The measure of their influence lies in the distance between today’s media and politics and those of the years they were born.
Illustration by Tom Bachtell
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.
“The duty of government is to provide a basis for judgment,” MacLeish insisted, “and when it goes beyond that, it goes beyond the prime scope of its duty.” Under his leadership, the office mainly printed pamphlets, including “Divide and Conquer,” which explained how foreign agents weaken a nation’s resolve by undermining confidence in institutions like elections and the press, and by raising fears of internal enemies, like immigrants and Jews. Still, some reporters suspected that the agency was nothing more than a propaganda machine, the wartime conversion of fact to fiction. MacLeish was worried, too. In April, 1942, he spoke at a meeting of the Associated Press. To counter the strategy of terror, he proposed a new strategy:
That strategy, I think, is neither difficult to find nor difficult to name. It is the strategy which is appropriate to our cause and to our purpose—the strategy of truth—the strategy which opposes to the frauds and the deceits by which our enemies have confused and conquered other peoples, the simple and clarifying truths by which a nation such as ours must guide itself. But the strategy of truth is not, because it deals in truth, devoid of strategy. It is not enough, in this war of hoaxes and delusions and perpetuated lies, to be merely honest. It is necessary also to be wise.
Critics called MacLeish naïve: winning a war requires deception. F.D.R., to some degree, agreed. In June, 1942, he replaced the Office of Facts and Figures with the Office of War Information. MacLeish left, and the agency drifted. Much of the staff resigned in protest. When a former advertising director for Coca-Cola was hired, a departing writer made a mock poster that read, “Step right up and get your four delicious freedoms. It’s a refreshing war.” In 1946, the year that Donald Trump was born, MacLeish published a poem called “Brave New World,” about Americans’ retreat from the world: “Freedom that was a thing to use / They’ve made a thing to save / And staked it in and fenced it round / Like a dead man’s grave.”
A lifetime later, Barack Obama greeted Roger Ailes at the White House. “I see the most powerful man in the world is here,” Obama said. “Don’t believe what you read, Mr. President,” Ailes answered. “I started those rumors myself.” Other rumors that Ailes helped start include Trump’s charge that Obama is not an American. Also: science is a hoax, history is a conspiracy, and the news is fake. It’s not always possible to sort out fact from fiction, but to believe that everything is a lie is to know nothing. Ailes won’t be remembered as the man who got Trump elected President; he will be remembered as a television producer who understood better than anyone how to divide a people. And Trump’s Presidency, long after it ends, will stand as a monument to the error of a strategy of terror. ♦
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