On CNN, Van Jones is a radical, subversive, and necessary voice — a pundit who uses his platform to illuminate the criss-crossing intersections of power and oppression in American society.
Removed from that context, however, and placed before an audience of moneyed Canadian progressives, the effect of his oratory is… somewhat less urgent.
As the keynote speaker at the Broadbent Institute's Progress Gala at the Art Gallery of Ontario on November 22, Jones traced the well-worn contours of Donald Trump path to the presidency, with particular attention to the forces that enabled and abetted his rise. It was not hard to imagine a crowd for whom such a speech would be electrifying in its disruption of conventional wisdom and in its challenges to the hegemonic structures — of the political, business, and media establishments — that tenuously support American democracy.
But this was not that crowd, and Jones did little to puncture left-ish Canadian smugness by neglecting to collapse the perceived distance between U.S. politics and our own.
"It feels pretty amazing to be before the public, using a microphone," he opened, "with no Trump supporter to my left or my right."
Undoubtedly, this was a nice change for him. But preaching to the converted also has its limits.
Nevertheless, here are three occasions from the evening in which Jones legitimately burst some bubbles and moved the discourse forward.
1) Trump was elected thanks to both economic anxiety and racism
No one gets to be president of the United States for any one reason. The country is home to a large electorate with a diverse range of priorities.
Some people apparently find this a difficult concept to grasp, as though attributing Trump's victory to any particular sentiment instantly nullifies the effects of all the others.
At Jones' media availability before the gala, the Toronto Sun's resident Infowars fan (and sometimes hat-wearer) Joe Warmington attempted to argue that racism played no significant part in Trump's victory and that to state otherwise is merely a bitter resort to ad hominems.
It did not go well for the columnist.
This is an annotated transcript:
Joe Warmington: Mr. Jones, I want to ask you about, you talk about the rhetoric, about the Nazi party, and all of these kinds of things. And yet, Mr. Trump did win the election, and he won it fairly handily.
(Here, Warmington and Jones unwittingly reenacted a Saturday Night Live sketch from two nights earlier, in which CNN's pundits find themselves in a Westworld-style time loop that contains the following exchange between Kayleigh McEnany and Jones [respectively played by Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson] repeated ad nauseum: "Um, can we just remember that most Americans voted for Trump?" "Uh, actually they didn't, Kayleigh.")
Warmington: Well, according to the electoral college, he won fairly, you know, he won the election. And I wonder, you know, you use the word “whitelash,” which I think a lot of people felt was a race term…
Jones: They only thought it was a racially based term because it was a racially based term. And the reason I used—
Warmington: But it comes out of the Civil War.
(No, it doesn't.)
Jones: Hold on a second. The reason I used the term “whitelash” is because you have people who want to say that the working class is endorsing Trump. And that is not fair, because Black workers and Latino workers and Native American workers and Asian workers have all rejected Trump in big, big numbers.
Warmington: But they also—
Jones: There is both a race and a class element to this phenomenon.
Warmington: But there are many people of the races that you mention, the Americans you mention, that did vote for Mr. Trump, and I wonder if there’s not a little bit of the sore loser syndrome that’s going with this. I understand your feelings, and I respect you. But when you talk about this, saying that Mr. Trump—
Jones: Are you gonna give a speech or ask a question?
(In scrums, Warmington often prefaces his questions with extended explanations of reality as he sees it.)
Warmington: Well, ‘kay, let me ask a question.
Jones: Why don’t you do that.
Warmington: You say at the top that he didn’t outline anything at all that he was going to do, and yet yesterday, he outlined in his own video five or six things, and many of those things would help Americans.
Jones: Sure. He read a teleprompter speech, as he often does, that was great. If all you had were Trump’s teleprompter speeches, you would at least have some clear sense of what he was gonna do. The problem is, there was this thing called the campaign. And it lasted 18 months. And in that campaign, he would give a great teleprompter speech and the next day he would tweet the opposite. He would give a great teleprompter speech, the next day he’d go off prompter and say something completely the opposite. And so there is this desire on the part of Trump supporters to pick through all of the droppings and find a little kernel of corn and say, “Look at this! This is great!” You can’t ignore the entirety of the package.
And the other thing is this idea about being sore losers. I’m gonna say very, very clearly to you that it is rich beyond measure to hear a party that, the moment Barack Obama was elected, said that their number-one priority was to make sure that he failed — their number-one priority was to make sure that he was a one-term president — now say we have to give someone a chance. I’m happy to give him a chance, but I’m not gonna give him a pass on putting white nationalists in the White House. I do not think the Republican party would’ve given President Obama a pass if he had taken people from Louis Farrakhan’s organization and put them in the White House. And I don’t think that any of the people now saying that we’re sore losers would support that, either.
We have a crisis in our country because the Trump phenomenon is two things. One thing is very, very good: fighting for jobs, fighting for America to be back on its feet. All that is good. But it is marbled through with toxic crap that is completely offensive to everybody with a functioning brain stem on planet Earth.
And we’ve got to be able to talk about both.
2) In certain respects, even the Democratic party is fundamentally racist
One of the highlights of Jones's speech took square aim at a less criticized element of the Democrats' approach to campaigning. It may not be news that the party frequently takes voters of colour for granted, but the extent to which such attitudes apparently inform its distribution of resources is remarkable:
Jones: What [the Democrats] don’t tell you, and what they won’t admit — and what we’re gonna challenge them on as we reorganize this party — is that this so-called demographic firewall — which is basically Black people — they gave pennies to.
They told me to my face they didn’t have to invest in Latino organizing because Trump was gonna be the best organizer for Democrats when it came to Latinos. So they just keep giving money to the consultants. And Voto Latino, the most important millennial-focused electoral effort, ran out of money registering Latino voters.
People were screaming out of Black communities in North Carolina, “We need more money!”
And they said, “No, no, our data shows, our model shows, that we’re fine.”
And so you have a party that relies on the Black community giving, not 50 percent of our vote to Democrats. Not 60. Not 70. Not 80. Not 90!
Ninety-two to 94 per cent of African Americans have to show up in massive numbers and vote at that percentage for Democrats to have a chance to win.
But we couldn’t get money for turnout. Why? Because there was an elite group that thought all of those groups were just… greedy. Have you ever heard of the word “projection”?
There is a pattern: If you’re an Indigenous group, if you’re a Black group, if you’re a Latino group — <gruff voice> “What’re you gonna do with those dollars?? Let me see your proposal. Where are your deliverables?? I don’t know. Give ‘em 5000 bucks, and let’s see.”
And then there are these consultants, who — I hate to raise this — are usually not Latino, not Black, not Indigenous… who say, “Hey! We’re swell guys!”
“Give them millions!”
And there’s no accountability, not in that fight.
3) It really shouldn't be that hard to empathize with the average middle-class Trump voter
Prior to and since the election, there have been no shortage of efforts to understand the largely ordinary people who helped usher into office an American fascist.
But the strongest movement of Jones's keynote was a second-person narrative that attempted to place his listeners into the mindset of a non-awful person who might find Trump appealing. There was a rolling, poetic elegance to it, like a short story whose momentum leads to a conclusion that is unnerving in its logical inevitability. The crowd was hushed.
Jones: Somewhere between both these foolish [political] parties are ordinary people.
You go to the Rust Belt, so-called. What I like to call the industrial heartland, I learned that from Leo.
You walk around there for a while. And you might vote for Donald Trump.
You walk around there for a while. You imagine yourself 54 years old. White. Heterosexual. Male.
Out of work for four years.
Havin’ a hard time goin’ to church, explaining to people what you’re doin’. Have a hard time looking your family in the eye, trying to explain to them why things are tough, why you can’t find work.
You get up in the mornin’, try to help your daughter drive her little child to nursery school.
And you drive past strip mall after strip mall, with no stores in them.
You drive past Blockbuster Videos that’ve been sittin’ there empty — for years!
The chains have been rusted to the grate. Grass is growin’ up through the parking lot.
And you remember when it was a good town!
You remember when it was a good town. And you could be proud of your town. And proud of your job. And people looked at you with respect.
And you go home and have your good kid, the pride of your entire family, come home.
Went off to college.
Made you proud and then sit there and tell you, “Daddy, you’re a bigot. Daddy, you’re a sexist. Daddy, you’re a racist.”
And you go upstairs mad… and hurt.
And you turn on your TV. And somebody comes on, says, “I’m gonna make America great again.”
That’s medicine, man. That goes right in here.
The NPR people didn’t come to help ya. The NAACP didn’t come to help ya. Greenpeace didn’t come to help ya. [The National Organization for Women] didn’t come to help ya.
Nobody came to help ya.
Now this man comes to help ya, and all of them people mad.
“Well, you didn’t ask me for a date! You can’t be mad about somebody now!
“You didn’t want me. You didn’t hold me. You didn’t love me. You didn’t respect my pain. You called me the oppressor.
“Well, now I got somebody who at least understands me.”