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Sunday, June 19, 2016

"How did we get here?" An essay on the state of Republican politics, Pt. 3

Crazy like a Fox News Channel
One of the consistent figures of the Nixon years, and the decades since, is 76-year-old Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News Channel. In 2011, a Rolling Stone profile summed him up:
To watch even a day of Fox News – the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment, the reporting that’s held to the same standard of evidence as a late-­October attack ad – is to see a refraction of its founder, one of the most skilled and fearsome operatives in the history of the Republican Party. As a political consultant, Ailes repackaged Richard Nixon for television in 1968, papered over Ronald Reagan’s budding Alzheimer’s in 1984, shamelessly stoked racial fears to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, and waged a secret campaign on behalf of Big Tobacco to derail health care reform in 1993. "He was the premier guy in the business," says former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. "He was our Michelangelo."

In the fable Ailes tells about his own life, he made a clean break with his dirty political past long before 1996, when he joined forces with Murdoch to launch Fox News. "I quit politics," he has claimed, "because I hated it." But an examination of his career reveals that Ailes has used Fox News to pioneer a new form of political campaign – one that enables the GOP to bypass skeptical reporters and wage an around-the-clock, partisan assault on public opinion. The network, at its core, is a giant soundstage created to mimic the look and feel of a news operation, cleverly camouflaging political propaganda as independent journalism.

The result is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. One that plays a leading role in defining Republican talking points and advancing the agenda of the far right. Fox News tilted the electoral balance to George W. Bush in 2000, prematurely declaring him president in a move that prompted every other network to follow suit. It helped create the Tea Party, transforming it from the butt of late-night jokes into a nationwide insurgency capable of electing U.S. senators. Fox News turbocharged the Republican takeover of the House last fall, and even helped elect former Fox News host John Kasich as the union-busting governor of Ohio – with the help of $1.26 million in campaign contributions from News Corp. And by incubating a host of potential GOP contenders on the Fox News payroll– including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – Ailes seems determined to add a fifth presidential notch to his belt in 2012. "Everything Roger wanted to do when he started out in politics, he’s now doing 24/7 with his network," says a former News Corp. executive. "It’s come full circle."

Take it from Rush Limbaugh, a "dear friend" of Ailes. "One man has established a culture for 1,700 people who believe in it, who follow it, who execute it," Limbaugh once declared. "Roger Ailes is not on the air. Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera. And yet everybody who does is a reflection of him."

...Ailes presents the classic figure of a cinematic villain: bald and obese, with dainty hands, Hitchcockian jowls and a lumbering gait. Friends describe him as loyal, generous and "slap your mama funny." But Ailes is also, by turns, a tyrant: "I only understand friendship or scorched earth," he has said. One former deputy pegs him as a cross between Don Rickles and Don Corleone. "What’s fun for Roger is the destruction," says Dan Cooper, a key member of the team that founded Fox News. "When the light bulb goes on and he’s got the trick to outmaneuver the enemy – that’s his passion." Ailes is also deeply paranoid. Convinced that he has personally been targeted by Al Qaeda for assassination, he surrounds himself with an aggressive security detail and is licensed to carry a concealed handgun.
Ailes managed to create a 24-hour political infomercial pretending to be news, and to make it immensely profitable. Fox News has a third fewer reporters than, say, CNN, and thirty fewer bureaus (which ain’t saying much any more: CNN president Jeff Zucker has been hiring conservative talking heads to go after Fox News’ angry, elderly white viewers, even as President Obama jokes about Jake Tapper “having left journalism to work at CNN”).  
When there is no news to report, only opinions to focus group, then Fox broadcasts- a revolving door to a green room of regular hosts and guests on the payroll (a third of the seventeen GOP presidential candidates this year were former Fox News employees)- make 50% profit margins enviable, and inevitable.
Yet, as Reihan Salam wrote recently in Slate, Fox News and the GOP share a problem:
As of the end of last year, the primetime median age of Fox News viewers was 68. Mind you, I’m not particularly young. I’m deep into my 30s, and I’m profoundly unhip. My favorite thing to do is to hang out with my parents over heaping plates of steamed broccoli. Like many elderly Americans, I am suspicious of communism, and I often fret that the country is going to hell. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a doomsday prepper, I don’t find the idea of prepping for doomsday totally absurd. Why not stockpile MREs in the basement? Add it all up, and I’m about as likely to watch Fox News as anyone born since the Johnson administration.

But I don’t watch Fox News, because it’s not really meant for me. It is meant for aging conservative baby boomers, which is why the network is so fixated on the particular concerns and tastes of aging conservative baby boomers. Night after night, you get nonstop coverage of left-wing protesters run amok and ISIS recruiting America’s grandchildren, delivered by perky blondes and square-jawed anchormen.
Salam’s fellow “reform conservative”, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, says,
“Fox News is really two news networks. It’s a center right news network that has good, solid, interesting coverage if you’re watching Chris Wallace or the panel on Special Report or anything like that. Then, it has what Hannity and others like him do, which is just a sort of tribal identity politics for older white people.”
Salam continues- in the same vein,
I bring this all up not to poke fun at Fox News, which employs a number of excellent, hard working journalists. Rather, I’m struck by the parallels between the demographics of Fox News viewers and the demographics of Republican voters. The Grand Old Party circa 2016 is the Grand Old People Party.

The advanced age of the Fox News audience tells you everything you need to know about the topics it covers, the look of its most prominent personalities, and its many advertisements for pharmaceutical solutions for older gentlemen who still like to get it on. Similarly, the advanced age of Republican voters explains the contours of the GOP agenda. Democrats have a substantial edge with voters under 35 while Republicans are more likely to be on the older side of middle age and septuagenarians. The beauty of the over-65 set is that they are reliable voters. The bad news about them is that they are not long for this Earth, and they are not always in tune with the fears, hopes, and dreams of voters who will be around for decades to come.

How does the age profile of the Republican base shape the party? Back in 2012, I had the good fortune to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hobnobbing with the exact same people that had cheered on Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. One friend, a left-wing essayist, told me about a delegate he had met—a single mother who’d been in her late 20s at the tail end of Reagan’s first term, and who capitalized on the economic recovery by going into the then-booming office-furniture business. Companies were starting to revamp their offices to install cubicles and computers, and she was there to sell them swivel chairs and desks. The Reagan years were the best years of her life. She was making money, she found love, lost it, and found it again. America was in full bloom. How could she not be nostalgic for those years? It’s hardly surprising that she’d contrast the Obama years unfavorably with a time when she was healthy and happy, and when life seemed full of promise. So why wouldn’t she want the party to keep preaching that old-time Reagan religion of supply-side tax cuts? Is it any surprise that even youngish Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio sing the virtues of Saint Ronald, even though they were still in short pants when he first came into office?

Or consider Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is not a conventional conservative, but by promising to “Make America Great Again,” his campaign is making an emotional appeal to older Americans who very viscerally miss the good old days. To be sure, Trump appears to have done about as well with young GOP primary voters as he does with older ones—it’s just that there aren’t all that many young GOP primary voters. A new USA Today/Rock the Vote survey finds that among voters under 35, Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump by a margin of 52 percent to 19 percent. One doesn’t want to be too hard on Trump: I can easily imagine other candidates who’d do worse among the youth, e.g. past-his-prime 1980s spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie. But if you’re a human Republican hoping to woo the voters of the future, you’d have reason to be disappointed by this 19 percent figure.
Other figures in what one expert calls the GOP’s entertainment wing is Ann Coulter, a toxic praying mantis who has not yet realized she will spend the rest of her life being carded for entry to North Carolina bathrooms. Once in a comfortable orbit around Planet Fox, she now feels disturbances in The Force, as Jeb Lund notes:

Coulter’s always made easy money writing barely-Wikipedia’d books that inflame prevailing conservative orthodoxy until it’s an eye-catching garbage fire blazing away just to the rightward outskirts of civilization. Democrats are guilty of Slander and Treason before becoming demonic and mugging people. Now a billionaire is doing her bidding, and he doesn’t even need the cash.

Ann Coulter’s job now, though she won’t admit it, is reckoning with whatever Donald Trump does, because his entire campaign has either moved to the right of her or flattened her in position. She didn’t land on Donald Trump’s point of view; for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump landed on her.

When your only role on the scene is being that jackass, your gimmick is at risk from any jackass. For Coulter, at this point, endorsing and explaining Trump is a form of existential brand maintenance. Bookers have to be reassured that Ann Coulter is not only somewhat relevant but also still alive, that there’s movement twitching through the limbs crushed under the Trump monolith. Assuming bookers listen to Breitbart podcasts.
The GOP’s historic obsessions- race, crime and wealth- dovetailed nicely with rising force of angry, conservative talk radio, where success created an endless, Madonna-like need for reinvention to remain atop the ratings heap. Roger Ailes put pictures with the radio anger and named it Fox News; then he put Fox News on the radio to close the circuit for his audience.
For a quarter of a century, the Angry Media has repeated the same tropes, hour after interminable hour, year in and year out (I once tried to listen to a entire Rush Limbaugh broadcast: it is choreographed to get listeners riled up in their cars for short bursts of commute time; to take in a full, four-hour shift is like having your own intravenous dripbag of caffeine and bile, and, inexplicably, updates on El Rushbo’s obsession with an imaginary malady he calls “anal poisoning”).
In a recent article for Salon, Cory Cane laid out the core of the message:
The messaging consists of common themes that recur over and over in various forms.  One central theme is a fierce opposition against government, especially so-called “big government.” This reappears in various sub-forms as well, such as rage against bureaucracy, regulations, Washington, D.C., the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and federal politicians.

Another big theme is fear and victimization. You had better watch out because government is gonna getcha!  “They,” whoever that may be, are about to take away your rights.  Your freedom is about to disappear.  Your religious liberties will be stripped away.  You won’t be able to make your own healthcare decisions.  Free choice will be gone.  Your children will suffer.  Even though you are just an innocent person minding your own business, you are about to be victimized!

Another common theme is the fear of foreigners, or outsiders. We must protect our own in-group from the vague and mysterious threats posed by those who are a little bit different from us.  The particular targeted group changes with the times, but the concept remains the same.

And, of course, someone from the Democratic Party, or some “liberal,” is to blame for all of this wreckage. Demonizing a specific target is powerful.  If a Democrat is in the White House, then the President becomes the favorite bullseye. Otherwise the demon is some other Democratic politician, typically from Congress.
Yet talk radio suffers from the same problem of disintermediation- discussed below- as Fox News Channel. As Politico puts it:
Those woes are familiar to anyone who works in print media, television or the movies: The Internet has brought a wave of competition for attention, ensuring that nobody, with a few rare exceptions, dominates anything anymore. Radio is also saddled with an aging audience; at many talk stations, the average listener is in his early 60s, outside the key demographic (generally, 18-to-54) that advertisers prize.

So far, no one has made the case the conservative media is able to “recruit” (to borrow a favorite slur on LGBT Americans) new convert to its lifestyle as fast as its veterans are dying off. But there’s still plenty, and the Fox model is a past master at finding new ways to keep its audiences angry.

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