Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking tour can only be described as a spectacle. The to-be-expected surreal imagery, theatrics, and trademark incendiary remarks of Yiannopoulos were in full swing during his time at FSU, and the customary reaction to Yiannopoulos was present as well. A small protest of two dozen people or so was organized in the free speech zones bordering HCB101, where the event was being held. While relatively tame in comparison to other protests at his events, a large “Stop Hate Speech” sign and a bullhorn still managed to make an appearance.
Despite their likely disdain for the term, the conservative students of Florida State found a safe space inside the walls of HCB101. “Make America Great Again” hats, “Harambe for President” shirts, and a ludicrously large “Don’t Tread On Me” flag were all worn with pride and gusto. Throughout Milo’s speech the gathered students jeered at the mention of Hillary Clinton, the left in general, and even the former crown prince of far-right conservatism, Glenn Beck. It seemed that with Milo they found a place that they could loudly, and without fear, proclaim their opinions. While the wildly oppositional ideals of the protesters and Milo’s supporters set them apart I saw, strangely enough, two different groups of students drawn together by Milo under the auspices of free speech.
Yiannopoulos’ topic was free speech, specifically regarding his permanent suspension from Twitter as well as what he says is systematic discrimination against vocally conservative users on the platform.
“Republicans, including Donald Trump, are bombarded with death threats, and Twitter does nothing. Feminist activists are able to dox and harass anyone they want, and Twitter does nothing,” he said during his speech at Florida State.
He also laid allegations of discrimination against conservative users at the feet of even larger platforms like Facebook. The subject of free speech and responsible treatment of journalism, especially on platforms where users sign agreements which dictate what they can and can’t do, is a first amendment battleground right now. Milo and his own journalism, it seems, are forging a path to the forefront of this controversy.
“You’ve worked at Breitbart for a considerable amount of time now,” I asked Yiannopoulos. “Do you consider yourself a journalist, and if so, what do you feel your journalism brings to the public that no one else does?”
“I’m certainly a journalist, I’m a senior editor [at Breitbart], and I run a couple of different sections of the site, you know, our campus coverage, our social justice stuff, our tech. So it’s the day job no one really sees, which I do during the day when I’m not doing this. What’s relatively new about me is that the right hasn’t had these hybrid-chameleon actor, speaker, journalist figures before, so people don’t really know how to classify it. But what I do every day is journalism. I’m speaking truth to power, as I see it. I’m trying to hold a mirror to hypocrisy, and dishonesty, and cruelty. So yeah, I think what I do, even though it’s very theatrical and doesn’t look like traditional journalism, is the best kind of journalism.”
But the most interesting thing about Milo’s isn’t his brand of journalism. It’s the man behind it, and not even how he came to the forefront of these controversies, or who he is when he is there; it’s the way he holds himself when he is away from the spotlight that shows the most about him. There was a moment in his speech where you could see this different Milo, a very small chink in his time at the podium. It was when he switched to a slide of Leslie Jones.
“I mean if you’re going to sell out your core values to a celebrity, at least pick someone good looking!” he shouted at the slide.
Then from the crowd someone yelled, “Harambe’s Sister!”
In that moment Milo took his glasses off, and his eyes widened.
“No, no, no,” he exclaimed, “We don’t have any of that in here. Stop it.”
That small moment might tell you a lot about the rising subculture that is the alt-right, and it gives credence to the mounting accusations of white supremacy and racism leveled against it. That moment also shows that even if Yiannopoulos is wildly inflammatory and provocative, he has a degree of separation from the Alt-Right. He’s just their champion, not the entirety of the movement. Yiannopoulos has a champion too.
“It’s well known you’re an avid Trump supporter,” I asked him. “If he won the general election, what kind of obstacles do you feel like he’d have in his first term, if there was a second one? Same question for Hillary.”
He seems to think for a second, then dives into the question. “So Trump is going to struggle with the establishment Republicans in Congress to get his stuff through because they hate him, and they understand that he is an existential threat to their livelihood. He’s going to have lots of problems, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I want him to fix trade, I want him to build a wall, I want him to smash political correctness, but after that maybe it’s better if he doesn’t do anything. If he fixes those three things, I can forgive him for anything else. If he’s a Coolidge, but a bit more blustery, I think we could live with that. Hillary is going to enter the White House as the most unpopular president in history from day one. That’s going to be a big problem for her, because most presidents we come to hate over time. They leave office much less popular than when they went in – like Bush, or Obama. For Hillary, the only way is up, I guess.”
Milo laughs at this.
“Nobody likes her,” he continues. “She’s going to have a horrible time selling any of the stuff she wants to do to the American public. And I think from a left wing point of view she’s the worst person to put in the White House, because she’s so unpopular, and she’s going to have so much resistance. She’s going to discredit the causes that she’s fighting for the left, you know, and the things she wants to do that are reasonable, and the Republicans are wrong about, are going to be tainted by association with her.”
I was slated to interview Milo immediately after the event and its accompanying meet and greet. As we walked over to the infamous tour bus, I talked with Milo’s tour manager, Andrew. I was interested to see who Yiannopoulos surrounded himself with. We talked about his children, and the struggles of eating healthy while on the road, and how his career had led to working for Milo. He’d previously been in charge of a large enclosed stadium, which was not enclosed all the way, so when it rained the stage was poorly visible. We laughed at this. For all the theatrics and remarks that might detract from the professional nature of the events Yiannopoulos hosts, Andrew seems to keep it a tightly wound and well-oiled machine. Over the course of Milo’s time I watched Andrew deal with five different groups of people requesting interviews, a deluge of foot traffic, and a soon to expire parking permit for what he wryly referred to as the “fag bus.”
The rest of the crew were, perhaps, not as professional as Andrew.
I waited outside the rumbling mass that was Yiannopoulos’ tour bus as I was frisked, understandably so, considering the infamy Milo has accrued over the past year. Finally, I was let on board. I sat down on the couches near the front with a few of the people involved with the speaking tour. I didn’t say anything as the crew slowly churned through massive amounts of video footage. They sat exchanging sim cards, and their conversations meandered.
“We don’t give a hoot,” I heard one crew member say.
“All my niggas don’t give a hoot,” chimed another.
Another member of the crew pulled out a microwave pizza from the freezer. As he peeled the wrapper off, he reached in and ate a pepperoni, enjoying it for a second before he grimaced.
“I forgot it was frozen,” he mumbled.
One of the other interviewers sitting on the couch witnessed this and turned to the crew member next to him.
“Is he retarded?” he mouthed.
Andrew walked from the back of the bus. “You’ve got seven minutes,” he said to me. “I’m sorry it’s not longer.”
I made my way back past catacomb-like bunks into the dimly lit back room of Milo Yiannopoulos’ tour bus. The only lights cast red shades across us, and there was a club-like vibe to the little niche I found Milo in.
We shook hands, and sat down. He was still in his suit and priest collar from earlier in the night. A camera fixed on us, and the interview began.
It didn’t take me the whole seven minutes to figure some things out about Milo.
Milo is an incredibly, and often disturbingly, charismatic man, and it became immediately clear to me why he has such a rapidly growing and rabid following. During his event I found myself instinctively wanting to clap at the crescendos of his speech, even when I knew I didn’t agree with the point he had built up to. In person I found he had a habit of saying, “you know,” after statements. I caught myself on several occasions subconsciously saying “Right,” or “Yeah,” in response. Ironically, he reminds me in some respects of one of the most gifted orators of our time: President Obama.
“What do you feel president Obama accomplished in his time in office,” I ask him. “How do you feel like he changed in his two terms? What legacy do you feel like he’s leaving for the history books?”
“It’s very clear for me as a European, looking at prior presidents and then observing Obama, that he doesn’t like America very much. He doesn’t like the United States very much; he’s just not particularly proud to be American, and he doesn’t think the country’s a good thing, a good place. That’s mystifying to me. You know, I look out and I see America as the greatest – I think it’s the greatest country in the history of human civilization.”
“And you’ve expressed that several times,” I interject.
“Right,” he exclaims. “And I don’t understand how anyone looks out on America and sees a history – a legacy – of racism, sexism, and all this kind of structural whatever. I don’t understand how someone looks on America and sees that given what the rest of the world is like. So Obama has done nothing for blacks; the state of racial relations is far worse than it was when he entered office. He has taken the first steps to socializing your healthcare, which is a disaster. You do not want a health care system like Canada or the UK, trust me. You know, I think he has done a lot of damage. Fortunately, he hasn’t had the opportunity to wreak massive harm on the Supreme Court. That’s why I think it would be a bad thing to have Hillary next.”
Yiannopoulos is much less theatrical in person. Each of his answers are long, but skillfully avoid any rambling. He has a surgical way of addressing questions. I found myself faced with a much more nuanced, and perhaps more genuine, Milo Yiannopoulos.
“So in previous interviews you’ve said that we live in a post-fact era,” I ask, “Do you feel that journalist should still be expected to report the truth despite that?”
“Yes,” responded Yiannopoulos. “So every talk that I give is statistics, dates, numbers – they’re all in there at the heart of the speech – facts are the most important thing there is. I like the post-fact era in that I enjoy the left’s fact check and data journalism con-job falling apart, and I like the fact that people vote culturally and not on policy now in this election. People vote for Trump just because they like the guy, which is what I mean by post-fact. But journalists have a responsibility to get their shit right, get it together, and make sure they’re telling the truth. My problem with American journalism is that in many cases it’s a highly selective version of the truth, or it’s outright lies. Journalists in America print stuff they know isn’t really true or isn’t really fair, all day every day, and they’re rewarded for it. To the extent that its good that we’re in a post-fact era, it’s good for people who are more persuasive, and more fun, and more engaging than these dour, miserable, leftie losers. I benefit, obviously, from that, but it’s crucial we get our facts right first. Living in a post-fact era doesn’t mean you don’t tell the truth anymore, it means that the facts alone are not enough.”
The facts alone are not enough. Those words stuck with me all the way through the interview, out the bus, and into the muggy fall night. As I walked across campus I thought about what Milo Yiannopoulos and the meteoric rise of the Alt-Right meant for this nation.
I loosened the tie around my neck.
If Donald Trump is elected is it really that implausible that his followers, and specifically the Alt-Right, could grow to such a size that they could consume the conservative establishment? Could Yiannopoulos and this movement rise even further, and could his “more persuasive, and more fun” journalism become the norm? How will this election, with all its dissatisfactions, rising movements, and cultural voting trends affect what it looks like when our generation gets into office?
It seemed to me I wasn’t the only one walking into the dark, questioning what it would like when the sun rose. The whole nation is doing the same thing.
I untucked my shirt as I walked further into the darkness.
Did it bother me when I asked all my best questions, that I walked away with more than I had before?
But the facts alone aren’t enough now, and I can’t tell if that’s terrifying anymore.