The Resistance runs on rage, and understandably so. President Donald Trump is a fearsome threat to everything the left stands for: inclusion and diversity, compassion and progress. But to defeat him, many believe, liberals must act more like him: name enemies, fight dirty, and never back down.
Yet several prominent liberals spent the first year of Trump’s presidency calling for exactly the opposite as an antidote to Trumpism: more love and empathy, more civility and collaboration. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker talked about a “conspiracy of love,” which Politico dubbed “a combination of a guiding-light mantra and a permanent political slogan.” CNN host Van Jones toured the country to enlist young people in his #LoveArmy, and wrote a book, Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together. Fellow CNN commentator Sally Kohn will soon publish a book, too: The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.
These two pundits want liberals to help heal a bitterly divided nation by softening their rhetoric about Republicans, even die-hard Trump supporters. But they also believe it’s sound politics.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to out-hate neo-Nazis or out-ugly Donald Trump,” Jones told me. “Where we disagree, we should fight. But we should fight in a way that leaves open the possibility that, where we do agree, we might be able to get something done across party lines. It’s not about either surrendering or being an asshole. You can fight with dignity and with class and with grace and continue to grow our coalition and shrink his.”
They also argue that civility is no impediment to selling ambitious progressive ideas like Medicare for All. “The question is: Do you mix big solutions with small-minded, nasty rhetoric?” Jones said. “That’s what I oppose.” Kohn agrees. “To say that you can have a politics of respect and civility is not the same thing as savoring a politics of mushy centrism,” she said. “Whatever your issue, whatever your perspective, I think you can have firmly held beliefs and advocate your beliefs in a way that respects and recognizes the fundamental humanity of those who disagree with you. I don’t see the contradiction at all.”
This doesn’t mean Jones and Kohn won’t criticize politicians when they see fit, including Democrats. Jones doesn’t mince words when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, referring to operatives as “mostly white elite political hacks who took a billion dollars, set it on fire, and called it a campaign.” He also criticizes one of her most famous gaffes during the general election: “We have to take some responsibility for the fact that when Hillary Clinton called half of the Republican Party ‘deplorables,’ nobody on her staff or in her immediate circle had a problem with that.”
When it comes to fighting Trump, Jones told me, Democrats should “be very embracing of big chunks of his coalition. Obviously the most rabid, hateful fringe of his movement is, by definition, not available to us, but there are a lot of people who just held their nose and voted for him, just like there are a lot of people who held their nose and voted for Hillary Clinton. Some of those people in the business community, and some of the white female voters, and the now almost stereotypical white blue-collar voters could vote for Democrats who spoke to them as well, but not if we’re saying you have a fundamental character flaw if you voted against Hillary Clinton.”
Jones didn’t make an endorsement in the 2016 Democratic primary, but said, “I like a lot of the stuff Sanders said. I thought he was sticking it to the establishment, in some ways in both parties.” He paused and added, “I might take a softer approach than Bernie.”
Kohn has a similar critique of Sanders. “Bernie is not concerned with kindness,” she said. “He doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about how he can be nice to the people around him.... I think his politics are ‘nice’ in that they help people rather than hurting people, but stylistically he doesn’t worry about being liked or likable.”
Despite this, Kohn endorsed Sanders at a rally in Brooklyn in April of 2016—an experience that soured her on some of his supporters. In her speech, she said Clinton “supports reckless wars, racist criminal justice laws, and destructive trade policies,” “pals around with Wall Street and the Walmart family,” and “relies on a broken election financing system to gazillionaire her way into the White House.” But she also spoke positively of Clinton: “Make no mistake about it, I think Hillary Clinton is an exceptionally qualified and dedicated public servant and would make an extraordinary president in shepherding the 90 percent of issues on which I agree with her.”
For these remarks, Kohn was booed by much of the audience. Recounting the episode in The Daily Beast the next day, she wrote that it reminded her of “one of the reasons I hesitated in making an endorsement in the first place—the sense that I would be aligning myself not only with the wonderfully progressive Senator Sanders but his often shockingly vitriolic supporters.” A month later, she elaborated in Time: “Forget the plainly self-defeating results of that behavior in terms of trying to recruit would-be Hillary supporters to Bernie’s column. It was disturbing from a visceral, human level.”
She told me her main takeaway from the experience was, “You can’t get people on your side if you antagonize the fuck out of them.”
Antagonism is increasingly popular in our populist moment—at least when it’s directed at elites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine, told Ezra Klein last week:
What really captivated me about Bernie Sanders in particular was the idea that he constantly not only had a vision of the kind of reforms he wanted but he focused on antagonism as a way to get there. He would say there’s a problem: you are not getting enough. You’re getting screwed over and it’s not your fault. It’s not the fault of immigrants. It’s not the fault of these other scapegoats. It’s the fault of millionaires and billionaires, and we’re going to go after them until you get what you deserve. To me, that process is how politics is constructed: Creating an antagonist. Creating a protagonist. Pursuing that antagonist to force concessions and reforms.
Klein floated the idea that American politics doesn’t just have a left-right axis any longer, but an axis that shows “confrontation versus compromise.”
“On one end you might have something more like what you’re talking about from Bernie Sanders,” he said, “where you’ve got to name your opponents, you have to name who the enemies are, you have to mobilize against the billionaire class like the only way you’re going to get anything is by extracting it from the people who hold power. Another version of it might be the more idealized way that Obama looked at it, you might say, or Bill Clinton before him, which is more of a sense that there’s a lot of disagreement in country, America has political institutions that are very resistant to change, and to get things done, to help the people who want to help, you need to work within the system.”
Jones argues that you can fight for causes without resorting to contempt, and you can compromise without surrendering.
“People are going to say, ‘Well, either you’re going to be confrontational and stick up for our values or you’re going to compromise and lie down.’ That’s just stupid!” he said. “I’m not lying down at all—I’m out there fighting for transgender rights, fighting for Dreamers, fighting for criminal justice reform, sticking up for Muslims as loud as anybody in American politics. I defy you to point to one person in American politics who has been more aggressively or consistently vocal on our issues. I’m just not doing it in a way that’s designed to piss off half the country!”
“It’s a populist moment,” he added, “I’m a populist. I can’t stand what’s going on in this country. But I’m not just going to blame Donald Trump for it. You know, Donald Trump sucks. He may well be the worst human being yet born. I mean, he’s a horrible person. But people in my community were suffering before Donald Trump ran for office and neither Democrats nor Republicans were able to do very much about it.”
So who’s taking the right approach in Washington?
Jones praised Booker, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden. “None of these people have the same policy agenda,” he said. “I like the tone that they strike often when it comes to trying to reach out to everyday people, regardless of who they voted for.”
“I think Senator Booker sees that both where we are as a country and where we are in this political moment demands more kindness and compassion—and not just for your own side,” said Kohn, though she believes he’s historically been “on the more centrist accommodationist end of the spectrum.” Warren, who she sees as less accommodationist, also earned her praise. “I think Elizabeth Warren is a phenomenal example,” Kohn said. “In a way Bernie was the dude who just got in and rode that wave that she helped set off—and she did so in a way where there’s none of the acrimony. She wouldn’t have had trolls out there.”
Last April, during his #LoveArmy tour, Jones delivered a stirring speech at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. In closing his remarks, he issued a stern warning that liberals must find a new path, lest they be trapped in a vicious cycle of progress and backlash: “You’ll have all the governmental power, and they’ll have a backlash against you, because they don’t think you love them, and they don’t think you care about them, and they think that you hate them, and half the time they’re right.”
“They can listen to you,” he emphasized, pointing his finger at the crowd. “Every time you say ‘white heterosexual cis-gendered male,’ that’s the bad guy. Doesn’t matter if he’s poor. Doesn’t matter if he lives in Appalachia. Doesn’t matter if he hasn’t had work for four years. That’s the bad guy. We act like love is a finite resource, don’t we? Like, if we start trying to love some of these white folk—some of these white boys—how we gonna have some love for us? There’s only so much love to go around. I need to save some for people who are worthy.”
Jones reminded the church that one of progressivism’s core values is to care for all people. As Washington Post national political reporter James Hohmann wrote last month, “lefties temperamentally yearn for inclusion, civility and dialogue.” It’s part of who they are. That’s why, notwithstanding the Resistance’s rage, civility is due for a revival among Democrats. At the end of our conservation, Jones cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, who died the year he was born. “They were very tough when it came to their principles,” he told me. “They were very tender when it came to the American people. And that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”