Yesterday, Milo Yiannopoulos — an online media figure and prominent far-right internet troll — stepped down from his position as senior editor at Breitbart News. Video had surfaced of Yiannopoulos condoning sex with minors, and the revelation quickly lost him not just his job, but also a book deal and a speaking engagement at one of the biggest conservative political events of the year.
So far, Yiannopoulos has thrived on sensational, button-pushing bigotry. He gained fame as one of the main instigators of the 2014 Gamergate controversy, which quickly turned into a war against anyone who pointed out sexism in the video game industry. His Breitbart headlines have titles like “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” and he’s one of the main defenders of the white nationalist alt-right movement. He managed the somewhat remarkable feat of being banned from Twitter, after invoking racist tropes against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones and egging on people harassing her. During a recent speaking tour, he singled out and derided a transgender student in the audience, and one report (which he denied) said he planned to publicly name undocumented college students in a talk that was ultimately canceled.
But for the past few years, Yiannopoulos has seemed politically untouchable. If anything, criticism only cemented his position as a “free speech warrior” among conservatives, and his role as a darkly charismatic villain for liberals. Now, that’s all changed, in a scandal that unfolded entirely over the course of a long weekend.
Yiannopoulos appears on Real Time with Bill Maher
Arguably, the stage for all this was set by Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, who invited Yiannopoulos on as a Friday night guest. The move wasn’t entirely surprising: the two share a disdain for “political correctness,” and Yiannopoulos had recently made the news when UC Berkeley canceled a speaking engagement for safety reasons after protesters vandalized property. But it put Yiannopoulos in front of an unusually large audience and raised his profile in a way that would backfire in the days ahead. It also provoked a strongly negative, and widely covered, response from the other guests — albeit, as usual, without meaningful consequences. The Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill canceled his appearance, and comedian Larry Wilmore told Yiannopoulos to “go fuck [him]self” after he claimed transgender people were sexual predators.
CPAC announces his speaking gig
The morning after Yiannopoulos’ Real Time appearance, The Hollywood Reporter reported that he’d been given a keynote speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference the following week. The invitation effectively brought Yiannopoulos, a once-fringe figure sometimes identified with the white nationalist “alt-right,” under the banner of mainstream conservatism — he would share space with everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to pundit Sean Hannity.
American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp said he’d been invited for exposing “liberal thuggery” on college campuses, and inviting him reflected a commitment to free speech. But the decision was controversial even among CPAC board members, some of whom said they hadn’t even been told about the invitation. One told The Washingtonian that some board members planned to issue a press release “distancing” themselves from the choice. That, it turned out, wouldn’t be necessary.
The Reagan Battalion tweets a video
As soon as news of Yiannopoulos’ invitation broke, a Twitter account called The Reagan Battalion began criticizing the selection. Its first video actually appeared late on the 18th, when it linked a clip from Yiannopoulos’ 2015 appearance on comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast, in which Yiannopoulos jokingly praises his experience being molested by a priest around age 14.
But the video that’s been discussed most came a day later: a series of clips that include Yiannopoulos justifying sexual relationships with 13-year-olds. As a follow-up tweet made clear, the audio came from a January 2016 installment of political podcast Drunken Peasants, discussing the Joe Rogan interview mentioned above. In the full video, Yiannopoulos defends sex with young teens.
“I'm guessing we're talking about 13 [year-olds with] 25 [year-olds], 13 [year-olds with] 28 [year-olds] — these things do happen perfectly consensually. Often, by the way, it’s the women who suffer in these things, because what normally happens in schools, very often is, it's an older woman with a younger boy. And the boy is the predator in that situation. The boy is like, ‘Let's see if I can fuck the gym teacher, let's see if I can fuck the hot maths teacher.’
And he does. The women fall in love with these nubile young men, these athletic young boys in their prime, and end up having their lives destroyed, of having to move schools, move the country, whatever.”
When another participant interjects to defend age-of-consent laws, Yiannopoulos gives the statement that’s been most frequently criticized, praising relationships between older gay men and young boys.
“The law is probably about right. It's probably roughly the right age; it's probably about okay. But there are certainly people who are capable of giving consent at a younger age. I certainly consider myself to be one of them. People who are sexually active younger — I think it particularly happens in the gay world, by the way. And in many cases, those relationships with older men — this is one of the reasons I hate the left, they have this kind of stupid one size fits all policing of culture, this arbitrary and oppressive idea of consent, which totally destroys the understanding that many of us have of the complexities and subtleties and complicated nature of many relationships.
You know, people are messy and complex, and in the homosexual world particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men, the sort of coming of age relationships, the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock where they can't speak to their parents.”
A participant says that sounds like “priest molestation,” and Yiannopoulos replies, repeating a quip from the Rogan interview.
“Yeah well do you know what, I'm grateful for Father Michael. I wouldn't give nearly such good head if it wasn't for him.”
He insists, however, that this isn’t about pedophilia.
“You're misunderstanding what pedophilia means. Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty. Pedophilia is attraction to people who don't have functioning sex organs yet, who have not gone through puberty, who are too young to be able to understand the way their bodies work. That is not what we're talking about. You don't understand what pedophilia is if you think that I'm defending it.”
Wait, what’s The Reagan Battalion?
The Reagan Battalion’s Twitter bio refers to it as “Your source for news, information, commentary, from a conservative perspective.” But the site it’s linked to is so skeletal there’s still placeholder text in the margins, and the Facebook page links to a dead URL for “StopDonaldTrumpPAC.com.” In an interview with Mic, the anonymous group positioned themselves as the voice of moderate Republicanism, saying their goal was to “keep the conservative movement sane.” That meant opposing Trump in the primary, and now, pushing him and those around him to stay on a traditional conservative track.
Naturally, some people believe bigger forces are at play. One explanation posits that The Reagan Battalion’s tweet is the fruit of a major opposition research effort linked to independent presidential candidate and prominent Trump critic Evan McMullin. (So far, the best result of these accusations is a completely random exchange between McMullin and the official Twitter account of the Dead Kennedys.) Alternately, the group may be a far-flung catspaw of George Soros, because really, what isn’t? Unsurprisingly, the Battalion denies both the Soros and McMullin connections.
Yiannopoulos defends himself on Facebook
On the evening of the 19th, Yiannopoulos published a 10-point list on Facebook, titled “A note for idiots.” In it, he expresses disgust for pedophiles and characterizes his comments as gallows humor. He also says the video was deceptively edited, although he also admits to “sloppy phrasing” in places. “People will believe literally anything about celebrities,” he posted, 20 minutes later.
CPAC changes its mind
The videos soon gained traction online, putting CPAC under pressure. Then, the morning of the 20th, CPAC announced that it was dropping Yiannopoulos from the conference. “Due to the revelation of an offensive video in the past 24 hours condoning pedophilia, the American Conservative Union has decided to rescind the invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference,” Matt Schlapp tweeted. While he acknowledged Yiannopoulos’ Facebook post, he called it “insufficient,” encouraging him to “immediately further address these disturbing comments.”
Yiannopoulos makes a rare near-apology
The CPAC cancellation marked one of Yiannopoulos’ first major rebukes from a major conservative force — as opposed to something like getting banned from Twitter, which could be spun as a battle with liberals. In response, he penned another response on Facebook, taking more responsibility for the statements.
“I am a gay man, and a child abuse victim,” he wrote. Reiterating his disgust for pedophiles, he admitted that “these videos, even though some of them are edited deceptively, paint a different picture. I'm partly to blame. My own experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say anything I wanted to on this subject, no matter how outrageous. But I understand that my usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humor might have come across as flippancy, a lack of care for other victims or, worse, ‘advocacy.’ I deeply regret that.”
Breitbart allegedly mulls firing
It wasn’t clear that the apology would be enough. News reports began to suggest that Yiannopoulos was on his way out at Breitbart, possibly by the end of the day. One article said a half-dozen employees were ready to walk out if he didn’t leave, and another said senior executives were weighing how “damaging his comments are to the Breitbart brand.” Publicly, Breitbart had no comment.
Simon & Schuster drops Dangerous
While Yiannopoulos’ future at Breitbart was up in the air, publisher Simon & Schuster made its own announcement: it would no longer be publishing Dangerous, his upcoming book, through its conservative Threshold imprint. Dangerous was still a few months out; its release date had slipped from March 14th to June 13th, according to a now-defunct Amazon listing. But Yiannopoulos reportedly been promised a $250,000 advance, and his agent said 50,000 copies had been preordered, so Simon & Schuster was curtailing a deal that was already well underway. The agent said the book would be shopped to other publishers.
Yiannopoulos resigns from Breitbart
Breitbart refrained from making a public statement about Yiannopoulos’ job status. Editor-in-chief Alex Marlow called his remarks “indefensible” on the site’s morning radio show, but also said the video revelations were “a coordinated hit” by mainstream Republicans or liberals, kept under wraps until “a peak moment when Milo was red hot.” He said Yiannopoulos would clear up questions about his employment at a press conference later in the day.
Shortly before the conference, though, Yiannopoulos announced his resignation from Breitbart, saying he didn’t want his “poor choice of words to detract” from his colleagues’ work. “The decision is mine alone,” he wrote.
What happens next?
The New York press conference, attended by both media and protesters, didn’t hold many new revelations. But it charted what we’ll probably see over the next few months. Yiannopoulos said he’d received interest in Dangerous from other publishers, and that he would be starting a “new, independently funded media venture” alongside another speaking tour. “My full focus is now going to be on entertaining and educating everyone, left, right and otherwise,” he said.
During the conference, Yiannopoulos held to the position that all press is good press, and that this controversy has simply raised his profile even further. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s lost three major venues for reaching people outside the usual internet bubble. Perhaps more importantly, it’s shown that at least some people who argue for giving hate a high-profile platform — to demonstrate their commitment to absolute free speech — actually do think legal speech can be beyond the pale. It’s just that Yiannopoulos, a man almost universally referred to as a “provocateur,” hadn’t provoked them yet.