Only a year ago the American right was in a state of cataleptic shock as the Democrats won the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency. Conservatism looked as though it was headed for the skids, while the left celebrated its startling comeback.
No longer. A populist right-wing revolt against big-government liberalism has sent Obama’s poll ratings plummeting and left the Democrats fearing a battering in the midterm 2010 elections. The Republican Scott Brown’s surprise victory in the race for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat is just the latest blow for poor Obama.
How did this all happen so quickly? Look no further than Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, the notoriously right-wing, Rupert Murdoch-owned TV channel.
To the chagrin of CNN and other channels, which didn’t take Ailes seriously when he first created Fox News in 1996, he has been sensationally successful at turning his cable-news channel into a profit-making enterprise. He has deftly mixed gorgeous blonde anchors with abrasive commentators to galvanise a conservative base that is incensed by what it believes is Obama’s attempt to create a socialist dictatorship.
Howard Fineman, the influential Newsweek pundit, last week anointed Ailes as the ‘real head’ of the Republican party. ‘Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum,’ he wrote, ‘which is why God created Roger Ailes. The president of Fox News is, by default, the closest thing there is to a kingmaker in Anti-Obama America.’ Ailes has even been touted as possible presidential timber for 2012 by his chum Frank Luntz, a prominent Republican pollster and author.
To his liberal adversaries, however, Ailes is a kind of malevolent Voldemort who must be stopped from terrorising the innocent and credulous American populace. The Obama White House tried to exclude Fox reporters from press pools. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel warned news organisations that they shouldn’t be ‘following’ the lead of Fox, while senior adviser David Axelrod said that Fox wasn’t ‘really a news station’. Similarly, the more liberal elements of the Murdoch family have voiced their disdain: Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud, declared that the Murdoch brood is ‘ashamed and sickened’ by Fox. Ailes responded that Freud should go ‘see a psychiatrist’.
To his admirers, and they are legion, the glabrous Ailes is something else entirely — a valiant freedom-fighter standing up to the perfidious liberal media elite. Ailes himself, according to a recent Los Angeles Times profile, reassured his popular talk-show host Glenn Beck upon hiring him that he could never go too far in attacking liberals: ‘I see this as the Alamo,’ Ailes told Beck. ‘If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we’d be fine.’
The martial imagery is not adventitious. Ailes sees America as engaged in a two-front war against the traitorous and degenerate cultural elite at home, on the one hand, and the terrorists abroad, on the other. Ailes may be rumpled and overweight, but he views himself — and his personal safety — as essential to that struggle. Each day Commander Ailes leaves for his office and returns home surrounded by a modern praetorian guard composed of private-security-owned SUVs. His desk sports a television screen monitoring the activity outside. He bought several properties around his weekend home in Putnam, New York and has hung a sign outside it stating that the area is under video surveillance.
It is a position that Ailes, who was born in 1940 to a factory foreman in Warren, Ohio, has worked assiduously to attain. From the outset, his ticket to success was the new medium of television. Ailes became executive producer of The Mike Douglas Show, which allowed him to meet and argue with Richard Nixon, who lamented TV’s superficiality. Ailes would have none of it, instructing Nixon that he needed to take TV seriously. Soon, Ailes was working for Nixon and helped refashion his image as a media advisor in the 1968 election, a role that Joe McGinniss described in his famous campaign chronicle The Selling of the President 1968. Ailes continued to consult with various Republican candidates, but he didn’t hit the big time until 1984, when Ronald Reagan’s advisers, anxious about his doddering performance in the first debate against Walter Mondale, turned to Ailes to revivify Reagan. Reagan did well and Ailes’s reputation as a media wizard was fortified. Ailes went on to take a starring role in George H.W. Bush’s run for the presidency in 1988, when he tarred his liberal opponent, Michael Dukakis, as unpatriotic and soft on communism.
But it is with the emergence of Barack Obama that Ailes has found his most profitable foe. For many, Obama has come to epitomise the evils of liberalism and Washington. The outlines of the case against Obama were first sketched by an obscurantist crank named Jerome R. Corsi in a book called The Obama Nation. Fox essentially picked up on the Corsi message — illegitimate president, suspicious birthplace, socialist, childhood study in a madrassa, disciple of radical Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, and so forth — and amplified it.
The stakes have only increased since Obama became president. Ailes, who helped persuade Murdoch not to endorse Obama’s candidacy in the New York Daily News, has battened on his presidency. Obama has served as the perfect foil for Ailes and Fox. Night after night, his commentators inveigh against Obama’s plans to denude America of its wealth, thereby setting Fox News on course to earn a $700 million profit in 2010. Obama has been good for Fox even if Fox has not been good for him.
Speculation is rife that Murdoch family disenchantment will lead to Ailes’s eventual ousting and loss of his annual $23 million salary. But Ailes’s latest coup is to snag the formidably empty-headed Sarah Palin as a regular Fox contributor. Palin is already using her new position as a dry run for the presidency. When interviewing her, a fawning Glenn Beck detected a new George Washington ready to rescue fair America from Obama’s clutches. If Ailes ends up falling foul of the Murdoch clan, he can always join up with Team Palin in 2012. It would not be the first time that he’s created a presidential candidate, and Palin’s sheer vacuity is probably irresistible. She may well become this showman’s finest creation.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest in Washington, DC.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 23, 2010