How Roger Ailes Created Modern Conservatism

As much as the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump as president this week, the demise of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes marks the end of an age.

Toppled by a cascade of sexual harassment charges and said to be nearing the exits at Fox, Ailes will be remembered for undermining the dominant 20th-century model of objective journalism with his defiantly right-wing news channel. But he was equally important in transforming politics itself. Not only did he tutor presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush in the ways of media politics, but he was largely responsible for two of the signal changes in American political culture since the 1960s: the rise of television as a national force and the emergence of cultural populism as a key feature of the Republican Party.

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In fact, apart from the presidents he served, he was arguably the single most important figure in the creation of modern conservatism. By fusing television’s power to conjure feelings of anger and resentment to an ideology of cultural populism that demonized liberal elites, Ailes set forth the methods and the message that would help conservative politicians win and maintain power for decades. That is, until Trump, who, this week in Cleveland, officially closed his hostile takeover of the party that Ailes helped build, using the very tactics Ailes had pioneered.

Ailes—whose story is best told in Gabriel Sherman’s invaluable biography The Loudest Voice in the Room—saw the importance of television as a political tool early in his career. He burst onto the political scene as a twentysomething adviser to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. It was a job he earned after offering the candidate some frank and canny advice about TV on the set of The Mike Douglas Show, where Ailes was a producer. “Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes brashly chided Nixon, “and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Nixon’s success in the 1968 election launched the young Ailes into national politics. Although he didn’t officially join the White House—senior aides like H.R. Haldeman didn’t want Ailes to have the president’s ear—he continued to advise Nixon on television and media strategy. He supervised TV moments like the president’s introduction of Warren Burger as his nominee to the Supreme Court and his call to Neil Armstrong after he walked on the moon. Ailes also encouraged Nixon to practice the politics of resentment that came naturally to him, creating the basic formula used by Reagan, both Bushes and countless lesser conservative politicians: playing on the public’s sense that powerful liberal were getting ahead at the expense of Middle America.

Along with others in the Nixon White House, Ailes also began to change how the public thought about the press, arguing relentlessly that what we now call the mainstream media had an irredeemable liberal bias. From Vice President Spiro Agnew’s fiery speeches in late 1969 to the ongoing White House project of monitoring news coverage for ideological taint, Nixon’s team helped sow the notion that conservative politicians and viewpoints weren’t getting a fair shake in the news coverage—and used the resulting public support this generated as leverage against the press. Ailes fully shared this opinion of the media as slanted. In a memo to top Nixon aides, he even proposed creating a White House television news service that would provide local stations with administration-produced news segments to counterbalance what viewers consumed via regular TV.

Across the country, meanwhile, the political consulting business was catching on—and here, too, Ailes was a pioneer. Candidates for state or national office were coming to depend on a new breed of media wizards, who knew how to cut television ads, build mailing lists and develop lines of attack. Ailes himself began a consulting practice, and after the publication of Joe McGinniss’ Selling of the President 1968—which told the story of Nixon’s media operation in the campaign, with the colorful Ailes in a starring rolethat practice took off.

In these pre-internet, pre-cable-news years, candidates and politicians were learning to wage their message wars largely through network television. They crafted emotionally powerful campaign ads and devised clever strategies to win favorable nightly news coverage. An emerging wisdom held that television watchers absorbed their knowledge about public affairs at a gut level, more visceral than newspaper readers, making them especially susceptible to emotional appeals, particularly of the conservative kind. Partial to these theories, Ailes for the next two decades advocated using the media to draw over to the GOP disaffected Democrats and alienated independents, who were growing in number as the parties themselves weakened. To reach these members of what Nixon called “the Silent Majority,” Ailes and the politicians he advised relied on the cultural populism that was moving closer and closer to the center of conservative ideology. Ads and other forms of messaging would emphasize how spineless or elitists liberal politicians were betraying these voters on a host of values-laden issues—often racially charged ones—including crime, drugs, busing, welfare, affirmative action and national security.

Ailes also continued to pursue correctives to what he saw as media bias. In the early 1970s, he went to work for a conservative news network called Television News Incorporated, funded by the right-wing beer king Joseph Coors. Like Ailes’ proposed Nixon project, TVN hoped to feed its own right-leaning news segments into the broadcasts that ran on local stations nationwide. (It even used the current Fox slogan, “fair and balanced.”) Ailes hoped to build TVN into a full-fledged network to rival the broadcast giants, but it lost money and folded in 1975. While keeping a hand in other projects, Ailes committed himself to Republican politics.

The pinnacle of Ailes’ direct political influence came in the 1988 campaign of Vice President George Bush. When the race began, the blue-blooded high-WASP Bush was widely seen as Reagan’s pale imitator. His campaign needed, as Newsweek put it in a cover line, to dispel “the wimp factor.” Warming to the challenge, Ailes, serving as Bush’s media adviser and unofficial strategist, injected anger and fight into Bush’s message and persona by prodding the candidate to go on the attack. After a weak showing in the Iowa caucuses, the effete Bush viciously assailed his main rival, Bob Dole, in the ensuing primaries, and in the fall he shamelessly smeared the cerebral Michael Dukakis, painting the Democratic nominee as soft on crime, unpatriotic and even un-American. An Ailes protégé, Larry McCarthy, developed the infamous Willie Horton ad that highlighted the case of a black inmate furloughed from prison in Massachusetts on a Dukakis-approved plan who proceeded to rape a Maryland woman and assault her husband. Ultimately, Bush overcame a 17-point deficit in the polls to win the election in November by a substantial margin.

After the election, Ailes remained an important adviser to Bush. Crucially, in the weeks before the first Gulf War, Ailes convened focus groups to test which messages would most effectively make the case for using military force to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. A memo from Ailes to the president delineated those arguments that worked and those that didn’t, allowing Bush to refine his argument for his televised Oval Office address. In 1992, while assuming no formal position in the reelection campaign, Ailes persuaded Bush to deride Bill Clinton’s patriotism, which the president did by making baseless insinuations about a trip Clinton had taken as a young man to Russia.

Increasingly, however, Ailes—having reached the crest of presidential politics—turned his attentions to the extra-governmental right-wing message machine. He retained his longtime dream of creating an outlet that would provide a conservative alternative to the mainstream media. Early on, he appreciated the emotive power and influence of talk radio, including rising stars like Rush Limbaugh. In 1992, Ailes created and produced a TV show for Limbaugh—it ran until 1996—and he introduced the celebrity radio host to President Bush, who in an effort to shore up his bona fides with the far right invited the two men for a night in the White House. (Bush literally carried Limbaugh’s bags, to much ridicule.)

Limbaugh and a bevy of similar radio and TV hosts operated very much in the Ailesian vein: militant in their ideology, aggrieved in their attitudes, provocative in their rhetoric. Collectively, they began prodding not just liberals but also the GOP establishment, urging them to adopt increasingly extreme stands while also forcing workaday journalists to give respectful attention to far-right arguments that once would have been deemed beyond the pale. Taking these voices and methods from radio to television, Ailes hoped, would not only be a lucrative business prospect but also held the potential to enhance conservative power regardless of who held the White House.

As cable TV grew, Ailes found employment there. He led CNBC for a while, and under NBC’s auspices ran a short-lived network called “America’s Talking,” which tried to bring talk-radio politics to television. But when NBC folded that ill-conceived network to create a new news channel, MSNBC, Ailes chose to join forces with the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch to create the Fox News Channel, his greatest legacy.

While many news stories focused on Murdoch’s influence, Ailes was always the visionary and guiding hand behind their network. Debuting in 1996, Fox by 2002 had overtaken CNN as the most-watched cable news network. Its key role in defining and promulgating right-wing issues and talking points over the last two presidential administrations—always in the vein of angry, resentful politics that Nixon made central to the modern Republican Party—is today well established. (Despite his role running Fox, Ailes continued to advise Republicans closely, whether dispensing advice to George W. Bush, about the politics of his war on terrorism or coaching vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan in the 2012 campaign.)

Ailes’ success, politically and commercially, emboldened him. The elevation to stardom of Megyn Kelly, as Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2015, seemed to herald a hubristic attempt to expand Fox’s viewership beyond the conservative diehards that had made it prosper. Kelly made her name by embarrassing Karl Rove on election night 2012, when he insisted, against the evidence, that Mitt Romney might yet win Ohio and that calling the election for Barack Obama was premature. Later, Kelly surprised Dick Cheney by telling him, “History has proved that you got it wrong in Iraq, sir.” Her willingness to confront Donald Trump over his record of sexist rhetoric in last summer’s Republican debate launched her to new heights of fame, embodying Fox’s bid for broader respectability while also—perhaps paradoxically—highlighting the tension between the real-estate mogul’s assaults on the GOP establishment and the network’s fidelity to the ideological dogmas at the party’s heart.

Tellingly, it was apparently when Kelly turned on Ailes this week that his fate was sealed. By informing investigators that he had sexually harassed her some years ago, adding to a lengthening list of female employees with similar stories, she helped to persuade Murdoch to oust the man who built Murdoch’s most lucrative media property. Given changing attitudes about women and sex, the macho and often anti-feminist conservative populism in which Ailes believed so deeply had become increasingly hard to tolerate or justify. The women accusing Ailes aren’t, for the most part, liberal, but their charges are made possible by the triumph of liberal ideas on gender equality.

It’s fitting, too, that Ailes’ demise should come about as Trump assumes leadership of the Republican Party. It was Trump, after all, who proved that Ailes and Fox were not omnipotent in the world of conservative politics. He not only won the GOP nomination with ideologically heterodox positions, at least at selected moments, on trade, Vladimir Putin, the Iraq War, gay rights, taxes on the rich, Social Security and Planned Parenthood; he also openly warred with Fox throughout the primary season—promising, fleetingly, not to go on the network when it treated him unfairly—and if he lost that battle, he won the war.

There’s another irony as well. If Republican regulars opposed Trump for his centrist deviancies, he owes his success in the primaries to the fact that he ran to the right of his rivals on the most salient issues of the campaign—immigration and terrorism. In short, he espoused a variety of the very same brand of politics that Ailes has successfully promoted, and the GOP has prospered with, since Nixon’s day: the substitution of bluster for reason, the angry scapegoating of others, the blind hatred and exaggerated fear of liberals in power, the appeal to traditional conservative values on polarizing social issues. Trump has merely upped the ante.

And where Ailes used Fox News to fulfill his longstanding goal of circumventing the mainstream news outlets, Trump used his own celebrity to circumvent the rules of television altogether—gaining free media by capitalizing on the endless appetite for debate, argument and talk that Ailes had done so much to popularize.

In a way, Donald Trump beat Roger Ailes at his own game. Like so many other revolutions, the conservative revolution now eats its own.

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