Ailes, Trump, And The Republican Reckoning
Who could have scripted a doomsday scenario for the Republican Party that would feature Fox News' Roger Ailes reportedly being ousted as chief of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing outlet amidst mounting allegations of sexual harassment, the same week political novice Donald Trump secures the GOP’s nomination?
Last summer, both seismic conservative events were seen as impossibilities by many observers. Yet they’re now unfolding in plain view and both threatening to do grave and lasting damage to the GOP.
Ailes and Trump are inexorably linked, and together they’ve become like a two-man wrecking crew, wreaking havoc on the GOP.
Trump’s been denounced as a "vicious demagogue," a "con man," a "glib egomaniac," and "the very epitome of vulgarity" this year. And that’s been from conservative pundits. The Trump nomination has split the GOP like no election in the last half-century. And Republicans owe it, in part, to Ailes. Fox News for years laid the groundwork for Trump’s radical and improbable run.
Indeed, without Fox News' exaggerated support over the years, and without Fox providing endless free airtime in the form of promotional blitzes to tout Trump as White House material, it's unlikely Trump today would be perched atop the Republican Party. (Trump rival Sen. Ted Cruz lamented as the primary campaign came to a close that Ailes and Rupert Murdoch had “turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network, 24/7.”)
The hate and paranoia that has permeated Fox programming, especially during the Barack Obama years, reflects Ailes’ bigoted view of America and its supposed pending doom under Democratic leadership. Like his longtime friend Rush Limbaugh, Ailes has been a cancer on American politics for decades. He’s built a career that thrives on fabrications and falsehoods and character assassination.
Ailes’ brand of hatred and paranoia, once a small, ugly part of the GOP appeal, is now synonymous with the Republican Party, thanks to its nomination of Trump, who rose to birther fame among conservatives via Ailes’ open door policy in 2011.
As I’ve argued before, Trump is the Fox News id. The ugly, unvarnished, and unapologetic id of an aging white America that’s determined to “take its country back.” Trump’s a bigoted nativist who markets xenophobia and thrives on dividing Americans.
Last summer it seemed clear that Trump personified the vulgar brand of divisive rhetoric that Ailes helped hallmark and stood ready to unleash deep damage to the Republican Party.
That damage has been on display all week at the GOP’s Trump convention in Cleveland. How did the Republicans arrive at such a bankrupt place, and who helped lead them down the obvious dead end? Roger Ailes, who years ago began wearing two hats, that of Fox News programming chief, and acting shadow chairman of the RNC. (Ailes reportedly told executives in 2010 that he wanted “to elect the next president.”) And for years, Republican bosses cheered the arrangement, happily abdicating party leadership to an increasingly unhinged group of Fox News talkers and the free airtime they delivered.
Four years ago, during the Republican primary season, in a column headlined “How Fox News Is Destroying the Republican Party,” I noted:
For Ailes and company, that slash-and-burn formula works wonders in terms of super-serving its hardcore, hard-right audience of three million viewers. But in terms of supporting a serious, national campaign and a serious, national conversation? It’s not working. At all … It’s what happens when a mainstream political movement embraces a radical media strategy like the one being promoted by Fox News; the movement marches itself off a cliff.
And that’s exactly what has unfolded this year.
Since its inception 20 years ago, Ailes has ruled the Fox News fiefdom within Murdoch's sprawling 21st Century Fox media empire and built it into a hugely influential moneymaker. The Ailes fingerprint has been omnipresent. He also instituted a unique culture that thrived on loyalty and secrecy.
As a former Fox News producer explained it to Media Matters in 2011:
“There may be internal squabbles. But what [Ailes] continually preaches is never piss outside the tent,” says the source. “When he gets really crazy is when stuff leaks out the door. He goes mental on that. He can't stand that. He says in a dynamic enterprise like a network newsroom there's going to be in fighting and ego, but he says keep it in the house.”
There’s been a lot of reporting over the years -- much of it from intrepid Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, who has driven a lot of the news on Ailes' pending departure the past couple weeks -- about Ailes’ history of harassment and sexism as an executive. A nagging feeling was that if that behavior ever got fully excavated, Ailes’ Fox News house could crumble.
And now it is.
News this week that Megyn Kelly reportedly told outside attorneys hired by 21st Century who were investigating Ailes that he had sexually harassed her years ago meant that Ailes could not survive. He couldn’t survive because for years we’ve known he hasn’t had the support of Rupert Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, who have been apparently eager for a way to oust Ailes.
As media columnist Michael Wolff once noted, “There are, practically speaking, now two factions inside of News Corp., Ailes and Fox News, and the Murdoch children—with Rupert caught between them.”
Last year, in a blow to Ailes’ ego and power base, the Murdoch sons made it known that the Fox News boss now answered to them, instead of directly to their father. Still, Ailes’ Fox News printed piles of money that reached so high, and Ailes had built such an impenetrable fiefdom, that he remained untouchable. Just last year Ailes inked a multi-year contract extending his reported $20 million annual salary.
But the mounting claims of sexual harassment provided a new opening for the Murdoch family to move in and finally root Ailes out of his corner office. As Republicans watch Trump unfold his bizarre and disjointed fall campaign, the one built by Ailes and Fox News, many must be wondering if it’s not too late to stage their own coup.