Just days after CPAC proudly announced that it was inviting him to its annual conference, Milo Yiannopoulos has lost his invitation, his book deal, and his job at Breitbart (resigning ahead of what looked like an impending dismissal). In recently resurfaced comments about pedophilia, he seems to have finally crossed a line that conservatives care about. But there seems to be little of a celebratory mood among his many critics: As Shikha Dalmia notes in The Week, “Yiannopoulos was a hate-peddling provocateur long before this.” In other words, it might have been possible to pretend, prior to his disavowal by conservative activists and big-time publishing houses, that Milo’s fans and enablers were merely lovers of provocation—not necessarily true believers in his message, just readers who get a kick out of the offensive and who fancy themselves immune to liberal oversensitivity. Now, it turns out that they can be offended: just not by any of the horrible things Milo has said and done targeting other groups. Some comfort.
Dalmia’s column chides conservatives for falling for Milo’s self-presentation as a champion of free speech and foe of leftist censorship, albeit not without some qualification. “To be sure,” Dalmia writes, “this regime needs attacking. It has become impossible to challenge leftist orthodoxy on race, gender, sexuality, and other issues without being dubbed a racist, sexist, and bigot.” This is quite the “to be sure” pivot: After all, there are active debates regarding the host of issues grouped under the label “political correctness” between left and right, left and center, and within the left itself. And even if one were to conclude, on the basis of sometimes breathless media coverage, that this regime enjoyed utter dominance on American campuses, that would hardly be proof of any broader power: “leftist orthodoxy,” in whatever form one defines it, is currently in retreat at every level of government. Campus debates aren’t unimportant, but they’re hardly the totality of American political life.
Dalmia allows, with acknowledged charity, that certain elements of the right might have grudgingly indulged Milo in the hope that he would “shatter the tight boundaries drawn by political correctness and open the space for a wider airing of ideas.” But her alternative explanation—“that they hate their enemies more than they love their alleged principles”—is more persuasive. It also fits Paul Waldman’s observation that “conservatives are obsessed with the idea of making liberals mad,” a peculiarly right-wing phenomenon that usually takes the form of loud, crude, pointless antagonism. Waldman cites a handful of recent examples, from “rolling coal” to making a point of drinking Big Gulp sodas, but he might also have simply noted that Milo is merely the latest right-wing celebrity whose fame rests largely on his willingness to say vile things about people conservatives dislike. In the taxonomy of conservative media, this aligns him with bomb-throwers like Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh—all of whom have occasionally crossed an unexpected line or made the mistake of performing their shtick in front of the wrong audience. At various moments, it’s been tempting to think that each of these predecessors have finally gone too far and will be written out of conservative politics by the respectable right. That hasn’t happened yet.
In fact, the very opposite may be occurring, as Trump’s takeover of the GOP erases or renders irrelevant whatever remained of the “respectable right” to begin with. As Helen Lewis notes, the conservative mainstream, both in the US and UK, has occasionally found it useful to ally itself with the likes of Milo, and only after this most recent outrage was its “sweet shelter” finally “withdrawn from him.” Only this changed calculation—Milo was once useful, and now he isn’t—can really harm his career. It is not within the power of the left to do that: whenever far-right provocateurs add vitriol to public discourse, leftists will respond. Unless that vitriol is truly marginal, silence is not really an option—but of course, attention is precisely what is being sought. If the left cannot really ignore the likes of Milo, neither can it (as Lewis notes) decide when he has become unhelpful to conservatives. “Only the mainstream right can stop the extremists on their flanks,” Lewis concludes. And if, after this latest outrage subsides, the right starts to rethink its longstanding love for extremist invective, that might be reason for optimism. But history suggests nothing of the sort. Even if Milo’s career on the right is done (and it probably isn’t), there will always be entrepreneurs who know an opportunity when they see one.