Beware the return of Milo
In the span of 96 hours, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos became the ultimate embodiment of Icarus, flying too close to the sun — virtually skimming it, within this metaphor — before disintegrating before our very eyes.
Within that four day timespan, Yiannopoulos had a chummy appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show, and the Conservative Political Action Conference invited him to be one of its headlining speakers. This is the same CPAC that once featured prominent anti-LGBTQ displays from the likes of the Traditional Values coalition, which was now heavily promoting a “gay cross-dressing Catholic part-Jewish Brit” who likes to openly discuss his promiscuity, utilizes “ironic” racial and misogynist humor, and often refers to President Donald Trump as “Daddy.” The Maher appearance and CPAC invitations were seen as an acceptance of Yiannopoulos’ extreme behavior, often associated with the so-called alt-right, into the mainstream. Pre-orders of his upcoming Simon & Schuster book, Dangerous, skyrocketed.
But then, almost as quickly as his mainstream acceptance was extended, it was withdrawn. CPAC was forced to hastily disinvite Yiannopoulos when a right-wing blog favoring establishment conservatism publicized clips from an interview in which he appeared to make comments condoning pedophilia. His book was cancelled soon after, and Yiannopoulos was forced to resign from far-right media outlet Breitbart.
This string of events caused many to wonder how mainstream conservatism had come within hours of allowing a figure such as Yiannopoulos to speak at what is arguably the most important annual conservative event. It was a far cry from conservatism of yesteryear. As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times, “2004 was, you may recall, the year of the ‘values voter,’ when anti-same-sex marriage referendums passed across the country, George W. Bush was re-elected with strong evangelical support, and liberals feared that a killjoy fundamentalism was about to make America Puritan Again.”
The “dizzying trajectory” between Bush and the evangelical base to the often-sickening antics of Yiannopoulos can be tough to track. But most of it seems to have resulted from the numerous victories social liberals mustered over the religious right throughout the late 20th-century and particularly in the early 21st-century.
The backlash to these liberal victories showcased a conservative movement in transition — “less traditionalist and more populist, less religious and more rowdy, not sacred but profane.” The strategy that resulted was crafted to deliberately target liberalism’s ever-growing ring of social justice sanctimony, which has consumed innumerable aspects of our daily life from academics to advertising, and even entertainment domains such as comedy and sports.
Men primarily compose the demographic of this backlash, but the similarities generally end there. Some are angry young men, frustrated with what they perceive to be the imposing hypocrisy of feminism and societal shifts designed to delegitimize their place in the world. Others are the “deplorables,” citizens from rural Middle America, eager to prove the cosmopolitan elites just how much power they have. Then, there is the elderly following, which is primarily composed of white citizens who carry a geriatric sense of tolerance and yearning for the homogenous America of their youth. And these are just a few of the groups that figures like Yiannopoulos have been able to tap for support by playing on their collective fears and anger.
One of the few recurring threads between all these groups is that very few of them are likely to identify with the religious right. According to the Times, your average Trump supporter is “likely to be a cultural evangelical but not a churchgoer, or a pro-choice lapsed Catholic who never cared for religious moralists.” Instead, many of the them are younger people, with no firm religious beliefs, a keen understanding of technology and a fear of liberal institutions, such as feminism and political correctness. A fair number would tack Islam onto that list of fears.
This movement has caused commentators and analysts to compare American conservatism to Europe’s strain. The example offered by Douthat is “France’s National Front, which draws support from Catholic traditionalists, ex-Communist workingmen and secular — and gay — voters who fear Islam’s encroachments.”
So, for a disjointed movement, it somehow makes sense that only a wildly out-of-place figure could bring them all together. With his flamboyant homosexuality, over-the-top claims of promiscuity and his posh British accent, Yiannopoulus, on face value, represents everything angry Middle American conservatives are not.
But, as it turns out, his outsider status “is a selling point, not a liability,” as Douthat argued. “Even as it lets him turn the left’s identity politics against itself, it also enables him to flatter each conservative constituency in a somewhat different way, to give each a piece of vindication and play to each with a piece of his persona.”
For religious conservatives who lost the war on gay marriage, Yiannopoulos is a palatable gay ally. His in-your-face approach to homosexuality— which includes endless streams of crass jokes and descriptions of his own sexual prowess — allows religious supporters to comfort themselves with the knowledge that they were right about gay people. But he was also a gay guy who dressed up in drag who “got it.”
He offered his angry, young supporters a slew of biting, often vulgar criticisms of feminism that, unlike their own criticisms, could not be accused of being done as the result of sexual frustration.
And, as he hobnobs with the furious Americans who populate rural pockets of the country, he is able to offer himself as a representative who hails from the snobbish East Coast and, yet again, “gets it.”
Douthat offered a cheeky observation about Yiannopoulos’ stunning ability to pull together the fractured remains of cultural conservatism: “Milo’s appeal on the right is, one might say, intersectional.”
Worst of all, Yiannopoulos has developed a unique ability to stir up his enemies, and provoke what Douthat terms the “shut up or we’ll shut you down” side of left-wing politics. Yiannopoulos’ behavior has caused innumerable protests, demonstrations and even occasional violence. But the left’s frustration only served to vindicate conservative fears about the “authoritarian left.” Yiannopoulos was offered a slot at CPAC for this exact reason, as the organization cited him as prominent voice for free speech on college campuses.
After all of Yiannopoulos’ other behaviors and actions, it took an appeared support of ephebophilia to bring him down for the moment. It was the first time that conservatives could see no workaround. It was, as Breitbart’s editor-in-chief said, “indefensible.”
But Yiannopoulos is far from gone. In fact, his Facebook followers seem further empowered and emboldened, offering defenses for his comments that seemed to suggest grown men could have sex with boys as young as 13. Many have claimed that if you are “sexually mature,” then you can make legal consent. Others have reiterated Yiannopoulos’ claim for one of the publicized clips that consent laws are “oppressive.”
If the actual events of CPAC are any indication — with the likes of Steve Bannon and President Trump receiving wild applause for their jingoistic rhetoric — Yiannopoulos will be primed to return like a phoenix and cause more shit than he ever has before.