As the NBC forum showed this week, television is a medium that suits Trump, allowing him to blow past falsehoods and present himself as a figure who is no less controversial than his opponent. The forum set off alarm bells for those supporting Clinton: Could the forthcoming debates equal the playing field, convincing voters who are just tuning in that Clinton is actually the worse of the two? Ailes certainly hopes so, and is the perfect man for the job.
Forced to surrender his Fox News throne in July due to a slew of sexual harassment scandals, Ailes is now exerting his influence from within Trump’s inner circle. Last month, The New York Times reported that he was acting as an informal adviser to the campaign. And now, he’s rumored to be helping the candidate streamline his debate talking points.
Ailes, a mastermind of political messaging, is a formidable foe to the Clinton campaign, which continues to struggle with the perception that she is aloof and stilted. This is the man who told presidential hopeful Richard Nixon, “Television is not a gimmick, and if you think it is, you’ll lose again,” as Joe McGinniss recounts in his classic The Selling of the President 1968. McGinniss adds, “It’s probably no exaggeration to say that without [Ailes], Richard Nixon would never have been elected president.”
In his “Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” his 1970 manifesto on how politicians could exploit the media, Ailes advised Nixon on how he could take advantage of the average politically disengaged American. He could just as easily have been speaking to Trump in 2016. “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication,” Ailes wrote. “The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”
The lesson of the NBC forum was that television, even in the age of the internet, is still a huge political force. And Roger Ailes knows television.