The election of Trump is, simply put, Ailes' greatest triumph
The question now is whether Ailes-ism can be a successful governing approach
The sudden death of Roger Ailes Thursday at age 77 means that the man who helped invent modern conservatism – in all its hard-edged, unapologetic, media-bashing glory – is gone.
But what Ailes built not only continues on but has realized its apex in the form of President Donald Trump.
Consider the conservative landscape pre-Ailes and the creation of Fox News Channel in the fall of 1996. It was, despite the grassroots landslide victory for the party in 1994, a party – and a set of principles – largely built around establishment conservative thinkers like Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley and George Will. The Heritage Foundation was the policy center of the party. The knock on the GOP was that it was composed of a bunch of pipe-smoking, out-of-touch elitists.
Ailes changed all of that. With the charismatic and controversial Bill O’Reilly as its public face and Ailes as the strategic mastermind behind the scenes, Fox News Channel built its appeal on the idea that the mainstream media was full of East Coast elitists and liberals who not only ignored the concerns of the everyman but sneered at them.
Those elitists had used their media dominance to determine what the values of the country should be, values often at odds with what a majority of the middle of the country wanted them to be. And then they hid behind the shield of political correctness to insist that any view that didn’t mesh with their own was small-minded and offensive.
Fox News was pitched as the channel for everyone who was sick to death of all of that. It reveled in its willingness to stick a finger in the eye of political correctness. It fostered a macho culture that felt more like “Mad Men” than “Girls.” (That culture, fostered and fomented by Ailes and O’Reilly, ultimately led to both of their demises. Ailes was fired last summer after a series of allegations of sexual harassment from current and former employees; O’Reilly was let go last month after a similar series of allegations.)
And, most of all, it bashed a mainstream media that it insisted was hopelessly liberal and clueless.
It was anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-egghead. It was, in many ways, the opposite of what conservatism had been before Ailes, O’Reilly and Fox.
By the mid-2000s, Fox News was the north star of Republican politics. Its ratings were soaring. Republican elected officials with national aspirations not only angled to get on Fox News’ air but tried desperately to get signed on as a contributor to ensure maximum exposure to GOP voters. Ailes was a powerbroker of massive proportions. And, most importantly, Fox had become the voice of an increasingly large bloc of the Republican base who saw the country they knew (and liked) disappearing.
Then Donald Trump started running for president.
The mainstream media viewed Trump’s candidacy as a sideshow – rich guy TV celebrity pursues hopeless but ego-stroking presidential campaign. But what Trump knew was that the Republican Party base didn’t listen to – or even like – its congressional leaders or establishment thinkers anymore. The voice they listened to came from Fox News. And that voice was Roger Ailes.
The strains of Ailes-ism were everywhere in Trump’s campaign – from the “Make America Great Again” slogan to the suspicion of the influence of immigration on the country to the open disgust for the media. Trump was the manifestation of the Fox News philosophy in a candidate.
(It’s no surprise that Trump and Ailes were longtime friends and that Trump was a Fox News viewer long before he ever became an actual candidate.)
The success of Fox News then should have been a harbinger of the success of Trump. While Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican field was treated – by me and lots of other people – at the time as a stunning and anomalous development, it really wasn’t. It was simply the natural next step of what Ailes had set in motion 20 years prior.
So, Ailes is now gone. But his view of the country and the world very much carries on in the form of the man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The election of Trump is, simply put, Ailes’ greatest triumph. The question now is whether Ailes-ism – as channeled through Trump – can be a successful governing approach. To date, the returns are not terribly encouraging.