The carcass of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News who served as its CEO until he resigned last July after multiple female employees claimed he had sexually harassed them, was found in his Palm Beach home last week. The county medical examiner said he died from bleeding in his brain after sustaining a fall. Considering what he did to the people around him and to the country, his death was apt if overdue (though perhaps much too soon for his female victims who deserve justice).
It’s being said about him that the damage his network wrought on America is inestimable. But I think President Donald Trump provides a useful approximation. Trump is the apotheosis of treating politics as a spectacle, specifically a televised spectacle. He is the ultimate expression of a kind of society that Ray Bradbury, in his classic novel Fahrenheit 451, warned we were becoming. Since it was published in 1951, the book was widely interpreted by critics and schoolteachers as a metaphor for the evils of government censorship and McCarthyist paranoia. Bradbury, however, insisted until he was hoarse that his novel wasn’t about censorship but rather a story about how television destroys the public’s appetite for literature, which is really to say the public’s appetite for nuance, introspection, and thought.
The future America in Fahrenheit 451 sends its firemen to burn books because their intellectual demands offended the masses, whose minds have been blasted to a smooth sheen, like the tender skin beneath a fresh wound, by pixelated (and pixilated) amusements. Television made minds sensitive, too weak to handle complexity, which made complexity tantamount to provocation. “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean,” explained Beatty the chief book burner to Montag, his employee and the protagonist of the story. Book burning, Beatty stresses to Montag, didn’t come from the government. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time…the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
What Bradbury is describing is a world of bubbles, of studiously manicured and viciously enforced safe spaces. Books “show the pores in the face of life,” Faber, a forcibly retired English professor tells Montag. “The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, powerless, hairless, expressionless.” Or, in Fox News’s viewers’ case, blonde women with hairless legs and pliant demeanors.
So if we’re to put the political dystopia genre on a spectrum, with George Orwell’s totalitarian police-state in 1984 on one end and Aldous Huxley’s drugged and complacent society in Brave New World on the other, Fahrenheit 451 appears to belong squarely on Huxley’s side of things. But there’s a significant element of Orwell in Bradbury’s story. In his greatest political essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell observed that there’s a direct connection between how people use language and how they think, and therefore how they behave. This has political implications. It is why totalitarian governments censor words and attempt to create their own, and why all governments, including our own, even under “normal” circumstances, often rely on euphemisms (e.g. “collateral damage”) when discussing politically sensitive topics. I’m not sure if Bradbury ever read Orwell’s essay, but his novel understands this dynamic. All of his television-addicted characters have stunted vocabularies and are incapable of expressing, in fact actively avoid expressing, honest human feelings. They are incapable of differentiating between the serious, even the deadly serious, and the inane.
America in 451 is on the precipice of a war with another country, and it just held a presidential election. One of the most dramatic scenes in the book occurs when Montag—who had already started secretly reading literature and was awakening to the madness around him—has dinner with his ingenuous wife, Mildred, and her frightfully vapid friends and the conversation turns to the election. The candidates were a tall, handsome, photogenic man named Winston Noble and a short, fat, disheveled man named Hubert Hoag. Mildred and her friends could only remember what they looked like, not anything they said, but that’s all it took to seal their votes—and, as it turns out in the end, their fates and the country’s. This stupidity proves to be Montag’s breaking point and he unleashes a poetic tirade, and from there the final act of the story unfolds.
Bradbury thought too much of his country to believe it would be a tall, handsome man who would seduce the people on a TV screen and lead them to disaster. Instead, he’s a babbling charlatan whose inherited wealth and reality-television celebrity sufficiently distracted an addled population from his obvious mental incapacity and paternally-endowed malice. But Trump, like Noble, is, in the grand scheme of things, an ornament. He’s a gold-leafed, hollow ball that absorbs Fox News’s beams and reflects back the network’s id with his broad, lipless grin and a 140-character belch.
Something like President Trump, the personification of a nationwide moral collapse, doesn’t just happen. This has been more than two decades in the making. This plague was spread by rats: Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. But the King Rat was Roger Ailes. He didn’t act alone. The Republican Party unashamedly welcomed that fleshy pervert into their ranks, and why not? His brainchild network did all the dirty demagogic work of beaming fear and paranoia and, in particular, a feeling of persecution (this is what Beatty was referring to by “minor minor minorities”) with its attendant feelings of resentment and self-pity into America’s living room. For the GOP, this made collecting votes as easy as payday loans. All the while, movement conservatives willfully deluded themselves into thinking that Fox News viewers were voting for Republicans because they agreed with the tenets of their rarefied ideology.
Each Trump voter, like any other voter in a democracy, had his or her own unique motivations, feelings, beliefs, and delusions. While it’s perfectly reasonable for journalists to try to find broad commonalities among voters, the national conversation has been woefully shallow. “Economic anxiety” versus “cultural resentment” has been an especially popular debate in the media. But one should always exercise skepticism when discussions are based on a binary. The answer to that “debate” is easy, accurate, and only the start of what should be a deeper conversation: both are true. But there’s another way to think about Trump voters. Trump represents public alienation from politics and democratic governance. There is a cognitive disconnect between too many people’s actual lives and what happens in their government. A vote for Trump was, in some instances, a desperate plea for the government to just do something that has some effect, any effect. In other instances, it was a cynical rebuke couched in the notion that it has not mattered who sits in the Oval Office, so it would be good to set fire to the place. And in other cases, it was considered a joke that wouldn’t matter.
Cable news has helped create this alienation. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a journalist should only tell a story and not become the story, but what cable news does is more than insert itself. It creates a pantomime of our politics. The real bias in our media is not really political or ideological. The real problem is that television is biased towards melodrama. It actively seeks it out or works to create it (e.g. talking head “debates”), because it’s a surefire way to keep viewers engaged and coming back for more. In the popular mind, politics is no longer about the thing itself, but rather what happens on their screens. Much of what passes for political conversation among Americans is actually a reaction to glossy stage-managed images.
The reason Fox News deserves special rebuke, though, is that it plunged America into a meta-melodrama that has made us dumber, more paranoid, and less capable of civil discourse. By accusing channels like CNN, NBC and CBS of being ideologically committed propaganda outlets for the left, Ailes created an artificial cause juste to create precisely such a thing for the political right. (The actual corrective to propaganda, by the way, is honest journalism, not more propaganda.) Ailes, long before Trump, attacked the integrity of American journalism and systematically characterized professional journalists as unpatriotic liars. Trump’s “enemy of the people” line merely expressed what Fox News viewers had already been conditioned to believe. Ailes, before Trump and along with him, trafficked in racism (and created a racist corporate culture inside Fox). Ailes, before Trump, peddled conspiracy theories (and the channel still does). Ailes, long before Trump, adamantly denied science and turned ignorance into a popular virtue.
Apparently, not even Ray Bradbury himself was safe from Ailes’s pudgy-fingered reach. In the latter part of his life he appears to have turned into something of a crank. An LA Weekly reporter visited him in his home five years before his death and gave us this scene:
“Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,” Bradbury says, summarizing TV’s content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: “factoids.” He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.
The whole problem with the world, Bertrand Russel once said, is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. Roger Ailes was dedicated to amplifying the screeching voices of the former and increasing their numbers amongst the public. Now one of our most prominent fools occupies the White House, and every night be bathes in the pale luminescent glow of the channel that made him possible.