NEW YORK, N.Y. – Roger Ailes is gone, but the world he created is not.
In the wake of the Fox News Channel founder’s death Thursday at 77, leaders in both parties said his TV network’s influence in shaping American politics cannot be overstated.
The former Nixon aide played an essential role in shifting the political debate sharply to the right in less than a generation, employing polarizing and, some say, destructive tactics. Yet without him, friends and foes agree, the GOP’s current control of Washington and statehouses nationwide may not have been possible.
“More than anyone, Roger knew how to frame the message and communicate it to the masses,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Fox News host and Ailes friend. “The GOP has long had a problem speaking to people beyond the boardroom and country club. Roger changed that. He was a genius.”
One longtime friend, evangelical Christian leader Ralph Reed, affectionately called Ailes “master of the universe” on Thursday, while former President George H.W. Bush tweeted that he might not have been elected without the Fox chief.
Ailes is universally regarded as a brilliant political strategist. He advised at least four Republican presidents, President Donald Trump among them. Yet for all the praise, Ailes also leaves a legacy of deep divisions that critics say will plague the Republican Party — and American politics — for years to come.
Under his leadership, Fox regularly highlighted conspiracy theories throughout President Barack Obama’s time in office.
In 2009, Fox anchors reported incorrectly that the Obama administration was pursuing concentration camps. In subsequent years, anchors and guests, including Trump, promoted the false notion that the nation’s first black president was a Muslim born in Africa. Four in 10 Republicans polled by CNN in 2015 said Obama is a Muslim.
“Was he a capable propagandist? Yes. He was an artful liar,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal-backed media watchdog Media Matters for America. “Ailes’ legacy is that you can actually convince half the country that President Obama was a secret Muslim who wasn’t born here.”
Longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod acknowledged Ailes’ influence.
“For better or worse & the ignominious end 2 his reign at Fox News, the impact of Roger Ailes on American politics & media was indisputable,” he tweeted.
Democrats had an 82-seat House majority when Fox News was launched in October 1996. Republicans now have a 45-seat majority, a swing of 127 seats. It’s far worse for Democrats in statehouses across the country, where they have lost more than 900 seats since 2009. The GOP has total control of government in at least 25 states and partial control in 20 others.
The Republican success cannot be totally attributed to Ailes’ network, of course, but there was broad agreement Thursday on both sides of the aisle that Ailes’ conservative network was a major factor.
“The power of Fox News cannot be overstated in Republican politics,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who advised two presidential campaigns. “I don’t think there’s ever been one source of media that has such a loyal political following as Fox News does.”
Ailes changed the face of 24-hour news when he accepted a challenge from media titan Rupert Murdoch to build a network from scratch to compete with CNN and other TV outlets they deemed left-leaning. Within a few years, it became the audience leader in cable news.
“No one deserves more credit for the rightward movement of this country over the last 20 years or so than Roger Ailes,” said Bruce Bartlett, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who now considers himself an independent. “He made the Republican control of Congress possible.”
Yet Bartlett, a Fox critic, warned that Ailes’ network has become a “state news service for the Trump administration.”
Evangelical leader Reed, a regular Fox guest over the years, offered a more optimistic view: “Whatever one thinks of Fox News, and there are certainly people who don’t like it for whatever reason, it is undeniable that it changed the media environment and ensured the conservative viewpoint was consistently and reliably represented. I personally think that’s a good thing.”