The guy who really gave us Donald Trump

roger ailes obit
roger ailes obit

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Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Roger Ailes mastered for conservatives the media they hated
  • With Ailes' death, there's a sense that Fox's future is as uncertain as Trump's, he says

Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump wouldn't be President if not for Roger Ailes. The media giant -- who died Thursday at 77 -- revolutionized American politics. First, he rebranded conservatives for the TV age. Then he created a news channel for them to dominate. Love him or loathe him, you inhabit the imagination of Roger Ailes.

Timothy Stanley
Ailes' life reflected a great conservative paradox: The right claims to hate the media, and yet it's often a better master of it than the left. When, as a young producer, Ailes met Richard Nixon backstage at "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1967, Ailes famously told him that if he dismissed TV as a gimmick, then he'd never make it back to the White House. Nixon hired him.
    The formula they cooked up was a mix of earthy, small-town values and slick TV advertising: conservatism as a product. Nixon was polished, smothered in makeup and made to deliver tough-minded orations in a soft voice. "If your audience likes you," Ailes explained, "they'll forgive just about everything else you do wrong."
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    Author compares Fox News to a cult

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    Author compares Fox News to a cult 04:04
    Ailes and Nixon conquered TV -- and yet the press still got under their skin. Fighting back wasn't enough: Journalists could always, they complained, spin what you said and make you sound like an illiberal thug. So Ailes came to believe that the right had to work around the traditional media by setting up its own operation.
    Just as Trump talks about replacing White House press briefings with "written responses for the sake of accuracy," so Ailes once considered providing pro-administration videos for local networks. Later, in 1996, he became the founding CEO of Fox News -- and realized a long-held conservative dream. Now they could provide a right-wing perspective without liberal commentary, what they deemed "fair and balanced."
    With the conservative movement located firmly on TV, it made perfect sense that its latest standard bearer should, himself, be a product of the small screen. Trump is straight out of the Ailes playbook. He's not as charming as Ailes' most talented client, Ronald Reagan, nor as qualified for high office as George H.W. Bush was. But he combines the Nixon-era values of country and faith with an unscripted quality that suggests its own kind of integrity. The whole audience doesn't like Trump -- some hate him -- but enough love him to forgive his errors and keep the show moving from season to season.
    Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies
    Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies

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      Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies

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    Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes dies 02:57
    But this star proved to be a prima donna. During the 2016 election, Trump clashed with then-Fox host Megyn Kelly, whom he called a "bimbo," and skipped one Fox debate altogether. There was a sense in this political season that it was the candidate, rather than the broadcaster, who was calling the shots -- setting the agenda not from a TV studio but on a Twitter feed.
    And Ailes' own disgrace at Fox, when he was accused of sexual harassment by, among others, Megyn Kelly, marked the end of an era of which Trump is perhaps the last champion.
    It is no longer "acceptable" to grab women by anything, or even to boast about it, as Trump did, like a horny adolescent. With Kelly out at Fox and Bill O'Reilly -- its most popular anchor -- also out amid similar accusations, there's a sense that the future for Fox is almost as uncertain as it is for the President.
    As for Ailes, his reputation is controversial but immense. Nixon probably owes him his election in 1968, the elder Bush the same in 1988. Ailes did for conservative politicians what the advertisers did for dog food and washing detergent -- turned them into a consumer product that rose and fell less on their material qualities than on their bright and exciting packaging.