There is a raw poetry to the fact that the news that Fox News chief Roger Ailes is on his way out broke within an hour of the official kick-off of the Republican Party’s national convention on Monday.
Roger Ailes, of course, transformed cable news and partisan coverage through his stewardship of Fox News. The network that he took over in 1996 swiftly became the major media mouthpiece for contemporary conservatism, catapulting Republicans out of the Bill Clinton era and into a string of major electoral victories at federal, state, and local levels — which makes it especially ironic that Ailes’s looming termination, in response to a sexual-harassment investigation, comes at the precise moment that the party he helped reinvent finds itself publicly imperiled.
While there’s no telling yet what will happen in November, Republicans have spent the past year in deep disarray, sharply divided over Donald Trump’s candidacy. The opening day of the convention included a controversial voice vote in which Trump supporters had to shout down “Never Trump” people hoping to make a scene and embarrass the presumptive nominee. This weekend on Face the Nation, conservative Federalist publisher Ben Domenech bemoaned the fate of the party currently being led by Trump, noting that “it has traded statesmanship for xenophobia … has traded the higher principles of our better angels for the belief in party identity politics,” and that “that is why they are getting zero percent of the black vote in Pennsylvania.”
But here is where the symmetry of Ailes’s troubles and the Republican Party’s troubles becomes even more arresting: Both the party and its media arm are being brought down by the public exposure of the very systems of subjugation on which their success has been built for decades.
Ailes’s imminent departure comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by former Fox host Gretchen Carlson, alleging that she was sexually harassed by Ailes. Carlson’s claims should come as no surprise. Fox News has long been a network that has made no secret of its willingness to trade on its female talent’s aesthetic charms. My colleague Gabe Sherman chronicled Ailes’s obsession with showing off the legs of the on-air female hosts in his Ailes biography The Loudest Voice in the Room. Fox star Bill O’Reilly faced his own sexual-harassment claims from a former associate producer in 2004 (which memorably included O’Reilly’s confusing a “loofah” with “falafel” while trying to lay out a sexy showering scenario). But it’s also true that because Fox employed so many women, and because some of its biggest stars were Carlson and Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, there was a plausible deniability about the network’s foundational misogyny. But Carlson’s suit explodes all that. It’s no longer possible to paper over the network’s attitudes toward women.
A similar kind of exposure has taken place during the startling ascendancy of Donald Trump, a candidate who, as The New Republic’s Jeet Heer has observed, takes subtext and makes it text.
For the past two decades, the Republican Party has pushed issues and legislation that structurally disadvantage women and people of color: restricting voting rights, reducing welfare benefits, blocking immigration reform, trying to shut down abortion clinics around the country, and making birth control harder to get. Moderate Republicans have been driven out of the party, primarily by tea-party hardliners who claim to be interested in economic issues, but who have instead been obsessed with blocking the agenda of Barack Obama, pursuing endless and fruitless investigations of Hillary Clinton, and waging a relentless war on Planned Parenthood.
But the party had also covered itself with fig-leaf platitudes about inclusion and diversity, offering a Sarah Palin Mama Grizzly–style simulacrum of feminism in which Republican women including Joni Ernst — who opposes abortion and gay marriage — made ads about their proficiency at castrating hogs (kind of giving away their view of what actual feminism entails). The GOP’s rising stars included Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, and Nikki Haley, politicians who were able to speak about their own experiences of having faced bias on account of their identities, allowing people to put aside the fact that they did not support policies that would ease these challenges for others.
But with Donald Trump, there is no distraction. Trump is a candidate who didn’t know or care enough to disguise the logical conclusion that if abortion were to be outlawed, abortion-seeking women should be punished. Trump has called women bimbos and pigs, rated them on a scale of one-to-ten, and said of them,“You have to treat them like shit.” Trump, one of the most energetic Barack Obama birthers, regularly appears to suggest that our first black president is sending racially charged signals to encourage violence against police; last month, he referred to a black man in one of his audiences as “my African American.” He wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, whom he thinks are rapists, and deny immigration to Muslims, who he said he would consider registering in some kind of database.
Over the course of a year, culminating one day — today — we have seen the protective skin, the veneer of inclusivity and equality, being peeled back from the bones of both the modern Republican Party and its media channel. The experience, for many economic conservatives, is surely excruciating.
And there’s a real question about the future of the right, and the future of the nation: Is the skeleton of bigotry on which the contemporary Republican Party has been built strong enough to hold? Or will exposure weaken it, leaving it so brittle that it crumbles?