On Tuesday, Twitter permanently banned the account of Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero) for violating its “hateful conduct policy.” Milo — he goes by just the single name — was busted for trolling Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. Although the offending tweets were not unusual by the low standards of Twitter (or of Milo himself), this was not the first time that he had gotten in trouble with the company, and by picking a fight with Jones he made her a target of even worse racist abuse from his followers. That’s the official explanation, at least, although it may give Twitter too much credit for having and enforcing a coherent policy.
Milo may have been one of the most “egregious and consistent offenders of [Twitter’s] terms of service,” but he was also one of the social-media platform’s most skilled manipulators. He established himself as a right-wing celebrity by mastering the arts of calculated provocation and self-promotion, developing a particular talent for loudly violating “politically correct” speech taboos in ways maximally calculated to rally the faithful while baiting his liberal and leftist adversaries into hysterics. A sample headline from directly after the Orlando shooting gives an idea of the genre: THE LEFT CHOSE ISLAM OVER GAYS. NOW OVER 100 PEOPLE ARE KILLED OR MAIMED IN ORLANDO. Its thrust may be abhorrent, but as a headline it’s brilliant — and it plays well on social media.
Milo is also a number of things that most conservative journalists are not. He knows his memes. He calls Donald Trump “Daddy.” He openly affiliates with the neo-monarchists and open racists of the alt-right, which he depicts as a happy-go-lucky band of internet tricksters out to poke fun at liberal pieties for the lulz. He’s gay, too. Fabulously gay. Not the sort of dignified bourgeois gay that the Republican Party has spent years begrudgingly accommodating itself to; no — Milo is a self-described “based faggot” who flirts with racism even as he tweets about his love of “black cock”; he’s the millenial gay best friend who says the most outrageous things: for instance, that gay liberation was a bad idea and it’s time to get back in the closet. With his legions of online followers and savant’s knowledge of Pepe the Frog memes, Milo seems like a singularly contemporary thinker. Yet he has also revived an older trope, which may be more indicative of our current moment: the decadent, gay, fascist sophisticate.
The subject of the gay fascist is, unsurprisingly, a sensitive one. Real-life fascist regimes mercilessly persecuted homosexuals, and any empirical connection between homosexuality and fascism is tenuous, despite what Christian conspiracy theorists and gay contrarians might have you believe. The gay fascist is a real historical figure — for instance, the French critic Robert Brasillach or the SA leader Ernst Röhm — but, more significantly, it’s a cultural trope, familiar from films such as Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and novels such as Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. In these works of fiction, the gay fascist, who is generally debonair, witty, and well-read, is meant to stand in for the cultural afflictions of the society that produced him: decadence, cynicism, sadism; the narcissism and aestheticism of over-civilization; the worship of death and the loss of hope in the future (associations all courted by Milo with his Twitter name, Nero).
There’s a sort of deconstruction-by-numbers which holds that the gay fascist trope is indicative of irrational fears of “disordered” sexuality, or else is a way for ordinary people to comfort themselves with the belief that fascists were moral and sexual deviants, rather than what they were: ordinary people. Both those things may well be true. But Milo’s ability to reinvent and inhabit the trope suggests something simpler.
In its contemporary usage, “fascism” designates roughly any political ideology to the right of Joe Scarborough. As any college professor or message-board pedant will tell you, that’s a mistake. As an intellectual movement, fascism defined itself against 19th-century European liberalism — which espoused beliefs that 21st-century American liberals might well regard as fascist. It held (with some exceptions) that men were naturally superior to women, whites were superior to blacks, and Saxons and Teutons superior to Latins and Celts. It regarded democracy with contempt.
The point is not that this liberalism was therefore ‘illiberal.’ Rather, it’s that whatever its considerable flaws, this liberalism was in its heyday the ideology of a successful ruling class that was able to provide ever-increasing prosperity, individual autonomy, and social peace to the nations in which it ruled. Fascism is what came after, when the pointless massacre of the First World War, the economic devastation of the 1930s, and the persistent inability to resolve long-simmering social tensions discredited the European elite and its ideas. Reducing fascism to some vague idea of extreme conservatism, which in its American context essentially means angry old white people, misses the sense in which fascism prospered because it was something young, cool, transgressive, and new. For fascist intellectuals, at least, the liberal bourgeoisie was their enemy as much as were communists or Jews, and it was precisely because the bourgeois were old, self-righteous, and boring. Fascism was sexy and fun.
Milo gets this. He’s not the angry, downwardly mobile Iowan that is still the ideal-typical Trump voter. He’s young, he’s smart, he’s good-looking; his entire identity is a mockery of the family-values conservatism that until recently dominated right-wing politics in America. And he’s mastered the art of the exciting transgression. Bigoted views are bigoted views. But it’s also true that a flailing American elite has elevated a corporate-diversity-training version of multiculturalism into one of the primary justifications for its continued rule. (At one point last fall, I attended a function at Brown University — endowment $3.3 billion — at which the keynote speaker closed with: “I’m a queer black survivor, and I’m going to work at Goldman Sachs next year!” The room exploded.) Milo exploits to great effect the perception among his disaffected, youthful fan base that liberal pieties about diversity and anti-racism are just the moralistic droning of an elite losing its grip on power.
Trump’s success has raised among liberals a fear that the far right has made itself respectable. Milo’s success at creating a following for a figure like himself — limited as it might be — suggests that the bigger fear should be that the far right might make itself cool.