On Monday afternoon, shortly before he learned that he had been disinvited from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, that his book deal with Simon & Schuster had been cancelled, and that his fellow-employees at Breitbart News were threatening to quit if he wasn’t fired, Milo Yiannopoulos calmly explained to me that he wasn’t a pedpohile or an anti-Semite. Over the weekend, interviews of him discussing underage sex and Jewish influence on the media and finance had circulated on social media. A group calling itself the Reagan Battalion had scoured the Web and assembled a highlight reel of Yiannopoulos’s most offensive statements, including an endorsement of having sex with thirteen-year-olds.
“Things sometimes tumble out of your mouth on these long late-night live streams, when everyone is spitballing and had a couple of drinks, that are not completely expressed and not exactly what you intend. Obviously, if I had known I was going to have the media profile I have now, I would have been cautious about this stuff. I never imagined that I would become famous,” Yiannopoulos told me. He is usually brash and outrageous, leaning on his partly Jewish background and the fact that he is gay as a shield to justify his insults. A recent short music video that he posted on YouTube showed him and some shirtless men building a wall on what purported to be the Mexican border. But yesterday afternoon he was sorrowful and self-pitying as he tried to explain himself. “Everything I say in there is completely defensible with proper context and explanation. It just takes nuance and close attention to understand what I’m really getting at.”
Yiannopoulos is the technology editor for Breitbart, the right-wing, pro-Trump news site formerly run by Steve Bannon, who is now President Trump’s chief strategist and arguably the most powerful man in the White House. While working for Bannon, Yiannopoulos did more than anyone else at Breitbart to explain and build bridges to the so-called alt-right, the amorphous collection of neo-nationalist activists. Bannon once said that Breitbart was “the platform for the alt-right.” Yiannopoulos, who has called himself a “fellow-traveller” of the movement, last year wrote a sympathetic essay, “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” which attempted to usher the movement into semi-respectability among the site’s many Trump-loving readers. “Some—mostly Establishment types—insist it’s little more than a vehicle for the worst dregs of human society: anti-Semites, white supremacists, and other members of the Stormfront set,” Yiannopoulos and his co-author, Allum Bokhari, wrote. “They’re wrong.”
Actually, they were right. The Anti-Defamation League, which studies the movement, describes its adherents as those “who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy.” At an infamous alt-right conference in Washington in January, attendees toasted Trump with the Nazi salute. But, over the past year, Yiannopoulos, along with the alt-right, Bannon, and Trump—whom Yiannopoulos often calls “Daddy”—moved from the laughingstock fringes to the center of the conservative movement. Earlier this month, when a Yiannopoulos event at U.C. Berkeley attracted violent protesters and was cancelled, the President took notice with a shocking threat. “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” he said on Twitter.
The Berkeley event turned some of Yiannopoulos’s critics on the right into sympathizers, who started to view him as a martyr for free speech. Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, invited Yiannopoulos to speak. The annual conference begins on Wednesday, and will feature remarks by Vice-President Mike Pence and a joint appearance by Bannon and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff.
“Instead of avoiding controversy, we have decided that it’s a more responsible thing, in a respectful way, to put controversial topics on the stage and to allow the attendees to hear what they like and what they don’t like,” Schlapp told me. “We’re seeking to resolve some differences, especially differences in the conservative movement.”
For Schlapp, the Berkeley event was the crucial factor. “We talk about that topic every year at CPAC,” he said, referring to intolerance of conservative views in academia. “And he is the latest example of a voice that gets shut down on college campuses. We thought it was a reasonable thing to add that to the agenda.”
The invitation immediately drew outrage, including from members of CPAC’s own board. When Ned Ryun, a pro-Trump board member who runs the organization American Majority, which helps train conservatives to run for office, learned of the invitation, during a green-room conversation with Schlapp at Fox News, he was furious, and told him that he would go public with his opposition.
“The board was not consulted at all on Milo,” Ryun told me. “There was no board vote. And some of us have very strong opinions about Milo. I think the alt-right and its apologists and ‘fellow-travellers,’ or however the hell he describes himself, doesn’t deserve any platform inside the conservative movement. I think they should be drummed out much like Buckley did with the John Birch Society, in the sixties.” He added, “We don’t need to give vile, disgusting, hateful speech a platform.”
Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative commentator and Never Trump activist, was similarly disgusted. “So let me get this straight: Matt Schlapp thinks that Milo has ‘an important’ message and this is about free speech?” he asked me, via a direct message on Twitter. “Not sure what is worse: the intellectual or the moral decadence on display here. Apparently, racism, anti-Semitism, and the embrace of Alt Right isn’t disqualifying for CPAC,” he wrote. “This raises the larger question: Are there any standards for conservatives in the Age of Trump? Obviously being an erratic narcissist can’t be disqualifying. Racist tweets or bullying can’t be disqualifying. Trafficking in Alt Right memes has been normalized. So with Trump as POTUS, where can conservatives draw the line? CPAC’s logic: We’ll embrace anyone the Left hates, even if they are a vile, disingenuous, bigoted click whore.”
Conservatives scheduled to speak at the event also started to grow uncomfortable. “I’ve always thought Milo was pointlessly provocative and that he added nearly nothing in terms of conservative or libertarian ideas,” Tim Carney, the commentary editor for the Washington Examiner, said. “CPAC never should have invited him to give a major speech, because his ‘provocativeness’ is often bigoted or licentious.”
In the face of the growing outrage, Schlapp at first stood by his decision. Then, over the weekend, the videos of Yiannopoulos began to circulate. In one clip, he cavalierly approves of sex with thirteen-year-olds and suggests that he once attended a party at which minors were sexually assaulted. In another, he talks about the “statistical fact” that “Jews own most of the banks” and “completely dominate the media.”
Yiannopoulos told me that he regretted the statements, and that they were simply his way of dealing with being sexually assaulted when he was younger. “I’m gay, as you know,” he said. “And I’m somebody that this happened to. I’m somebody who has been on the receiving end of child abuse. I kind of thought I could talk about it how I pleased. Does that make sense? I sort of felt like I owned the subject and I was entitled to come to terms with that and express myself about that however I pleased.” He continued, “I don’t believe sex with a thirteen-year-old is O.K. When I mentioned the number thirteen, I was talking about myself. I was talking about the age that I lost my virginity.”
Did he ever go to a party and see young boys being sexually assaulted? “I had absolutely no idea,” he said. “I didn’t check anyone’s I.D.s. I have no idea what the ages of any of those people at the parties were. I think when I said ‘very young,’ I was guessing they might be sixteen or seventeen. I said very clearly I don’t advocate for any illegal behavior, nor do I excuse it. If I saw it and I was sure about it, I would report it.” He added, “I lived in Los Angeles in 2008, and it’s difficult to avoid parties like that if you’re young and good-looking, you know?”
He also addressed his claim about Jewish control of the media. “My mother is Jewish. I was raised Jewish,” he said. “I said we are proportionally overrepresented in some industries, and I don’t think pointing out that fact is anti-Semitic.”
The explanations were too late. Before we got off the phone, Schlapp had already disinvited Yiannopoulos. Later in the day, Simon & Schuster cancelled his book contract, which had reportedly been worth two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
But the damage to the conservative movement had already been done. In a previous era, there was an élite conservative establishment that could police the movement and cast aside its fringe adherents. William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, famously did this in the early sixties, when he attacked the conspiracists and racists of the John Birch Society, the alt-right of the day.
“The invitation strikes me as more important than the disinvitation,” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, said of the CPAC conference. “The invite said, ‘We are welcoming an alt-right (or alt-right-fellow-travelling) provocateur into the big tent.’ The disinvite said, ‘Well, O.K., since you’ve advocated pederasty, we’ll back off.’ CPAC hasn’t set out a principled position here, and absent the tapes presumably would have forged ahead.”
Schlapp stood by his original decision and dismissed critics like Lowry. “Last year around this time, there was the creation of the Never Trump movement, and there were a lot of these very same journalists who were attacking us for inviting Donald Trump,” he told me. “There are journalists in the conservative world that use CPAC as a piñata once a year, and they attack us for inviting, for not inviting. The fact is this: politics is messy and it’s complicated. And we can try to sanitize it for our stage or we can decide to not avoid the controversies, but simply put them on the stage in an appropriate way for our attendees to listen to.”
But even one of Schlapp’s own board members did not buy that argument. “So we were cool with the Anti Semitic, racist, vile stuff, but we drew the line at pedophilia?” Ryun wrote to me via text, echoing Lowry’s complaints. “My argument from the minute I heard about it was to reject the alt-right ASAP.”
As for Yiannopoulos, when I spoke to him at one P.M. yesterday, he said that he was still consulting with his team about what to do next. Asked if he might still show up in Washington this week, he responded, “Probably.”
Whether he attends or not, CPAC promises to be a rowdy forum for debate about the future of conservatism and the alt-right. Fans of Yiannopoulos won’t be too disappointed. Yesterday, before announcing that Yiannopoulos was disinvited, CPAC organizers revealed that they had a new speaker who was even more beloved by the alt-right: Donald Trump.