A.J. Bauer is visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and co-editor of News on the Right. Reece Peck is assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island (CUNY) and author of Fox Populism. Each week, they’ll recap the new Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice.
This series began with Roger Ailes sprawled-out dead on a cold tile floor. It ends with him glimpsing his own personal heaven.
At the end of his professional rope — even his steadfast wife Beth (Sienna Miller) is sick of his bullshit — we leave Ailes (Russell Crowe) basking alone in the warm glow of a television screen, watching Donald J. Trump accept the Republican nomination for president.
“We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again!” stock footage of Trump’s voice calls out, as if to Ailes himself. “God bless you, and goodnight! I love you!”
It’s a fitting finale for a series that, in the end, was only nominally about Ailes’ meteoric rise and fall. Framed through-and-through by a presentist fixation on how we came to live in a world where “the Trump administration” isn’t a satirical phrase, The Loudest Voice reduced Ailes’ lifework to the professional equivalent of his dying exhalation — his breathing life into the nation’s first reality television presidency.
Episode 7, “2016,” begins with a subtle nod to the central promise of the series’ first episode — that we’d be affirmed in our preconceived notions of Ailes as right-wing, paranoid, and fat. It opens with a characteristically ornery Ailes, cranky that Trump’s burgeoning general election campaign is moderating its tone — “Donald’s not a politician, he’s a reality TV star. People like to hear him say crazy sh– about Muslims and Mexicans. It’s his charm!” — and that Beth is insisting he finish his sandwich before eating his cake.
Such petty indignities are the least of Ailes’ problems.
With Beth listening along, Ailes’ attorney delivers a litany of accusations — from Roger’s quid-pro-quo harassment of Carlson, to his lament that married life is “boring, hard, and not much fun.”
Despite the slight, Beth stands by her man for much of this episode — buying into his paranoid claims that Carlson is part of a secret cabal (comprised of the Clintons, Barack Obama, George Soros, even Brian Lewis and Joe Lindsley) hellbent on Ailes’ destruction.
Together with Ailes’ overly optimistic attorney and a damage control team, Beth and Roger bring “a bazooka to a knife fight.” They launch a campaign to discredit his accusers by investigating their personal lives, circulating unflattering pictures, and enlisting other Fox News women as character witnesses.
“Especially Megyn,” Beth insists, referring to then Fox star Megyn Kelly. “Megyn hates Gretchen.”
Ailes also receives initial support from Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), who at first seems reassured by Roger’s characterization of Carlson’s lawsuit as frivolous, the sour grapes of a “disgruntled former employee.”
But when Rupert offers to release a statement defending Ailes, Lachlan Murdoch (Barry Watson) puts his foot down. “This is a personal matter, Roger. Gretchen sued you, not Fox News.”
“I am Fox News,” Ailes retorts defensively.
Except, that’s the exact problem. In using his powerful position at Fox for his own sexual gratification, Ailes made the network complicit in his crimes and exposed it to serious legal liability.
Rupert, driven by his personal loyalty to Ailes, embodies the last vestiges of an older tradition of media mogul — not unlike those or William Randolph Hearst or Joseph Pulitzer or Robert McCormick — who controlled their news empires in a top-down fashion that at times prioritized deep personal loyalties over sound business principles.
But Lachlan and James (Josh Helman), charged with running a $60 billion public company, exhibit a different loyalty — to shareholders, the News Corp. board of directors, and to the rules and regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Veterans of the 2011 News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, which resulted in the shuttering of the News of the World newspaper and especially burned James’ reputation, the Murdoch sons have learned the hard way where blind loyalty can lead.
What Roger dismisses as “half-assed Ivy League bullshit semantics” wins the day, and News Corp. hires an external firm to investigate the allegations against him.
Ailes, up to his old tricks, initially manages to stifle the investigation by relying on his vast Fox News surveillance apparatus. Interviewed by outside attorneys in a Fox conference room closely monitored by Roger via closed-circuit television, Ailes’ employees at first sing his praises.
But Carrie (Taylor Louderman), whom Ailes attempted to sexually assault in last week’s episode, has her vengeance, tipping off the investigators to Roger’s surveillance-enabled intimidation and unleashing the avalanche of testimony (including from an off-screen Megyn Kelly) that ultimately brings him down.
As Carlson’s lawsuit moves forward, and the News Corp.-ordered external review recommends Ailes’ termination, Roger finally cracks. With a fire-breathing Beth at his side, he storms into the Fox News offices intent on settling scores. His power waning, he attempts to commandeer America’s Newsroom, demanding live air time to defend himself against “this witch hunt.”
Talked off the ledge by Bill Shine (Josh Stamberg), Ailes is finally summoned to Rupert’s penthouse where he is unceremoniously fired; Roger’s incandescent rage has finally lost its magical persuasive powers.
Wall-to-wall television coverage of Ailes’ firing finally pushes Beth to the brink — raging and weeping on the bathroom floor. Once Roger’s biggest champion and most vehement defender, Beth can barely look at him by episode’s end.
Running low on allies, and increasingly alienated from Fox, Roger leans on his enduring friendship with Donald Trump. Unlike Rupert, Trump loudly and publicly defends Ailes when the allegations against him emerge.
No longer merely feeding Trump pointers, this episode depicts Ailes as a shadow campaign manager — sowing doubts about Paul Manafort (Eric Michael Gillet), and even instructing him on how to stage a proper nominating convention.
“Who’s this speech for?” Ailes asks Manafort, playing with a Trump bobblehead on a miniature model of the RNC stage.
“The delegates,” Manafort replies.
“That’s wrong,” Ailes corrects him in his usual misogynist way. “This speech is for the guy who is sitting at home on his couch. He’s half-asleep. He’s staring across at his wife, and he’s thinking, ‘F— me, I married that.’ That’s who it’s for.”
As in the series premiere, when he first articulated his vision of Fox’s niche conservative audience, Ailes’ work on behalf of Trump rings true enough. Ailes was, indeed, among the first to recognize that creating a striking visual scene can be more important than offering a rhetorically brilliant speech or cogent policy argument.
The proposed set design for the RNC conjures memories of the “Man in the Arena” series that Ailes produced for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. But once again, the series misses opportunities to provide deeper historical context, reducing Ailes’ true political and televisual genius to quick soundbites designed to validate liberal assumptions that Trump supporters are mere dupes of sly propagandists.
While Trump in many ways embodies the synthesis of political populism and tabloid television that Ailes spent much of his life championing, The Loudest Voice uses this fact to bluntly and predictably litigate the concerns of the present.
The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once observed, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” — suggesting that we can only truly understand human events once they have safely ended and passed on into history. Perhaps The Loudest Voice has come too soon. The loudest voice (Ailes) may have passed, but the louder-than-loudest voice (Trump) still distorts his legacy.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime’s parent company.)