The best way to understand Milo Yiannopoulos, internet troll extraordinaire, is to ask him about feminism.
"Sex-negative social justice warriors always banging on about 'affirmative consent' are secretly the first to strap on a gimp mask and demand to get fucked eleven ways," Yiannopoulos wrote to me in an email. "Which, don't get me wrong, sounds great!"
This type of stuff — crass tirades that straddle the border between the genuinely angry and intentionally provocative — are what make Milo Milo. Among other things, the Breitbart tech editor has:
- Declared his birthday "World Patriarchy Day."
- Claimed he "went gay" so he "didn’t have to deal with nutty broads." (Milo is actually gay, so it is unclear exactly how much of a joke this is supposed to be.)
- Created something called the "Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant," a college scholarship available only to white men. The idea is to put them "on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates."
As a result, Yiannopoulos has become an icon of the internet right, one of Donald Trump's most enthusiastic online boosters, and went on a "Dangerous Faggot" speaking tour on college campuses designed to infuriate leftists. Recently, he's moved more into the mainstream — he was invited to give the keynote address at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the most important mainstream conservative of the year.
This invitation has created a major controversy. The conservative site The Reagan Battalion surfaced footage of Yiannopoulos defending the idea of "13 year olds" having sex with "older men," causing an uproar that eventually resulted in CPAC disinviting him:
It's easy — and right — to condemn Yiannopoulos for comments like this. But it's also important to understand what got him to where he is. He represents a fascinating part of our contemporary culture: a loud, angry, reactionary movement that condemns the things most of us see as our society's greatest achievements.
The internet gives them shockingly loud megaphones — meaning that even someone as cartoonish as Yiannopoulos can matter far more than you might think.
Why does anyone care about Milo Yiannopoulos?
Yiannopoulos has worked in journalism, mostly tech journalism, since dropping out of college in the early 2000s. He made a name for himself in his native England writing provocative, gossipy pieces — founding the Kernel, which his website describes as an "online tabloid magazine," in 2011. In both 2011 and 2012, Wired named him one of the top 100 "innovators and influencers shaping the Wired world." In 2014, he sold the the Kernel and was hired by Breitbart, a hard-right outlet you might be aware of, as an associate editor.
The modern incarnation of Yiannopoulos, the one that's become the internet equivalent of a household name, began at Breitbart in late 2014 with something called Gamergate. And you have to understand Gamergate to understand Yiannopoulos.
The Gamergate controversy is super complicated; Vox's Todd VanDerWerff has pieced the whole thing together if you're curious. But in short: A number of video game fans ("gamers") started complaining that video game developers and the press were out of touch with their fans. They targeted, more than anyone else, two women: indie game developer Zoë Quinn and feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian.
Gamergaters claimed their main grievance was "ethics in journalism": essentially, that the gaming press was corrupt, too close to its game developer sources. But this evolved into a broader complaint: The press, and developers like Quinn, were too focused on "social justice" issues like female and LGBTQ representation at the expense of the quality of games. Basically, striving for equality is making video games worse.
This turned nasty quickly. Quinn and Sarkeesian, two of the more prominent women in the gaming community, were subjected to an unending string of abuse, including rape and death threats. In August 2014, Sarkeesian moved out of her home out of fear for her safety.
Initially, Yiannopoulos wasn't a big part of the Gamergate controversy, because he didn't really care about video gamers. "I didn't think much about them at all," he tells me.
But when he got wind of the Gamergate controversy, he couldn't stay away. He saw the feminists not as victims but as bullies — pushing around the weak little gamers.
"I saw a group of people being lied to and lied about and it brought out my natural protective instincts," he explains.
"I might be a homo, but I still believe the strong should protect the weak and gamers have very little social capital and a large, well-funded and tightly co-ordinated industry of left-wing liars talking shit about them constantly. "
His first salvo in the affair, a September 2014 Breitbart column titled "Feminist Bullies tearing the video game industry apart," was indicative of his coverage — which only escalated from there. His tireless pro-Gamergate writing and tweeting turned him into one of the movement's most recognizable faces, building him an adoring and very vocal following in the reactionary gaming community.
Yiannopoulos sees himself as a free speech rebel
Yiannopoulos's analysis of the Gamergate situation sounds frankly bizarre. The video game industry is dominated by straight white men, and so are the games they make. It seems like Quinn and Sarkeesian were being targeted for vicious harassment because they're brave enough to challenge that.
But Yiannopoulos's instinctive siding with the Gamergaters points to something absolutely critical for understanding Milo and what he stands for. He thinks that oppressed groups, nowadays, are the ones doing the oppressing. Accusations of sexism and racism are, for him, tools used by the powerful to silence the powerless.
"GamerGate is remarkable — and attracts the interest of people like me — because it represents perhaps the first time in the last decade or more that a significant incursion has been made in the culture wars against guilt-mongerers, nannies, authoritarians and far-left agitators," he writes.
"Industry after industry has toppled over, putting up no more of a fight than, say, France in 1940. Publishing, journalism, TV… all lie supine beneath the crowing, cackling, censorious battle-axes, male and female, of the third-wave feminist and social justice causes. But not gamers."
This is an extension of stuff you hear from more mainstream conservatives. "Affirmative action is reverse racism," for example, or, "The LGBTQ rights movement is trampling on Christians' religious liberty." The premise, in both cases, is that programs to help historically marginalized groups have gone too far — that they're unfairly restricting the liberty of historically dominant groups.
Yiannopoulos takes this idea and turns it into a defining ideology. For him, the liberal quest for equality isn't accidentally authoritarian: It is, and long has been, about repression.
"What they really don't want, what they're terrified of — because they can't fight it with facts — is libertarian and conservative points of view," Yiannopoulos says in a 2016 interview with Dave Rubin. He continues, revealingly:
That freedom from ever being challenged on anything, that freedom from ever having to encounter something with which you might disagree, or something that might make you uncomfortable, something that might ridicule you — [that's] the definition of freedom that has taken hold on the left in America today.
And it is poisonous.
What he's saying here is that it's efforts to identify and criticize racist/sexist/homophobic opinions — and not those beliefs themselves — that are the real threat to freedom in modern liberal societies. Feminism isn't about ending sexism; it's about criminalizing people who believe in "traditional" gender norms. Calling out sexism is, then, an intrinsically authoritarian act.
These beliefs made Yiannopoulos the perfect man for the Gamergate moment.
This idea that criticizing oppression is itself a form of oppression resonated with the Gamergaters, who saw themselves as culture under assault by "social justice warriors" (SJWs, for short). Yiannopoulos's anti-anti-sexism allowed him to understand their grievances, champion them on a fairly well-read platform (Breitbart), and thus build himself a massive fandom — despite not caring one whit for video games. It's why, after Twitter banned him in July 2016, he claimed to be thrilled: the service, he said, had proven his point about the mainstream's intolerance of free speech.
It's a pretty neat trick, one that you might even be tempted to admire — if the ideas driving his fan club weren't so ugly.
The revolution will be trolled
Once you understand that Yiannopoulos thinks norms against offensive speech and action are themselves a terrible form of authoritarianism, then the rest of his persona starts to make a lot more sense. He sees himself as a hybrid journalist-activist, leading a movement he calls "cultural libertarianism" to protect "free speech" from the egalitarian bullies.
What "cultural libertarianism" is, in practice, is a lot of people on the internet saying intentionally offensive stuff. What better way to end the left's taboo on being sexist than by actually being sexist and getting away with it?
"Only by totally ignoring people’s feelings can we end the left’s culture of grievance, offense, and victimhood," as Yiannopoulos put it in a recent piece.
So since Gamergate, Yiannopoulos has staged one high-profile stunt after another, each one designed to provoke an incensed reaction on the social justice left and delight his fans.
When he declared his birthday to be "World Patriarchy Day," for example, he encouraged his followers to "cat-call at least five women," refer to any female employees they have "exclusively as darling," and tell a woman that "this isn’t going to suck itself."
He attended Slutwalk, a protest against sexual assault, and got kicked out for holding a sign that read "'Rape culture' and Harry Potter. Both fantasy."
He hired a black porn star, Jovan Jordan, as a bodyguard when attending a meetup for video gamers. "My most ardent haters are feminists, and their fear of penises is well-known," Yiannopoulos wrote. "It was vital, therefore, that I sought the services of a man believed to have the biggest dick in the porn industry."
I mention Jordan's race only because Yiannopoulos loves to talk about how much sex he has with black men. He writes about it all the time; the Slack chat client he uses to communicate with his alleged army of interns has an entire room called "#blackcock." His weird fetishization of black men is another way of making SJWs uncomfortable: He's owning his gayness, which they should nominally like, but does it in a way that exoticizes and stereotypes African Americans.
All of this, basically, reduces to high-profile trolling — a term that, if you aren't familiar with it, means posting stuff online that's deliberately designed to offend people, often purely because you think irritating other people is funny.
That's intentional. Yiannopoulos is, self-consciously, weaponizing trolling: taking tools invented by internet pranksters and deploying them in his self-declared war on the cultural left. His stunts are designed to appeal to a warped sense of humor as much as they are to help batter down liberal taboos. He thinks things like pretending to be a BuzzFeed editor and tweeting stuff like "#FeminismIsCancer" is a "hilarious" way to stick it to stodgy liberal elites.
It's no surprise, then, that he has developed rabid fans in some darker corners of the web, in communities like 4Chan and 8Chan that are famous hubs for organizing massive, mean-spirited online pranks. Their membership has a substantial contingent of Gamergaters (8Chan has been referred to as the "central hive" for the movement), so they had ample opportunity to become familiar with Yiannopoulos's work. And the more they saw, the more they liked it.
Internet trolls share Yiannopoulos's commitment to doing offensive stuff because they think it's funny; it is, in fact, their raison d'être. As a result, they view people who criticize offensive speech as a threat to their own favorite pastimes. They see Yiannopoulos as a kindred spirit, a high-profile media figure who's taken on their tools and their causes. He is, as they say, "Daddy."
Yiannopoulos embraces this hero worship; there's a section on his website encouraging fans to build "shrines" to him. A young 32 years old, he's an internet native; the memes and cultivated irony that dominate web culture are a first language for him. For him, online trolling is a counterculture for the modern age: a fun, rebellious way to fight the power.
"If you want to be punk these days," he says in the Rubin interview, "you have to be a conservative."
Saying sexist stuff on the internet, for Yiannopoulos, is equal parts cultural warfare and lulz.
Is Milo being genuine? It genuinely doesn't matter.
Yiannopoulos's full-throated embrace of online trolling makes it virtually impossible to discern what his actual beliefs are. Trolls delight in tricking people, in making their targets believe something dumb and making them look foolish.
When he suggests that it's fine for older men to have sex with 13 year old boys, is that his sincere opinion — or just something he's saying just to get a rise out of people? It's difficult to tell.
Another good example is a piece BuzzFeed's Joseph Bernstein last year, alleging that Yiannopoulos was a "group effort": that he barely wrote any of his own material, and that a cadre of 44 interns were responsible for his stuff.
It's an incredible charge — but it could very well have been prank on BuzzFeed. Yiannopoulos has publicly beefed with Bernstein before; it's entirely possible that he or his allies fed Bernstein false information that's designed to make him look stupid.
In the postmodern world of Miloland, issues of fact like these become irresolvable. Yiannopoulos and his fan club see the mainstream press as their enemies, and delight in tricking them; how can you trust any information that comes out of that world? Even talking to Yiannopoulos himself doesn't really help: Because he never stops trolling, it's hard to know if he's telling you the truth.
This raises an obvious question: How much of Yiannopoulos's shtick is real, and how much of it is performance art? Does he really believe that women are "happier" in a world where they don't work outside the home, as he told me in our email chat — or is he just saying that to get a rise out of me?
You can go back and forth on this question forever without ever getting a straight answer. But the important thing to keep in mind here is that his intent is irrelevant. Whatever he really wants, the effects of his chosen tactics and causes are predictable and obvious: mainstreaming naked racism, sexism, and various other forms of bigotry.
Yiannopoulos's whole brand of activist journalism is, by explicit design, aimed at breaking down taboos around offensive speech. He thinks it's the only way to fight the leftist-PC stranglehold on our institutions.
But those taboos are there for a reason: We don't want people explicitly advocating for the racial inferiority of black people, or the idea that women exist to serve men. Even most mainstream conservatives agree that people who hold these beliefs deserve to be shunned.
Yiannopoulos disagrees. He wants more offensive speech, not less; he sees it as the only antidote to authoritarian leftism. So he highlights these ideas and beliefs at every turn, and champions the people that hold them. This has the effect of making sexism and other anti-egalitarian beliefs more prominent, even if he doesn't actually agree with these ideas and is just trying to be provocative. He's mainstreaming bigotry.
The best way to see this is Yiannopoulos's blooming love affair with something called the "alt-right."
The alt-right is a group of online dissidents from mainstream conservatism. While they have a diverse set of beliefs and interests, they share one core belief: Mainstream conservatism is full of politically correct sellouts.
The alt-right encompasses a range of views. It includes among its ranks people who’d traditionally be just called white supremacists or white nationalists, people like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (who coined the term "alt-right") or American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. But it also includes people who reject bigotry, at least in its overt forms, but whose views are still too reactionary for the conservative mainstream.
Regardless, racism and sexism are essential elements of the alt-right movement; it could not exist in its current form without them. Alt-righters tend to oppose mass immigration on grounds that Latin Americans and Muslims dilute the excellence of white culture. They support what they call "white identity politics" — the idea that white Americans should organize and stick up for their own interests because minority groups do the same thing.
Hot arguments on the alt-right include the idea that African Americans are intrinsically dumber than white Americans, that society would be better off if women had fewer opportunities outside of the home, and that Nazism maybe wasn't all bad.
Yiannopoulos has praised these guys effusively.
"Although initially small in number, the alt-right has a youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric that have boosted its membership and made it impossible to ignore," he wrote in a glowing Breitbart profile co-authored with his protégé Allum Bokhari.
Okay, but what about the obvious racism and sexism? Eh, says Yiannopoulos — it's just a prank.
"Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists," he and Bokhari write. "Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock'n'roll, so too do the alt-right's young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish 'Shlomo Shekelburg' to 'Remove Kebab,' an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide."
Setting aside the idea that anti-Semitic caricatures are hi-larious, Yiannopoulos's defense of the alt-right is just obviously untrue. Anyone who has ever read alt-right material can testify to their deadly seriousness. These people write multi-thousand-word treatises spelling out their ideas and grievances with mainstream conservatism.
Yiannopoulos and Bokhari's piece even admits this (one of the many ways it internally contradicts itself, as is quite common in Milo's writing). "The alt-right is too sophisticated to be mistaken for a mindless knee-jerk reaction," they write. "Some enjoy violating social norms for shock value, while others take a more intellectual approach, but all oppose the pieties and hypocrisies of the current consensus — from both Left and Right — in some form or another."
Here Yiannopoulos essentially admits that the alt-right is chock-full of genuine racists, anti-Semites, sexists, etc. — but says it doesn't matter because they're tweaking the leftists.
"I appreciate their fearlessness," he said of the alt-right in our email chain. "People are such pussies these days."
He appreciates them so much, in fact, that he wrote a massive, glowing profile of a movement that's full of racists and sexists — which has since been shared roughly 7,500 times on Facebook. He took ideas that were once the provinces of obscure Blogspot journals and egg Twitter avatars and gave them pride of place on a prominent, well-read conservative website.
Whether or not he intended to mainstream bigotry, that's what he has in effect done.
Milo and Trumpism
When you spend time with Yiannopoulos, as I've had the dubious pleasure of doing, one thing becomes clear: He is astonishingly self-important.
"Of course I'm leading a movement," he told me. "I'm the figurehead of a new cultural libertarianism that is breaking the stranglehold of the pearl-clutching authoritarian Left on culture and restoring free speech and fun to college campuses."
When you get wrapped up in Miloworld, it's easy to really believe that he speaks for a massive movement — even though only a relatively small number of Americans knew who he is. That's especially true in the era where Yiannopoulos gets booked to be keynote speaker at CPAC (however briefly) — and Donald Trump is president.
Yiannopoulos loves Trump, calling him "Daddy" in the same way that his own followers use the term. That's because he sees, in Trump, a politician who is bringing his own strategy for attacking left-wing culture to the fore.
"Trump’s crass tweets and objectionable comments may not be comfortable reading for old-fashioned conservatives who appreciate decency and good manners, but they are helping to break the language codes that were primarily set up by the left, for the left," he writes. "It’s what I’ve been doing for years, and it’s what Trump is now doing on the national stage."
His essential argument — leftist PC elites are crushing the white man's freedom — is one with a lot of appeal to Trump supporters. Don't believe me; read Jamelle Bouie's excellent Slate essay marshaling evidence that Trump's primary victory was born out of "white voters [who] hope Trump will restore the racial hierarchy upended by Barack Obama."
Bouie's essay and my own reporting about the international far-right demonstrates that there are lots of people, particularly white men, who look out at the world around them and feel like they're being left behind. That cultural currents they can't control are washing them away, leaving an order in which people who don't look and think like them are (they believe) holding all the cards. This isn't the only reason people vote for Trump — not even close. But it is a reason.
This sort of white voter is attracted to Trump for the same reason that certain corners of the internet love Yiannopoulos: They see someone who is unbowed by the left-wing multicultural establishment, who's willing to stand up for what they see as their rights and their interests.
The Milo phenomenon, then, is an internet version of the Trump phenomenon: people who feel resentment at their place in the culture banding around a charismatic figure whom they see as a singular truth teller.
So while Yiannopoulos himself may be cartoonish, the forces he represents are clearly quite powerful. Which makes him and his followers worth watching: They're an unusually clear window into a part of America that we'd otherwise like to forget.
Correction: This piece initially referred to the director of the National Policy Institute, Richard Spencer, as Robert Spencer.