Rewind two weeks. It’s a wet night in Berkeley, California, and Yiannopoulos is running away from the left. He was scheduled to speak at the University of California–Berkeley, but the event has been shut down. It was shut down because thousands of anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters decided that there should be no platform for what they called white supremacy. They are marching to say that free speech does not extend to hate speech, that the First Amendment should not oblige institutions to invite professional trolls to spout an auto-generated word-salad of Internet bigotry just for fun, and that, if the institutions disagree, students and allies are entitled to throw fireworks and smash things until the trolls run away. Which is exactly what has happened.
The impression that this is all an exciting adventure in pranking the left, a giddy game of harmless offense where nobody actually gets hurt, is not holding up so well.
Five minutes after I arrive on campus, klaxons are blaring in the event space and the entire team on his “Dangerous Faggot Tour” has been obliged to make what might generously be termed a tactical retreat. Police in full riot gear are everywhere, and the whole place is evacuated because of the real possibility of everyone inside getting a serious — and arguably deserved — kicking. Whatever the rights and wrongs of punching fascists, if people of good faith and conscience are publicly debating whether or not you deserve a smack in the mouth, it’s probably time to have a think about your life.
The team is mostly composed of young men. Extremely young men. The sort of young men who are very brave behind a computer screen and like to think of themselves as stalwart fighters for the all-American right to say whatever disgusting thing they please, but who are absolutely unequipped to deal with any suggestion of real-world consequences. I end up spending most of my time stuck in a hotel lobby, interviewing the people who follow Yiannopoulos around, doing his grunt work and getting into scrapes as if the whole thing were a holiday lark rather than a serious political project with real repercussions for real human beings.
It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.
As the evacuation gets going, the young men in Yiannopoulos’ gang seem scared. They’re right to be — these protesters aren’t playing, and there has already been real violence at these events. One week earlier, in Seattle, a Yiannopoulos fan shot an anti-fascist protester in the stomach. The victim is expected to survive. The impression that this is all an exciting adventure in pranking the left, a giddy game of harmless offense where nobody actually gets hurt, is not holding up so well. Over the next few hours, I get to watch Yiannopoulos’ teenage entourage wrestle with the fact that this game is, in fast, deadly earnest, and the win conditions are changing, and they are not players, but pieces on the board.
The vehemence of the protests and the headline-baiting images of masked men setting fires and breaking glass represent a small win for Yiannopoulos: He gets to go on Fox News and play the victim. The rest of the crew are purely freaked out. One of the younger hangers-on has an anxiety disorder and had to fight down a panic attack that could have held up the swift retreat. Whatever anyone claims, it’s hard to shake off being run out of town by 3,000 people screaming that you’re a Nazi. It’s the sort of thing that gives everyone but the coldest sociopath at least a little pause, and most of this crew don’t have the gumption or street smarts to function outside of a Reddit forum. They’re not the flint-eyed skinheads that many anti-fascists are used to fighting. I’m not a brawler, but I’d wager that these kids could be knocked down with a well-aimed stack of explanatory pamphlets, thus resolving decades of debate about whether it’s better to punch or to reason with racists.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. I came expecting to report on both sides of the line, talking to Yiannopoulos and his gang as well as the protesters. I was hustled in past the police barricades with three wide-eyed young event volunteers, to thunderous cries of “shame” from the crowd. They’d no reason to know that I wasn’t a volunteer myself. When the evacuation bell sounds in the stifling green room, the bravado rapidly dissolves into panic as the team heads through a maze of corridors to the car park. One look at what’s happening outside tells me that if I value my bodily integrity, I’d better go with them.
Yiannopoulos’ tour manager, one of the few actual adults on the team along with the security guards, drives us at seat-grabbing speed through the California dark to Fresno. He asks me to treat anything I might hear in the car as off-record, given the mad scramble to evacuate, but he needn’t have bothered: Most of the 45-minute journey passes in horrified silence as everyone listens to Fox News or scans their phones for video feeds of masked protesters tearing up the building we just left. From time to time, somebody says a four-letter word.
Yiannopoulos’ entourage is exclusively male. Apart from the trainer, the tour manager, and the security staff, they are all under 20 and almost all painfully straight. Yiannopoulos has at least a decade on most of them, and he functions as part-mentor, part employer. If Yiannopoulos has friends, he doesn’t travel with them. I know you’re wondering, so I’ll say it: I’m as sure as I can be that he’s not sleeping with any of these young men. That’s not what they’re here for. “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement,” says one young man, who is Yiannopoulos’ voiceover artist. “I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.” We arrive in the blank sunspace of a Marriott hotel lobby, and Yiannopoulos immediately disappears to his room to do interviews.
I’m left in the company of the Lost Boys, and I find myself feeling rather as I did half a lifetime ago, when I was the only girl in my Dungeons and Dragons group, and the mere fact of being a real living female made me not much less miraculous than a real living unicorn. Will it be friends with us? What should we feed it? Do you think if we’re really nice to it, it’ll give us a ride? Don’t be stupid, Brendan, those things are dangerous. Offer it a beer and don’t blink.
These young men seem to have no conception of the consequences of allying yourself publicly with the far right, even before their hero gets accused of endorsing pedophilia in public. Yiannopoulos has been good to them. They’re having a great time. Over the course of a few hours, I find myself playing an awkward Wendy to these lackluster lost boys as I watch them wrestle with the moral challenge of actually goddamn growing up.
I enjoy most respectful conversation, and these boys are scrupulously polite to me. They were polite to me a month earlier when I slept on their tour bus — right until a door closed between me and them, and they immediately started talking loudly, to each other, about the crass and anatomically implausible things they wanted to do to me. Intellectually, they must have known that I could hear them, but these kids grew up on the Internet, the world’s locker room, where if you can’t see a woman, she doesn’t really exist. The one grown man on the bus started yelling at them to go the hell to sleep — “there’s a girl back there!”—and they yelled back that they’d let me sleep if I let them “suck my titties.” It’s no surprise to hear that they’re still yearning for the teat, but these babies had best be careful where they go slobbering for the milk of human kindness. I’m just about dried up.
It’s hard to shake off being run out of town by 3,000 people screaming that you’re a Nazi. It’s the sort of thing that gives everyone but the coldest sociopath at least a little pause.
There has been a churn in the ranks since the last time I met them, as some fall out of favor and others join. The major difference, though, is that, since Trump’s inauguration, they’re having a lot less fun. Yiannopoulos’ tour has unquestionably been the greatest adventure of most of their lives, but on this last night of the adventure, there’s no wrap-party underway, no victory blowout — no sense of victory at all. These are not the scheming crypto-fascist masterminds I was led to expect. Seabass is 18 years old going on 12, Argentinian, and the sort of person who thinks that “Seabass” is a pretty cool fish to call yourself after if your mother named you Sebastian. His mother was worried about him palling around with Yiannopoulos “because he’s gay, and she always says how handsome I am” — but apparently calmed down after seeing how much Yiannopoulos has helped her son, fixing him up with connections and equipment to produce video and photos. Seabass is the one person who seems entirely unaffected by the full-on riot we’ve just run away from, but Seabass has had several root beers and two Magnums (the ice cream) and is on too much of a sugar bender to care about anything. I ask him how he sees his future. I’ve been asking this of everyone I meet in the Scream Room of Trumplandia. “I want to make a lot of money, get married,” he says, thoughtfully, “and then I want to kill God.”
Well, as Ron Burgundy once observed, that escalated quickly. In fact, a great deal seems to have escalated quickly for these profoundly weird young men. Most of them seem more than a little surprised that this has actually happened, that Trump is actually president. “I voted for him because I thought it was funny,” one of them tells me. “I don’t think that he can become a dictator like people say he can. We have too many checks and balances for that, and that’s why we have checks and balances. Right?” He picks at the label on his beer bottle.
“I always tell my friends who aren’t happy with Trump the birds are gonna chirp tomorrow, the sun’s gonna rise, the air’s gonna be full of oxygen … whatever,” cuts in another one, who has a dangerously undeveloped understanding of climate science. I have the distinct impression that none of these young men expected to win. It is the same problem facing that rare and fortunate sheepdog who has finally, against all expectation, managed to catch that Land Rover. You are a mighty hunter! You’ve got the bumper in your jaws! What do you do now? Shake it to death?
What they do, in fact, is have a long late-night fight about whether or not gay marriage will encourage the spread of AIDS, whether Britain is already overrun by Sharia Law (I assure them that it isn’t), and exactly how stupid the voting public has become.
“I’m pretty sure Milo has three times the brain capacity of Donald Trump,” says one young man who is aimlessly editing video of the protests. He still thinks right-wing voters were duped — in Britain and America both. “You’re giving the decision to do something that is so intricate and economically complex to an entirely uninformed, uneducated populace,” he opines. “The day after Brexit, the most Googled thing is ‘What is the European Union?’ I think that’s how Trump got, I would say 75 percent of people voting for him. He made a lot of promises, but the words he was saying — he was saying a lot, and not saying anything. I don’t think Trump knows what he’s doing.”
Most of these young men are looking to build careers in media — as filmmakers, newscasters, producers. Yiannopoulos mentors them, gives them advice and equipment and support and connections. That’s what most of them are getting out of this deal, but many of them may now have to consider how the consequences of a known association with Trumpism might affect those careers after tomorrow, when the rush and rage of this tour is over and most of them have to go home and face their parents. These are not the “just following orders” kids. These are the “just making my career” kids. The two are functionally the same in the United States, but this still feels filthier.
Let’s revisit the not-unsurprising power of shame. The terms “Nazi,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” are being tossed around so freely that they might risk losing their impact if an actual authoritarian takeover were not evidently underway in a nation that calls itself free. As it is, the slur is starting to stick. Even Yiannopoulos utterly loses his shit when anyone calls him a Nazi, a racist, or a white supremacist.
In the Peter Pan stories, Peter and the Lost Boys remain children by deliberately forgetting all their adventures — including the ones where they hunted all those Indians.
Slow down here, because this is important. However they may bluster online, the new right and the alt-right hate being called Nazis. They’ve all seen too many movies for it not to matter somewhere deep down where they tell themselves the story of their own heroism. In fact, ever since Inauguration Day, the alt-right has been in meltdown, splitting and splintering in cascading identity crises as only a formerly underground movement can when it attains power. Of course, it’s not my job as a reporter to give activists advice, but if it were, I’d say: No, they’re not all fascists, and not everyone reacts to being called one by changing their tune. But the strategic application of Nazi-shaming works. The real pity is that conservative hypocrisy seems to work faster.
It turns out that some words do hurt. You may have noticed that, in this piece, I have not explicitly described Yiannopoulos or the movement that has made him famous as white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, fascist, or racist. The main reason for that is that it has been made explicitly clear to me that, were I to write such a thing, a libel suit the size of Mar-A-Lago would drop on me, and Yiannopoulos would use every trick in his surprisingly defensive playbook to prize out an apology, because that’s what friends are for. He’s done it to other reporters. He’s not the only one. In fact, a defining feature of the new-right populists is their ability to build a reputation as rhino-hided truth-sayers while flailing their hands in panic if anyone uses whatever words happen to hit them where it hurts. So, for legal reasons, I must state that Milo Yiannopolous, possibly alone of all the smug white people in the world, is not a racist. For moral reasons, however, I must state that Yiannopoulos’ personal beliefs are irrelevant given that he’s built a career off peddling bigotry in public. What about sexism? “Sexism I don’t have the energy to wrestle with you over,” says Yiannopoulos, who, I can personally confirm, is the maple-cured bacon of misogynist piggery — oily and sweet and crass and, on a gut level, dreadful for your health.
It seems perfunctory to point out the hypocrisy of building a movement and a career on the back of insulting people — Muslims, migrants, women, people of color — while nursing a hair-trigger sensitivity to any personal attack you haven’t pre-approved. That hypocrisy, though, does not appear self-evident to anyone within this movement, because a fundamental tenet of far-right pro-trolling is that it’s only other people’s feelings that are frivolous. Their own feelings, by contrast, including the capacity to feel shame when they’re held accountable for their actions, are so momentous that infringing them is tantamount to censure, practically fascism in and of itself. These are men, in short, who have founded an entire movement on the basis of refusing to handle their emotions like adults.
Many of them don’t agree with what Yiannopoulos says, let alone what Trump says. They agree with the way he says it, because their life experience does not extend beyond interpreting being criticized as censorship. Yiannopoulos’ brand is all about “fuck your feelings.” But the kids following him around are nothing but feelings. I have empathy for fragility. What frightens me most is the feeling that the only way to deal with the new right is to treat them as monsters, when it is precisely their idiot humanity — precisely the fact that they are fundamentally decent kids who have done fundamentally despicable things — that makes them dangerous.
Over the course of these hours, the boys start telling me how they got lost. I hear stories of strict religious parents, sexual misadventures, a feeling of drifting in a world which has not offered them a clear way to be heroes. A desperate longing for something to belong to, for adventure and friends and enemies to fight. It would be adorable if it weren’t fundamentally chilling. They are wedded to a political analysis that might as well be written in fuzzy felt. “I’m not sure how you can be a feminist and want more refugees,” one of them tells me, “because of the ways they treat women.”
I’m not a brawler, but I’d wager that these kids could be knocked down with a well-aimed stack of explanatory pamphlets, thus resolving decades of debate about whether it’s better to punch or to reason with racists.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. That “almost” is important. There are many uses for empathy. To point out that the people who join this far-right movement are damaged and hurt is not to minimize the hurt and damage they themselves are doing. On the contrary: the pain is the point. Stripped down to its essentials, the new far right is an ideological vacuum calcified in a carapace of pain. Hurt people hurt people. That’s nothing new. These hurt people are hurting other people deliberately, in order to up-cycle their uncomfortable emotions, reselling the pain they can’t bear to look at as a noble political crusade.
In I Am Not Your Negro, the recent James Baldwin documentary, there’s a voiceover reading of Baldwin’s observation about the weaponized immaturity of American heroism.
I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch. A young, white revolutionary remains, in general, far more romantic than a black one. White people have managed to get through entire lifetimes in this euphoric state, but black people have not been so lucky; a black man who sees the world the way John Wayne, for example, sees it, would not be an eccentric patriot, but a raving maniac…. One of the results of this is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue too. So that someone like … John Wayne who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians was in no necessity to grow up.
Yes, these are little boys playing games with the lives of others. That doesn’t excuse the horror of the game for one second. It makes it worse. Much worse, in fact. They are children who have the privilege of that particular innocence that involves never learning from their mistakes, never taking responsibility, never worrying that their sins will be unforgiven. In the Peter Pan stories, Peter and the Lost Boys remain children by deliberately forgetting all their adventures — including the ones where they hunted all those Indians. These boys will be allowed to forget everything but their own immediate feelings for as long as society allows them, and this society allows straight white boys to dodge personal and emotional responsibility until at least the age of 70. The current man-child president would be Exhibit A, but not every lost boy gets a golden throne. In this culture war, most of them are cannon fodder.
I don’t believe that Yiannopoulos endorses pedophilia. I do believe that he exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?
Whether or not these kids deserve a second chance matters far less than whether the rest of us can afford not to give them one. There are millions of them, after all, and not all of them have the strength of character to recognize their wrongdoing and make amends. They are, however, coming to see their mistake. Some part of them believed that this was a game that would end when Trump became president. That was the big boss, the ultimate defeat of liberal social justice snowflakery. But guess what? You don’t get to check out at this level and quit the game and go back and cuddle your cat. Politics is a whole different kind of game, and the stakes are real, and there are no non-player characters.
The reason the Lost Boys allow themselves to be stolen away to Neverland is that they want to live somewhere they will never have to grow up. By coincidence, that’s also the reason that a great many people voted to place a spray-tanned authoritarian in the Oval Office. Remember, though, that only Peter rules Neverland. What happens to the Lost Boys in that story if they ever start to build memories and change, if they ever started to become adults?
They skipped this bit in the Disney movie, but, in the books, Peter kills them.