Watching my government implement a “Muslim ban” over the weekend has made it challenging to find positive feelings. Not of faith or hope, but of love, which I’ve read somewhere is the greatest of the three. Trump has already signed 10 executive orders that include attempts to roll back the Affordable Care Act, cut off federal dollars from organizations that perform abortions, expedite approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone oil pipelines, and crack down on immigration. These orders tend to directly affect the most vulnerable in this country—and in the world.
When I think about Trump, and those who voted to put him in office, love is the furthest from my mind.
And yet, a month after the election, social justice champion and longtime civil rights activist Van Jones announced a #LoveArmy campaign to fight Trump. So far, more than 100,000 people have signed up online.
Initially, I was skeptical. Really? A “Love Army”? The American people just put into power the epitome of hatred and division, and we’re supposed to feel … love? We don’t need love, I thought; we need strategy, we need better policies, we need to rid this country of racism, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia.
Eventually, I spoke with Jones, who passionately and sincerely shared his thoughts on our current state of government and why he’s just as committed to the Love Army now as he was in December.
"It's never too early to start repairing and preparing the human heart for deeper service."
“I’m just in shock at how many people think love is a negative thing or a weak thing,” he said. “People said I should have waited, [but] leadership means to go first, and it’s never too early to start repairing and preparing the human heart for deeper service and for a longer fight.”
Zenobia Jeffries: This immigration freeze, or Muslim ban, as many are calling it, is something Trump promised to do on the campaign trail. Did you think it would happen so soon? How has the Love Army responded actively to it, and what are you advising those who’ve signed on to the campaign to do?
Van Jones: I’m not surprised that he issued this unconstitutional, illegal ban as quickly as he did. I expected him to do a Blitzkrieg as soon as he got into office, to try to overwhelm the public and to reset the conversation in an extreme right-wing direction. That’s exactly what he’s doing. And he’s going to continue to push as hard as he can. There’s no internal mechanism that’s going to stop or slow [him] down—[not the] Constitution, or [due] process, or a congressional vote. He’s going to do this stuff until either we get used to it or somebody stops him.
Our response has been to support the protest movement that has broken out. #LoveArmy signs are all over those protests and will continue to be. We’re also consulting with other national organizations, trying to figure out where to direct funds and help. Some of our members coordinated lawyers to do pro bono, habeas corpus, and other work for the people being detained here in California.
So, we’re going to protest. We’re mobilizing our members to join the protests.
Jeffries: With the executive orders he signed so far—for the ban, the wall, continuation of the oil pipelines—can we expect him to go ahead with something like a National Guard response to the violence in Chicago that he tweeted last week?
Jones: The National Guard is not controlled by the president, but is controlled by the governor in each state. So, he can’t do that. He could send in federal troops, I suppose, but that seems unlikely. He might be able to send in federal marshals, the FBI; there’s other stuff he can do. Look, he’s going to do everything he said he was going to do. One thing you can say about him: He’s an honest man. He said he was going to completely shake up American society, and he’s doing that. I mean, he’s a liar in any particular moment. But his fundamental promise to go in there and attack Muslims, attack Mexicans, attack Black people, he’s keeping.
Jeffries: So what are you suggesting people do?
Jones: It’s day nine. So anybody who goes, “Oh, well here’s my 97-point plan to defeat Trump” is lying. We’re in the process of an oppressive regime attacking the people, and the people are figuring out ways to fight back. Our promise is nobody’s going to fight by themselves, nobody’s going to fight alone. That’s our promise. Over time you figure out how to defeat these people.
We live in this Twitter/app world: What button do I push to fix this? There is no button you can push to fix this. This is creeping authoritarianism. These fights play out over the course of years and sometimes decades. So, we don’t know how long it’s going to take to stop this guy.
This will take four to 20 years to work out. People need to understand that that’s the kind of fight you’re in.
When people speak up, he comes down on them like a ton of bricks with his Twitter account, [and] then angry mobs of Trumpsters start doing negative things online and otherwise to intimidate his opposition. You have to look at a Mussolini, a Hugo Chavez. You know, Chavez on the left, Mussolini on the right, Pinochet, these are the kinds of leaders you have to be studying to see what you’re dealing with.
It’s not like, “If we just fix the electoral college, everything will be fine.” People are very naive in what we’re up against and how long it’s going to take.
Jeffries: Was the election outcome your inspiration for the Love Army campaign?
Jones: It was the election outcome that made me want to focus on the principles and the values that form the basis of the opposition to Trumpism. So much focus has been on Trump’s personality, his personnel appointments, and his policies. But I think that we sometimes forget to make the fundamental case about the principles and values that separate us from Trump.
We can argue about his most recent tweet, or his unqualified appointments, or his very bad policy ideas. A lot of people are going to do that, and they need to do that. But we also have to continue to fight for the basic principles and values: that everybody counts, everybody matters. We’re not going to throw people under the bus just because a demagogue is whipping up a bunch of fear.
Jeffries: Your December Facebook post announcing the campaign reads, “How to stop Trump….” How exactly does this campaign stop him when he’s president?
Jones: It’s probably better to say how to stop Trumpism, which is a global problem. Putin in Russia and Marine Le Pen in France have similar politics. Trumpism is really what I’m trying to stop, and that’s the politics of distract and divide—blaming marginal groups for major problems, and whipping up fear and hatred, and pretending that you’re not doing that.
“In my life, love is the strongest thing there is.”
So that’s the politics I want to oppose. But you can’t oppose it by mirroring it, by being just as angry and accusatory, and as generalizing as your opponent. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people marching down the street chanting, “Love trumps hate” but looking just as hateful as Trump while they’re chanting it. I don’t want the opposite of Trump—I want the antidote to Trump. And that’s what the Love Army is trying to offer.
Jeffries: Trumpism is part of our political system now; it’s not just a value or principle of hate and division. Why did you choose to address values over policy? Why a Love Army? Why not a stronger stance behind the Green Party, Democratic Party, or the advent of a new party and institute these values and principles within that party?
Jones: I support the Green Party, the Democratic Party. But the problem that we have is none of those parties have been able yet, at least not in this most recent realm, to capture the moral imagination of the country. And that really has to happen no matter what [else] happens.
Look, I’m a political guy. The Dream Corps is a political organization. It fights for environmental policy every day, for green jobs policy under the “Green For All” banner, for criminal justice policy under the “#Cut50” banner. The Dream Corps fights to open up Silicon Valley to urban youth every day under the “#Yes We Code” banner.
I’m not saying policy doesn’t matter; I’m trying to add something that’s missing, though. And I think that liberals and progressives tend to get very fixated on this policy idea or that policy idea, and they forget that most people deal with a bigger framework of not left versus right, but right versus wrong. And we need to have some dedicated energy to that conversation.
Jeffries: Are liberals/progressives the Love Army’s target audience, or is this a call to Trump supporters?
Jones: The Love Army wants to stick up for the underdog in the red states and the blue states. We’re not calling it the Love Cuddle; it’s the Love Army. A lot of people get thrown off in this “love, love, love stuff” and they act like, “Oh, that’s too weak.” In my life, love is the strongest thing that there is. If you think love is weak, and if love is not the strongest thing in your life, that sounds like a personal problem.
When we say love, we’re talking about that “mama bear” love. That mama bear loves those cubs, and you better not mess with those cubs. So, that means we’re gonna be fighting especially to defend the Dreamers, to defend Muslims, to defend women, to defend Black voters and Black protesters—on the basis of the compassionate commitment to their humanity.
But we’re also gonna be fighting for the humanity of the people that Trump is going to disappoint. The coal miners and the Rust Belt industrial workers are as likely to be disappointed by Trump as anyone else.
One of our biggest campaigns is to make sure that the coal miners don’t lose their pensions and their health care under Trump, which they’re very likely to do. People say, “Well, the coal miners voted for Trump, they voted for Republicans.” I don’t care. I’m not going to let someone’s bad vote turn me into a bad person.
Jeffries: Many of your followers on social media saw you as a person who spoke truth to power—what some called your “angry Black man” persona—someone who didn’t give in to the status quo or mainstream. Have you done away with that approach with this Love Army campaign?
Jones: Speaking truth to power isn’t just speaking out against racism. But speaking truth to power is equally speaking out against the elitism and the snobbery that liberals have. Liberals are constantly talking about how all the red-state voters are stupid and uneducated. Well, that’s its own form of elitism that the liberals indulge that frankly opened the door for Trump in the first place.
In the same little rant on election night, where I talked about whitelash, which made all the liberals so happy, I also talked about being a parent, and when you’re a parent you teach your kids to not be a bigot, not to be a bully, to be well-prepared. Well, that goes for the liberals as well as the conservatives. You and I know what liberals say about poor white folks who vote for a Republican; it’s not respectful. It’s not complimentary. It’s very, very nasty.
“I'm not going soft—I'm getting harder on myself, you and everybody else.”
And so I’m going to fight for our side to quit being hypocrites, and reach out to poor white folks, and working white folks who may or may not even respect us as human beings. I don’t care if they respect me as a human being. I am not taking a stand for the dignity of all people to try to change somebody else’s mind. I’m taking a stand for the dignity and humanity of all people to make sure that my heart stays big in the era of Trump.
And if people think that I’m the kind of person who just wants to be talking about “‘F’ Donald Trump” and whitelash all day, then they didn’t pay attention. That wasn’t the only thing I said for 18 months. I’m not going soft—I’m getting harder on myself, you, and everybody else. That’s what nobody understands. Because if you have a country that elected Donald Trump, everybody needs to go to the woodshed. Everybody, me included. So, we’re going to sit up here and act like it’s all these dumb white racists’ fault, as if 60 million people are dumb white racists. That’s terrible, and that’s not true.
Jeffries: You said that people voted for Trump despite his bigotry. Knowing that was a big part of his platform, would it be fair to say they are bigots, as well?
Jones: Some did. All these damn liberals who get in my face talking about how all the Trump voters are this and that are big hypocrites. They didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton endorsing everything she said and did. Some did, but most liberals didn’t.
Some of them loved all [Trump’s] racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic stuff. But a lot of them kind of thought it was funny or cute, but also felt like, damn, they wish he would not say it, at least not out loud. And then some of them were outright offended by it, and found it distasteful, and yet, they needed to see some kind of change, and just couldn’t go with Hillary. And all of those are Trump voters.
Just like on our side, some people love Hillary Clinton. Some on our side really appreciate a lot of what she’s tried to do but wished that she could give a better speech or whatever. And some outright don’t like her at all, but they just said, “I can’t have Trump.” Now if we can accept that on our side, and see the nuances on our side, then why do we then polarize and want to paint the entire Trump voting base with one brush?
When we do that, all we’re doing is building his coalition for him. Because for the people who really held their nose to then turn around and say if you voted for a bigot, you are a bigot, you’re pushing them away. You’re pushing them toward Trump, because nobody wants to be called a bigot; even most people who are bigots don’t want to be called that.
Jeffries: But can you love bigotry out of people?
Jones: I don’t care. I’m not trying to change racists. I’m trying to keep racists from changing me. When I was born, I loved everybody. I was happy; I was free. And I’m not going to let them change me. That’s what love is. A lot of folks don’t know what love is anymore. That’s how much Trump has gotten in your head, that you don’t even understand what love is. That’s his victory.
“If we can find a way to call people up on both sides to a better set of values, that's what we're aiming for.”
We act like the only thing wrong in [this] country is them. And so, when I say, “love,” you say, “I have to love the Klan?” No, you could love yourself a little bit more. How about you start with that? You could love the people you went to high school with, who you know are not horrible people no matter who they voted for, and the stupid stuff they put on Facebook.
I didn’t even mean to start this thing. It was just a throwaway line, and then they turned it into a headline. And now all this resistance I’m getting makes me know I’m doing the right thing. Because when you have liberals who can’t even understand the concept of love, who put Dr. King’s picture up everywhere [but] apparently never read one book [of his], then we need to have this conversation.
Jeffries: In addition to having folks join the campaign, by signing up online, what can we expect from the Love Army?
Jones: The first event will be at the end of January in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we’re just going to roll them out slowly. We’re going to be targeting some HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] and tribal colleges first to make sure the stuff we’re doing makes sense for young millennials of color. We’ll have materials and videos that people can download. We’ve got some experiments we’re doing in January and February, and then later in February rolling stuff out. We’ll do some concerts, too.
Jeffries: Can you talk about the Love Army circles?
Jones: They’re going to be like study groups, where people can learn. Everybody talks about how they want to defend the Muslims, but they don’t even know what Islam is. People are talking about how they want to defend the Dreamers, but they don’t even know what a sanctuary city is. So, there’s a lot of just basic learning that has to happen for people to be effective defenders.
People don’t even know what’s going on in coal country right now. They don’t know that they’re all about to lose their pensions and their health care. So we have to teach people basic facts about each other. Trump uses the fact that we don’t know each other to make us turn on each other. We want to make sure people know each other so that we can turn to each other. You might be pissed off about [what’s happening to] the Dreamers, but you don’t know anything about the Muslims or anything about transgender stuff.
The Love Army is a way we’re going to teach, so if you want to be just for the Muslims, great, but we want to have a curriculum to help the Muslims, to help the Dreamers, to help the coal miners, to help trans people, to help women, all under one hashtag, Love Army.
Jeffries: What determines the success of this campaign?
Jones: Obviously we want lots of people to sign up, but really it’s not the quantity of the people—it’s the quality of the message. If we can find a way, in the era of mutually assured outrage on both sides, to call people up on both sides to a better set of values. That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s my passion.
Jeffries: Finally, how do you respond to the backlash against the campaign? One blogger wrote: “Black people shouldn’t be treated fairly by this society out of love or even respect. We should be treated fairly by this society because this society placed a mandate on itself to f*ing treat us fairly …”
Jones: Everybody has a right to respond to Trumpism however they want to. I am responding to hate with love. I am responding to fear with hope. I am responding to lies with the truth, which is that everybody in this country needs to get a whooping for letting this fool win.
And if people think that it’s only one side’s fault, and that we don’t have to change, that there’s not one thing we can do any better or any differently, then God bless ’em. But I am of a different point of view. If you want to hate on the Love Army, just write that down and read that to yourself, and then God bless you.
Updated 01/31/2017: “#Touch50” banner corrected to “#Cut50.”