If in 2019 you haven’t had enough of old white men yelling, you can now watch them do it on Showtime. The Loudest Voice is a miniseries based on by Gabriel Sherman’s best-selling book, chronicling the rise and fall of Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News. The first episode opens with Ailes, played by Russell Crowe, dead on the floor of his Florida home of a subdural hematoma. It’s May 18, 2017, Donald Trump has been president of the United States for four months, a victory that belongs to Ailes and his Fox News empire. Or, at least, that’s what the show wants you to think.
The Loudest Voice is a grotesque show that revels in the bodily details and functions of Ailes and his well-compensated minions. We see images of Ailes bleeding from the foot—a reference to his hemophilia. There are extended scenes of him getting blow jobs from a Laurie Luhn, played by Annabelle Wallis. Doors close as he grabs the slender waists of blonde women who come to him looking for work. He screams at men and brunette women in pantsuits, sweat spackling his upper lip. He is the ranting, heaving, ideological tyrant who creates an empire of ranting, heaving, ideological tyrants, which he boasts will “sell to the forgotten America, that their voice can and will be heard. Sell them their vision and the world the way they want it to be ... We will reclaim the real America. We will challenge the existing agenda and,” he says in a moment of titular pleasure, “become the loudest voice in the room.”
It’s like a really mean P.T. Barnum, this Ailes we see on screen. He’s selling America to America. Conjuring up fears and resentments, where, the show seems to argue, none existed before. He’s a lumbering monster, an easy fall guy (who actually does die of a fall) for the anxieties and fears of liberal America.
This show, more than revealing anything about Fox News or America, is a case study in creating a monster. In The Loudest Voice, Showtime has created a sacrificial scape-asshole on whom we can lay the blame for the ugliest parts of America—our sexual assault, our rapes, our aggression, our racism, our President. It would be nice if it was that easy.
In four of the seven episodes available for reviewers, the monsters, victims, and heroes are easy to spot. Gretchen Carlson, played by Naomi Watts, sneers and glares at Ailes’s condescending sexism. Even if you didn’t know she was going to take him down, SPOILER: You know she is going to take him down. Luhn stares desperately into mirrors, having a breakdown at the hands of Ailes’s constant assault on her body and mind. Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane) is a giddy side kick, high on money and power. Sienna Miller plays a wide-eyed, Kool-Aid drinking Beth Ailes, with a blonde bob and a love of Jesus and country. It’s truly amazing how Russell Crowe and Sienna Miller are made to look like the Aileses, or at least anything other than themselves. But they are more caricatures than characters, more stereotypes than people. We see no moves of genius from Ailes, only shouts and threats. We see no reason Beth would love him, only sublimation and submission.
The show displays Ailes arrogantly creating a network for the forgotten voice of America, amping up his rhetoric and White House access after September 11. He quite literally builds a house on September 11, both the network, and his own house, built with the money from the fear-mongering that made him rich. Watching the show, it’s easy to forget the role that CNN, MSNBC and others played in the rising tide of the Iraq War and the racism around Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Watching the show, it’s easy to believe that everything bad and horrible in America came from Fox and Ailes alone.
Yet, the reality of our wet, hot American mess is a lot more complex. After all, it wasn’t Fox alone that catalyzed these conspiracies about WMDs (hi, New York Times!). It wasn’t Fox alone that But-Her-Emailsed Hillary Clinton’s campaign. For a while, Jeffrey Lord was one of Trump’s favorite pundits, touting birtherism on CNN. Same with Lou Dobbs, who was constructing a right-wing line long before he scuttled over to Fox. Tucker Carlson himself came from CNN and MSNBC and PBS, lest we all forget. Gretchen Carlson too, praised Ailes as a genius in her 2015 book. Presumably while he was harassing her and others, presumably while they were all making money. And it’s easy to forget, because we want to forget.
Ailes was fired from Fox after Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment. He left and worked for the Trump campaign for much of 2016. He died a monster as woman after woman came forward to accuse him of harassment. Carlson came out the hero. But again, the reality is far more nuanced. Carlson worked for Fox for 13 years and often touted anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, fed into birtherism fears, and anti-Muslim attitudes.
I hope I’m wrong, but it’s easy to see how this show will end. Ailes dying as Trump rises. His legacy a wake of abused women and a divided America. But the truth is, Trump might have ascended without Ailes. America was divided without Ailes and without Trump. Ailes’s contribution was just making us look at it 24-7 on cable news, without the soothing voice of Rachel Maddow.
We like our heroes blonde and victimized. We like our monsters grotesque and irredeemable. We want them to be evil geniuses, exceptional and awful. Because if they aren’t, if they are just normal, heaving, ugly humans, who stumbled into something and fucked it up, then we have to examine our own culpability. We don’t want to be culpable, who does? Better, easier, even to lay all the blame at Ailes the monster. Ailes, who is dead, can’t sue anyone.
Simone Weil once noted, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren and boring.” What The Loudest Voice has created is an imaginary evil. Like recent documentaries on Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson, The Loudest Voice has created a romanticized, evil genius. Which is not to say Ailes isn’t the worst or that the book and the show are inaccurate, just that they cast Ailes and Fox as the all-powerful architects of our American disaster.
The reality is, Ailes was just a man, an ordinary, boring, horrible man, who only existed and only had power because we let him, because we fed into his machine. Because people made money from it. Far easier to blame the man dead on the floor of a Florida vacation home than all of the men and women at CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, or our own media publications, who profited and still profit off a perniciously cloying access journalism. And Ailes is gone, but the cable news machine of shouting outrage still churns on.