Former President George H.W. Bush responded to the news that his former consultant Roger Ailes had died with this tribute in 140 characters: “He wasn’t perfect,” Bush tweeted, “but Roger Ailes was my friend & I loved him. Not sure I would have been President w/o his great talent, loyal help. RIP.”
Actually, the two presidents most clearly in debt to the former Fox News head, who died on Thursday at age 77 of a brain bleed following a fall at home in Florida, weren’t Bush or his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, whose re-election media strategy Ailes helped craft in 1984.
But Richard Nixon really might not have been elected without Ailes’ savvy, prescient counsel.
Nor would Donald Trump likely have landed in the Oval Office without the support of the Ailes-built Fox News Nation. In fact, Ailes’ impact on American life — in exploiting and expanding our cultural and political differences — made President Trump possible.
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He understood and weaponized anger against elites, and as much as anyone he helped get elected to office, redefined conservative politics.
More than even Rush Limbaugh, who tells his listeners to “be of good cheer,” Ailes built an industry centered on outrage as a lifestyle. And one, paradoxically, in which a central tenet of faith is seeing liberals as perpetually aggrieved.
The network that the Murdochs owned but that he built has in the last year been buffeted by sexual harassment scandals — allegations that forced Ailes himself out last summer and later claimed the network’s biggest star, Bill O’Reilly.
But Fox was in a real sense built on sexual harassment, in its preoccupation with the sexual sins of Bill Clinton and other Democrats.
A lot has been written already about how ratings at Fox have suffered in recent days, as the network has chosen not to report seriously on the news waterfall of revelations that have followed Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
But Ailes also leaves behind the firewall he built around not just Trump but any Republican in trouble, through the decades of work he put into the narrative that reporters are, as our president has said on any number of occasions, the most dishonest people you’ll ever meet, and that only ideologically pleasing news is truly “fair and balanced.”
In the sincerest form of flattery, his success at Fox spawned imitators and inspired MSNBC to offer only half of the story, too.
We can’t know yet how long the bitter polarization Roger Ailes nurtured and perpetuated will persist. But as glum Republicans said during last summer’s GOP convention in Cleveland, where they got news of his imminent ouster, the conservative movement he helped build won’t be the same without him.