“I’m not just trying to debunk Trump, I’m trying to decode Trump.” That’s how Van Jones sums up his unique and controversial approach to covering the 45th president of the United States.
The CNN commentator and host of The Messy Truth found himself under fire from his fellow progressives last week after he declared that Trump “became president” in the moment that he led Congress in a standing ovation for the widow of a Navy SEAL who was killed in a counterterrorism raid under his watch.
“That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” Jones said on CNN following the joint address, adding that Trump finally seemed “presidential” in his eyes.
Those comments marked an enormous turnaround from election night when Jones described Trump’s victory as a “whitelash.” But despite the blowback, Jones tells me that he does not “regret” his words from a week ago. Even after Trump followed his moment in the sun by tweeting wild conspiracy theory-fueled attacks on Jones’s former boss, President Obama.
Calling The Daily Beast from New York where he’s putting together Wednesday night’s new episode of The Messy Truth, featuring The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah as his guest and airing tonight at 9 p.m. ET, Jones talks about how far Trump has fallen since his “presidential” moment, the challenges of being labeled “fake news,” and what to expect from his appearance this Friday at the SXSW festival.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
I have to start with the comments you made about Trump “becoming president” on the night of his first big speech to Congress. Do you regret saying that at all?
No, I don’t regret it, because it was honestly how I felt in that moment. My dad’s in the military and that moment where everybody in Congress stood up and applauded that widow, that really moved me. And it moved a lot of people. I said, if he keeps doing stuff like this, he’s going to be there for eight years. Now, the reality is, he went from the best he’s ever done to the worst he’s ever done. I don’t know how you do worse, but he’s doing worse! So, any of us who saw the potential for a pivot, good or bad, have been proven wrong, for better or for worse. But you’ve gotta call ’em like you see ’em. You’ve got to be emotionally honest, even if later on it turns out that he’s going to do something in a different direction. You’ve got to be emotionally honest or there’s no point in being on TV. And you’ve got to take your lumps.
Why do you think your fellow progressives came down so hard on you after that?
Because they’re terrified of Donald Trump, and for good reason. Listen, millions of people see Donald Trump as the scariest villain they could ever imagine. They don’t want to hear Luke Skywalker talk about, “Well, he made a good point in his speech, though!” That’s not welcome for a lot of people. But, my show isn’t called the “Screw Donald Trump Show.” It’s called The Messy Truth. I’m trying to stay human. I don’t want to normalize Trump, but I also don’t want to become Trump. We have two dangers. We have the danger of normalizing his lying and his divisiveness and his pitting of people against each other. And we also have the danger of becoming like him in ways that we don’t quite see, where we’re so fear-based or feel so polarized that we’re actually feeding what we’re fighting. I think Trump is a double threat. His policy agenda is a threat, but his emotional agenda of driving everybody into this fear-based paralysis is also a threat. I’m trying to deal with both. Some days better than others.
What did you think when you saw his tweets calling Obama a “bad (or sick) guy” for supposedly tapping his phones?
Like I said, he went from the best he’s ever done to the worst he’s ever done in mere days. Those of us who were either hopeful, or in my case fearful that we might be seeing a serious pivot to a very different kind of presidency, it turned out we didn’t have much to worry about. It’s weird because you shouldn’t be relieved when the president does crazy things. You should be more scared when the president does crazy things. But the world is so crazy that I almost breathed a sigh of relief when he went back to the crazy. I feel bad that I was relieved that he started acting crazy again. That’s a terrible statement to make about myself in some ways, but also I was concerned that he was going to start self-normalizing. And then what was the left going to do? Luckily he seems incapable of self-normalizing, so we can worry about other things.
Your show is called The Messy Truth, The New York Times has adopted the slogan, “The truth is more important now than ever.” But what are you supposed to do when people can’t even agree on what the truth is?
That’s why being emotionally authentic is so important, because if facts are now in dispute, the experts are in disrepute, credibility has been thrown overboard—with Hillary Clinton, the most credible candidate ever getting thrown overboard—what’s left is just authenticity. Are you saying what you think? Or are you saying what you think you’re supposed to say? Are you sharing what you feel is true, at least reporting honestly and authentically on your own truth, or are you just carrying out some agenda? Right now, in this sort of crap-storm of a country in real crisis, the only thing that I’m going to hold anybody accountable for is, are you being real? Or are you up to something? I want people to know, I’m as progressive as they come when it comes to policy, but I don’t worship the Democrats or the Republicans. Neither party has done great by my constituency, frankly, because my constituency is all the poor folks. And I’m just gonna call it like I see it. Listen, on live TV, if you’re sitting up there telling the truth about how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in the moment, you’re going to get it wrong as often as you get it right. That’s just part of it. But hold me accountable for calling it like I see it. That’s really the only thing people can do now.
Whether it’s speaking to people you might disagree with on The Messy Truth or the debates you’ve had elsewhere on CNN with Trump surrogates like Jeffrey Lord, do you think that they are held to that same standard of truth? Or do you find those conversations frustrating at this point?
Well, I’m not going to pick on Jeffrey Lord. Jeffrey Lord and I have kind of become like the Bert and Ernie of cable television. But I think most viewers will tell you that they think most people are spinning them or just sticking up for their own side at all costs. It’s not just the right-wing that does that, the left-wing does that too. And I just don’t want to do that. We’ve gone from partisanship to tribalism. Now, if you say something that might advantage “the other side,” you’re not just wrong, you’re a traitor. You are a traitor! And most people are not going to stick their finger in that socket. So they’re just going to sit there and read the Democratic talking points or Republican talking points and wait for the commercial break. That’s across the media landscape right now. The entire American conversation has become, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “you’re right and they’re wrong.” We’re not even talking to each other, we’re talking about each other.
The whole point of my show is to try to create a space where we’re playing a different game. And the game is simply, I want to understand and I want to be understood. That’s all. I’m not trying to do the gotchas. I’m not going out to Arizona and West Virginia and rural Ohio to try to make people look bad, to try to trick them into exposing that they’re actually dumb bigots. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m really, honestly trying to understand, why do people feel the way they feel? And why did they vote the way they voted? And it’s been a transformative experience to sit in the homes of Trump voters and say, some of these people are better people than I am. They work harder, they care more about their neighborhood. We just disagree. You literally feel like you’re committing an act of treason to point out that there are great, beautiful Trump voters, if you’re a liberal. I’m just going to have to get crucified a lot, I’m just going to have to get beat up a lot. Because I’m going to fight both parts of Trumpism: his horrific agenda and his horrific impact on the culture. I’m going to fight them both.
As part of your show, you go out and talk to Trump voters. And meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly gone on TV and called CNN “fake news.” Does that make your job harder?
Not at all, because Trump voters actually get the joke. They know that he’s just trying to drive people nuts. Yes, they don’t trust the mainstream media, but they also are very proud to get a chance to be in a conversation with the mainstream media. People are very sophisticated media consumers. They know that Trump is messing with his enemies. They don’t necessarily see the danger in it that I do, but what you find out real quick is these stereotypes on both sides fall apart pretty quickly.
I’ve noticed you’ve interviewed a few late-night comedians for your special—Bill Maher, and now Trevor Noah. How do you see the role of this type of satire developing in the Trump era?
It’s absolutely critical, because it’s the comedians who can get to the truth faster. Poets, songwriters, and comedians get to the truth faster than anybody else in society. So when you get into a crisis like we are, it’s the comics, it’s the artists that can move at lightning speed. You can write a song in a night, you can tell a joke in a second. So they become the first lines of defense for sanity, for reason. That’s why Jon Stewart was so beloved during the Bush administration and I think that’s why these other voices are so beloved now.
I know that mass incarceration is a major issue for you. What do you make of the Trump Justice Department’s moves to undo the progress made on ending the private prison industry?
One of the best things that Obama did was begin to move away from private prisons so we don’t have a profit motive corrupting our criminal justice system. And one of the worst things Trump has done is to begin to go back toward that. Once people can make millions and millions of dollars trying to lock up other human beings, it’s hard to have a sane criminal justice policy. If you come up with a way to try to help people stay out of trouble, you’re costing somebody a billion-dollar contract. Mass incarceration’s an $80-billion industry right now. Trump has done so many terrible things, it’s hard to keep up. But for my constituency, this is the worst.
Why do you think it hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the other stuff that he’s done?
Because he just does so much crazy stuff, you can’t keep up.
You’re going to appearing at SXSW later this week. What message do you hope to impart there?
My show is called The Messy Truth and it’s because I think both sides are responsible for the mess we’re in. Democrats have, at times, been too elitist and too divorced from small-town America and the voting definitely shows that. And I’m going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about how progressives and conservatives need to step it up. We need better conservatives. We need them to defend the Constitution, oppose crony capitalism, and stick up for America against Russia. But liberals need to be better, too. We say “Love trumps hate,” but sometimes we sound more hateful than Trump. And we’re becoming as intolerant of dissent within our own ranks as Trump seems to be within his ranks. That’s very scary and nobody wants to hear that.
I feel like I have a responsibility to point out where progressives need to be better progressives. Our circle of love and concern has not really included enough people sometimes. And people in the red counties have felt left out. I want to stick up for the underdogs of all colors in red states and blue states and push both political movements so be better. That gets really messy and sometimes I do it better than others.
Finally, the news can seem so dark and dire these days. Where do you see hope in terms of progress in getting out from under this barrage of bad news?
I think that the folks that are standing up are doing a good job so far. I mean, we’re only 40 days in. But I think the Women’s March and the airport defense and the town hall stuff has been net positive and encouraging. I’m hoping now that some Republican and Independent voices will also start to register their honest concerns about, if nothing else, just the mental soundness of the president. And the real concerns about the whole Russian entanglement. The next real sign of hope will be when Republicans feel courageous enough to start pointing out that on some of this stuff, the emperor just doesn’t have any clothes.