If you read Superman comics as a kid, you’re probably familiar with Bizarro World — the planet where everything is the opposite of life on Earth. I bring this up today because it’s clear that Donald Trump is running for president of Bizarro World.
Trump is on track to lose female voters like no other candidate in modern times — a new poll in pivotal Florida says that he’s losing white women by 17 points — so you would think, here on Earth, that he’d want to prepare for the autumn debates by enlisting an adviser who’s politically savvy about women. But no. Hewing to the rules of Bizarro World, Trump will take debate advice from Roger Ailes — the Fox News chairman who lost his job amidst allegations that he sexually harassed at least 20 women.
Trump is bursting with Bizarro behavior these days. He has no chance — zero, nada — of winning Maine or Connecticut or Wisconsin … so naturally he has campaigned this month in all three. In a speech last night, he tried to pitch himself to black voters … so naturally he staged his rally in a white suburb. He badly needs to broaden his “appeal” beyond the fever swamp … so naturally he announced this morning (in yet another staff shakeup) that his new campaign CEO is Steve Bannon, the notorious chairman of Breitbart News, a fever swamp website that’s pitched to people who think Fox News is too nice.
Bannon is bad enough — conservative critic Erick Erickson says the Trump campaign is “moving from dumpster fire to Chernobyl” — but the fateful pairing of Trump and Ailes is what fascinates me most. Two serial sexists, jointly plotting their last hurrah. They deserve each other.
Even as various Trump flacks tried to deny yesterday that Ailes is on board — we know they’re lying whenever their lips move — it was patently obvious why Trump wants him around. Ailes is the acknowledged master of using television to fool gullible viewers. Long before he ever worked his magic at Fox News, creating a misinformation propaganda shop that masquerades as journalism, Ailes made his bones repairing and honing the TV images of Republican candidates. And no candidate has ever needed image repair more than Trump.
Ailes won’t be the only voice in Trump’s ear as debate season draws near, but he alone brings expertise dating back to Dick Nixon in 1968. His task that year, as Nixon’s media adviser, was to package a New Nixon in place of the Old Nixon. The Old Nixon was paranoid and polarizing; the New Nixon was wise and mature. It was all fakery, of course, but Ailes did his job well. He crafted 30-minute infomercials that featured Nixon taking a lot of softball questions in TV studios from citizens pre-chosen by Ailes. The studio spectators applauded every answer.
Nixon refused to debate his Democratic opponent in ’68; that’s not an option anymore. Trump has to go toe to toe with Hillary Clinton, talking policy, starting on Sept. 26. It’ll be the challenge of Ailes’ career to soften Trump’s detestable image in that kind of setting. It’s one thing to snow the credulous viewers of Fox News — six studies, by the University of Maryland, Stanford, American University, Kaiser Family Foundation, Ohio State, and Farleigh Dickinson, have found Fox loyalists to be far more misinformed than other news consumers — but it’ll be tough to foist a New Trump on the broader, skeptical public.
Still, if you’re interested in Ailes’ work, look no further than “The Selling of the President 1968,” the Joe McGinniss bestseller that gave us the inside skinny about TV fakery. Ailes’ aim, as he wrote in a campaign memo, was to erase Nixon’s negative image (his perpetual scowl, his bitter vibe) and give him “a very ‘Presidential’ look and style.”
One Ailes quotation was particularly memorable; in conversation with McGinniss, he said: “Let’s face it, a lot of people think Nixon is … a pain in the ass. Now you put him on television, you’ve got a problem right away. He’s a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, ‘I want to be President.’ I mean, this is how he strikes people. That’s why these [studio] shows are important. To make them forget all that.”
To make them forget all that … There you have it. During debate prep, Ailes will probably try to shave down Trump’s rough edges, try to make people forget the divisive bellowing buffoon. Heck, even an alleged sexual harrasser understands that female viewers won’t vote for an alpha male who yells at a woman.
But there are two big problems: (1) Trump doesn’t listen to anybody, and (2) The rest of Trump’s brain trust — new CEO Steve Bannon, Putin-compromised Paul Manafort, and new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway (who has toiled in vain for 20 years trying to get more women to vote Republican) — will be competing to make Trump listen. Bannon, for instance, is not big on image makeovers; he thinks that Trump should unleash his id and just be himself.
How sad for Roger Ailes. He may have launched his political career as a genius, but now, after leaving Fox News in disgrace, he risks going down in the smoking wreckage.