Roger Ailes — presidential media consultant, creator and guru of Fox News, serial sexual harasser brought low by his ruthless appetites — may have been the most revolutionary image maker in the history of American politics. His legacy is there every time someone in the political arena or the media kaleidoscope tells a lie so shameless you wonder how they sleep at night and a shockingly sizable percentage of the public laps up that lie as if it were ice cream on a summer’s day. That’s called “the way America now works,” and if Roger Ailes didn’t invent it…well, why nitpick his dark achievement? He more or less did invent it, or perfect it, or bring it to a new pitch of down-is-up Orwellian malevolence. There have been many hucksters in the history of this country, but Ailes, who died in 2017, was the visionary of attack dogs, the grand master of political snake oil. It was he who dragged the playbook of fascist propaganda, for the first time, into the white hot glare of televised democracy.
In the piercing and perceptive documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” it’s fascinating, in an outrageous and distressing way, to witness the moment when Ailes transformed the nation’s political landscape virtually overnight. The year was 1968. Ailes was the producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” the first (and, at that point, still only) daytime talk show. Richard Nixon, then in the thick of his presidential campaign, came on as a guest, and Ailes, an ardent conservative since his teenage years in the small town of Warren, Ohio, asked Nixon to stop by his office after the show. That’s when he made his pitch. He said to Nixon, “You need a media adviser.”
Roger Ailes told a lot of lies in his life, but in this case truer words were never spoken. Nixon really did need a media adviser, even though such a post had never quite existed. That’s why he required some convincing. But the pitch worked. Out of nowhere, Ailes sweet-talked his way into going to work for Nixon, then and there, as the consultant who would shape and manipulate Nixon’s public image right into the presidency.
We tend to remember politics with a hindsight that distorts things. When you think back to 1968, it’s easy to view Richard Nixon’s ascendance through the lens of what seems to be a depressingly inevitable silent-majority logic. He was running against Hubert Humphrey, the first in a long line of the Democratic Party’s mealy, earnest, not-charismatic-enough establishment liberal candidates (the exact kind, God help us, that they now look like they’re getting ready to nominate again), and so it makes a terrible kind of sense that Humphrey lost. But, in fact, Nixon, a tough but often tone-deaf candidate when he ran against JFK in 1960, was now committing the same sin. He hadn’t changed. He still didn’t know how to connect with people.
That’s where Roger Ailes came in.
Ailes orchestrated a series of televised events in which Nixon would stand, in the round, in what was basically a talk-show setting, smiling and fielding friendly questions. Ailes had made a study of the most infamous propaganda film ever made, Leni Riefenstahl’s surging 1935 Nazi spectacular “Triumph of the Will,” and during these appearances he shot Nixon from camera angles based on the ones that Riefenstahl used to shoot Hitler. He turned the prickly, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Nixon into a user-friendly and authoritative big daddy. And it worked. Would Nixon have been elected in ’68 without Roger Ailes? Maybe, maybe not. But once Nixon got into office, Ailes embraced his new role as if born to it — and tellingly, he thought of that role not as image maker but as king maker. Overnight, he had become the right wing’s supreme puppeteer.
“Divide and Conquer” was directed by Alexis Bloom, whose one other documentary feature is the fine HBO film “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” and Bloom brings an urgent and bracing Times Up immediacy to her portrait of Ailes, whose life she frames through the sexual-harassment scandal that finally brought him down. The reason that feels like the right directorial choice isn’t simply that Ailes’ downfall was so dramatic (and so recent). It’s that “Divide and Conquer,” in addition to being an indispensable chronicle of how Roger Ailes built an empire out of his willingness to trash the truth, is a film that takes us close to the man himself.
The movie, as it should be, is the portrait of a grippingly sinister and Machiavellian personality. What it shows us is a figure who became fixated on his own power, every bit as much as a Mob boss or J. Edgar Hoover; he became so consumed by power that it consumed him. The transformation was startling, and it was reflected in Ailes’ appearance. As a young man, he was slim and dashingly handsome, but the Ailes the world came to know looked like a jowly corpulent pasha who had given in to his every hunger. He had a lethal gleam, and that’s echoed in the tales we hear from women who worked at Fox News, either on camera or off, who discuss how Ailes, in a manner that was highly reminiscent of Harvey Weinstein, would offer them a deal with the devil: Either they would give in to his sexual advances, or he would ruin them. And he did.
There are a few places where “Divide and Conquer” reveals Ailes in a haunting way. He suffered from hemophilia, which was diagnosed when he was four (he died, in fact, after falling and hitting his head, an accident that was aggravated by his condition), and the fear of bleeding that dogged him throughout his life contributed to a political ideology that was rooted in apocalyptic anxiety. His hemophilia confirmed and expanded the right-wing vision he grew up with — the notion that every threat was lethal, and had to be met with no mercy. At the height of his power at Fox News, Ailes worked in an office made of bullet-proof glass. “Roger’s daily life was a fear of annihilation,” says the actor Austin Pendleton, a chum of his in grade school.
One can hear that sort of thing and feel a glimmer of empathy for Ailes. Yet this was a case of someone who armored his vulnerability in the tactics — and belief systems — of a bully. After Fox News launched, in 1996, and made him a public superstar, Ailes tried to turn the pastoral Hudson Valley village of Cold Spring, where he and his wife had a mansion, into his personal fiefdom. He took over the tiny local newspaper, The Putnam County News, and stalked into town council meetings like Godzilla. But all one can think is: Why? Wasn’t it enough for him to become the ultimate power player of Republican politics? But no, Ailes’ terrorizing of his hometown demonstrated that for him, power was always personal. It wasn’t enough to win. He wanted to see the fear in your eyes.
“Divide and Conquer” does a good job of chronicling the two decades Ailes spent between Nixon and Fox, when he developed his dirty-tricks-meets-Madison Avenue image skills as a hired-gun Republican strategist, guiding the fortunes of everyone from Mitch McConnell, whom he got elected to the Senate in 1983 (he posed the dorky McConnell in a rowboat to make him look like a he-man in nature), to George H.W. Bush, whose 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis famously featured the Willie Horton commercial, which become the original paradigm of the Fox News bombs-away ethos. It’s also intriguing to see Ailes stumble his way toward the aesthetic of Fox with his America’s Talking cable network.
But when it comes to Fox News itself, “Divide and Conquer” doesn’t go as deep as it should. It offers an absorbing chronicle of the network’s horrifying success and nails a number of aspects of the place — notably, the way the culture of sexual harassment, as institutionalized by Ailes and his fire-breathing superstar, Bill O’Reilly, fed into the on-air ethos of the network. The parade of blonde broadcasters primped to look like beauty queens, with news-anchor desks literally designed to reveal their legs, was more than just cheesecake-for-ratings. It became part of the semiotics Fox was selling, inviting its audience to return to some mythological Hugh Hefner-meets-Donald Trump 1950s in which “family values” somehow meant being married to a pin-up who supports the NRA.
What we don’t see, even a little bit, is the inner workings of how Fox News repackaged the news into its own (fake) reality. And that feels like a crucial missing component. “Divide and Conquer” is a well-made documentary that leaves you with the imprint of Roger Ailes’ domineering arrogance, and the way he used it to shape American political reality and, finally, the world. It’s fascinating to hear a now-chastened, and much calmer, Glenn Beck recall how Ailes once threatened him, pulling out a sheaf of folders with the implication that they contained scandalous dirt on the popular host. That willingness to intimidate and destroy became, more and more, the way of Republican politics. But so did the elevation of lies into an alternate reality. That was, and is, the evil genius of Fox News, and of Roger Ailes. And “Divide and Conquer” never plumbs that mystery. It leaves us outside the right-wing hall of mirrors.