Donald Trump built his campaign and his presidency by throwing red meat to the base, most often on Fox News or on Twitter. Only very rarely has he ventured onto broadcast networks, let alone CNN or MSNBC. So it surprised many observers that he booked broadcast interviews with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and NBC’s Chuck Todd. Both interviews were widely viewed as political disasters, requiring Trump to run back to the safety of Fox News to repair the self-inflicted wounds. The damage was so extensive—especially after Trump told Stephanopoulos he’d consider accepting oppo research from a foreign government—that even Fox News’ Neil Cavuto speculated that press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took the fall and resigned over it. Why had Trump, who has given roughly 50 interviews to Fox since his inauguration, suddenly given extensive access to Stephanopoulos and Todd?
According to a Republican close to the Trump campaign, it was campaign manager Brad Parscale who advised Trump to abandon his Fox News-only strategy to launch his 2020 reelection bid. “Brad feels like cable-news voters have decided on Trump,” the source told me. According to the source, Parscale studied data that showed the total cable-news audience is 10 million to 15 million voters. “These are the high information voters. They’ve made up their minds,” the Republican said. To reach beyond the base—who wouldn’t care if Trump shot someone on Fifth Avenue, Trump notoriously said—Parscale chose ABC and NBC because the networks have the largest broadcast audiences. “It’s why they went with a mainstream audience prior to the Orlando launch. They want to penetrate local news,” the source said. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
Trump’s foray outside the Fox bubble reflects the level of concern at the highest reaches of the Trump campaign about the president’s election prospects at this early stage. An embarrassing leak earlier this month revealed an internal poll showing Trump losing—badly—to Joe Biden. (Trump reportedly told aides to deny the polling existed.) To stanch further leaks, the campaign fired three outside pollsters, including Kellyanne Conway’s former firm. Meanwhile Don Jr. and Jared Kushner have been fretting that fund-raising is falling short. The campaign’s biggest financial backers from 2016, the Mercers, have bailed on Trump. The base-first strategy, with Fox as the linchpin, has put Trump’s reelection campaign in mortal danger.
The person who pioneered Trump’s base-first strategy, and who had the biggest hand in creating the modern political environment, is the late Fox News founder, Roger Ailes. “Cable is about one thing: niche. The loyalty of the passionate few,” Ailes (played by Russell Crowe) says early in the first episode of The Loudest Voice, a new Showtime series based on my 2014 Ailes biography that premieres on June 30. The seven-part drama follows Ailes over 20 years, charting his rise to becoming the de facto leader of the Republican Party to his disgrace amid a swirl of horrifying sexual harassment allegations that surfaced in the wake of Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit. For the last 10 years, I’ve written about Ailes’s transformation of American politics into blood sport entertainment, and how Ailes, through canny genius, ruthlessness, humor, and an auteur’s sense of drama, unleashed the forces of populism and racial paranoia on the right that propelled Trump to the White House. The Loudest Voice is a fictionalized, dramatic argument for why Ailes is the most consequential media figure of his generation.
No matter what you think about Ailes—I think he did immense damage to our civic space—it’s undeniable that we live in the political culture he fashioned in his image. As a young producer of The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s, Ailes learned how to harness middlebrow values of daytime television to build an audience of millions. It was on the set of Mike Douglas that Ailes met Richard Nixon, then running for president in 1968, and talked his way into a job as Nixon’s media adviser. The encounter was a hinge point in American politics, defining the moment when television supplanted newspapers as the determinative medium in presidential elections. Nixon’s win—and Ailes’s star turn in Joe McGinniss’s landmark book The Selling of the President—established Ailes as an avatar of this new technicolor political age. From that moment on, Ailes’s playbook became Republicans’ pathway to power.
When the writers’ room of The Loudest Voice opened last summer, the show’s staff and I debated multiple ways to adapt my book into a dramatic series. We could have approached the story of Roger Ailes as a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, following Ailes as his power—and waistline—expanded. One of our chief goals for the series was to reveal how Ailes paved the way for Trump. In the end we agreed the best approach was to focus on the 20 years that Ailes ran Fox News. Power doesn’t corrupt; it reveals. Ailes’s unchecked power at Fox News allowed him to be his true self, a self that Russell Crowe has explored with remarkable depth, which harbored both incredible anger and brilliant insights about America and television.
Trump owes his victory in many ways to Ailes and Fox. But they’ve also put Trump in a box. In 2016, Trump had the loyalty of the Fox News base, and he still has it, amazing as this fact is to some Democrats. But he’s also become a much more defined figure—he’s tightly wedged in the niche that Roger Ailes created, which doesn’t seem to include more than, say, 43% of the American electorate. That’s enough to make a great deal of money for a cable network. But, the Trump campaign is realizing, it probably isn’t enough to elect Trump to a second term. His bid to reach a broader audience, the network audience that Ailes had so much contempt for, failed. For the time being, Trump is trapped in Ailes’s world.