Explaining Donald Trump's appeal sits at the heart of understanding not only this election but, more broadly, the electorate that has produced this most unlikely of presidential candidates.
The easy answer — and the one favored by many Democrats — is racism. Racial animus, they argue, is the thread that ties all of Trump's support together. I don't buy that. Sure, there is an element of racially coded language employed by Trump and, without doubt, there are avowed racists who support him. But, is everyone who supports Trump a racist? I find that very hard to believe.
Friday morning on "Morning Joe," Chris Matthews gave the best explanation of what's behind Trump's appeal that I've heard in this entire election. I transcribed it — although you can watch it here, too. (It starts at about the five-minute mark of the clip.)
Here's the key bit:
A lot of this support for Trump, with all his flaws which he displays regularly, is about the country — patriotic feelings people have, they feel like the country has been let down. Our elite leaders on issues like immigration, they don't regulate any immigration it seems. They don't regulate trade to our advantage, to the working man or working woman's advantage. They take us into stupid wars. Their kids don't fight but our kids do.
It's patriotic. They believe in their country. .... [There is a] deep sense that the country is being taken away and betrayed. I think that is so deep with people that they're looking at a guy who's flawed as hell like Trump and at least it's a way of saying I am really angry about the way the elite has treated my country. And it's so deep that it overwhelms all the bad stuff from Trump. It's that strong. It's a strong force wind.
Yes to, literally, all of that.
The most important thing about Trump that Matthews gets is that the Republican nominee's appeal is fundamentally an emotional one. It's heart, not head. Spending time wondering why all of the fact-checking in the world doesn't change peoples' minds about Trump misses that point entirely. It's about a gut feeling that things are screwed up, and this guy is the only person who gets it. No fact-check changes how people feel.
The other key element to Matthews's analysis of Trump is the revulsion with elites. The ever-widening economic and cultural disconnect between coastal elites, which includes the leaders of both political parties, and the average person sits at the very heart of Trump's appeal. It's a classic "us" vs. "them" message. THEY think you're stupid. THEY think they're better than you. THEY think they can tell you what to think and how to act.
This tweet from Trump, which he typed out Friday morning, speaks to that very sentiment — in the context of his inability to win the endorsements of even conservative editorial boards.
The people are really smart in cancelling subscriptions to the Dallas & Arizona papers & now USA Today will lose readers! The people get it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2016
The distance between the financial circumstances and policy views of elites and the average person has never been wider. On trade. On immigration. On what the proper role should be for the United States in the world community. On almost everything.
So, every time a newspaper endorses against Trump or a celebrity says how dumb he is or a member of the Republican foreign policy establishment condemns him, it cements many people's belief that what Trump has been saying all along is right. If the elites think Trump is stupid or out of touch (or both), then those same elites think the same things about the average Joe. About you.
The resentment and anger those feelings fuel is why, at some level, it doesn't matter what Trump says or does. It's beside the point for many of these people. The point is that he is the channeling of all of their distaste for the state of the country — and the elites who they believe have created it.
Those emotions are why Trump is still within shouting distance of Hillary Clinton despite running one of the least strategic campaigns in modern memory. And it's why he still has a chance to win despite everything that he has done wrong over these past many months.
Chris Matthews gets that in a way few other people — and especially pundits — do.