Explaining Donald Trump’s appeal sits at the heart of understanding not only this election cycle but also, 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 do not buy that. Sure, Trump employs an element of racially coded language, and, without a doubt, avowed racists support him. But is everyone who supports Trump a racist? I find that very hard to believe.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday, Chris Matthews gave the best explanation of what’s behind Trump’s appeal that I have heard during the entire election cycle.
Here’s the key segment:
“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 presidential nominee’s appeal is fundamentally an emotional one. It is heart, not head. Spending time wondering why all of the fact-checking in the world does not change people’s minds about Trump misses that point entirely. It is about a gut feeling that things are really messed up and that 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 against elites. The ever-widening economic and cultural disconnect between coastal elites — which includes the leaders of both political parties — and many Americans sits at the heart of Trump’s appeal. It’s a classic us-vs.-them message. They think you are stupid. They think they are better than you. They think they can tell you what to think and how to act.
A tweet from Trump on Friday morning speaks to that very sentiment: “The people are really smart in cancelling subscriptions to the Dallas & Arizona papers & now USA Today will lose readers! The people get it!”
The distance between the financial circumstances and policy views of elites and many Americans has never been wider. On trade. On immigration. On what the proper role should be for the United States in the global community. On almost everything.
So every time a newspaper advises against Trump, a celebrity says how dumb the candidate 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 that 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 does not matter what Trump says or does. It is beside the point for many of these people. The point is that he is channeling all of their distaste for the state of the country — and the elites they think created it.
Those emotions are why Trump is still within shouting distance of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, despite his running one of the least-strategic campaigns in modern memory. And it is why he still has a shot at winning the election despite everything that he has done wrong over the past many months.
Matthews understands that in a way that few other people — and especially pundits — do.