Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Roger Ailes Broke America, Then Died

The FOX news founder who died Thursday taught America how to get angry about politics on TV—and helped make Donald Trump president.

by Rick Perlstein; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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May 18 2017, 8:58pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Fox News founder Roger Ailes died Thursday at the age of 77, shuffling off this mortal coil under a cloud of shame after a career spent in a haze of glory—glory, that is, if you are a conservative Republican. If you are a liberal, you may well have pushed through normal human decency and celebrated his passing outright. After all, there was no one more fiendishly effective at harvesting the violently reactionary hatred that used to mostly course beneath the surface of American public life—but which, thanks to Ailes's ascension and the apotheosis of his friend Donald Trump, has become the rotten keystone of our political age.

Ailes's rise happened because he was a masterful storyteller, one of the greatest the medium of television has ever produced. As the late journalist Joe McGinness wrote in his classic The Selling of the President 1968, Ailes first came to prominence as a producer on the Mike Douglas Show, which was marketed at housewives. A secret to the show's success was its willingness to stage controversy. In 1963, for example, it featured perhaps the most controversial person in America, professional atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hare, just three days after the Supreme Court handed down an enormously unpopular ruling outlawing school prayer. Ailes, hired in 1965 at the age of 25, watched and learned—though his real education came as a child, when he was an obsessive watcher of TV. He grasped the rhythms of the living-room medium and its seductive power to addle rational thought like nobody else.

When Richard Nixon, sitting in the show's makeup chair in 1967, said, "It's a shame a man has to use gimmicks like this to get elected," Ailes did not humor the former vice president with a deferential chuckle. Instead, he told him if he kept thinking like that, he'd lose the presidency in 1968 just like he had in 1960. Then, according to McGinness, Ailes lectured Nixon about all the mistakes he'd made on television in that campaign. Politics without television was inconceivable to him.

Nixon promptly hired him—just like, informally, Trump retained Ailes as an advisor on the 2016 campaign.

The details of what Ailes thought Nixon did wrong are lost to history, but the critiques probably resembled a memo Ailes wrote as a White House media consultant in 1970. "I think it is important for the President to show a little more concern for Mrs. Nixon as he moves through the crowd," it read. "At one point he walked off in a different direction. Mrs. Nixon wasn't looking and had to run to catch up. From time to time he should talk to her and smile at her. Women voters are particularly sensitive to how a man treats his wife in public."

Details mattered. Archetypes mattered. Complexity killed candidates. George W. Bush's advisor Karl Rove liked to say that you have to watch TV with the sound off to understand how a campaign event is effecting people. Ailes understood that long before Rove did.

Watch the VICE News Tonight segment on the four ways Donald Trump can stop being president.

In 1968, Nixon campaign media innovations included the "three bump interview" (reporters got to enter the candidate's cabin approximately two minutes before the flight attendants ordered them back to their seats for landing), the single daily campaign rally in an airplane hangar—with only enough time for the film to be developed for it to be rushed immediately onto the evening newscast (less time to find a gaffe to feature)—and, most influentially, the "Man in the Arena" concept. That was when Nixon was asked questions by a carefully selected panel of "ordinary citizens," which made him look like he wasn't ducking public scrutiny. But that meant the only "scrutiny" he got was from people with no skill at asking tough questions (reporters were banished to a back room, watching on monitors), with a studio audience of loyalists to cheer him on. ("Sound like ten thousand people," they were coached.) This was perfect raw material to chop into 30-second commercials that did not look staged.

Like any reality TV show, the trick is the casting. For one show, Ailes sought to recruit what he called a "good, mean, Wallaceite cab driver….Some guy to sit there and say, 'Alwright, Mac, what about these niggers?'" Nixon could then abhor the incivility of the words, while dog-whistling a "moderate" version of the opinion. And, as anyone who's watched FOX News knows, the set was absolutely crucial, too. He once went ballistic when the curtains for Nixon to stand in front of were turquoise. "Nixon wouldn't look right unless he was carrying a pocketbook," Ailes said. He demanded their replacement with wood panels with "clean, solid, masculine lines."

Masculine, feminine—people who knew him could not have been surprised at the evolution of Ailes's favorite set-dressing innovation on FOX News, decades later: leggy blondes, made up to a T, their gams always visible beneath the table. Nor could anyone have been shocked at his contempt for actual journalism, which he seemed to define as a liberal plot. In 1974, Ailes took on an abortive project to sell cheap, easy to use "news" segments for local stations without the resources to cover national news. Bankrolled by the far-right beer baron Joseph Coors, they marketed the service as "fair and balanced." That way, Ailes wrote in a memo, they could "gradually, subtly, slowly" introduce "our philosophy"—conservatism—"in the news."

For many who saw him operate up close, it can't have been a shocker, either, to watch his downfall as a serial (alleged) sexual harasser. For Ailes, women existed to be put on display, and dominated; other men existed as audiences for his displays of domination. Media was a vector for channeling gut hatred. When Aristotle said man is a political animal, animals like Donald Trump weren't what he had in mind. This president was Roger Ailes's innovation. For that, may he rest without peace.

Follow Rick Perlstein on Twitter.

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