Alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos lost his book deal, his speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and his job at the conservative website Breitbart this week over a video clip from 2015 that caught him defending pedophilia.
One thing he did not lose: the love of his hardcore fans.
Yiannopoulos became a celebrity among far-right conservatives, especially online, in recent years by unabashedly pushing his views — specifically misogynistic and anti-trans. He’s survived other scandals unscathed, including being kicked off Twitter for leading a campaign to target one of the female stars of Ghostbusters. If anything, the controversies buoyed his reputation.
This time is different. Yiannopoulos didn’t just laugh off liberal outrage. He also had to contend with mainstream conservatives and even his colleagues at Breitbart. He offered a lengthy apology for his remarks, and he held a press conference announcing his resignation from Breitbart.
The fact, then, that Yiannopoulos has any fans is a true testament to the intensity of the beliefs held by far-right conservative and alt-right movements, whose internet presence has become more prominent alongside the rise of Donald Trump and his nationalist campaign. Yiannopoulos was widely cowed this week, but he’s not without a base.
Yiannopoulos’s remaining supporters believe he was unfairly targeted by hypocritical liberal media
Yiannopoulos’s fans aren’t saying they support pedophilia. They argue that the mainstream media represented Yiannopoulos unfairly in an attempt to smear him.
This rush among Yiannopoulos’s supporters to defend him against perceived liberal grandstanding is familiar. Yiannopoulos has spent years benefiting from a pattern of provoking attack and then shoring up support amid the backlash.
At the invite-only, alt-right-leaning social media website Gab, which is home to thousands of users who make up Yiannopoulos’s core fan base, many have shown support for Yiannopoulos in the wake of this week’s controversy. In particular, the hashtag #IStandWithMilo has gained some traction on Gab as well as on Twitter.
It's terrible what they are doing to Milo. Stop falling for the quick sound bites and the crafted edits. #IstandwithMilo— Cathy Claborn (@jinxedcat) February 21, 2017
On Facebook, the response to Yiannopoulos’s initial apology was overwhelmingly supportive.
It quickly pivoted to a common conservative theme: The media has a double standard for conservatives. One example supporters of this theory often point to is a passage in HBO star Lena Dunham’s book involving her little sister that they claim is an example of abuse ignored by the media. (Dunham has vehemently denied this.)
“Lana Dunham [sic] molests her sister for a decade and goes on The View to a crowd of applause. ... You talk about your own experience as a victim of sexual abuse and get called a pedophile,” read one comment. “This is what the left has turned into.” The statement garnered more than 5,000 upvotes.
A similar argument is on Twitter:
I'll condemn #MILO when the left condems Bill Clinton, Roman Polanski, Lena Dunham, etc.— Farmer Joe (@FrmerJoe) February 21, 2017
On Reddit, many commenters across the site defended Yiannopoulos’s comments as being taken out of context (though many others, of course, denounced his statements as morally unacceptable in any context).
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, meanwhile, labeled the scandal an issue of censorship:
US 'liberals' today celebrate the censorship of right-wing UK provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos over teen sex quote.https://t.co/bz6dH0jyhk— Julian Assange (@JulianAssange) February 21, 2017
Supporters believe Yiannopoulos’s explanation. He says the pedophilia comments he made in the video are connected to his own sexual abuse by a priest when he was 13 years old.
“I am horrified by pedophilia,” Yiannopoulos stated at his February 21 press conference. “I don’t believe that sex with 13-year-olds is okay. When I mentioned the age of 13, I was talking about myself and the age at which I lost my virginity. ... I do not condone child abuse. It’s a disgusting crime of which I have personally been a victim.”
He also said that when he defended “relationships between younger boys and older men,” he actually was referring to “my own relationship when I was 17 with a man who was 29.”
At his press conference, Yiannopoulos noted that he was “grateful for the tens of thousands of messages [of support] I’ve received.”
Each of Yiannopoulos’s previous controversies has given him greater power to reach the mainstream
Yiannopoulos has a long history of leveraging controversy into increased visibility, building his career mainly by attacking progressives, often progressive celebrities. He has also repeatedly attacked the entire concept of sexual assault.
Long known in the UK as a professional troll in the world of tech reporting, he first gained fame online in 2014 as a hero of the Gamergate movement, while working at Breitbart. He would later become known to the alt-right in the US for his habit of harassing progressives on Twitter and egging on his followers to do the same.
After Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter in July 2016 for leading a wave of targeted harassment against Ghostbuster Leslie Jones, many people were convinced they'd seen the last of him. But contrary to what many liberals expected, the controversy just solidified his position as “a conservative hero,” praised by right-wing blogs for “his guerrilla efforts” to defend free speech “against the hyper-sensitive, lily-livered, easily offended types.”
As Yiannopoulos told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp after his Twitter ban, his basic MO is to capitalize on liberal outrage. “I don’t care about Twitter,” he stated in that interview. “I have a million different platforms I can go on. People want to see me in real life; that’s actual power.”
Yiannopoulos then took his act on the road, embarking on the volatile national public speaking tour that made him an incendiary catalyst for political tension on college campuses across the country. At one university, he publicly identified and harassed a female trans student, who dropped out of the school as a result. Just as he did after his harassment of Jones, Yiannopoulos intensified his harassment in response to the outrage, repeating his mockery of the student at a different stop on the tour.
In both cases, his choice to double down on his behavior, celebrating it gleefully rather than showing remorse, was successful: He earned more attention from the media and eventually landed a (now-canceled) book deal with Simon & Schuster. His book tour began causing actual riots, those riots made national headlines, and even after literal shots were fired from one of Yiannopoulos’s supporters, he still earned appearances on national talk shows.
Even if mainstream conservative support for Yiannopoulos wanes, his alt-right support may still be strong
At his press conference, Yiannopoulos was already confidently proclaiming his next career moves: He announced “a new, independently funded media venture” that would focus on “entertaining and educating everyone, left, right, or otherwise.” He also announced that he would still publish his book (though he didn’t say whether he’d secured a new publisher) and that he would donate 10 percent of its proceeds to child sexual abuse charities.
Though the scope and content of Yiannopoulos’s new media project is not yet known, he made it clear during his press conference that despite the controversy over his remarks, which he characterized as “a cynical media witch hunt,” he considers his voice to be a vital one in the current political climate.
“My rapid rise in the last year … is testament to the fact that America is crying out for somebody who will say the unsayable, who will break taboos, and who will fearlessly resist those who want to clamp down on free expression,” he said.
Whether or not Yiannopoulos’s assessment of his own demand is accurate, it raises question about the post-outrage age: Does feeding the trolls make them stronger with their fans? Yiannopoulos is a test.