The World That Trump and Ailes Built

Roundup
tags: Trump, Roger Ailes



Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.

 

Roger Ailes died recently, at the age of seventy-seven, during a week when the ground shook beneath a stumbling Donald Trump. The two men were in many things near: in age and appetites, in temper and coarseness. They were also in many things far apart: in intelligence and energy, in talent and purpose. Ailes was formidable, Trump brittle. Ailes’s decline began last summer, when he was forced out of Fox News. Trump’s fall, if he falls, is still to come. And yet at times it has seemed as if the two men were Humpty and Dumpty, tumbling off a wall that they’d built together, to divide one half of the country from the other. 

The measure of the world they made lies in its distance from the world into which they were born, when the question of whether democracy could be defended without violating the freedoms on which it rests was a matter of pained debate. Ailes was born in Ohio in May, 1940. Weeks later, President Roosevelt gave a commencement address in Virginia. “Every generation of young men and women in America has questions to ask the world,” he began. “But every now and again in the history of the Republic a different kind of question presents itself—a question that asks, not about the future of an individual or even of a generation, but about the future of the country.” He was arguing against America Firsters, who wanted the United States to be an island, a vision he declared to be a nightmare, “the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”

Roosevelt had been trying to gain support for entry into the war in Europe, but he knew that it was possible to push too hard. In 1917, to marshal support for another war, Woodrow Wilson had created a propaganda department, a fiction manufactory that stirred up so much hysteria and so much hatred of Germany that Americans took to calling hamburgers “Salisbury steaks” and lynched a German immigrant. John Dewey called this kind of thing the “conscription of thought.” It was a horse’s bit crammed into the people’s mouth. The bitterness of that experience determined a new generation of journalists to avoid all manner of distortion and error. In 1923, when Henry Luce and Briton Hadden founded Time (their first name for it was Facts), the magazine hired a small army of women to check every fact. (“Add Fact Checking to your list of chores,” the founder of The New Yorker instructed an editor, not long afterward.) In 1929, Luce hired as an editor of his new magazine, Fortune, a poet named Archibald MacLeish. He had fought in the First World War, then lived in Paris, where he wrote poems about places where lay “upon the darkening plain / The dead against the dead and on the silent ground / The silent slain—.” He worked at Fortune until 1938. F.D.R. appointed him Librarian of Congress in 1939.

“Democracy is never a thing done,” MacLeish said. “Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing.” He believed that writers had an obligation to fight against fascism in the battle for public opinion, a battle that grew more urgent after the publication, in 1940, of “The Strategy of Terror,” by Edmond Taylor, the Paris bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. Taylor reported firsthand on the propaganda campaign waged by Nazi agents to divide the French people, by leaving them uncertain about what to believe, or whether to believe anything at all. (In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler had written that most people “are more easily victimized by a large than by a small lie, since they sometimes tell petty lies themselves but would be ashamed to tell big ones.”) Taylor called propaganda “the invisible front.” Roosevelt decided that he could delay his assault on that front no longer. In October, 1941, he issued an executive order establishing a new government information agency, the Office of Facts and Figures. He appointed MacLeish to head it. ...





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