Milo and POTUS
It was always a question of when. That is the way with a poseur: the act can never be sustained, not forever.
The inevitable collapse of Milo Yiannopoulos’s career is the beginning, it can be hoped, of a larger collapse in the ill-formed movement of which he was a figurehead. His public disintegration stems from the truth that binds him to the alt-right: that he is fundamentally unserious, and so are they.
Yiannopoulos lost a $250,000 book contract and his job as an editor at the extremist website Breitbart after a live-streamed conversation from last year surfaced this week, showing him condoning paedophilia. He described sex with minors as “coming-of-age relationship … in which those older men help those younger boys discover who they are.”
He later apologised in a self-aggrandising press conference. “I’ve never apologised for anything else before,” he said. “I don’t anticipate doing it again.”
Yiannopoulos is the crossover star from the internet’s ugly fringe. The Southern Poverty Law Centre called him “the person who propelled the alt-right movement into the mainstream”.
Yiannopoulos came to prominence in an internet movement that targeted and harassed women involved in online gaming. His are the politics of opportunism. He took the lessons of “gamergate” and teased them into a persona of vicious cunning.
But there was never any real substance to him. Like the alt-right he represented, there was no next: there was only the desire to destroy the now. He could recant his views because they had no depth, no underpinning. The same is true of Donald Trump.
The British writer Laurie Penny offered this description, after attending a party with Yiannopoulos at the Republican convention: “It’s the game of turning raw rage into political currency, the unscrupulous whorebaggery of the troll gone pro. These are people who cashed in their limited principles to cheat at poker. Milo is the best player here.”
Political movements require philosophies. Their leaders earn that distinction by the thinking they have done. The alt-right has no such leaders. Instead, they had Yiannopoulos – a message board charlatan, bleached the colour of Instagram and dressed in his Aunt Pam’s pearls.
Yiannopoulos is a bigot, a hateful clown. His one skill is publicity, which his supporters mistake for insight. Even as he attempted contrition this week, he could not help but mention “the level of interest, the sheer number of people who love me”.
Vanity is a marker of the figures who have bubbled to the surface of the alt-right. Their interest is themselves, not the people they purport to represent. Trump is Yiannopoulos with a different number hair dye.
The alt-right is not a political movement in any conventional sense. It is an expression of confused anger, a cry that now heard will fade.
That anger will have to be addressed. Politics has before it an enormous task. But it will not be addressed by the hucksters and spivs who in the meantime seek to profit from its anguish.
This is not the end of Yiannopoulos, just as Trump will not end with his presidency. But it is the breaking apart of an inchoate expediency that plays with the world like a children’s toy.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 25, 2017 as "Milo and POTUS". Subscribe here.