There’s something unnerving about sitting across from Milo Yiannopoulos. Wearing all black, staring behind sunglasses, the right-wing provocateur orbits space like a Trumpian tornado. He wears designer clothes and knows how to command a room. Diners stare as his handlers usher him to our secluded booth at the InterContinental New York Barclay Hotel. Oozing narcissism, Yiannopoulos recites canned diatribes about his ability to manipulate media, regularly disengaging from the conversation whenever he feels it may be shifting away from him, and playing dumb when asked about Mercer money.
“That’s the only bit of me that’s properly Machiavellian or Loki-esque—my ability to toy with journalists, which I enjoy enormously because they’re thick as pig shit and worthless,” Yiannopoulos tells me over coffee.
Earlier this month, an explosive Buzzfeed story linked Yiannopoulos with known white supremacists, including Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer (a hacker and system administrator for the neo-Nazi cesspool the Daily Stormer), Devin Saucier (a regular contributor to the alt-right mag American Renaissance), and neo-reactionary scribe Curtis Yarvin. Leaked emails revealed Yiannopoulos regularly sought their advice while promoting white nationalism at Breitbart, architecting a pipeline between alt-right Internet fringes and the mainstream. Most disturbing was a video of Yiannopoulos singing “America the Beautiful” before Richard Spencer and a crowd of white supremacists extending Nazi salutes, an incident the former Breitbart editor claims was a “setup” by alt-right journalist Charles C. Johnson (Johnson denies this claim while Buzzfeed also denies paying for the video).
“Buzzfeed can drop the whole fucking 120,000 emails they have from me and it will do precisely zero damage,” says Yiannopoulos. “I talk in private as I do in public. I’m horrible to people. I bitch and gossip. I float ideas without thinking them through.”
Buzzfeed’s feature exposed the darkest recesses of a political fringe movement often mischaracterized as a subculture. “Floating ideas without thinking them through” should be a world apart from knowingly empowering white supremacy. However, the discrepancy has blurred in the Trump era. Ridiculous facades parodying culture mask dangerous ideologies, creating never-ending wiggle room between what constitutes irony versus hate speech. Figures like Yiannopoulos stand by their statements when they’re pushed into the mainstream and chalk them up as misunderstood jokes when they’re denounced as bigotry.
“I want the whole world to be like an Internet comment section,” says Yiannopoulos. “[When] CNN went crazy about the ‘okay sign’ supposedly being a white power movement, it was me and my friends having a laugh. It was literally seeing what crazy shit we could make CNN publish.”
The Left is often accredited with winning the culture war. But it was the alt-right who understood how the Internet could shape language, manufacture outrage, and mobilize white resentment against Western institutions like the press, the political establishment and academia. By employing shock value, whether it was insulting African American actress Leslie Jones over Twitter or holding right-wing rallies in cities known as liberal strongholds, Yiannopoulos framed himself as the counter-culture against what many conservatives saw as a progressive establishment. Gas lighting through shock value established a precedent where racially charged scandals could be dismissed as gutter noise unintentionally sucked into the vacuum. As each scandal escalated, people became increasingly desensitized.
In February, a month after Trump entered the White House through this tactic, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart over comments many saw as encouraging pedophilia, losing a Simon & Schuster book deal and a CPAC speaking invitation in the process. But it didn’t slow his momentum; Yiannopoulos filed a $10 million lawsuit against Simon & Schuster as a publicity stunt and reportedly raised $12 million in funding for his solo venture Milo Inc.—a significant portion of which came from conservative megadonor Robert Mercer.
Yiannopoulos says, “That pedophilia thing immunized me against the emails [Buzzfeed published], which would have been worse if I hadn’t had the pedophilia thing. And now I’m literally invulnerable. What else is there? There’s nothing.”
In an era where all information is democratized, branding rules everything. Yiannopoulos’ personal brand is rooted in white nationalism, and attracted millions of right-wing followers—and Mercer dollars. But not everyone was insulated. The Buzzfeed story tarnished the reputations of former Slate technology writer David Auerbach, Silicon Valley writer Dan Lyons, and, to a lesser extent, New York Magazine’s Washington Correspondent Olivia Nuzzi. Most notably, Broadly Editor Mitchell Sunderland was fired from VICE’s women’s vertical for emailing Yiannopoulos “please mock this fat feminist” in reference to New York Times columnist Lindy West.
“He was living a double life as the deputy editor of Broadly who didn’t believe in anything that site published. Sooner or later, that comes back to bite you. I’ve offered him a job, but he didn’t reply,” Yiannopoulos tells me. “There is a story there, where VICE’s women’s editor is saying ‘Go troll this fat feminist.’ But it’s not the story they think. The story is that you can actually bully people into saying in public what you want them to say.”
The hypocrisy of a provocateur tied to white supremacists who was kicked off Twitter for harassing a black actress accusing the other side of “bullying” perfectly describes the ironic tribalism of modern identity politics. Yiannopoulos regularly claims victimhood for crimes he commits. However, there’s no money in being a moderate in today’s hostile political climate—fringes on both sides drive conversation, leaving everyone else in an online hellscape of neo-Nazis, anti-fascists, and mass groupthink. When they collide in the real world, the consequences are terrifying (like when 40,000 misinformed anti-fascist counter-protestors accosted 20 demonstrators holding “Black Lives Do Matter” signs this summer in Boston) and violent (such as the Charlottesville, Va. tragedy where a neo-Nazi drove his car through a crowd of innocent people, killing Heather Heyer).
“This is the general trajectory of this populist nationalist anti-political correctness. It’s the next 30 years. I’m very pleased to have been one of the small number of people responsible.”
Currently preparing for upcoming speaking engagements at college campuses around the country, Yiannopoulos has a battered reputation. His recent free speech protest at Berkley was a logistical disaster that reportedly cost his team $100,000 and featured none of the advertised lineup, including his former mentor Steve Bannon (who, it was also reported, may have severed ties with his protégé in the wake of the Buzzfeed feature). Though Yiannopoulos claims “the story made no difference” to his investors and that consequences could arise for “other things” (but not the recent Vanity Fair report claiming Milo Inc. spent the bulk of its funding on luxury items), the Mercer family’s focus on the 2018 midterm elections could take preference over the culture war.
“I don’t pay attention because I’m so far upstream from all that. What happens in politics is a distant symptom of what I’m doing in culture,” Yiannopoulos responds when asked about his relationship with the Mercer family in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. “I’m a presence. I’m an idea. And I’m gently nudging the pendulum back from speech codes and feminism. My real ability is activating cells in unexpected places and producing wonderful results.”
After discussing the Harvey Weinstein allegations and how pedophilia (a topic Yiannopoulos once jokingly advocated) will be the next PR tsunami to demolish Hollywood, the Trumpian tornado whirls away to meetings with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and conservative commenter Pamela Geller. I’m left in a parallel universe where up is down and black is white, feeling dirty and outsmarted.