It’s no accident that the leading voices on the right since the 1990s got an early start not in politics but in entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was a failed radio DJ. O’Reilly made his name as anchor of the tabloid TV show Inside Edition. Trump himself was first a brand — as much as he was ever a mogul — and then a reality TV star. Ailes, with an early background in local television, knew how to deploy similar talents: to combine politics and entertainment into a potent new product.
Entertainment could say things in ways politics could not. It could break taboos and rise in the ratings. It could speak the language, in words and images alike, of excitement, fear, anger, and sex — a key ingredient for Fox — rather than communicating in the gray prose and happy platitudes customary in politics (think George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” or his son’s “Compassionate Conservatism”).
Politics in turn gave b-list or z-list entertainers success and power they could never have attained in Hollywood or the music industry. Middle-aged, balding, paunchy, and rather ugly men could beat the biggest stars in Hollywood this way. And they could have their own casting couch. Showbiz’s losers could be Washington’s winners. (I’m indebted for this insight to Samuel Goldman, professor of politics at George Washington University.)
As appalling as all this may sound, Ailes succeeded only because he tapped into something real: the frustration that millions of Americans, particularly those on the right, feel with our politics.