Roger Ailes helped popularize a bawdy flavor of conservatism that was often comfortable objectifying women. This was true onscreen at Fox News, the network he founded and built to superpower status before his death Thursday at the age of 77. And it was allegedly true behind the scenes, where Ailes sexually harassed women and looked the other way when one of his biggest male stars did the same — behavior that eventually cost Ailes his career.
That culture, on camera and off, wasn’t always in sync with the religiously devout, fiscally limited conservatism of a Jerry Falwell or William F. Buckley at the time Fox News launched in 1996. But in the era of Donald Trump, it’s clear that Ailes perfectly anticipated — or perhaps helped to create — the shifting conservative sensibility.
The past few years have seen the rise of a raunchy secular conservatism that dovetails with the Fox News ethos of identity politics and casual misogyny, one that cares more about culture wars than cutting taxes. The activists behind the long-running “gamergate” controversy, for example, have are convinced that the video game industry is dominated by a cabal “social justice warriors” pushing a politically correct agenda.
To people who see themselves as part of the opposition to a suffocating feminist establishment, cracking misogynistic jokes and ogling women in bikinis seem like acts of rebellion.
Ailes built Fox News on sensationalism and identity politics
Stories about celebrities have long gotten generous coverage on Fox News. A 2007 study found that Fox News paid less attention to hard news topics like the Iraq War and the 2008 presidential race during the first three months of 2007, while focusing 10 percent of its news time to the death of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith — about twice as much as the other cable news channels.
Titillating images of women have been a Fox News staple. As Paul Waldman wrote a few years ago:
They work extremely hard to find excuses to put images of scantily clad women on the air. Some of it contains no finger-wagging—how about a report on Hooters' third-quarter profits, with lots of shots of waitresses?—but plenty of it is presented with a thin veneer of moral condemnation that allows viewers to feel like Fox remains on their side in the grand battle against sexual depravity. My favorite example has to be the time Sean Hannity presented hard-hitting journalism on what goes on at Spring Break, spread out over an entire week's worth of stories with endless shots of girls in bikinis.
Women who worked at Fox News have said that the network’s behind-the-camera culture could be even more lecherous than what viewers saw on the screen. Both Ailes and one of his biggest stars, Bill O’Reilly, faced sexual harassment complaints from multiple women going back more than a decade. Fox paid out millions to accusers in secret settlements before ultimately being forced to dismiss both men.
Ailes also anticipated Trump’s rise by building the Fox News brand on identity politics. Fox has reveled in culture-war controversies like the alleged war on Christmas. Grisly crimes often get prominent play, and Fox News personalities frequently fault the rest of the media for downplaying crimes by minorities against white victims. On the other hand, Fox News gave noticeably less airtime than other news networks to a story where a white man allegedly shouted “get out of my country” before murdering two Indian immigrants.
In all of these ways, Fox News anticipated a broader shift in conservative culture that culminated in Donald Trump’s elevation to the Republican nomination for president. A thrice-married casino owner who seems to have never cracked open a Bible and bragged about groping women, Trump might not seem like a natural standard-bearer for evangelical Christians. Yet most white evangelicals shrugged off Trump’s impiety and gave him about 80 percent of their votes in the November election.
It’s not hard to understand why: America’s political culture is becoming increasingly polarized over social issues like race, immigration, and abortion. Whatever qualms evangelicals might have had about Trump’s personal behavior, they saw Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda as a more serious threat to their values.
Like Trump — and like many Fox News commentators — those voters seem to see winning culture wars as an end in themselves. The main thing that unites them is a shared hatred for smug elites who hail from the left of the political spectrum. And that means that the brand of politics Fox News pioneered and Donald Trump perfected isn’t likely going away any time soon.