Roger Ailes is dead. In his personal life, he was vulgar, thuggish and frivolous. In his professional life, he is accused of sexual harassment, using his power and wealth to control female employees. He was all smiles and back-slaps for those loyal to him and his media empire, but empty of any true love or compassion for even them. He was successful, politically and economically, so thought of himself as bright. In truth, Ailes contained the worst elements of both the propagandist and the con artist and was often stupider than most of his audience.
Some have taken his death as an occasion to celebrate, but this is pointless gloating. The evil he did will live on.
Ailes, 77, was best known as the founder and longtime CEO of Fox News. (He stepped down last year amid a growing sex scandal.) Before that, he was a Republican consultant who was particularly interested in the political effects of emotions like fear, hatred and shame. He thought that if these negative emotions could be conveyed by politicians who were a bit more lovable than the gratuitous racists and insecure, mid-Atlantic patricians that the party typically ran, then the policies of the party wouldn’t have to change. Blundering Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were both the brain children of Ailes.
Once he started Fox, there was no right-wing nonsense — no matter how peculiar or tedious — that would be denied a national hearing. Birtherism, voter fraud, urban chaos and Islamic sleeper cells have all been casually dropped into the nightly discourse as if they were matters of genuine concern. Dependence on perpetual outrage-peddling was always an explicit part of Ailes’ plans for the network. The network has also frequently employed deceit and manipulation: disfiguring the images of political opponents to make them look uglier than they are, cutting out the applause during speeches to make them come off as less popular and editing videos in order to change the meaning or context of their content.
With or without Ailes, political television was probably always headed to where it is now, but it’s hard to disagree with the proposition that he’s had a gripping and sinister influence on conservatism for the last 40 years. I saw that influence firsthand with my own family — a typical suburban conservative one in Indianapolis. My mom would always say that grandma would vote straight Republican for the rest of her life, even if the party were to run Adolf Hitler. And I didn’t meet an adult who liked Bill Clinton until 3rd grade when I went over to a friend’s house and met his mom. In fact, oddly enough, the two public figures I knew to hate growing up were Clinton and Donald Trump — Clinton because he was a Democrat (perverse, corrupt, morally unfit) and Trump because he was the media icon of East Coast real estate (untrustworthy, rude, self-pitying).
There’s a lot of misplaced malignity for Ailes out there. To many, he’s seen as someone who made politics more confrontational. What he really did was help to make it more dishonest and cowardly. He told Richard Nixon’s White House he wanted to get the GOP on television and ended up grafting all of television’s absurdities onto the GOP. He hid behind political clichés and a phony moral indignation for the country’s future, then pretended to be brave by railing against the insecure and dispossessed. He successfully fused the religious, nationalistic and oligarchic components of reactionary politics — holding onto the pretenses about freedom and liberty until it was too late for anyone serious about either to defy him — and, in doing so, offered the American public a dangerous fauna of ridiculous myths about its history and culture.
Like any good con man, he preyed on the elderly and the senile. (I once heard it said of Fox that it was a network for old people, not conservatives.) And like any propagandist worth his weight, he kept a straight face and crooked smile every time he changed the narrative for partisan or sectarian purposes. He was a traitor to everything good and noble in the world. Whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is admirable — those things had nothing to do with Roger Ailes.