The rise and fall of Milo Yiannopoulos
Milo Yiannopolous used to be dangerous, a force of nature capable of whipping both the left and right into a frenzy of outrage. Today, he is a washed-up performance artist with an increasing inability to trade in his primary commodity: shock.
Following the anti-climactic collapse of an event that Milo (who I'll refer to as such for your convenience and mine) spent months promoting as "Free Speech Week" at UC Berkeley, all the fuss made over him by supporters and detractors alike now feels like an incredible waste of energy.
Earlier this year, Milo was inexplicably lauded by Bill Maher as a "younger, alive Christopher Hitchens," but this past weekend Milo was reduced to giving a Facebook Live address to an audience of about 3,000, complaining that the conservative Berkeley student group he aligned with had abandoned the event, leaving him without an official invite to speak on campus.
A number of the high-profile speakers Milo had advertised as scheduled to appear said they had not been invited, including Charles Murray, who added that he would never appear with Milo "because he is a despicable asshole." Even confirmed speakers such as Stephen Bannon and Ann Coulter suddenly found their schedules too jam-packed to lend support to the erstwhile "dangerous f--got" — as Milo, who is gay, had named one of his campus tours.
Ultimately, Milo's supporters (all 25-30 of them, according to Mother Jones) were treated to a brief, unamplified speech in a public square about football players kneeling during the national anthem before their hero stalked off with the only comrades willing to be seen with him — "Pizzagate" conspiracy promoter Mike Cernovich and notorious anti-Muslim activist Pamela Gellar. Berkeley spent upwards of $800,000 to prepare for potentially violent clashes and vandalism, but even the anti-Milo forces, numbering in the hundreds, weren't much of an issue.
To paraphrase a sentiment of indeterminate origin, "What if they threw a culture war and nobody came?"
Such is the nightmare Milo has relegated himself to, more Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — clinging to memories of fame and glory and delusionally preparing for a comeback that will never come — than the polemicist who was arguably the most emblematic media figure of the 2016 zeitgeist that ultimately led to Donald Trump assuming the presidency.
You can count me among those who were repulsed by Milo's politics (to the extent that they are even coherent) and infuriated that this opportunistic troll had convinced many that the promotion of "free speech" — and not fame and fortune at any cost — was his end game. We argued that as a deliberate provocateur without much substance, Milo feeds on outrage — therefore apathy was the most effective method of deflating his bubble.
Many on the political left countered that Milo's rhetoric presented such an existential threat that the only justifiable course of action was the deployment of vigilante violence to prevent him from speaking to a small group of conservatives at Berkeley in February.
Supporters of such illiberal no-platforming tactics claimed Milo had to be silenced in order to prevent him from doxxing undocumented immigrant students. They presented no evidence that he intended to do so, nor did they explain why shutting down Milo's speech at Berkeley would have prevented him from using his massive online presence to doxx anyway. The fact that shutting him down provided exactly the narrative Milo sought — that the real threat of political violence comes from the left — as well as the fact that he never ended up doxxing anyone at all didn't matter. Punching Milo felt good, and was therefore righteous.
The left fell for Milo's "dangerous" con, but they weren't the only ones.
The right embraced Milo as the hero they needed — a contrarian with a British accent (Americans of all stripes are suckers for a haughty Englishman's dulcet tones). In Milo, they found their token gay immigrant friend who would champion their cause in the battle against the "libtards" and "social justice warriors (SJWs)" they believed were destroying both humor and free speech for "real Americans."
Carving out a distinctive media niche as a social media troll as well as in the alt-right friendly worlds of Breitbart and alt-light YouTube shows (which share much of the alt-right's politics while publicly rejecting overt calls for a white ethnostate), Milo became a right wing antihero. Like a malevolent bizarro-world caricature of the legendary kitsch-and-bad-taste filmmaker John Waters, the flamboyantly dressed and impeccably coiffed Milo made reading racist, sexist, and Islamophobic (et al) invective off an iPad into his own pop star diva act.
Milo even scored a major book deal before his publisher dumped him after an interview resurfaced in which he praised a priest who molested him for teaching him how to give sexual favors.
That was also the moment Milo was abandoned by the mainstream right-wing, who may not have fully understood or approved of his schtick, but was all too happy to invite him to CPAC if it got the young people thinking conservative was cool. To the right, all of Milo's despicable identitarianism was the good kind of "dangerous," but his frank conversation about the complicated consequences sexual abuse has on a child's maturing sexual identity was "too dangerous."
A recent (and fascinating) profile in Playboy by Art Tavana depicts Milo as a washed-up performance artist who has lost his ability to shock, but whose profligate and hard-partying lifestyle have left him with no shortage of bills to pay and no appreciable skills beyond a willingness to act like an asshole for money. It's possible Milo can have a second act (Donald Trump is president, after all), perhaps with his mysterious "lifestyle brand" MILO, Inc — the ultimate publisher of his book, which was released in July to middling sales and little outrage — although a Morton Downey, Jr.-like fade into obscurity seems more likely.
Now that his right-wing audience is a shadow of what it once was and his left wing enemies appear less determined to shoot roman candles in his general direction, Milo is less a corrosive cultural entity than a graying totem in a 2016 time capsule. Regardless of who succeeds Milo as the next celebrity of right-wing white identity politics, the worst of his/her rhetoric should still be publicly engaged, rejected, and defeated.
But for those who insisted Milo represented the first wave in a coming brownshirt revolution, they should look to this past weekend in Berkeley — and not the nihilistic antifa riot in February — as what victory looks like. When Milo was escorted from a raging mob he could claim martyrdom, but now that he's mostly met with indifference, he can't plausibly blame anyone but himself.
It's time for those who considered Milo and his rhetoric to be an existential threat to admit they were conned, just as his supporters were.