One of the most telling features of our time is the habit of hailing as geniuses men whose time merely has come. That’s obviously true of our president, but it’s also true of the man many now credit and blame for his rise, the recently departed Roger Ailes. Encomiums to Ailes’s person have been mercifully few. George H.W. Bush called him a friend; fellow serial abuser and loudmouth Bill O’Reilly seems to have viewed him as a sort of beloved uncle, the guy who takes you to the ballgame when your own old man is too hung over to haul himself out of bed; the eminently embarrassing Tina Brown remembered him as a raconteur, indulging the common upper-class error of identifying as Falstaffian that which is simply gross. But even among his sharpest detractors, there’s a current of admiration: that Ailes wasn’t only bad and disgusting; he was, almost cinematically, a villain.
Yes, yes, Fox News ruined grandma. She was so nice when you were little, puttering in the garden and slipping you Werther’s when your mom wasn’t looking; now, in your twenties, you’re appalled to find her locked into the fixed belief that Barack Obama is an agent of Allah, who may well be the devil. Well maybe grandma was always a little mean to folks who weren’t her beloved grandchildren, and you just didn’t know what “colored people” meant, exactly, when you were nine. We can be rightly skeptical of the hypothesis that all the depredations of modern media are the result of the news flowing, dumb as water, into the empty basin of consumer demand without completely letting our, um, our preexisting conditions off the hook. The first major outlets to serve the public appetite for Clinton scandals back in the nineties were venerable outlets like The New York Times; Fox followed them in and turned up the volume. The strains of racism and paranoia that were Ailes’s bread and butter since he cut his teeth in Nixonian politics were already here: the Southern Strategy did not, after all, create the South, and Ailes didn’t create the strategies; he just produced them for TV.
Fox News hasn’t bestowed our terrible politics on us; it’s in the follow car with the camera. What’s given us the current derangement is, ironically, the competent political imago imagined as its opposite, the drip-down technocracy of social stagnation prettily papered over by the pretty lights of new gadgets. It is the abandonment of minority communities to the hucksters of for-profit education; it is the signing over of public utilities to take-over scammers; it is the abandonment of the Midwest to unchecked deindustrialization; it’s the drug war; it’s the rising cost of insurance; it’s the use of the public’s money and property as insurance for the failed bets of the financial industry; it’s trillions of dollars spent on war when we can’t keep bridges out of the rivers; it’s student debt; it’s the economy, stupid. The governing consensus destroyed democratic politics—it told you that the prospect of future cost made any present program and any future progress irresponsible and impossible. All that was left was gesture, a commedia dell’arte of symbolic typologies: an entertainment. So it wasn’t Clintonian scandals that created Fox News; it was Clintonian politics.
The reason this genealogy is important is because there remains, on what passes for the left in America, a habit of organizing against monsters rather than against the conditions that created them. Ailes can rot, but he isn’t and never was the rot. Fox News is actually dropping in ratings, and it remains to be seen whether it can retain its potency with its stable of stars reduced to its morning Bachelorette cast and the backwards-aging face of the eternally petulant Tucker Carlson, who forever threatens to turn back into a bawling infant before our very eyes. Even if it went off the air tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter one whit. Some other dirty trickster will step into the gap; several are already nipping at Fox’s swollen heels. They’ll never go away unless we wrench politics back to the real concerns of the actually human.