A few years ago, conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly sat alone at a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) exhibition area.
Hundreds and probably thousands of people―most of them young―stampeded past her, not giving her so much as a glance or even recognizing her. How could they overlook the woman who helped propel Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination with her best-selling self-published book A Choice Not an Echo, and who a decade later almost single-handedly stopped the seemingly inevitable Equal Rights Amendment?
The parade had passed her by because even a conservative parade craves novelty. What headline have you made lately? Even a CPAC―maybe especially a CPAC (or, at least, the people who run it)―craves novelty and momentary celebrity over real quality or achievement.
CPAC is, by far, the largest gathering of conservatives every year. Thousands of young conservatives will flock to National Harbor in Maryland this week to hear speeches from conservative luminaries. What started as a small meeting of conservatives four decades ago (where Ronald Reagan was among the first to accept a speaking invitation) has turned into a huge annual spectacle.
Over the years, however, Reagan gave way to Ann Coulter (and a kid named Jonathan Krohn... and Sarah Palin with a Big Gulp...). Coulter gave way to Donald Trump. And then, for a few moments this week... Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos is depraved and decadent. Ultimately, he was done in by videos that surfaced with him proudly praising sex between boys and older men, as well as him speaking highly of a priest who allegedly had sex with him when he was underage: “I wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him,” he jokes. In an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan, Yiannopoulos rationalized the sexual encounter, saying: “It was perfectly consensual. When I was the [sic] 14, I was the predator.” (It’s worth noting that he denies that he supports pedophilia. But he defines pedophilia as an “ attraction to children who have not reached puberty.” In other words, “Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old, who is sexually mature.”
Yiannopoulos told The Daily Beast that he regrets his comments. But he regrets them only because he finally went too far. He has repeated them on multiple occasions—with reckless abandon.
After defending the decision to invite Yiannopoulos, Matt Schlapp, who runs the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, cited the “revelation of an offensive video... condoning pedophilia,” as the reason for rescinding his invitation. It’s good that CPAC finally did the right thing, but really, there is no excuse for inviting him to speak in the first place. (The same goes for Simon & Schuster, which canceled a book deal for Yiannopoulos on Monday, after paying a $250,000 advance.)
Among his greatest hits, he has bragged about liking “black dick,” wearing an iron-cross necklace (which isn’t necessarily tied to Nazism, but certainly evokes the imagery), and writing an essay ostensibly meant to explain the “alt-right”; however, the piece actually seemed to normalize it by framing it in the best manner possible. Also inexcusable: He refers to Trump as “Daddy.”
But this isn’t just about Yiannopoulos. The invitation to speak at CPAC tells you all you need to know about the state of American conservatism and why it was so easily co-opted by Trumpism. So why was he invited in the first place? Yiannopoulos, like Trump, is a paradox. On one hand, he brings a certain cosmopolitan flair to a group of people accustomed to being thought of as unsophisticated; on the other hand, he reinforces every negative stereotype imaginable. I was among those who criticized CPAC’s decision to baptize Trump by inviting him to speak at its 2013 meeting. Now, that seems quaint. Once arguably too wonky and prudish, today’s conservatism, judging by CPAC’s invited speakers, is increasingly crude, vulgar, and lowbrow.
It’s also hard to tell if CPAC revoked Yiannopoulos’s speaking gig out of principle, or merely because of pressure. Even before he was disinvited, CPAC’s board of directors seem to be caught unawares, and some funders are asking why this news dropped so suddenly. “I’ve made a $28,000 sponsorship of this event,” said Chuck Warren, a political consultant who co-sponsored CPAC under the ironic name Expanding the Tent. “I just don’t understand why CPAC has decided to throw gas on the ideological fires right now.”
Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance. His appearance could be seen as a microcosm of a movement that became everything it used to hate—that defines deviancy down.
True conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness. Along with a penchant for showmanship, this seems to be Yiannopoulos’s entire shtick―and it’s a good one. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, and since Yiannopoulos says horrible things about radical feminists and other annoying leftists, he is, ergo, a conservative hero. This was the initial message from Schlapp. Before rescinding Yiannopoulos’s invitation (in response to a critical tweet from conservative writer Jonah Goldberg), Schlapp said the “1st amendment is dead on campus. Conservatives should fight back. As radioactive as milo is he is fighting back.”
If “fighting back” means using the weapons of identity politics and victimhood is the name of the game, then Yiannopoulos is bulletproof. He’s gay and (he says) part Jewish (and he likes “ black dick,” so you can’t call him a bigot or a homophobe). He also has a British accent, which American conservatives mistake for sophistication, so he can’t be labeled a rube. He’s also a martyr who evokes sympathy when his intentionally provocative behavior sparks even more outrageous (and intolerant) behavior. Not only do these characteristics provide him cover to say anything outlandish he likes, they also provide cover for his fans. After the news broke that he had been disinvited to CPAC, Yiannopoulos posted a statement on Facebook. Quite tellingly, he begins by casting himself as both a sympathetic minority (a gay man) and a “child abuse” victim. The problem is that we too often confuse being politically incorrect with being a hero. It is one thing to defend someone’s right to say something vile; it is another thing to reward him for it.
“No one in their right mind would pick this silly little boy” to speak at CPAC, Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told me. “This is the first time I can recall a spoiled man child whose main purpose is self-promotion being selected as the keynote speaker at CPAC.” There was some argument as to whether Yiannopoulos’s speech was technically going to be a “keynote,” but that hardly matters. It’s a long way from speakers like William F. Buckley, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Phyllis Schlafly to Milo Yiannopoulos, but who thinks that just because he was disinvited in 2017, the trend will end here? Will next year’s invite include Julian Assange, Richard Spencer, Piers Morgan, and Alex Jones? They may not be conservative, but it’ll make for a hell of a show. The conservative movement is a very big tent—a tent that now houses the greatest freak show on earth. And people are lining up to buy tickets.