Editor’s Note: Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Van Jones: Trump is infamous for reckless and inflammatory statements about Muslims and Mexican immigrants
Yet he is oddly hesitant to enthusiastically denounce the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, says Jones
Listen to Reagan: "The politics of racial hatred ... practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country," says Jones
Donald Trump is playing a dangerous game. And America could pay a heavy price for it.
In my much-discussed CNN clash with Trump spokesman Jeffrey Lord on Tuesday night, the issue of race – and Trump’s manipulation of it – came to the fore. There are good reasons for this.
Since his campaign began, Trump has repeatedly preyed upon our worst fears and instincts. He has become infamous for his reckless and inflammatory statements about Muslims and Mexican immigrants.
More recently, he seemed oddly hesitant to denounce the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. His “disavowals” – which were uncharacteristically tepid – stood in stark contrast to his usual bold and passionate pronouncements.
The responses were all the more baffling because the KKK is a terrorist organization and Trump allegedly hates terrorist organizations. In fact, to prevent a single act of terrorism, Trump says he is willing to bar a billion Muslims from our shores.
And yet since 9/11, America’s most menacing terrorists have not been Muslims. White supremacist hate groups and other domestic anti-government organizations have killed more Americans inside the United States than the jihadists have, historically and during the so-called war on terror.
So here was a perfect opportunity for Trump to hold forth – not just against white supremacist thuggery – but also against a major terror threat inside our borders.
One would have expected the usual lion’s roar. Instead, we could barely hear a squeak.
Trump talks passionately about international terror threats, but when talk turns to the Klan, it’s all weak generalities, excuses and pleading ignorance.
In the midst of answering questions about Trump supporters who beat up a Latino man, Trump praised his supporters generally as “passionate,” leaving his condemnation of the incident somewhat vague. This past summer, Trump excused the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. Recently, he chided a vulnerable female protester by taunting her from the stage: “Are you from Mexico?” Just today, video emerged of a black teenaged girl being shoved, manhandled and called the N-word at a Trump rally.
None of this is new. Before he questioned President Obama’s country of birth, implied that Mexican immigrants were disproportionately rapists, made headlines again and again with crude or flat-out hateful comments about women, Hispanics, blacks and Jews, he was already well practiced at stoking up racial fears.
In 1989, he took out full-page ads to demonize five African-American youths charged – wrongfully, it turned out – with the rape of a white woman in Central Park. The flames of racial tension in New York City were white hot – and Trump poured on the gasoline.
Partially as a result of the frenzy he helped to whip up, all of those men went to prison. Many, many years later, all of them were proven innocent. But there has been no public apology for the role he played in ruining the lives of those young men.
Oh, and his company has twice been sued by the Justice Department for not renting to black people.
Now he is playing footsie with the Ku Klux Klan.
For some reason, his supporters try to make themselves feel better by playing word games. In my clash with Lord, Lord took great delight in pointing out that the KKK was (in his view) a “leftist” organization. Why, you ask? Because it was once affiliated with the Democratic Party’s bloc of Southern racists – 70 years ago.
OK. That is true – but entirely irrelevant. Both parties have gone through many transformations and incarnations over the generations. As we all know, Southern racists abandoned the Democratic Party many decades ago.
So most people don’t care which party the white supremacists supported 50 years ago. But they should care about who white hate groups want to support THIS year.
It turns out: The KKK is not endorsing Hillary Clinton. Nor is it endorsing Bernie Sanders.
But white supremacist leaders are falling all over themselves today to support Trump.
The relevant question for all of us now is simply: Why?
And just as important: Why has Trump not passionately delivered a speech, or any part of a speech, repudiating all of these groups and telling them to take their support and shove it?
If ISIS and al Qaeda offered Trump an endorsement, he would do more than say: “I disavow – OK?”
The answer is complex – and disturbing.
The truth is Trump himself is probably not a hardcore racist. Instead, he is something worse than a racist. He is a racial opportunist. He has attracted widespread support from white nationalists, and he doesn’t want to lose it.
He is someone who deliberately plays to and manipulates the racial anxieties of others, for his own gain. In other words, he may not be a racist, but he has figured out a way to use racists to advance his quest for power. And in doing so, he is playing with the worst kind of fire.
Some politically moderate Trump fans take false comfort in telling themselves: “Oh, Trump doesn’t mean all those things he says. He is just saying that to get elected.”
But if a leader has to whip up racial fears to get elected, he will almost certainly take similar action to get re-elected. So this argument should offer no comfort to anyone who is considering elevating Trump to the presidency. After all, a man with matchless power and meager principles is a danger to all.
Here is what Trump should have said about the Klan and their ilk:
“Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse.
“The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.”
Those words are not mine. They belong to Ronald Reagan, after the Klan offered him their endorsement. Reagan was no friend to black and brown Americans. But he knew better than to legitimize violence and hatred.
I pray for America’s sake that Trump learns from Reagan’s example.