Milo Yiannopoulos is done for. The Breitbart editor, who made a name for himself by peddling ‘unsayable’ things, and riding the waves of right-wing adulation and left-wing horror which followed, finally stumbled over a genuine taboo. A recently recirculated tape of remarks on the benefits of relationships between adolescent boys and older men has finally caused the American conservative establishment to cut its ties with him. He has lost his slot at CPAC, the premier right-wing political gathering in the US, which has previously hosted defenders of internment and slavery; Simon & Schuster, the publisher which gave him a $250,000 advance for a book (working title Dangerous) and defended the offer on the grounds of freedom of speech, has cancelled his contract. Last night, amid rumours of staff threatening to walk, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart. One might marvel at what stirs the underused muscles of conscience in a Breitbart staffer were the temptation to schadenfreude not so overwhelming.
One irony of this second-rate Night of the Long Knives is that the excuse beloved of Yiannopoulos’s enablers and those profiting from him – freedom of speech – is far from the absolute and unlimited right they claim. It’s worth remembering what those limits don’t constrain: outing and humiliating a trans student on stage in Wisconsin; calling for universities to ‘purge the illegals’ by shopping undocumented students to immigration enforcement; enlisting thousands of followers to hound a black woman off the internet. Such people and such lives are meat for entertainment – but hands off the kids. Publications that defend his free speech in those matters, but not in this one, clearly find something congenial in his invective.
The various targets of Yiannopoulos’s venom are utterly orthodox: women, gays, black people, Muslims, migrants. The reason he has found so rapturous a reception on the college circuit is not that he is saying the unsayable, but that he is restating the fundamentals of conservative American culture. His deviation from this orthodoxy demonstrates the consequences of broaching a real taboo: the dollars evaporate in front of your eyes. So conventional were his targets that Newsweek’s liberal anti-Trump journalist Kurt Eichenwald could tweet his admiration for Yiannopoulos’s castigation of campus radicalism even while deploring the recent revelations.
As an editor at Breitbart, Yiannopoulos became a key media face for the emerging pro-Trump coalition, the so-called alt-right – much to the chagrin of old-school Nazis and paleoconservatives, who found themselves represented by a gay man of Jewish descent, and worse, one with dyed hair and a camp inflection. Some commentators find themselves rapt by these apparent contradictions, or imply that they point to a nihilist opportunism on his part – as if so contradictory a man couldn’t possibly really believe such things. Though it’s easy to suspect him of Iago-like self-confection, his ultimate sincerity is unknowable, and not really the point. On TV he delivers ultra-reactionary lines without a flicker of doubt, and with every rhetorical trick he knows.
As anyone who watched him dance venomous circles around Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – or insinuate his way into Bill Maher’s affections through a shared disdain for trans women – might conclude, Yiannopoulos understands that political communication is less about rationality and deliberation than it is about rhetoric, identification and emotion. The weapons of reason alone are blunt against him. It is a lesson rapidly being assimilated across the European hard right.
In his speech announcing his resignation from Breitbart, Yiannopoulos thanked Steve Bannon, the site’s white nationalist proprietor and intimate adviser to President Trump, for the opportunity. He knows where power sits, and proximity to power is what has so far acted as a glue to keep the ramshackle Trump coalition together. Bannon could have saved Yiannopoulos with a wave of the hand, just as White House threats to defund UC Berkeley followed quick on the heels of its protest against him. That he has not – and that this old tape is suddenly in circulation again – suggests that glue is becoming at least a little unstuck under the torsions of political power: the coalition may yet splinter further.
Will Yiannopoulos survive? His reinventions have always depended on the charity of his audience. From Iron Cross-wearing Tori Amos plagiarist, to self-loathing Catholic homosexual, to bankrupt tech blogger, to Twinks 4 Trump, his obsessions have remained similar: hatred of women, especially women in the public sphere; admiration for the powerful and contempt for the weak; vitriolic antipathy to the Left. These are not pretended beliefs, but permanent features of his position; they are the same obsessions chronicled in Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the fantasy lives of proto-fascist Freikorps men in 1930s Germany. In his transgression of a taboo – by taking a stance which admits, though for shock purposes, the unsettling complexity of adolescent sexuality, even as it disdains to take seriously the need for protection against exploitation – he may find himself permanently excluded from the homosocial fantasies of the new young Freikorps. But, as Theweleit writes, such men await nothing more than to see ‘this whole noxious world explode’. Yiannopoulos may yet find another perch from which to help them on their way.