It’s been less than a day since the news of Roger Ailes’ death first broke, and already that news seems stale, dated, and unimportant. Which, I suppose, might be the most fitting tribute to the man possible. What does a man’s importance or influence matter, after all, if there is a slightly newer and sexier shiny object to capture the attention of cable news and the internet? Little or nothing, if Ailes had anything to say about it prior to his shuffling off this mortal coil.
For me personally, however, the passing of the disgraced Fox News kingpin begs at least a moment’s reflection. To the degree to which I am tied to this website, I am also tethered to Ailes’ shadow. If there has been any constant thread to my political writing over the years, it has been my belief that the ever-hungry, partisan Media Machine Ailes helped construct would eventually bleed out and poison all of our national institutions if we let it. And as I watch national events unfold now in 2017, it’s hard for me to take seriously the ever-argued position that I was worried about nothing.
The remembrances of Ailes I read this morning are unsurprisingly divided in their sympathy. Some people are mourning the loss of a man they truly see as great, while others are breakdancing on the still-fresh grave. All of the eulogies I read have only one thing in common, and that is what they describe as Ailes’ use of the media to greatly advance conservatism. And in doing so, each and every one misses the true legacy of the man. For Roger Ailes was never American conservatism’s champion; he was its destroyer.
Since Fox News became, well, Fox News under Roger Ailes, political insiders have praised (or condemned) the network for being driven by a conservative viewpoint. This is, and always has been, entirely wrong. The only time Ailes’ empire pushed actual conservatism was by mere happenstance. The true ideology behind Fox News has always been making money, and nothing else. Sometimes this aligned with a conservative viewpoint, but just as often — perhaps more often — it didn’t. Under Ailes, Fox became reactionary, in the colloquial rather than political sense of that word. Ailes would note what position on an issue might be ripe for getting his audience to tune in, and he reacted to consumer demand. Sure, the word “conservative” would be slapped on like a corporate logo to everything Fox did. But actual ideology, as with facts and balance, never entered the equation except where they accidentally aligned with revenue.
Thus did the concept of American Exceptionalism and Patriotism become Very Important Indeed, unless a Democrat was in the White House, in which case it was the first laid kindling of a Brown Shirts and Hitler Youth fire run wild. Thus was Freedom of Religion sacrosanct as the nation’s single most precious gift, unless higher ratings might be pulled by saying it was really Western Civilization’s greatest threat. Thus were police and law enforcement afforded a place of special consideration against criticism, unless the network might draw more viewers by championing fringers who were setting up snipers to take out any police that might show up to enforce the law in Nevada. Thus was any crazy bit of radicalism — such as requiring citizens to pay taxes in gold or laws requiring all citizens to be armed whenever in public — that were the antithesis of conservatism loudly trumpeted, if by doing so it could get viewers to keep tuning in nightly.
The truth is that under Roger Ailes’ watch, American Conservatism came to be defined as whatever might give Roger Ailes slightly better ratings on any given day. If that required that abandoning one’s core principles from one day to the next, so be it.
And just as embracing of Ailes’ “ratings over conservatism” was profitable for Fox, so it eventually became profitable for the GOP.
The zenith of this might well be the current President of the United States. Donald Trump, after all, is the least conservative President this country has ever seen by a wide margin, under any serious definition of the word “conservative.” Indeed, he appears to be potentially disastrous for both the country and the Republican Party. But while Trump may well prove to be the GOP’s undoing (for a time), he is unquestionably phenomenal for ratings. And so Fox and the GOP are all in with Trump, because that’s clearly the best for everyone’s bottom line.
And as I’ve noted on these very pages, it isn’t just Trump — and it’s no longer just Fox.
Trump aside, there were only two other candidates in last year’s primaries that had the remotest shot at the White House. Neither were good candidates. Indeed, both were found eminently unlikable by the majority of voters. But each provided a ratings bonanza, in no small part because they were so disliked. How could we choose anyone else, when ratings, clicks, and revenue were at stake for everyone involved? And that, I would argue, is a direct result of Roger Ailes’ vision.
So to has been the rise of the Louis Gohmerts and Michelle Bachmanns of the world: people with no real professional or political accomplishments, but who are elevated to national leadership status by Fox and the Mainstream Media alike on the basis that they’re willing to say bats**t crazy things on television. In the world before Ailes, these people would have been exiled by their parties and never be heard from again. In the post-Ailes, ratings-are-everything world, however, they are national avatars and are largely treated as such. Louis Gohmert knows nothing about health insurance and has almost no influence in Congress. But he’s just so crazy that we just have to have George Stephanopoulos and Chuck Todd ask him what what his thoughts are on that or any other topic about which he knows Jack, week after week, month after month.
So, no. Roger Ailes was many things, but a champion of conservatism was never one of them.
Rather, Ailes’ great accomplishment will always be that he found a way to take a proud, storied, and — for good and bad — truly American political philosophy, and turn it into an unserious, 24-hour reality television show in exchange for money. And his true legacy, sadly, is that his seductive success is tempting everyone else attached to our country’s most cherished institutions to cash in by doing the same.
So if you are a lover of liberal democracy, public institutions, the Constitution, or the idea that there are such a thing as facts and that they matter, then go and dance on the man’s grave, if you must. But as you dance, remember: Roger Ailes may be dead and buried, but he’s still winning, and he’s winning big.