate a major initiative on criminal justice reform and a major initiative on poverty, and bring in some of the more restive elements on both sides.
But I think what you can’t escape from is that the economic pain and the political gridlock is creating more heat and more pressure, and that makes it hard to govern. She’s going to have to channel that frustration into conflict with congressional Republicans so she’s riding the tiger without being eaten by it.
And if she tries to do a [Trans-Pacific Partnership] or like a TPP-lite early on, she’ll be a one-term president for sure, because there will be howling opposition from the left.
Democrats’ midterm election challenges, and how gridlock empowers the extremes
AP: The Democrats seem to be really skilled at winning presidential elections now, with the caveat that there’s still a couple of months left in this one. But they’ve done really terribly in the off-year elections, in the midterms.
Part of this is the demographics of who turns out in the midterms, as Democrats have drawn more and more support from younger and nonwhite voters who don’t turn out as much in those years. But it does seem to be a consistent problem at this point, so what do you think is the best way for the party to address it?
VJ: I don’t know, in the short term. I think probably, realistically, you’re faced with a Democratic Party that can’t win midterm elections and a Republican Party that can’t win presidential elections. That’s probably where you are. So you’re going to have divided government and an inability to get anything done. Basically, gridlock empowers the extremes. That’s what you’re seeing.
These people are going to miss Obama because Obama would’ve been happy to do a deal with them. He was willing — I would say unfortunately — he was willing to do a grand bargain with Republicans. He could have sold it to his base. Both the black base and the left wing were either in love with him or afraid to challenge him too hard. It was a huge missed opportunity for the right; they just decided like they were going to treat him like he was a black Bernie Sanders and made it impossible for him to govern.
Hillary Clinton will have a harder time, post-Sanders, post–Black Lives Matter, post-DREAMers, selling these compromises to the base. She may be able to do it, but she’ll do it at great cost. Because the party’s moved further left.
You need really world-class leadership just to hold either party together, let alone to do a deal with the other party. And yet the deals are going to become much more necessary and much harder to get. So it’s tough.
Trump supporters aren’t going away
AP: So are we headed for some sort of reckoning within the Democratic Party — something that might be similar to what Republicans just went through with Trump?
VJ: People are acting like this is some science fiction movie where if you blow up the Trump Death Star they all just disappear. Or if the Trump people blow up the Hillary Clinton Star Destroyer, the aliens would all go away. The problem is, Wednesday morning, we’re all still here! The Trump voters, Black Lives Matter, the Sanders voters, the Clinton people are all still here.
The Republicans are trying to digest this Tea Party thing that curdled into this Trump circus. They’re sitting on the toilet and they’re clutching their stomachs because they just can’t figure out how to digest it. But they might wind up healthier by the midterms having gone through it.
Hillary Clinton was able to just take some Pepto-Bismol and keep going. So Democrats might actually be less healthy because we weren’t really forced to come to terms with a lot of these issues. The Republican Party will probably be a little bit healthier because it will be in touch with both the reality of the anger and the reality of the politics.
We still don’t know Hillary Clinton. You’d have to be wily and tough like you couldn’t believe to be able get to where she is. But when she finally sits behind that desk and she looks out at her party and all the different tensions in her party, and she looks out at that other party and how it’s being twisted into knots, and she looks out at the country and sees how much pain there is out there — some greatness could rise up in her.
And if it does, for all her battle scars, she could wind up being one of our greatest presidents. She really, really could. A terrible candidate, but she could wind up being one of our greatest presidents. And frankly she’s going to have to. Or else she’ll be a one-termer.
Update: Added Jones's explanation that he never intended to sign any 9/11 Truth petition, and was misled into doing so without seeing the language.