How Roger Ailes was Republican party’s wizard behind the curtain
God seems to be toying with American conservatives. On the same day Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, Roger Ailes, legendary creator of Fox News, was being ushered out of his role.
Mr Trump’s rise may have taken the world by surprise but it is hard to imagine his message having taken root without Mr Ailes’ groundwork.
Felled by sexual harassment allegations from a former Fox anchor, the news channel’s departing creator is no household name. Yet Mr Ailes has played wizard behind the curtain to more than two generations of Republican presidential candidates, conservative pundits and intellectuals. He is the creator and destroyer of ambitions — the Shiva of US conservatism. Without Mr Ailes, Rupert Murdoch would have been a far less potent figure on the US scene.
In fact God’s theatrical timing is even odder than it seems. Mr Trump’s convention theme draws explicitly from Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 law and order presidential campaign, which was shaped by a young Mr Ailes. That was the election that launched the then 27-year-old on to the national scene. Mr Ailes cornered Mr Nixon and said: “The camera doesn’t like you,” in reference to his notorious 1960 televised debate performance with John Kennedy. “It’s a shame you have to use gimmicks like television to get elected,” Nixon replied. “Television is not a gimmick,” Ailes replied. “And if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” Mr Ailes’ role was chronicled in the classic book The Selling of the President. From then on, he was an acknowledged master of that medium.
Mr Ailes came from a blue-collar background — his father was a factory foreman in Ohio. He has described his upbringing as “God, country, family”. Those small-town values have always driven his politics. But his genius as a media figure and political consultant was built on something deeper: a psychological insight into middle America’s profound resentment of urban liberal elites.
It was a mindset he spotted in Nixon. He also advised two other presidents, including George H.W. Bush, and figures such as Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. It was Mr Ailes, not Lee Atwater, who proposed and filmed the infamous Willie Horton advertisements in 1988 that helped destroy Michael Dukakis’s presidential chances and elect Bush senior. Much like Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and Mr Trump’s “Make America safe again” theme, the Willie Horton ads played on white fears of black crime.
But it was only with the launch of Fox News, which will celebrate its 20th birthday in October, that Mr Ailes began to alter the contours of the US political landscape.
Some compare Fox’s influence to Rush Limbaugh’s daily talk radio show, or Matt Drudge’s website the Drudge Report. But Fox’s ability to dictate mainstream opinion is far greater than that. At $1bn in annual profits, Fox News makes more money than all the other cable TV and network news channels combined. No channel can make or break a presidential hopeful like Fox. Candidates launch their bids from Fox studios and earn their keep in between elections as paid Fox contributors. Among others, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, John Kasich and Mr Guiliani have all been employed by Fox.
One exception is Mr Trump, whose love-hate relationship with Fox last year played out through his public duel with Megyn Kelly, its most highly rated anchor, whom Mr Trump described as a “bimbo”. Their reconciliation was brokered by Mr Ailes earlier this year but only after Mr Trump had boycotted a Fox-hosted presidential debate.
The New York property magnate is the first big Republican figure to have taken on Mr Ailes and come off evens — if not better. His rise is perhaps the clearest sign that Fox News’s political influence may have passed its peak. To be sure, Mr Trump continues to bask in the support of leading Fox anchors, such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. But, unlike his predecessors, Mr Trump can always turn to another medium, Twitter, which has been his chief publicity tool since he declared his candidacy.
Doubtless Nixon would have seen Twitter as a gimmick, as did many of Mr Trump’s rivals in the Republican primaries. But as Mr Ailes showed, political success requires mastery of the age’s leading medium. It is perhaps fitting that television’s “evil genius” is stepping aside just as politics moves on to newer technologies.