Monday, May 22, 2017

The Nixon Ad That Was Roger Ailes' Ur-Text

I hadn't talked about Roger Ailes' death because his body wasn't in the ground until yesterday, and there's no point in spitting on an empty grave. 

Well now I can have at it. Plenty of people have been writing his obituary, and if you want a really good one, read Matt Taibbi's. No, I am just going to play historian here, and discuss an artifact of Ailes' that embodied his worldview and tactics. In 1968 he had his big chance when Nixon made him the head of his campaign's television operation. Ailes responded by making inflammatory commercials intended to excite the resentments of white middle and working class voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Democrats. 

They are not subtle. While the completely insane "Convention" ad might be the most egregious example, it was so far beyond the pale that networks wouldn't run it. "The First Civil Right," on the other hand, used similar techniques in subtler ways. It used a sinister-sounding soundtrack, which accentuated the pictures of violent and even bloody protests shown in rapid succession. Nixon starts to intone about the need to address "the problem of order." We never see his face, only these images, which get increasingly heavy handed. For instance, it ends with what looks like the wreckage from a riot, and a coin machine reading "CHANGE" on it. The message is clear: protest groups calling for change are merely violent anarchists, and the iron hand of law and order must be brought to bear against them. As Nixon says, "Peace is the first civil right," implying order trumps any calls for social justice.

This ad does so much. The images and music are designed to turn off the brain and feel threatened. It treats "law and order" as a positive civil rights issue in the language, while using the music and pictures to jar the viewer into responded to their fear reflex in their lizard brains. It so expertly combines a well-cloaked lie in subliminal messages, the kind of thing Ailes brought to bear on Fox News. I still remember coming back to my apartment on 9/11, and my roommate (who at the time was politically naive) watching the coverage on Fox News. It just showed the towers getting hit and collapsing, over and over and over again, but interspersed with images of Palestinians celebrating the attack. The message was clear: go out and kill those people. In less than two years, we'd invaded Iraq.

I have witnessed the human effects of this strategy first hand. People who were once merely conservative in their viewpoints start spouting insane conspiracy theories once they become regular Fox viewers. Ailes mastered Nixon's message of the "silent majority" ie "real America" versus "them," the anti-America. Not only did that message twice win Nixon the presidency, Ailes then used it to preach to an audience in our current day and age frightened by change and resentful of others. Nixon is long gone and Ailes is in the grave, but their political style is never going away. Almost fifty years on, Ailes' ads for Nixon are still remarkably and sadly relevant. 

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