All of which is, if nothing else, glorious grist for connoisseurs of institutional decline. The grander the institution at its height, the more fascinating the decline, and institutions don’t get much grander than Great Britain or the Grand Old Party.
There’s one pattern in particular which appears with surprising frequency: call it the Wile E Coyote Trajectory. First the ground falls out from underneath you, and you have no support, no relevance. And yet, in this first stage, you still have a certain amount of institutional forward momentum. You keep on going, sometimes with surprising vigor and velocity, until, suddenly, and much to your own surprise, you plunge rapidly downwards.
The Roger Ailes story was if anything overdetermined. (And yes, despite being a single individual, he’s one of the few individuals who counts as an institution in his own right.) Ailes is, narrowly, a victim of changing sexual politics: powerful predatory men no longer have complete immunity, and now only have partial immunity.
Of course, we still have a very long way to go. It's still ridiculously hard for women to make these allegations, for starters. Gretchen Carlson (a) waited until she was fired, (b) took aim only at Ailes, not Fox, and (c) can afford the very best legal and PR advice. Even then, Ailes managed to get paid $40 million to go away, and in principle he remains just as employable as men like Roman Polanski and R. Kelly. The main things preventing Ailes from getting yet another powerful job are his departure agreement, his age, and his health, not Carlson’s lawsuit.
So how is it that Ailes went from lawsuit to unceremonious defenestration in record-quick time? That surely wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago. It’s partially – but only partially – a function of the progress that America has made in taking these kind of allegations seriously.
But there’s something else going on, beyond the sexual politics. That’s Republican Party politics.
What happened to Roger Ailes in many ways mirrors what’s happening to the Republican Party as a whole. Ailes has for decades been a major force in the GOP, and at points in the not so distant past was its single most powerful and important individual. But then the Tea Party revolution happened, and Ailes no longer had the kind of power and control that he was used to. The Tea Party, being a genuine grassroots movement, was by its nature much less controllable than the leader-led party of the past. Ailes parted ways with Glenn Beck, who was going off the reservation, but it turned out that Glenn Beck was more aligned with the mood of Republican America than Ailes was.
Similarly, the grandees of the Republican Party had no plan for what they should do after Mitt Romney lost the last election despite receiving a significant majority of white votes. Then, weakened by the Tea Party revolution, they found themselves utterly incapable of neutralizing Trump, who more or less singlehandedly delivered the death blow to the party. The RNC this year is a trainwreck, and proud Republicans who think in terms of substantive policy positions are horrified. But in a way Trump is just a catalyst, speeding up the inevitable. The pro-trade, pro-immigration Republican elite were seeing their base drift further and further away from them, until, one day, they looked down and there was no base at all. Ailes was part of the insurrection, to an extent, but the Republican revolution, like all revolutions, devoured its own children. Doesn’t your heart just bleed.
The Brexit story was very similar: the anger of the people versus smug elites, politics versus economics. The politics of the UK became self-destructive, both at the level of the Labour Party and at the level of the country as a whole, for exactly the same reason that the politics of the Republican base became self-destructive. White men used to run the world, they used to have certain privileges. Now they’re losing those privileges, which is a good thing, but the white men don’t like it one bit, and so they start displaying an atavistic desire to return to their privileged past, and they blame foreigners for their plight.
That’s why they voted for the most racist candidate in the Republican primary. And that’s why Nigel Farage, a loathsome racist, managed to win the anti-EU campaign.
Britain’s elites quietly knew that the country had become a relatively small part of Europe, that it was delusional to think that the UK could be some kind of important world power on its own. But they never said that in public, only in private. Britain can’t fight a war any more, even a small war like the one it fought in 1982. It can’t even negotiate trade treaties any more, since it sensibly outsourced those skills to the EU many years ago. But no one told the national population. So they ran with vigor and momentum, and voted to Leave, convinced that they were on solid ground, only to then look down and have a national oh-shit moment.
What all of these things have in common is the enduring resonance of a powerful brand. Even once the institution itself has lost power, the brand remains. The UK had this idea that it was powerful, because everybody in the country knows about Great Britain, two World Wars, empire, the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, that kind of thing. The Grand Old Party, same thing. And then when these institutions implode, everybody who grew up with them is fascinated and appalled, even long after they’ve lost power and relevance.
Large institutions will always have a disconnect between where they think they are and where the world actually is. Old and powerful people, in particular, are naturally going to be connected to the old seemingly-eternal brands, even if the real world has moved on, and is elsewhere, and doesn’t care any more. And once the old and powerful realize what has happened, it’s always too late. They look down, and there’s nothing there.