The New York Times reported Tuesday that former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, who resigned from the company after he was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, “is advising Donald J. Trump as he begins to prepare for the all-important presidential debates this fall.”
While the Trump campaign denies the story, the fact that the current GOP nominee and the former network chief are in contact with each other is not in dispute. And to anyone who understands the career of Roger Ailes, there is also no doubt that he is chiming in with advice for his friend.
Ailes received widespread criticism in 2002 after Bob Woodward wrote that he had sent President George W. Bush ”an important-looking confidential communication” advising him on the course of action to take in the wake of 9/11. This was widely considered to be out of bounds for head of a news network whose job it was to cover the president, but Ailes apparently couldn’t help himself.
This is likely because he didn’t leave politics by choice. While Ailes cultivates the myth of being a campaign Svengali, he was forced out of politics after his racially divisive tactics became toxic to his clients. After he helped defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, creating the notorious “Revolving Door” ad, Ailes ran Rudy Giuliani’s first New York mayoral race in 1989. He lost that election and then lost again when he was a consultant for a 1990 Senate race in Illinois, where he smeared his candidate’s opponent as a “complete fraud” and a “weenie.” Campaigns and Elections Magazine wrote at the time that Ailes was “a problem because he’s become an issue in so many campaigns. In any campaign where he’s involved, the editorialists are quick to point out that it’s Ailes doing the mudslinging. [Illinois Senate Candidate] Lynn Martin definitely got hurt by it. He really became a distraction and a bit of an albatross.”
While Ailes was undoubtedly brilliant at the stagecraft of campaigns, preparing candidates for debates and media interviews is where he excelled. He prepped Ronald Reagan for his 1984 debate against Walter Mondale, setting up the president with his most memorable line from the evening, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In 1988, he set the stage for a live interview with Dan Rather that helped clear George H.W. Bush’s path to victory.
Ailes’ advice to candidates he prepped—like Ailes himself—could be blunt and bigoted. He reportedly told Bush, “You can’t wear a short sleeve shirt—you’ll look like a f**king f**got.”
Given the reins of a campaign, Ailes would incorporate the same racially divisive tactics over and over again: for Nixon in 1968, Bush in 1988 and Rudy Giuliani in 1989, when he tried to win by stoking tensions between New York’s black and Jewish communities. Under Ailes’ leadership, Fox News has followed a similar pattern, consistently pushing the most racially divisive stories.
After his role in the losing 1990 Senate campaign in Illinois, even Ailes worried that his presence would sink Bush’s reelection effort. He left politics and produced a television show for Rush Limbaugh before heading to CNBC and eventually founding Fox News with Rupert Murdoch.
Trump’s campaign could offer Ailes one last chance to prove his mettle. The GOP nominee’s embrace of racially divisive tactics is right out of Ailes’ 1968, 1988 and 1989 playbook: draw white voters to the polls by stoking racial fears and grievances. With Ailes’ dramatic flair and his talent for live television, it would only make sense for Donald Trump to turn to him for assistance.
But while Ailes’ stink of defeat from the early 1990s might have worn off, the American electorate has significantly changed, leaving in doubt whether a strategy that is fully dependent on drawing out a certain segment of white voters could still lead to victory.