Milo Yiannopoulos And The State Of American Conservatism
Milo Yiannopoulos was a troll and a peddler in offensiveness, but the fact that he became a star on the American right was the result of a transformation of American conservatism that has been entirely unhealthy.
The 2017 version of the Conservative Political Action Conference is scheduled to begin on Thursday, and it has already managed to generate controversy. The latest incident started when it was announced over the weekend that Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial writer associated with Breitbart News who seems to have created his own niche as someone who, much like Ann Coulter, says things for the sake of causing controversy and outrage and then revels in the outrage he causes, would be delivering the Keynote Address at the conference. Almost immediately, the invitation to Yiannopoulos stirred controversy even among conservatives given his ties to Breitbart, his loud and outspoken support for Donald Trump, and the contents of his writing and speeches in which he clearly champions ideas that fall within what has come to be called the “alt-right,” a catch-all term that describes a branch of conservatism that is at the same time nationalist, xenophobic, and in many cases outright racist. Given the fact that Yiannopoulos’s appearances at places such as the University of California at Berkeley and other locations have been the subject of heated protests that have often devolved into violence, it was anticipated that his appearance at CPAC would be similarly controversial.
The invitation turned out to be far more controversial than even first anticipated. Early yesterday morning, videos were released via a conservative blog that appeared to show Yiannopoulos excusing pedophilia and advocating in favor of sexual relationships between adults and children as young as 13 years old. The outrage was quick and vocal, with voices on both the right and the left calling on the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, to withdraw the invitation. By the end of the day, that’s exactly what happened as Yiannopoulos was disinvited from CPAC and quickly faced other consequences from having his past words made public:
WASHINGTON — Milo Yiannopoulos, a polemical Breitbart editor and unapologetic defender of the alt-right, tested the limits of how far his provocations could go after the publication of a video in which he condones sexual relations with boys as young as 13 and laughs off the seriousness of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests.
On Monday, the organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded their invitation for him to speak this week. Simon & Schuster said it was canceling publication of “Dangerous” after standing by him through weeks of criticism of the deal. And Breitbart itself was reportedly reconsidering his role amid calls online for it to sever ties with him.
Mr. Yiannopoulos’s comments, which quickly created an uproar online over the weekend, put many conservatives in a deeply uncomfortable position. They have long defended Mr. Yiannopoulos’s attention-seeking stunts and racially charged antics on the grounds that the left had tried to hypocritically censor his right to free speech.
But endorsing pedophilia, it seemed, was more than they could tolerate. The board of the American Conservative Union, which includes veterans of the conservative movement like Grover Norquist and Morton Blackwell, made the decision to revoke Mr. Yiannopoulos’s speaking slot and condemn his comments on Monday.
“We initially extended the invitation knowing that the free speech issue on college campuses is a battlefield where we need brave, conservative standard-bearers,” Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said in a written statement.
Regarding Mr. Yiannopoulos’s comments, Mr. Schlapp called them “disturbing” and said Mr. Yiannopoulos’s explanation of them was insufficient.
Late Monday, Mr. Yiannopoulos said that he would hold a news conference on Tuesday to discuss his statements.
Mr. Yiannopoulos, who has railed against Muslims, immigrants, transgender people and women’s rights, is a marquee contributor to Breitbart News, where he serves as senior editor. He has amassed a fan base for his stunts and often-outrageous statements. But by Monday afternoon, his future at the website was being intensely debated by top management.
One Breitbart journalist, who requested anonymity to describe private deliberations, described divisions in the newsroom over whether Mr. Yiannopoulos could stay on. There was some consensus among staff members that his remarks were more extreme than his usual speech, the journalist said, and executives were discussing by telephone whether his apology was enough to preserve his position at the site.
A Breitbart representative declined to comment.
After the video was leaked on Twitter by a conservative group called the Reagan Battalion, Mr. Yiannopoulos denied that he had ever condoned child sexual abuse, noting that he was a victim himself. He blamed his “British sarcasm” and “deceptive editing” for leading to a misunderstanding.
But in the tape, the fast-talking polemicist is clear that he has no problem with older men abusing children as young as 13, which he then conflates with relationships between older and younger gay men who are of consenting age.
“No, no, no. You’re misunderstanding what pedophilia means,” Mr. Yiannopoulos says on the tape, in which he is talking to radio hosts in a video chat. “Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty,” he adds, dismissing the fact that 13-year-olds are children.
The notion of consent, he says, is “arbitrary and oppressive.”
At one point in the video, an unknown speaker says that the behavior being defended by Mr. Yiannopoulos is akin to molestation by Catholic priests. Mr. Yiannopoulos responds, in an ironic tone, by crediting a priest for having helped develop his sexual technique.
Conservatives reacted with near unanimous disgust at the comments. Some expressed bewilderment that conference organizers would extend an invitation to Mr. Yiannopoulos in the first place, given his history of statements that have been offensive to blacks and Muslims, and have generally pushed the bounds of decency. Twitter has banned him.
In addition to losing the opportunity to speak at CPAC, Yiannopoulos also lost a multi-million dollar book deal with Simon and Shuster, and, by the end of the day, it was reported that as many as a half-dozen top Breitbart employees were threatening to quit if the site didn’t end its relationship with him because of the comments. This afternoon, it was announced that Yiannopoulos had “resigned” from his position at Breitbart.
I haven’t written about Yiannopoulos before largely because, while I was unfortunately well aware of who he was and what he was saying, I didn’t think it was necessary to give the man more of what he quite obviously craves, which is publicity whether it’s positive or negative. Much like Ann Coulter and similar provocateurs on the right, he seemed to thrive on negative press and opinion most of all and, slowly but surely, he went from being a guy who wrote a badly edited column at Breitbart to a media star among certain segments of the right, largely thanks to the negative reaction he would create among people that conservatives viewed as their political enemies.
As I noted above, he had become especially well-known for his appearances on college campuses, usually sponsored by some official or unofficially recognized group of conservative students on some of the most politically liberal campuses in the country. These protests usually resulted in protests that would accomplish little more than draw even more attention to Yiannopoulos and his cohorts. Additionally, his column and other posts at Breitbart would be frequently passed around on social media both despite and because of the controversy that they aroused. Yiannaopoulous also became one of the earliest and most vocal supporters of Donald Trump at the Breitbart site and, arguably, was one of the major forces behind the process that turned that site into the advocates for the Trump campaign and outlet for the so-called alt-right that it has become over the past two years.
Despite the fact that Yiannopoulos specialized in being particularly offensive, and the fact that he often brought up topics that at least the socially conservative wing of the GOP would find offensive from other sources, he nonetheless had become a star for many on the right. To a large degree, it appeared that this stardom derived from the fact that he was purposely seeking to offend people that conservatives considered political enemies. In addition to that, however, there were clearly other things involved in his rise to fame that had little to do with his deliberate offensiveness, just as there was more to the fact that Breitbart News has become one of the most heavily viewed websites on the right. Namely, as much as some conservatives preferred not to recognize it, Yiannapoulos and Breitbart were speaking for an increasingly growing segment of the right while what became the “Never Trump” movement that sought to divorce the right from their rhetoric found that they didn’t have nearly the power or numbers they thought they did.
To be fair, not everyone on the right fell for Yiannopoulos’s act. Just as there is still a group on the right that is standing up and criticizing Trump, there has always been a part of the right-wing in the United States that rejected the things that people like Milo, Coulter, and others stand for In many cases, though, these people remained quiet in no small part because it quickly became politically and personally risky to speak out against the rising paranoid populism that began popping up on the right with the rise of the Tea Party movement. Additionally, many commentators refrained from speaking openly against people like Milo due to the fact that doing so would often lead to online threats and harassment from supporters who seemed to have few scruples about what they said. Finally, one gets the sense among many of these dissidents that it wasn’t clear just how many others agreed with them. Because of all of this and more, they remained quiet. As a result, the cancer that people like Milo, Coulter, and Donald Trump represented was allowed to fester and grow to the point where it has become so powerful that it has a seat in the White House in the form of both Trump and his right-hand man Steve Bannon.
Matt Lewis, a conservative political writer who wrote a book about the state of the GOP and conservatism called Too Dumb To Fail, explains why it was that so many conservatives fell for Milo’s act:
The invitation to speak at CPAC tells you all you need to know about the state of American conservatism and why it was so easily co-opted by Trumpism. So why was he invited in the first place? Yiannopoulos, like Trump, is a paradox. On one hand, he brings a certain cosmopolitan flair to a group of people accustomed to being thought of as unsophisticated; on the other hand, he reinforces every negative stereotype imaginable. I was among those who criticized CPAC’s decision to baptize Trump by inviting him to speak at its 2013 meeting. Now, that seems quaint. Once arguably too wonky and prudish, today’s conservatism, judging by CPAC’s invited speakers, is increasingly crude, vulgar, and lowbrow.
Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance. His appearance could be seen as a microcosm of a movement that became everything it used to hate—that defines deviancy down.
True conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness. Along with a penchant for showmanship, this seems to be Yiannopoulos’s entire shtick―and it’s a good one. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, and since Yiannopoulos says horrible things about radical feminists and other annoying leftists, he is, ergo, a conservative hero. This was the initial message from Schlapp. Before rescinding Yiannopoulos’s invitation (in response to a critical tweet from conservative writer Jonah Goldberg), Schlapp said the “1st amendment is dead on campus. Conservatives should fight back. As radioactive as milo is he is fighting back.”
If “fighting back” means using the weapons of identity politics and victimhood is the name of the game, then Yiannopoulos is bulletproof. He’s gay and (he says) part Jewish (and he likes ” black dick,” so you can’t call him a bigot or a homophobe). He also has a British accent, which American conservatives mistake for sophistication, so he can’t be labeled a rube. He’s also a martyr who evokes sympathy when his intentionally provocative behavior sparks even more outrageous (and intolerant) behavior. Not only do these characteristics provide him cover to say anything outlandish he likes, they also provide cover for his fans. After the news broke that he had been disinvited to CPAC, Yiannopoulos posted a statement on Facebook. Quite tellingly, he begins by casting himself as both a sympathetic minority (a gay man) and a “child abuse” victim. The problem is that we too often confuse being politically incorrect with being a hero. It is one thing to defend someone’s right to say something vile; it is another thing to reward him for it.
It’s unlikely that Yiannopoulos would have had his CPAC invitation revoked, or lost anything else, had it not been for the revelations that were released Sunday night. Instead, he would have been celebrated as a hero who is bravely standing up for freedom of speech against the forces of “political correctness,” his book deal would have gone forward and probably been a best-seller among conservatives, and he would have continued to get invited to speak publicly. That is where the problem that Milo and his like represents to the American right lies. As Lewis puts it, the problem with conservatism today isn’t the fact that Yiannopoulou made some clearly insane comments about pedophilia and sexual relationships between adults and children. The problem is that he was invited to speak at CPAC and considered a celebrity on the right to begin with. To a large degree, Yiannopoulos rose to fame for the same reasons that Donald Trump did, because he said things that an uncomfortably large segment of the American right agrees with and because he annoyed people who were considered political enemies. This isn’t the sign of a healthy political movement that is concerned with the future of the country, it’s the sign of a self-absorbed group of people who believe what they believe not for strong intellectual reasons but because it feels right and because it offends people. While people like this have always existed, they’ve become an increasingly vocal segment of the American right, and people like Milo and Trump are the end result of the transformation of the American right from the largely intellectual movement it started out us under the leadership of people like William F. Buckley Jr. and others into the populist outlet for rage and xenophobia it has turned into. Again, this isn’t true of all conservatives, but it’s something that they let happen to their movement. Unless and until they act to take that movement back, it will continue to drift even further into the fringes of American politics, and that will have serious consequences for American politics.