The Agony and the Ecstasy of Chris Matthews

With his epic MSNBC meltdown over Bernie Sanders’s landslide win in Nevada, Chris Matthews became the anguished spokesman for a Beltway media scene that has been plunged into a world it can’t understand.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, attends the 101st Annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. Teresa Kroeger / Getty

Amid herculean competition, Saturday, February 22, 2020 will probably go down in history as one of the strangest and most embarrassing dates in the history of cable news. While the symptoms of a full-blown media crackup have undoubtedly been festering for weeks, Bernie Sanders’s overwhelming victory in the Nevada caucuses turned out to be the proverbial levee-breaking moment, especially for the talking heads who populate what is supposedly America’s liberal cable network.

In a medium not exactly renowned for offering wisdom or insight, MSNBC’s marathon coverage felt like a broadcast from another dimension; a parallel reality with a peculiar metaphysics of its own. At once painful, hilarious, and downright appalling, the network’s unhinged response to Sanders’s win doubled as a master class in everything wrong with cable news — from reflexive deference to the corporatist center to pathological hatred of populist candidates who refuse to accede to the arbitrary rules set down by elite politicians and media executives.

Over the course of a single afternoon, or so it seemed, the self-serving narratives and rhetorical shibboleths that sustained an entire era of liberalism came crashing down, leaving many of MSNBC’s star personalities and talking heads to respond with a mixture of denial, anger, and fear. As Rising’s Krystal Ball described it:

Faced with a choice between the man they have loudly proclaimed to be a cross between Hitler, Mussolini, and Benedict Arnold and a man who threatens the very lifeblood of their access journalism, personal self-conception, and class interest, what would they choose? . . . As caucus after caucus turned in overwhelming results in favor of Bernie Sanders, the flummoxed anchors were left to cope with this singularly myth-exploding event in their own ways.

Thus, an incensed James Carville, somehow looking even more cadaverous than usual, came on to announce, “The happiest person right now . . . it’s about 1:15, Moscow time? This thing is going very well for Vladimir Putin,” before waving hysterically at the camera and barking, “How ya doin’, Vlad?” Reporter Chris Jansing could be heard audibly sighing as she reported with unconcealed frustration that the predominantly Latino voters caucusing at a location near the Bellagio were going overwhelmingly for Sanders. A furious Joy Reid, meanwhile, declared, “No one else is as hungry, angry, enraged, and determined as Sanders voters” before urging the Democratic establishment to “sober up” and figure out “what the hell they’re gonna do about that.”

In a rare moment of clarity that inadvertently seemed to sum up the whole afternoon, former George W. Bush communications hack Nicolle Wallace was finally forced to concede, “I have no idea what voters think about anything anymore.” The day’s undisputed champion, however, was MSNBC’s carnival-barker-in-residence, Chris Matthews, who, fresh from imagining an alternate reality involving his own execution by Cuban communists in Central Park a few weeks ago, managed to outdo himself by equating Sanders’s victory in Nevada to the Nazi Blitzkrieg of France in 1940.

Justifiably under fire for the remarks, Matthews has since apologized. But the moment may nonetheless be symbolic of something larger than the deranged outburst of a septuagenarian TV host raised on a noxious diet of Cold War propaganda.

Matthews is, after all, a creature of cable news to his very bones — emblematic of a modern infotainment culture that has long prized deference to orthodoxy, empty provocation, and branded personality over any particular desire to enlighten or inform. A veteran of what is laughably called America’s “national conversation” (in practice, a hollow pantomime of political engagement in which overpaid people who are mostly neither very curious nor very bright theatrically spar for the cameras before meeting up at the bar a few hours later), he’s been a fixture of the Washington political scene since his days as a staffer for Jimmy Carter and Tip O’Neill.

Boorish, ill-tempered, and punctuated by a particularly repugnant streak of old-world misogyny, Matthews’s schtick is virtually unwatchable unless you’ve already pickled your brain with a million or so hours of cable news. Having been described by one profiler as “soothing like a blender,” his voice sounds like a balloon perpetually stuck in the act of trying to deflate and never quite succeeding. The same writer would diplomatically call Matthews “a whip-tongued, name-dropping, self-promoting wise guy” of the sort “you often find in campaigns, and in the bigger offices on Capitol Hill or K Street” — that is, one who graces interlocutors with incandescent insights like, “Barack Obama is Mozart and Hillary Clinton is Salieri.”

His biggest intellectual contribution, such as it can be called one, has been to articulate the art of Beltway social climbing as a kind of public philosophy: breaking through with the best-selling 1988 book Hardball (described by New York Times Magazine as “a how-to guide to social and career climbing in Washington”). Though Matthews got his TV start courtesy of Roger Ailes, it would be the 1997 debut of his show on CNBC (which carried the same title) and the ensuing Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that put him firmly on the national cable news map. As MSNBC attached its brand and its business strategy to the rise of Obama — its prime-time audience would rise a whopping 63 percent in 2008 — he would enter his heyday as a fixture of America’s media establishment.

Though a long-form profile published that same year tries its absolute darndest to find virtue in Matthews’s loutishness and personal ambition (“There is a level of solipsism about Matthews that is oddly endearing in its self-conscious extreme, even by the standards of television vanity”), the portrait that emerges is largely that of a man obsessed with hollow status-seeking and the pursuit of fame for its own sake:

Matthews has an attuned sense of pecking order at MSNBC, at NBC, in Washington and in life. This is no great rarity among the fragile egos of TV or, for that matter, in the status-fixated world of politics. But Matthews is especially frontal about it. In an interview with Playboy a few years ago, he volunteered that he had made the list of the Top 50 journalists in D.C. in The Washingtonian magazine. “I’m like 36th, and Tim Russert is No. 1,” Matthews told Playboy. “I would argue for a higher position for myself.

None other than Jon Stewart exposed the moral vacuum at the core of Matthews’s personal philosophy in a 2007 grilling of his book Life’s a Campaign: What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success (which channeled similar themes to 1988’s Hardball). Catching Matthews off guard, Stewart’s opening challenge was both pointed and lethal:

What you are saying is people can use what politicians do in political campaigns to help their lives? It strikes me as fundamentally wrong. It strikes me as a self-hurt book. Aren’t campaigns fundamentally contrivances?

Matthews’s response, justifiably met with a bemused stare, amounted to a naked defense of amoral ladder-climbing coupled with the idea that everything about life should be treated like a campaign qua sales pitch:

Yeah, campaigns can be. But the way politicians get to the top is the real thing. They know what they’re doing. I mean, you don’t have to believe a word they say. But watch how far they got. How did Clinton get there? How did Hillary get there? How did Reagan get there? They have methods to get to the top, and you can learn from those methods . . . Do you wanna succeed? Do you wanna have friends? . . . Everything about getting jobs is about convincing someone to hire you, right? It’s about getting promotions. It’s about selling products. It’s always a campaign. It’s a campaign to get the girl of your dreams. It’s a campaign to do everything you want to do in life.

“This strikes me as artifice,” replied Stewart. “If you live this book, your life will be strategy.”

In an eerie parallel, Matthews’s personal philosophy mirrors the acquisitive, market-centric amoralism of the modern Democratic Party with which he’s become so intimately aligned. Albeit in different ways, both are products of a hollow liberal culture that values individual success over collective solidarity, toasts the endless triangulation of its elites as a marker of enlightened realism, and allows the twin idols of wealth and celebrity to be its lodestars.

In Bernie Sanders, this ecosystem and the apparatchiks who populate its gilded hierarchies have met their first real nemesis in decades: a figure whose popular support owes itself to explicit rejection of the politics of triangulation and craven self-interest they have so voraciously embraced. Thanks to a social and ideological base outside the clutches of the elite media, Sanders and the millions of people who comprise his movement may be totally alien to Chris Matthews and the culture that has produced him, but they also represent an existential threat to its primordial rites and sacraments.

Ever partisan for personalities rather than policies or principles, the Democratic Party and its media surrogates plainly expected a traditional primary contest auditioning competing centrist brands ahead of November’s scheduled season finale. In Nevada, both collided suddenly and violently with the realization that their world may in fact be coming to an end; that huge numbers of Americans find their self-serving narratives unconvincing; and that their expectations of deference are now largely being ignored.

The cable news crack-up that crescendoed in Matthews’s splenetic outburst was thus something more than a manifestation of conservative Democrats’ frustration at the prospect of a socialist insurgent winning his third electoral contest in a row. Beneath the layers of ugliness in the Hardball host’s execrable analogy could be heard the anguished cry of an elite liberal culture jarringly coming to terms with its increasing isolation and utter remove from the people for whom it has long claimed to speak.

In the weeks and months ahead, expect it to reach a fever pitch.