Right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has never been more popular. There were violent protests against him last month at Berkeley. He had a major appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher Friday. He had even been announced as the keynote speaker at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference this week before that invite was rescinded on Monday.
“I don’t have unsavory opinions about skin color,” Yiannopoulos barked at CNN last month, “What you are seeking to do, by associating me with people who have odious and disgusting opinions, is suggest that I somehow in some way tacitly enable these people.”
“I don’t. F**k you,” he added.
But Yiannopoulos has enabled these people. Much of his rhetoric over the last year is a primary reason so many today mistakenly assume he is a white nationalist or supremacist.
For most of the 2016 election, Yiannopoulos was the most high profile promoter of the “alt-right,” a movement he advertised positively and frequently identified with.
What is the alt-right?
University of Alabama Political Science Professor George Hawley says, “The core of the alt-right is white nationalism — or, at least, white identity politics.”
“That’s what the people who are really pushing that movement forward stand for,” says Hawley, “even if not everyone who identifies with the alt-right or is an alt-right fellow traveler is fully on board with that message.”
“Race matters, and race is the foundation of identity,” says self-identified white nationalist Richard Spencer.
“That is fundamentally what the alt-right is about,” Spencer believes
You might have heard of Richard Spencer. He made national headlines in January when a video of him being punched in the face by a leftwing protester during the Women’s March went viral. I used to work with Spencer when he was employed by the right-leaning publications Taki’s Magazine and The American Conservative, years before he declared himself a white nationalist (that history is explained at length here).
A primary reason the protester who assaulted him likely even knew who Spencer was — the origin of why many more people know who Spencer is today — is Yiannopoulos’ constant promotion of the alt-right movement.
Yiannopoulos’ first mention of Spencer, to my knowledge, was in the 3000 word “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” he co-authored, where he categorizes Spencer as an alt-right “intellectual” and a “renegade” (who doesn’t want to be called a “renegade?”).
Yiannopoulos wrote, “The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race.” He then added, “The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.”
This is white nationalism. Yiannopoulos never said he supports it, as his fans are always quick to point out. He simply described what they believe — while also calling them “intellectuals,” “renegades” and other flattering terms.
If you’re a fan of Yiannopoulos who became interested in the alt-right due to his constant urging, are you going to be more likely or less likely to give white nationalists a hearing?
And where is there a relatively clear non-racialist alt-right path between Yiannopoulos saying this movement is awesome — while also acknowledging it is racist — yet the racist parts should and can be avoided?
That’s confusing and probably logistically impossible.
In May, I wrote an essay at The Daily Beast expressing this fear, particularly that some of the young libertarians I work with might be drawn to white nationalism due to Yiannopoulos’ growing popularity (he responded, and I responded again).
On Saturday, Richard Spencer was unofficially invited to a libertarian conference reportedly by a handful of self-identifying libertarians turned alt-righters. In other words, what I feared might happen has come to pass. I have observed this regularly, particularly over the course of the last six months on social media and elsewhere: young people beginning to entertain white nationalism as a morally defensible point of view, capitalizing “White” and talking about “race realism.” They all love Milo. They become angry if you dare say that he’s promoting racists, before they begin rationalizing racism themselves. The Spencer controversy Saturday was just one more example of an ongoing, unfortunate trend.
Yiannopoulos presents himself as a free speech advocate, and I too appreciate how he takes on the authoritarian hyper-PC left. Protecting freedom of speech, no matter how controversial, is crucial to any truly free society.
But my critique here isn’t about free speech. It’s about being responsible for what you say.
Milo has been the primary gateway for a good number of those now drawn to white nationalism. That slope is broader and more slippery than Yiannopoulos or his growing base of mainstream conservative fans is willing to admit. The more his fame grows, the more eager Yiannopoulos has appeared to abandon the alt-right altogether (with Breitbart being a chief player in trying to rewrite this history).
As Politico’s Ben Schreckinger wrote last month of Yiannopoulos:
In the past, he had identified as a “fellow traveler” of the alt-right, but by the time I showed up at his tour bus — this was two weeks after Salutegate (author’s note: “Salutegate” refers to the white nationalist event where Richard Spencer incited Nazi-style Sieg Heil salutes) — things had changed. “The small contingent of distasteful people in the alt-right became so territorial about the expression that they scared off moderate right-wingers,” he said. “And that’s what they did to me.”
This is a new position for Yiannopoulos. He has always been aware of the white nationalists in the alt-right, insisting they were a minority, and yet now he finds racists like Spencer and others too extreme to bear.
But it is Yiannopoulos who helped give these “distasteful people” the platform they enjoy today.
When Yiannopoulos and Spencer both appeared at an alt-right event outside of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in September that received plenty of mainstream coverage, Yiannopoulos said of his white nationalist fellow travelers like Spencer, “I don’t see it as a bad thing that I surround myself with edgy people.”
“Because they’re interesting,” Yiannopoulos added.
Richard Spencer himself makes clear that it is Yiannopoulos who has made it easier for him to promote his ideology. Mother Jones reports, “Spencer, the white nationalist, told Mother Jones that watching one of Yiannopoulos’s speeches at the University of Houston in September was a ‘huge inspiration’ and helped him realize ‘what we are doing is known to people, it’s edgy and dangerous, it’s cool and hip.”
“Spencer perceives Yiannopoulos as a fellow traveler of sorts, but not truly Alt-Right,” Mother Jones observed, “he does, however, see Yiannopoulos’ followers as ripe for Alt-Right recruitment.”
Nor is Spencer alone among white nationalists in this view.
Politico reported last month, “Nathan Damigo, another white nationalist and founder of a group called Identity Europa, says he’s hoping to join Spencer on the tour.”
“Damigo says he also sees Yiannopoulos as an inspiration and showed up at his event at UC Davis before it was canceled, hoping to find potential recruits for his own cause,” notes Politico.
“‘In a way, we’re all trying to do the same thing,’ Damigo told CNN.”
Nearly a year ago, Yiannopoulos wrote, “The alt-right openly crack jokes about the Holocaust, loudly—albeit almost entirely satirical—expresses its horror at ‘race-mixing’ […] They have no real problem with race-mixing […] ”
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But the alt-right does have a problem with “race-mixing” and always has. Milo knew it then, even as he runs from it now, and those who follow in his alt-right wake gain greater followings themselves. White identity politics has long been central to the movement’s ideology, something Milo openly admits in some areas and poo-poos in others.
He can’t have it both ways.
Of course many different extreme groups and figures want to latch themselves to Yiannopoulos’ popularity, in much the same way Milo has benefited from Donald Trump’s ascent. There is nothing the Breitbart editor can do about this.
But nor can he pretend that he hasn’t been the chief enabler until just recently of some of the same people he now condemns.
That some would confuse Yiannopoulos with actual white supremacists is understandable, given this difficult to navigate history. This confusion has also allowed Milo and his supporters to insist that since the particular charge of Yiannopoulos being a white nationalist is false, so are any accusations that he has elevated and energized racists in any fashion.
That’s a cop-out.
Merriam-Webster defines “enable” as “to provide with the means or opportunity” and “to make possible, practical, or easy.”
In his constant promotion of the alt-right, this is precisely what Milo Yiannopoulos has done for the white nationalist movement in the United States. He should stop insulting everyone’s intelligence by insisting he had nothing to do with it.