Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.
If Milo is New Face of American Right We’re in Trouble
A few days ago I brought home from our local library, nestled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Milo Yiannopoulos’s self-published livre de scandale.
Dangerous is supposedly dynamite, because even Milo’s putative adversary Bill Maher praises the author as “a young, gay alive Christopher Hitchens.” Milo promises that anyone who makes it through his book can learn how “to fight back against campus commies, their enabling professors, the mainstream media, and establishment Republican bores.” All one needs to acquire this ability is Milo’s text, providing the reader can get though his frenetic prose centered on his activities as a self-promoting gadfly.
I’ll concede two things to Milo. One, unlike his erstwhile patron, the sulky Steve Bannon, he can turn a phrase; and although much of what he writes is vacuous, he says what he sets out to say with wit and verve. Two, he has spent much of his young, tumultuous life courting friends who could advance his career as some kind of conservative celebrity, from Bannon and the staff at Breitbart to David Horowitz and more recently, Tucker Carlson. I’m less impressed by the fact that Milo’s dashed around on campuses, challenging academic political correctness in the name of his notion of self-liberation. His adventures have not exactly been life-imperiling. So-called conservative speakers are invited to what are called institutions of higher learning by local Republican organizations, and these organizations, together with Washington-based groups, help pay for their trip and expenses. Since these appearances are likely to create a ruckus and cause demonstrations, provisions are made to protect the speakers. But if the situation looks really threatening, then the presentation is cancelled, and the snubbed “conservative” (as a lavish consolation prize) is invited on to Fox News to tell his story. As someone who spent more than 40 years battling the PC and other intolerant Lefts on American campuses, without the slightest assistance from Republicans or the conservative media, I am hardly bedazzled by Milo’s daring or showmanship.
As a historian of the American conservative movement, I dove into Milo’s book because I was interested in what it conveyed about the Alt-Right, but my interest quickly dissipated after I read the relevant remarks. I would gather that there used to be an original Alt-Right, which “was the most exciting, dynamic and effective right-wing to emerge since the Tea Party.” This creation was so good that even an “Israeli-supporting former Tea Party member was in those days just as likely to be drawn to it as a Richard Spencer-devotee.” Unfortunately it’s never made clear what this wonderful thing was before Spencer and his confrères ruined it by identifying the Alt-Right with white nationalism and even Holocaust-deniers. In fact it’s hard to figure out much of anything about the movement that Milo credits himself with having founded—and which apparently his well-heeled patrons thought was super. For those who are curious about Milo’s topic, I would urge them to readGeorge Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right. Unlike Milo, Hawley has studied the subject of his research and doesn’t bother to explore the contributions made by the author of Dangerous, whose formative influence on Hawley’s subject was less than negligible.
Allow me to point out that Milo and other past and present claimants to the Alt-Right label have one thing in common, a passion for raising havoc while leaving theoretical agonies and the deep learning to others. In this respect, Milo is far worse than the white nationalists he attacks. For all their silliness, these activists do study political theory and intellectual history, even if they use both in a highly selective manner. The only reference to a serious political thinker that I can locate in Milo’s book is to Leo Strauss on page 42, and even that reference is so fuzzy (It seems that Strauss told us that “scholars should seek to understand the author as he understood himself.”) that it’s hard to understand why the quotation is there. Yes I know that I’ve made fun of “cultural conservatives” who make wooly philosophical arguments while trying to stay clear of delicate policy questions. But plowing through hundreds of pages dashed off by the Right’s version of Kim Kardashian in what is an intellectual wasteland, may be worse than ivory-tower conservatism.
Milo’s book does raise certain questions about the future of the American Right, or at least that part of the Right that will likely dispose over vast media and financial resources. Clearly the issues and debates around which this movement now centers has a mostly older fan base. (The average Fox News viewer is 70 years old, while National Review readers are only slightly younger.) Do personalities like Milo represent the rising generation in this movement? As a public figure he is mostly about whirling energy tied to an unconventional lifestyle that fits into the socially leftist but also libertarian factions of the current youth culture. Milo is good at mocking but it’s hard to see what in Western civilization he is specifically trying to save, other than his right to sound off. Although Milo has expressed disappointment that he’s sold fewer copies of his book than he was hoping, he nonetheless soared tonumber 1 on the Amazon Bestseller List by July 5. Obviously lots of people are buying his thoughts (or what there are of them in this book); and despite the charges of pederasty that caused him to lose a lucrative contract with Simon and Schuster, he’s still a rock star among his fan base.
As I’ve already suggested, Milo may be the new face of a conservative movement that’s always in flux and which is desperately trying to pick up the young and minorities. And presumably an exuberantly exhibitionist young gay man now counts as a conservative minority.