So there is, after all, a line that you cannot cross and still be hailed by conservatives as a champion of free speech. That line isn’t Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia or harassment. Milo Yiannopoulos, the journalist that Out magazine dubbed an “internet supervillain”, built his brand on those activities. Until Monday, he was flying high: a hefty book deal with Simon & Schuster, an invitation to speak at the American Conservative Union’s CPac conference and a recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher. But then a recording emerged of Yiannopoulos cheerfully defending relationships between older men and younger boys, and finally it turned out that free speech had limits. The book deal and CPac offer swiftly evaporated. The next day, he resigned his post as an editor at Breitbart, the far-right website where he was recruited by Donald Trump’s consigliere Steve Bannon, and where several staffers reportedly threatened to quit unless he was fired.
In the incriminating clip, Yiannopoulos prefaces his remarks with a coy, “This is a controversial point of view, I accept”, this being his default shtick. Maher absurdly described him as “a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens” – a contrarian fly in the ointment, rattling smug liberal certainties – but Hitchens had wit, intellect and principle, while Yiannopoulos has only chutzpah and ruthless opportunism. Understanding Yiannopoulos requires a version of Occam’s Razor: the most obvious answer is the correct one. What does he actually believe in? Nothing except his own brand and the monetisable notoriety that fuels it. That’s Milo’s Razor. Understanding how he got this far is more unnerving.
Yiannopoulos was born Milo Hanrahan in Kent in 1984 and grew up in a financially comfortable but emotionally fraught family. He later adopted his beloved Greek grandmother’s surname, but prefers the pop-starry mononym Milo. On Twitter, before he was permanently banned last July, he operated as @nero. After dropping out of two universities – Manchester and Cambridge – he wrote for the Catholic Herald and covered technology for the Daily Telegraph. On the Telegraph’s blog pages, under editor Damian Thompson, he became a professional troll; a clickbait provocateur who hated the left more than he loved anything.
In 2011, having left the Telegraph, Yiannopoulos co-founded the tech journalism website the Kernel. “Tech’s gadfly continues to provoke and irritate, often for its own sake” was Wired’s judgment, but that only helped Yiannopoulos paint himself as a thorn in the side of a complacent tech establishment. The more people he insulted, the more attention he got. But his vindictiveness wasn’t just an act. In 2013, the Kernel was successfully sued by former editor Jason Hesse for non-payment of wages and one female staffer publicly complained about similar treatment. In a vicious email, Yiannopoulos threatened to ruin her career and called her “a common prostitute”. Many profile-writers have noted that his critics won’t speak on the record for fear of vendettas. Iain Martin, the Telegraph’s former comment editor, remembered “talk of him being someone who should not be crossed” and was shocked by the cruelty of his mob-like followers, which included rape threats and doxing.
Yiannopoulos found his stepping stone to America in Gamergate, an online movement that claimed to campaign for ethics in videogame journalism while subjecting women in the industry to brutal harassment. Unlike older conservatives, Yiannopoulos understood what was bubbling up on platforms such as Reddit and 4chan: a new gamified form of hard-right discourse based not on ideas but on memes, harassment and “saying the unsayable”, driven by white male resentment toward minorities and so-called “social justice warriors”, the au courant name for political correctness. It didn’t matter that he had recently mocked gamers as “unemployed saddos living in their parents’ basements”. For Milo, Gamergate was an exciting new front in the culture wars and the career boost he craved.
As an informal movement, Gamergate didn’t have a figurehead so Yiannopoulos gave himself the job and turned into an outlaw antihero. Gamergate’s activists and opponents both agreed that without his advocacy the movement would have fizzled out. Profile-writers and shows such as Newsnight expanded his celebrity beyond the internet. Young, handsome, charismatic and eloquent – the writer Laurie Penny called him “a charming devil and one of the worst people I know” – he was far more alluring to the media than, say, James Delingpole.Milo Yiannopoulos speaking on campus at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado in January 2017. Photograph: Jeremy Papasso/AP
Yiannopoulos preached the topsy-turvy gospel of the “alt-right”: liberals, feminists and people of colour were the oppressors and bigotry was a rebel yell. “I always thought journalism was about sticking up for the many against the powerful few,” he told Fusion in 2015. Yet in the same interview he implied it was all a show: “I didn’t like me very much and so I created this comedy character. And now they’ve converged.” Whenever he gets into trouble, he blames the character. On Monday, he attributed his justification of child abuse to his “usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humour”. Last year, he flippantly told Bloomberg Business Week: “I’m totally autistic or sociopathic. I guess I’m both.”
In 2015 Yiannopoulos spotted his next opportunity, and perhaps a kindred spirit, in Donald Trump, a man he calls “Daddy”. (He rarely speaks to his own parents.) With Trump, the backlash against political correctness went nuclear and via Bannon’s Breitbart, Yiannopoulos became a far-right hero and gleeful scourge of liberal “snowflakes”. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him “the person who propelled the alt-right movement into the mainstream”.
Most people who are no-platformed or shamed on Twitter didn’t set out to inspire outrage, but outrage is Yiannopoulos’s lifeblood; without it, he is nothing. He boasted that being banned from Twitter made him more famous than ever, and endeared himself to mainstream conservatives when protesters shut down his appearance at UC Berkeley on 1 February. (At previous campus events, he had targeted individual students for harassment.) Even Trump, the US’s first troll-in-chief, tweeted his support. CPac billed him as a “brave conservative standard-bearer” and an “important perspective”, not because he said anything valuable but because protesters hated him. That’s the level to which the debate over free speech has sunk.
So what is his “important perspective”? What does he stand for? It’s telling that he was banned from Twitter (no easy feat) for ringleading a campaign of harassment against actor Leslie Jones for the crime of daring to appear in the female-led reboot of Ghostbusters – hardly a vital cause. He is a gay man who hates the gay rights movement. A libertarian who calls an authoritarian president “Daddy”. A vigorous opponent of Black Lives Matter who says he can’t be racist because “I just like fucking blacks”. A self-styled second-wave feminist who sells hoodies reading “Feminism is cancer”. A conservative pin-up who claims: “I don’t care about politics.” A writer and speaker who claims his provocative statements are just “facts” while celebrating the “post-fact era”. Penny wrote that she wouldn’t debate him in public, “because I know I’ll lose, because I care and he doesn’t – and that means he has already won”. If he is indeed a supervillain, then he’s Ben Kingsley’s character in Iron Man 3: a shallow, amoral actor who plays the bad guy for money.
How was this smirking void ever taken seriously? He had enablers. Not just CPac, Breitbart and Simon & Schuster, but his editors at the Telegraph, magazines who cooed over him, and every TV producer who booked him to say something outrageous while batting his eyelashes like Princess Diana. Like Trump, he is the logical outcome of a grotesque convergence of politics, entertainment and the internet in which an empty vessel can thrive unchecked by turning hate speech into showbusiness. Well, until now. Until the clown prince of outrage finally outraged the wrong people.
“Everyone who knows Milo has been absolutely shocked by his rise,” his friend James Cook told Fusion in 2015. “I think we’re all scared that one day he’s going to go a bit too far.” Milo’s true nature has been obvious for years. The vanity, the cynicism, the bullying, the financial skulduggery, the hate speech, the harassment – they’re all public knowledge. Even the incriminating podcast interview came out a year ago. It’s too late to act shocked. Doubtless his fans will stand by him in the mistaken belief that he actually cares about them, but his high-profile enablers should be asking themselves why they have only now decided that Milo Yiannopoulos has gone too far. It takes a village to raise a monster.