CNN Political Correspondent Van Jones speaks at Harvard University John F. Kennedy Junior Forum, Oct. 13, 2017 in Cambridge, Mass.
Paul Marotta—Getty Images
By Philip Elliott
January 18, 2018

The TV pundit and former Obama green-jobs adviser talks the first year of Trump, civility in politics and big goals for his new CNN series

How has President Trump done in his first year?

Badly, if you would like the country to find common ground and solve problems together. He gave rich business interests a big tax break, and he gave his working-class, populist base NFL players to be mad at.

The night Trump was elected, you said you were afraid. Are you still?

It’s hard to get past what happened in Charlottesville, where an American citizen was murdered, was assassinated by a white supremacist using ISIS tactics of driving a car through a crowd, and the President didn’t denounce that in a forthright way. Overall Trump’s behavior has been to let hateful, bigoted voices feel emboldened.

The President doesn’t seem to be paying a price. Why?

Polling numbers are bad. He has paid a price. The country usually rallies to the side of a President when the economy is doing reasonably well. He has offended and divided people in a way that folks can’t rally with him even when we are enjoying some peace and prosperity.

How do you sustain citizen activism?

As complicated as any particular news day is, the year is simple. It’s a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote on Trump in November–it will be the first truly national referendum on Trump and Trumpism.

What will it take for us to do big things as a country again?

We need a bipartisanship from below. There are some issues that are really devastating people at the local level. Criminal justice is one of them. The addiction crisis is another. None of our kids are being prepared for the jobs of tomorrow in high tech and clean tech. Those are real issues that both conservatives and liberals can find their way to.

What do Democrats get wrong about Republicans?

A strain of elitism has been allowed to fester among progressives so that it’s perfectly O.K. to assume that someone who is conservative is either ignorant or bigoted. Nobody challenges that. Some of the smartest people I know, some of the best-intentioned people I know are conservative Republicans. Republicans have let a certain kind of tolerance for bigotry in their party. Both parties have blind spots when it comes to not being for all Americans and not respecting all Americans.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. What would his lesson for 2018 be?

We have to listen to the people at the bottom and on the margins better. Washington, D.C., is perpetually shocked by these movements that keep buffeting the Establishment. The Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. Trump and [Bernie] Sanders and #MeToo. These movements keep erupting out of the country and battering D.C. because people are hurt. People are scared. The system isn’t responding adequately yet. There will be other populist waves, and that’s why I want to have this show. I want an hour now and again where the passion of the people are given the front-row seat and the opportunity to be seen and heard from.

Are we just talking past each other?

I am a progressive. Everyone knows that. I’m also a parent. I’m also an American. I’m a son of a veteran. Democracies can fail. Frankly, democracies usually fail. If everyone keeps jumping up and down on their own side of their boat, they can break it. I want to see if we can find some way to have a better set of disagreements. Can we have a better set of debates, a more meaningful set of debates, and actually get somewhere?

This appears in the January 29, 2018 issue of TIME.

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