You can thank Steve Bannon, now a central figure in Donald Trump’s administration, for making the clownish hustler Milo Yiannopoulos a star. As the editor of Breitbart, Bannon recruited Yiannopoulos to the site, where he published columns like “No, J.C. Penney, Fat People Should Absolutely Hate Themselves” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” If Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person, Yiannopoulos is a Trump voter’s fantasy of a decadent gay sophisticate. His shtick is to wrap various shades of reaction—anti-feminism, racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of Muslims—in camp, to sell bigotry as cheeky provocation. He and co-author Allum Bokhari put it this way, in a Breitbart ode to the alt-right: “Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish ‘Shlomo Shekelburg’ to ‘Remove Kebab,’ an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.”
Yiannopoulos uses his gayness to grant absolution to his mostly straight right-wing audiences, telling them that by reveling in prejudice, they are bravely flouting taboos. During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, at an event billed as an America First Unity Rally, Yiannopoulos told a crowd full of bikers and Alex Jones acolytes: “I might be a dick-sucking faggot, but I fucking hate the left … the left in this country is a cancer that you need to eradicate.” As a gay man, he added, he aims to be “transgressive, to be naughty, to be mischievous. And today in America that means being right-wing.”
It turns out the right isn’t quite as enamored of transgression as Yiannopoulos thought. In the past few days, his career has imploded, thanks to old but previously little-noticed recordings in which he celebrates sex between teenage boys and adult men. In quick succession, Yiannopoulos’ invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference was withdrawn, his $250,000 Simon and Schuster book contract was canceled, and on Tuesday afternoon, he resigned from Breitbart. Even Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term alt-right, now dismisses him. “He cannot be defended at this point,” Spencer said in a denunciatory video on Tuesday, adding, “I think it’s also clear that his career is over, definitively.”
Yiannopoulos, a sworn enemy of victim culture, reacted to his sudden fall by playing the victim card. “I’m a gay man and a child-abuse victim,” he said, at a Tuesday afternoon press conference in SoHo. “Between the ages of 13 and 16, two men touched me in ways they should not have. One of those men was a priest.” At the time, he said, “I didn’t perceive what was happening as abusive. But I can look back now and see that it was. I still don’t view myself as a victim, but clearly I am one.” He blithe remarks about the value of man-boy sex were thus his way of working through his own experience, though he allowed that “my usual blend of sassy gay British sarcasm, provocation, and gallows humor might have come across as flippancy.”
Over the next 30 minutes, Yiannopoulos apologized, deflected, complained about a political witch hunt, and tried to cast himself as a performer being held to an unfairly literal journalistic standard. “Go into any drag bar or gay club, and you will hear joke after joke about clerical sexual abuse,” he said. “I’m not afforded the same freedom to make those kind of jokes, because the media chooses to selectively define me as a political figure in some circumstances and a comedian in others.” Then it was back to leaning on his sad history: “To be a victim of child abuse, and at the same time be accused of being an apologist for child abuse, is absurd.”
There were moments of bravado: Yiannopoulos says that another publisher will pick up his book and that he’s starting his own media company. “I don’t think this has done any harm for my profile,” he said. “I think more people are going to read what I have to say on the subject of free speech as a result of this.” All the same, he seemed a little shaken, describing the past 48 hours as a “horrible and humiliating and degrading experience.”
Now he apparently wants to rebrand himself as an entertainer rather than a polemicist. “I’m going to focus now on entertainment, on education, and less perhaps on journalism,” he said. It will be surprising if that works. Yiannopoulos’ act was all about baiting liberals over free speech; he’d say something repulsive, the left would react, and conservatives could play the defenders of edgy self-expression. In the end, however, the right shut him down the second he made conservatives uncomfortable. Going forward, even if any right-wingers are willing to be associated with him, it will be hard for him to continue the fiction that conservatives are uniquely open-minded. That means he’s no use to them, or to anyone, really. Poor snowflake.