In the 2019 miniseries The Loudest Voice, Roger Ailes – the former chairman of Fox News, portrayed by Russell Crowe – shares a pearl of wisdom to a disciple:
“If you tell them what to think, you lose them. If you tell them what to feel, they’re yours.”
He was referring to the conservative electorate in the United States – or, at least, the conservatives who tune in to cable television.
I haven’t taken it upon myself to find out if he ever said those exact words… but it’s not hard to imagine. This was Roger Ailes, after all: a man of humble beginnings who sensed the power of television during the Nixon administration, understood it under Reagan, tamed it with the Bushes and, later, during the Obama administration, turned Fox News into the most powerful ultra-conservative propaganda organ our century has ever seen. The channel is capable of turning clowns into presidents, the truth into a lie… and a lie into the truth.
“If you tell them what to think, you lose them. If you tell them what to feel, they’re yours.” In less than 20 words, this is an instruction manual for any of the various populist movements that have surged over the past decade. The replacement of reason with emotions – that trick, performed by a conjurer or street swindler – is as old as Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Yet, the citizens of today’s democracies have seen it wreak havoc in some of the most stable countries in what we call the West.
In the United States, such populism has become an anti-liberal, paranoid and ultra-religious force – a space where the most grotesque conspiracy theories have been normalized, such as the one that suggested that Obama was not born in Hawaii, but in Kenya. It has flourished among Fox New journalists. The news entertainment channel’s late-night shows – with their provocative commentators and their captive, aggrieved, hate-filled audiences – spit out (with impunity) a worldview that, until recently, only thrived in the most shameful corners of the internet.
The influence that Fox News has had since its transformation until Roger Ailes is incalculable. It may be an exaggeration to say that Donald Trump is an invention of the channel… but I don’t think so. The network was his stage and his microphone – from there, he launched as many lies and distortions as from his Twitter account, while his submissive interlocutors conveniently avoided anything that imitated journalism.
I don’t know how familiar these names are to you, but Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson have invented – and continue to invent, to the immense financial benefit of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of it all – a true alternate reality. There, in that impenetrable bubble, America is a society threatened by immigrants, elites, liberals and secularists… all agents of a massive conspiracy against family and values.
It’s a mistake, as always, to think that what happens in the United States stays in the United States. Tucker Carlson, for example, is already a fixture – and dedicated propagandist – of the new international far-right. He has spent hours of his deranged monologues praising figures such as Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin. I particularly remember – now that we are lamenting the one year anniversary of the criminal invasion of Ukraine – his comments in February of 2022, when the Russian army had installed itself on the border. He complained that the Democrats forced everyone to hate Putin.
“Did Putin call me a racist?” he slobbered. “Has he threatened to fire me for not agreeing with him? No. Putin hasn’t done any of that.” It was almost touching to see him manipulate the complexes and resentments of the average conservative in this way, immersed in his own reasons for feeling persecuted by liberals.
But his opinions have influence. When he says that Zelensky is a dictator – like he did last December – or when he says that the Ukrainian president is a dangerous authoritarian who has installed a one-party police state, his delusions shape the opinion of his public. When he says that the Democratic elites want to replace genuine Americans with people brought “from the Third World,” he has influence. When he openly talks about the Great Replacement Theory – one of the most celebrated paranoias of white supremacists and neo-Nazis – or when he accuses the Democrats of trading genuine Americans for “more obedient people from faraway countries,” he has enormous influence.
I have written “genuine North Americans” – but the expression Carlson uses is more interesting: legacy Americans. It will be necessary to see what that means in a country made precisely by people coming from distant lands.
Since the election that Biden won, these opinion-makers – Carlson in the lead – have defended the conspiracy theory of stolen elections on air. On Fox, it was suggested that the company that owns the 2020 election’s vote-counting machines – Dominion – used software that manipulated the count. The company has subsequently sued the outlet for defamation.
Today, as part of the trial, certain text messages – in which journalists say very different things in private from what they say in public – have come to light. The hypocrisy is so flagrant that, just a few days ago – speaking under oath – the big boss, Rupert Murdoch, accepted that his journalists had defended the theory of stolen elections knowing that it was a lie. He also acknowledged that he preferred to do nothing – he didn’t want to lose his pro-Trump audience, which is unappreciative of information that does not coincide with their views.
I don’t know what will be the result of the trial – but the scandal doesn’t seem to have really affected the mindset of Fox News’ delusional propagandists. This month, Carlson pushed the borders of alternate reality: while speaking about the January 6 attack on the Capitol, he reviewed the recordings of the security cameras. He deliberately chose clips where the violent acts were not seen. Rather, he played images of the men and women walking through the corridors and taking photos, concluding that what happened on January 6 was not really an attack – as the lying Democrats would have us believe – but a peaceful demonstration.
We haven’t seen a more cynical attempt to distort the facts since early 2017, when Sean Spicer – the former White House press secretary – claimed that Trump’s inauguration was the most attended in history. The aerial photos made it possible to compare the ceremony with Obama’s and show that this wasn’t true… but it never really mattered. Reality was not what was seen; rather, it was what the Republicans wanted to see.
In a story by Borges, the narrator recalls the Summa theologica, where he denies that God can “make the past not have been.” What a time to have lived in: when we thought what Borges wrote was surreal… and when God was less powerful than a cable station.
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