There are many shocking details in Joe Bernstein’s blockbuster BuzzFeed article about the inner workings of Breitbart — so many that it’s hard to know where to start in describing it. With Milo Yiannopoulos’s extremely cozy relationships with white-nationalist and neo-Nazi figures? With the revelation that ostensibly liberal journalists and tech figures were tipping Milo off? With the video of Milo singing “America the Beautiful” to a room of Nazi-saluting white nationalists?
Ultimately, the juicy details are just flourishes on a bigger picture, one that’s essential to anyone trying to understand (and check) the rise of the alt-right. That picture shows the aggressive, coordinated way in which conservative billionaires helped turn Milo Yiannopoulos, once a failed British tech editor mired in legal trouble for not paying his contributors, into MILO, a conservative star famous for his popular, gonzo — and sometimes violence-provoking — appearances at college campuses around the country.
It’s important to be clear here: Yiannopoulos does have legitimate, organic appeal. It would be impossible to build a platform like his if he wasn’t charismatic or even, to some people, charming. There is a big audience for content designed to shock and provoke, particularly when it targets women, minorities, and liberals. If Yiannopoulos hadn’t figured out how to speak the language of predominantly white American conservative anger and resentment, and to do so in a way that appeals to young people, none of us would have heard of him.
But Bernstein’s article shows very clearly just how much help he has had along the way. He has been veritably showered in far-right money from Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the billionaires described by the Huffington Post as “the reclusive duo who propelled Trump into the White House,” who are also major Breitbart investors. As Bernstein reports, Steve Bannon first introduced Yiannopoulos to the Mercers on their yacht at Cannes in 2016, where they were in town to promote Clinton Cash, a film Bannon and the Mercers were releasing through Glittering Steel, their production studio.
After the meeting, Bannon began pushing Yiannopoulos to do more and more live shows — apparently with the enthusiastic support of the Mercers. Soon “Dan Fleuette, Bannon’s coproducer at Glittering Steel and the man who acted for months as the go-between for Yiannopoulos and the Mercers … was enlisted to process and wrangle the legion of young assistants, managers, trainers, and other talent the Breitbart tech editor demanded be brought along for the ride.” When Yiannopoulos expressed security concerns, Bannon told him they would be using the Mercers’ private security detail.
Thus began a relationship that would extend past Yiannopoulos’s tenure at Breitbart, which ended after a moderate-conservative group resurfaced video of him appearing to condone pedophilia:
After firing Yiannopoulos, [Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex] Marlow accompanied him to the Mercers’ Palm Beach home to discuss a new venture: MILO INC. On February 27, not quite two weeks after the scandal erupted, Yiannopoulos received an email from a woman who described herself as “Robert Mercer’s accountant.” “We will be sending a wire payment today,” she wrote. Later that day, in an email to the accountant and Robert Mercer, Yiannopoulos personally thanked his patron. And as Yiannopoulos prepared to publish his book, he stayed close enough to Rebekah Mercer to ask her by text for a recommendation when he needed a periodontist in New York.
That was February. In April, Yiannopoulos claimed to Vanity Fair that he had been given $12 million — he wanted to protect the identity of the donor — to start a new venture geared at “making the lives of journalists, professors, politicians, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, and other professional victims a living hell.” Which more or less brings us to today. Yiannopoulos continues to be a loud, well-funded traveling outrage machine — one who, thanks to his secretive benefactors, is able to charge student groups zero dollars to tell his young, adoring audiences that they are being screwed over by a small cabal of wealthy, powerful elitists who don’t care about them.
As this circus has raged on, of course, the farthest edges of the far-right have benefited greatly. The money that flows to Yiannopoulos benefits them in an indirect but important way. As the anti-racist group Hope Not Hate explained in a recent report and undercover investigation, the popularity of what the group calls “alt-light” figures like Yiannopoulos — “light” because they usually shy from the sorts of explicitly racist arguments made by the Richard Spencers and Jared Taylors of the world, with the exception of their rhetoric on Islam (seen as an acceptable punching bag, even for moderate conservatives) — have shifted the boundaries of the conversation, acting as a gateway drug to more extreme and explicit forms of political hate.
After all, it’s only natural that among the subset of young people who hear Yiannopoulos (or Mike Cernovich, or Paul Joseph Watson, or …) rant about “globalists” and migrants and liberals and Muslims over and over and over again, some of them are going to seek out harder fare. Just a few years ago, there simply wasn’t much of a youthful reactionary movement, online or offline. That’s changing, and it’s in part because of, well, a small cabal of secretive conservative funders.