Like all political actors forced into making a public show of contrition, Milo Yiannopoulos is already plotting his comeback. Yiannopoulos, holding a press conference in New York to announce his resignation from Breitbart News, the hard-right website of which he was the technology editor, said he plans to launch his own, independently funded media venture, find a new publisher for his planned book, and continue to schedule speaking appearances on college campuses. That Yiannopoulos—undone by the publication of a year-old video in which he appears to condone sex with boys as young as 13—plans to try to remain in the public eye is hardly an original plan for a humiliated provocateur, while the entities that elevated him and his many other contemptible statements to stardom get to walk away with clean consciences.
When the history of 2016 and onward is written, some attention will have to be given to the third weekend of February 2017, when the political and media worlds were gripped by an annual convention’s booking an employee of a niche website. As my colleague Elaina Plott reported over the weekend, Yiannopoulos’s invitation to address this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference left some of the event’s board members feeling “blindsided” well before a group called the Reagan Battalion dredged up the incriminating footage.
The rationale for this panic, pre-video, was obvious. Yiannopulous trades on his outrageous delivery of loathsome views, whether calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “hate group,” defending body-shaming of obese people while dressed in full drag, juking stats about crimes involving transgender individuals, or inciting a wave of social-media harassment against the comedian Leslie Jones. All of these incidents, and others, have prompted protests to break out on college campuses that Yiannopulous visits, most notably one on February 1 at the University of California, Berkeley, that caused about $100,000 worth of damage.
But the reactions Yiannopoulos has provoked are exactly why CPAC extended its invitation in the first place. “An epidemic of speech suppression has taken over college campuses,” the event’s chairman, Matt Schlapp, told the Hollywood Reporter last week. “Milo has exposed their liberal thuggery and we think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective.”
Before the damning video emerged, CPAC was all set to embrace Yiannopoulos as one of its own—and that should surprise no one who’s observed the event recently. Right-wing activism over the past few years has become less about small-government conservatism and more about an ideological victimhood in which statements that offend or demean other groups of people are praised as acts of great political courage. “Once arguably too wonky and prudish, today’s conservatism, judging by CPAC’s invited speakers, is increasingly crude, vulgar, and lowbrow,” the Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis wrote yesterday.
But that’s also the wing of the Republican Party that runs the country right now, turning someone who might otherwise be a footnote in media theory into someone whose change in employment status can lead a national news broadcast. Before this past month, Yiannopoulos was little known outside Breitbart’s readership and navel-gazing journalists. The closest he previously came to mainstream notoriety came last year, when his abuse of Jones led Twitter to ban him for life, a punishment that only enhanced his claimed martyrdom.
Donald Trump, the man who Yiannopoulos refers to as “Daddy,” was never a pillar of conservative thought either, yet the agenda for this week’s conference suggests nothing less than a lusty celebration of his election and budding administration, full of topics that don’t really depart from any of the themes that Yiannopoulos might’ve addressed. There are multiple discussions about free speech on college campuses, political correctness run amok, and the imminent threat of Islamist terrorism. David Clarke, the Wisconsin sheriff who last year predicted that Black Lives Matter will “merge” with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group, has multiple events scheduled. Plenty of Breitbart’s remaining staffers will be around to moderate panels. Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist who boasted about making Breitbart the “platform for the alt-right” when he ran the site, is one of the conference’s top draws.
In other words, although Yiannopoulos will be absent from CPAC, most of his views will still be well-represented. Breitbart will continue its flame-throwing without him. He claimed at his press conference today that other publishers have expressed interest in picking up his planned book now that Simon & Schuster has dropped him. All that’s changed is that we have finally defined the line at which entities that empower the likes of Yiannopoulos will bail out. Although Yiannopoulos said that his comments in that year-old video were based on personal experience, a person who appears to endorse sex with 13-year-olds as a consensual act is someone on whom no organization will risk any political capital. CPAC and Breitbart get to be good actors who distanced themselves from Yiannopoulos at the moment he became politically toxic, and don’t have to share any of the downfall, even if they agree on nearly every other topic.