To understand just how big a deal Fox News’ decision to part ways with Bill O’Reilly is, you first have to understand this: O’Reilly was the front-facing spokesman for the modern-day conservative movement just as now-deposed Fox boss Roger Ailes was its behind-the-scenes architect.
For the generation of conservatives who came into their political prime from the late 1990s through, well, today, O’Reilly was a North Star of sorts. He was a clear break from the intellectual stuffiness of Irving Kristol or William F. Buckley. He was a tough-talking populist, willing to stare down the so-called “mainstream media” and skewer political correctness.
What O’Reilly and Ailes built was something that not only succeeded beyond their wildest dreams financially speaking but also had a profound impact on how conservatives thought of themselves.
Yes, lower taxes and smaller government still mattered. But populism, wariness of elites and a deep and abiding distrust in the mainstream media also became core tenets of modern conservatism as imagined by O’Reilly and Ailes. Democrats became the party of Hollywood and elites – in the media, in business, in entertainment. Republicans were the ones fighting for the little guy who felt left behind and scolded by those very people.
That rising conservative populism eventually gave birth to a candidate named Donald Trump. Trump embodied many of the principles that O’Reilly had popularized over the years – most notably a visceral rejection of political correctness and a willingness to blame most of the problems in the country on a biased and liberal media.
In fact, the first interview Trump gave after announcing his campaign in June 2015 was to O’Reilly. “Now, I’ve known the man for almost 30 years, have done some business with his jet fleet and occasionally we go to sporting events together,” O’Reilly said by way of introduction of Trump that night.
While O’Reilly later tried to distance himself from the perception of a deep and abiding friendship with the increasingly controversial Trump, it’s clear that the two men shared much in common – besides a political philosophy. They were born within three years of one another (Trump is older) and grew up in and around New York City.
Even once Trump was elected, it was clear that he and O’Reilly maintained a special connection. O’Reilly was chosen for the coveted Super Bowl halftime interview during the Patriots-Falcons game, for example. And, even as O’Reilly fought for his job amid an avalanche of sexual harassment claims, Trump came to his defense – telling The New York Times that “he is a good person” and adding: “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”