Bernie Sanders’s overwhelming victory in the Nevada caucus is sending shock waves through the American political system, perhaps nowhere more than on MSNBC. The hosts and guests of the cable news network made no effort to hide their dismay at Sanders’s victory. Even Brian Fallon, national press secretary for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and not someone very favorably inclined to Sanders, was taken aback. “MSNBC sure has a lot of commentators who hate Sanders,” he tweeted.
Chris Matthews, the fast-talking host of Hardball, compared the event to France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940. “I was reading last night about the fall of France in the summer of 1940,” Matthews said on Saturday. “And the general, Reynaud, calls up Churchill and says, ‘It’s over.’ And Churchill says, ‘How can that be? You’ve got the greatest army in Europe. How can it be over?’ He said, ‘It’s over.’” Matthews added the same was true of Sanders because, “It’s too late to stop him… it’s over.”
This might easily be dismissed as simple hyperbole if it weren’t for the fact that Matthews often talks about Sanders in intemperate terms that evoke political violence. Earlier this month, Matthews went on a strange free-association rant about what socialism means to him, saying, “I believe if Castro and the Reds had won the Cold War there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed. And certain other people would be there cheering, okay?” The TV host then connected his fears with Sanders, saying “I don’t know who Bernie supports over these years. I don’t know what he means by socialist.” The implication was clearly that Sanders’s version of socialism might include a death sentence for Matthews.
Matthews is in a league of his own in terms of unleashing verbal fantasia, but other MSNBC regulars shared his anxiety about Sanders. Former Clinton adviser James Carville suggested that Sanders had received help from a foreign power. “Why would Vladimir Putin be helping Bernie Sanders?” Carville asked. “Because he wants Donald Trump to win.” Nicole Wallace suggested that Sanders’s campaign had practiced “dark arts” to secure victory.
MSNBC’s hostility toward Sanders might seem anomalous. The network is, after all, is known for having unabashedly liberal hosts like Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. The audience for MSNBC leans left. According to one survey, liberals are 10 times more likely to watch MSNBC than conservatives are.
Still, it would be wrong to think of MSNBC as strictly a liberal counterpart to Fox. The two networks have very different functions. Fox is the conservative id, the voice of raw passion and untamed desire. MSNBC more often functions as the liberal super-ego, the admonishing voice of prudence, compromise, and political caution.
Andrew Lack, who became chairman of MSNBC in 2015, is known for his hostility toward progressives. The rise of Donald Trump allowed Lack to move the network to the right while still keeping its liberal audience. The trick was to use Trump’s triumph as an excuse to hire Never Trump conservatives, who could be relied on to criticize the president but strictly from a right-of-center point of view. Some of the already-existing hosts of MSNBC were natural Never Trump voices, notably Joe Scarborough. But the network became increasingly receptive to pundits like William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, and Max Boot.
The alliance between centrist liberals and erstwhile Republican led to the creation of an ancien régime resistance, an opposition to Trump rooted in nostalgia. Most visibly displayed at the funerals of John McCain and George H.W. Bush, the ancien regime resistance is a mythical view of American history. Once upon a time, the myth tells us, America was governed by stalwart centrists like John McCain, Tip O’Neill, and George H.W. Bush, men who were always willing to walk across the aisle to work with their foes. They presided over a functioning Republic, now being torn apart by savage partisanship, which led to the rise of Trump.
The project of the ancien régime resistance has been to try to return America to that prelapsarian paradise of bipartisan comity. The idea was that if liberals and conservatives could work together to defeat Trump, then in the future there could be more cooperation along centrist lines.
A commitment to ancien régime resistance explains why MSNBC has been so obsessed with the Russia narrative, devoting countless hours to speculations about the schemes of Vladimir Putin and to the Mueller report, along with its sequel, Ukrainegate. The Russia narrative was a perfect chance for centrist liberals and neoconservatives to bond over a shared enemy, one that could be blamed for Trump’s presidency.
But the ascension of Bernie Sanders fundamentally threatens the entire edifice of the ancien régime resistance. Sanders has no interest in restoring the lost center. He clearly believes the only way to fight Trumpism is with a robust progressive program.
Because he so clearly opposes their political project, Never Trumpers have been leading the charge against Sanders. GOP strategist Liz Mair tweeted, “I think it’s easier to come back to normalcy from a lawless, nationalist national leadership than it is a socialist one. So if I’m forced—and hopefully I won’t be because Democrats will stop Bernie before he locks this down—I will choose Trump.” Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis described himself as both Never Trump and Never Bernie.
A few Never Trumpers remain steadfastly Never Trump. One is former representative Joe Walsh, who tweeted, “I’m not a Democrat. How about all of us who aren’t Democrats just chill and let, you know…DEMOCRATIC VOTERS actually pick their nominee? And then ALL of us pledge to support WHOEVER that nominee is. Because that’s the only way we defeat Trump. And that’s what matters, right?”
But it’s fair to describe Walsh as the exception. The Never Trump movement is now nearly extinct, as is the ancien régime resistance.
Now that the political project of restoring centrism is dying, MSNBC needs to rethink its core mission. One step forward would be to figure out why people are voting for Sanders. Speaking on MSNBC, Anand Giridharadas cut to the core issue.
”I think this is a wake-up moment for the American power establishment,” he said. “Many in this establishment are behaving in my view as they face the prospect of a Bernie Sanders nomination like out of touch aristocrats in a dying aristocracy.” This establishment, Giridharadas noted, was just asking “how do we stop this” and not displaying any curiosity about “what is happening.”
By way of demonstrating that the media is out of touch, Giridharadas asked, “Why is Chris Matthews on this air talking about the victory of Bernie Sanders, who had kin murdered in the Holocaust, and analogizing it to the Nazi conquest of France? The people who are stuck in an old way of thinking, in 20th century frameworks, in Gulag thinking, are missing what is going on.”