“Kill your darlings.”
Often associated incorrectly with William Faulkner, the adage conveys the need for a writer to edit mercilessly, to remove all impediments to a clean, compelling work, including those nonessential elements the writer finds most personally seductive. The quote is most often used in reference to literature, but the notion of shearing for the greater good can be found in real-world exploits as diverse as gardening and politics. In politics, especially, the kill can come swiftly and without mercy, destroying careers with a quick, irreparable cleave, as demonstrated recently in the fall of the darling of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos.
The rejection of Milo Yiannopoulos was as unexpected as it was swift. Never one to avoid controversy, Yiannopoulos built his career on incendiary comments directed at women, ethnic and religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. His ascension into the public consciousness began in 2014 with Gamergate, an Internet harassment campaign against those advocating for gender inclusivity in video games. Milo sustained and grew his profile in subsequent years through a series of inflammatory comments, ranging from claims that accusations of sexual assault are a form of “bragging” to a belief that trans individuals are “disordered.” Years of interviews, contributions to message boards, and campus tours, along with his former position as an editor of the far-right news website Breitbart, led to his crowning as the public face of the alt-right movement. To his followers, Milo was a champion of free speech who dared to break the molds of political correctness. To his detractors he was a bigoted man spewing dangerous hate speech. His popularity, however, remained on the periphery for most of his time in the spotlight, isolated in the Reddit, 4Chan, and Breitbart communities, and the condemnation he received from the right was almost as strong as the condemnation he received from the left.
Yiannopoulos’ new position closer to the center of conservative circles only came with the onset of the 2016 election, when his first steps towards mainstream acceptance fell in time with the rise of Donald Trump. As the campaign progressed and the course of conservatism bent farther right, Yiannopoulos’ bigotry no longer existed on the fringe. He took on a greater legitimacy when a president who espoused nationalistic politics took office, and the subsequent appointment of Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, as chief strategist and senior advisor to President Trump cemented the relationship between the new administration and the alt-right. The annexation of the alt-right into mainstream conservatism hastened when Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference 2017 (CPAC 2017), a bastion of mainstream conservatism. This olive branch was not pleasing to all or even most conservatives, however, and actions were taken almost immediately to remove Yiannopoulos from the program.
Within a day of the announcement, a sixteen year old Canadian girl provided the Reagan Battalion, a conservative blog, with videos from July 2016 in which Yiannopoulos appears to express support for pedophilic relationships between men and boys as young as 13. In the three days that followed the tweeted videos, Yiannopoulos lost his speaking position at CPAC and a $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster and resigned from the far-right news website Breitbart. While the abuse of children is difficult to justify under any ideology, why were his comments not regarded as attention fodder and part of his campaign for free speech, like earlier deplorable quotes? Milo’s hasty excommunication begs the question: What distinguishes this comment from those of the past?
While all answers are speculative, it is likely a confluence of character, content, and timing that led to the rejection of Yiannopoulos. Milo has always had a strained relationship with conservatism. A young, British, openly gay man with blonde hair extensions and an affinity for jewelry is not the mold of a stereotypical traditionalist. This dissonance already made Milo’s embrace by mainstream conservatism precarious, and the underlying suspicion of incompatibility was likely confirmed in the minds of CPAC attendees when Yiannopoulos claimed pedophilia was an acceptable practice. Not only did his comment go against the branding of conservatism as a family-first ideology, the fact that it came from a gay man likely played into the disproven stereotype that there is a link between homosexuality and pedophilia.
But it is difficult to believe the persona of Milo Yiannopoulos and the content of his comments alone led to the loss of his book deal and his departure from Breitbart, as both groups knew his antics well before his comments received wide media coverage. These losses are the effect of timing, of the decreasing relevance of Milo Yiannopoulos even as his career was reaching its zenith. In the years preceding the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right struggled to spread its message and gain legitimacy in the public sphere. Yiannopoulos solved the problem of publicity by making statements he knew would bring controversy, whether or not the statements were indicative of his own beliefs or a coherent alt-right ideology. With the rise of Donald Trump, however, the alt-right no longer needed spectacle to make their views known. The inclusion of Steve Bannon as a campaign manager and his subsequent appointment to the National Security Council gave the alt-right a voice on a national scale. Publications are now forming that plan to create an “intellectual” and coherent alt-right ideology, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have seen a rise in membership, and respected journalists from major networks have joined Breitbart as the alt-right has lost its fringe qualities.
With an increase in visibility, the alt-right no longer needs reactionaries like Milo Yiannopoulos, who offer little to boost the movement’s intellectual ambitions and harm its flimsy credibility with universally condemnable comments. And while it would be a stretch of the imagination of Trump-esque proportions to suggest there is a grand conspiracy of the alt-right, the fall of Milo Yiannopoulos comes at a time when his usefulness has dried up. Incendiary comments for the sake of being incendiary are no longer the model the alt-right must follow; returning to this strategy would be a step back. While Milo’s fall was hailed as a win for public decency and leftist values, it reveals a darker truth in the evolution of an ideology most believed could not flourish in the United States of today. The alt-right has lost its status as alternative; it sits in the ear of an easily swayable president and can be heard in the silence of a Republican-led Congress. With this normalization comes legitimacy, as the “basket of deplorables” rebrands as the “silent majority.” The new Republican base is ready for the next iteration of conservatism, and the alt-right is poised to replace the floundering old guard. But this transition will not be without casualties, and some darlings must be killed for the ideology to gain new life.