All of these tidbits are interesting — and will draw headlines. But the most important part of the piece, which is taken from his book — “On the House” — set to be released later this month, is what Boeher writes about the role Fox News and Roger Ailes, the man who ran the network, played in seeding the ground for the rise of the conspiracy theory wing of the GOP and its eventual leader Donald J. Trump.
Here’s Boehner (bolding is mine):
“At some point after the 2008 election, something changed with my friend Roger Ailes. I once met him in New York during the Obama years to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air. It was making my job trying to accomplish anything conservative that much harder. I didn’t expect this meeting to change anything, but I still thought it was bullshit, and I wanted Roger to know it.
“When I put it to him like that, he didn’t have much to say. But he did go on and on about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which he thought was part of a grand conspiracy that led back to Hillary Clinton. Then he outlined elaborate plots by which George Soros and the Clintons and Obama (and whoever else came to mind) were trying to destroy him….
“I thought I could get him to control the crazies, and instead I found myself talking to the president of the club.
“Places like Fox News were creating the wrong incentives.”
Ailes died in 2017, so we’ll never know — as Boehner claims here — whether the head of Fox News believed all of the conspiracies being peddled on his air. But it doesn’t really matter.
The reality that Boehner exposes is that following the 2008 election of Obama, something fundamentally changed at Fox News. It was no longer about pushing conservative policy solutions and young stars of the movement. Instead, the network became a fever swamp for internet trolls pushing every sort of conspiracy theory — from Benghazi to Obama’s citizenship.
To Boehner’s critical point about how Fox skewed incentives within the GOP: No longer was the goal for most members of Congress (or those aspiring Republicans hoping to join their ranks) to accrue seniority and rise in the ranks of their preferred committee or even into House GOP leadership. Now the goal was to become a conservative pundit on Fox News — that was where the real power (and money if you decided to leave Congress) was.
And the best way to get on Fox News as much as possible? Say the most outlandish and outrageous things possible. Fox viewers were ready to believe whatever the worst thing you could say about Obama or any of the Clintons. There was no bridge too far. And with ratings as the only goal, Ailes (with a major assist from Fox owner Rupert Murdoch) leaned in hard — vacating any sort of journalistic mission to tell people the truth about their government and politicians in favor of pandering to an audience that wanted to believe that any and every Democratic politician was evil.
Boehner rightly notes the rise of Rep. Michele Bachmann, who ran for president in 2012, as a prime example of how Fox News helped turn the Republican Party into something that he barely recognized. As he recounts of Bachmann’s request to land a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee:
“There was no way she was going to get on Ways and Means, the most prestigious committee in Congress, and jump ahead of everyone else in line. Not while I was Speaker. In earlier days, a member of Congress in her position wouldn’t even have dared ask for something like this. Sam Rayburn would have laughed her out of the city.
“So I told her no—diplomatically, of course. But as she kept on talking, it dawned on me. This wasn’t a request of the Speaker of the House. This was a demand.
“Her response to me was calm and matter-of-fact. ‘Well, then I’ll just have to go talk to Sean Hannity and everybody at Fox,’ she said, ‘and Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and everybody else on the radio, and tell them that this is how John Boehner is treating the people who made it possible for the Republicans to take back the House.’
“I wasn’t the one with the power, she was saying. I just thought I was. She had the power now.
“She was right, of course.”
Consider that. The speaker of the House — one of the handful of most powerful people in American politics — being forced to admit that he was on the wrong side of a power play because Bachmann had the platform of Fox News at her disposal.
What Boehner’s essay — and, presumably, his forthcoming book — make clear is a) Fox News took a clear turn following the 2008 election, swerving from simply a conservative tilt on news to a conspiracy-laden advocacy organization and b) Fox, not Boehner or any other elected official in the GOP, was really running the Republican Party.
Those two realizations make the eventual rise of Donald Trump — a candidate literally created by Fox News — all the more understandable. Fox had spent almost a decade prepping the GOP base for a candidate that cared little for facts and fed them red meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.