By Jeremy W. Peters
Milo Yiannopoulos had everything he needed to be a smash success in today’s conservative world: A big personality, an intuitive sense for baiting the left and no inhibitions about causing offense.
It hardly mattered that he did not consider himself much of a conservative.
But Yiannopoulos’ downfall this week – a dizzying 24 hours in which he lost his speaking slot at the pre-eminent conservative conference, had a book deal canceled and, on Tuesday, resigned under pressure from his job as a senior editor at Breitbart News – was a sign that in today’s political culture, when each day seems to bring a fresh lowering of the bar for decency and civility, some limits still remain.
His glib remarks about pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests and his endorsement of sexual relations with boys as young as 13 drew widespread condemnation from many of the conservatives who had long stood by him, even as he offended so many others with his insulting remarks about Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims and Jews.
Yiannopoulos, appearing in New York wearing a sober suit and red tie on Tuesday afternoon, uttered the words that he had refused to say so many times before: I’m sorry. “I don’t think I’ve been as sorry about anything in my whole life.”
Many on the right are pointing to the Yiannopoulos controversies as a symptom of a trend toward conservatism as performance art, placing less value on ideas like small government and self-reliance than it does on attitude, personality and provocation. While there are respected conservative thinkers on issues like tax reform, immigration and health care, they say, provocateurs like Yiannopoulos suck up most of the oxygen, becoming the public face of the movement and pushing more serious ideas to the sideline.
On a smaller scale, Yiannopoulos’ stardom fits neatly with the political culture of a Republican Party that watched Donald Trump, a reality television star and businessman, triumph over a party structure that prized loyalty and legacy. That came after personalities like Yiannopoulos, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck had drowned out the conservative movement’s once-revered intellectual voices.
Provocateurs like Yiannopoulos became even more popular the more they railed against the left and its perceived intolerance of their most over-the-line remarks. It almost did not matter who Yiannopoulos was fighting – an African-American television star, campus demonstrators, the corporate leadership of Twitter – as long as he was fighting.
“We’ve created a competition for being the most offensive and the most outrageous in order to stay relevant, and then we must rally around and defend you,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio personality and author of the forthcoming “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”
“That knee-jerk defensiveness takes conservatives down some weird, dark alleys,” Sykes added.
Even as it let Yiannopoulos go and condemned his comments on pedophilia, Breitbart was defiant.
Alex Marlow, Breitbart’s editor-in-chief, called the comments “indefensible” and “appalling” during his radio program on Tuesday morning. But he also described the release of the audio, by a conservative group called the Reagan Battalion and after Yiannopoulos had been announced as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a “coordinated hit” by liberal groups intent on hurting his ascent.
“There seems to be growing evidence that this was all coordinated to wait for a peak moment when Milo was red-hot,” Marlow said. “They sat on this story and they held it for maximum political damage.”
Yiannopoulos echoed his former boss in his remarks on Tuesday. “But let’s be clear what is happening here,” he said. “This is a cynical media witch hunt from people who don’t care about children.”
By naming him a speaker at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference – a stage for the right’s most prominent voices – movement leaders were telegraphing how big of a space Yiannopoulos had come to occupy in their world, whether they agreed with him or not.
The chairman of the American Conservative Union, Matt Schlapp, seemed to acknowledge on Monday that the decision to invite Yiannopoulos, 33, was at least in part a nod to voters, especially younger ones, who respond to his antics.
“There’s a lot of older traditional conservatives who are looking at younger voters, younger people in the country, and they despair for the fact they think they have lost them,” Schlapp said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“We have to deal with the reality in which we live,” he said. “And I think it is unfortunate.”
It appears that Yiannopoulos does not expect to be off the stage for long. He said on Tuesday that he would proceed with publishing a book, saying other publishers were interested, and that he was planning to start a media venture.
“I’m proud to be a warrior for free speech and creative expression,” he said, adding, “I’m not going anywhere.”