It all started with that fateful punch in early 2017. Suddenly, Richard Spencer became famous for being a racist and a Nazi. At first, he was merely the butt of a joke and a meme on Leftbook. Then he started showing up in the news more and more, representing the alt-right, a term he actually coined. His star rose as Milo Yiannopoulos’s took a sudden, fatal nosedive (which I will get to in a moment). Clearly, part of Spencer’s newfound fame was luck and good timing, but I want to examine the other factors at play, because, at face value, I find both of these two figures very strange choices as representatives of this particular movement. Upon further inspection, however, they really do make perfect sense.
The supporters of the alt-right are largely obsessed with masculinity. They view emasculation as the ultimate humiliation and insult. Have– Have they taken a good look at these guys? Neither Spencer nor Yiannopoulos are exactly macho. Yiannopoulos is actually gay and they both have a flamboyant fashion sense. Not only that, oddly enough both of these men represent a type of slick, elite masculinity the alt-right claims to not only eschew but completely revile. I mean, check out these iconic photos of the white nationalist rallies from Charlottesville. Ain’t none of ’em wearing one of those hideous three-piece suits Spencer loves so much.
I could write a book about the alt right’s masculinity issues, but since this is a blog post, I’m instead doing a close reading of Richard Spencer’s talk at University of Florida on October 19, 2017 and Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk at University of California Santa Barbara on May 26, 2016. I chose these two particular talks for no other reason than these are two institutions that I’m close to, and honestly, after poking around some other videos, these two dudes pretty much say the same things over and over again anyway.
So, context. There is some debate about whether or not Milo technically “counts” as alt-right, both because Richard Spencer made up the term, and basically, because he’s not “as bad” as Spencer. As we’ve all seen after Charlottesville, Spencer’s proven himself the type of Nazi to foment tiki torch riots resulting in his supporters killing counterprotestors. Milo Yiannopoulos seems to simply enjoy flirting with Nazi salutes and language, as evidenced in the famous karaoke incident. I’m not terribly interested in splitting hairs and ranking the severity of Nazism, however. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, etc. And don’t give me that claptrap about Milo being kinda Jewish— so was Hitler. Milo also worked directly under Steve Bannon, someone Spencer and his goons considered a huge ally in the federal government. Bannon publicly disavowing the label of alt-right really means nothing when the ideologies they espouse are largely identical. Besides, he has called Breitbart, his far right conservative website, the platform for the alt right in the past. All of Yiannopoulos’s and Bannon’s protests are essentially bullshit, anyway, since they were caught pushing white supremacy on Breitbart in this bizarre chain of emails. So, let’s not debate anymore about whether Milo Yiannopoulos is alt-right. He is. Regardless of whether alt-right purists agree with me or not, it doesn’t even matter for the purposes of my argument; all that matters is that the general public views Milo Yiannopoulos as alt-right, which they do and always have. He was the most prominent alt-right celebrity in the world for a time.
Now that that’s settled, I’ll turn to Milo’s meteoric rise and fall. He wrote for Breitbart, amassing a huge and loyal following on twitter under the apt username “@nero.” If only Milo Yiannopoulos had merely been yet another troll clogging up comments sections all over the web, but he wasn’t. For a while, Milo became one of the most famous trolls on the internet with an army of troll minions waiting to do his bidding. That is, until he took it too far and harassed and doxxed actress and comedian Leslie Jones. For that little stunt, Milo now has the, er, distinction of becoming one of the few people ever to be banned from twitter, something he’s whined about ever since (“but muh free speech!”). Newsflash, that’s not how free speech works since twitter is a private platform and an account there is technically a privilege, but okay. Moving on.
Don’t get it twisted; I’m not dismissing trolling. It is highly effective and therefore must be taken seriously. Trolling garners attention, and at the time, people were like, “wtf is the alt-right?” No one had heard of it. Milo turned it into an internet sideshow, quite successfully I might add, drawing millions of followers and inevitably even more rubberneckers and haters.
In my estimation, the twitter ban was the beginning of the end for him, but that was half a year before he truly became persona non grata. In early February 2017, his presence on the UC Berkeley campus caused violent civil unrest, bringing about the cancellation of his talk. This in turn made President Trump threaten to pull federal funding from Berkeley. All of these events prompted public outrage from both sides. Later that month came the final nail in the coffin; he lost his book deal and resigned from his position at Breitbart all in the same day. All of this because he took the edgelording too far when he appeared to defend pedophilia, which was apparently the one thing people couldn’t stomach– though they could handle blatant misogyny, racism, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, fatphobia, rape jokes, and homophobia. Once alt-right concepts became familiar to the public and Milo fell from grace, the alt-right was eager to wash the “deviancy” and trolling out of its mouth and pave the way for a more serious image. Milo was quickly pushed to the side.
When I watched one of Milo’s talks, all of this became clear– especially the differences between him and Spencer, and their strategies. Yiannopoulos flaunts his gayness, which almost lends some legitimacy to the alt-right, making it more palatable (“Oh, if they accept him, it can’t be that bad, right?”). Both he and Spencer are extremely affected in their mannerisms and speech, both adopt a sort of poshness and academic tenor, but Milo is far more of a loose cannon with his constant derogatory jokes. Spencer is controlled to the point of humorlessness. With Spencer at the helm of the alt-right after Milo’s last scandal, the alt-right has lost its image as a bunch of ineffectual, grease-stained shitlords. That’s not to say the trolls and 4channers went away. They didn’t. That contingent of the alt-right is alive and well. Hate website The Daily Stormer published a sickening attack on Heather Heyer, the woman killed at Charlottesville, that was so cruel and awful it was actually taken down quickly after it was posted. Oh, and the guy who posted it was purportedly “amused” by the death threats he received for writing it. Not much has actually changed about the supporters, just how the movement is perceived. Richard Spencer’s willingness to get his hands dirty in politics, his seriousness, his unimpeachable whiteness– these facts have made the alt-right into a serious threat in the public eye (though I believe they always were).
This, to me, is the actual danger of trolling. It trivializes violence to the degree that Milo was able to prime the American public for a more overtly racist figure like Spencer, though to my mind there isn’t much difference between the two men’s politics. Milo got everyone used to the idea of the alt-right as a bunch of buffoons online who just wanted to make inflammatory memes and idolize grotesque Nazis on twitter. Events like Charlottesville seemed incomprehensible until it happened– until someone died. That made everyone sit up and pay attention. But even then, Richard Spencer is still around, and the fact that we are still hearing from him and he’s still giving lectures after what happened at Charlottesville is fucking remarkable. That should be testament enough to how tolerant we have become of white nationalism and we largely have Milo and the infantilizing phenomenon of trolling to thank for that. The high-profile antics allowed the hate speech and ideology to sneak in through the back door.
Watching a talk from his heyday, it’s easy to dismiss Milo Yiannopoulos. As expected, Milo’s talk at UCSB delivers all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the cranium. Dressed like some sort of sartorially challenged boy band member from the 90’s, he wears a plum pinstripe suit (???) with a magenta tie (???????). His hair color is reminiscent of ramen-noodle era Justin Timberlake. Entitled “Feminism is Cancer,” it’s a 40-some odd minute rant about how ugly and stupid feminists are, peppered with his characteristic shock jock humor. For example, he claims that rape statistics are vastly overstated and then jokes, “if American campuses were such hotbeds of rape, I’d spend even more time on them.” This joke is understandably met with a chorus of boos, to which he responds with a sheepish laugh. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” he says while throwing his hands up in the air in mock surrender. He jokes about preferring to sleep with men of color, perhaps making the more clueless amongst the audience wonder “can he– and by extension the rest of the alt-right– really be that racist?” It’s a sort of “but my best friend is black” kind of racism that racist whites who are willfully ignorant of hypersexualization and fetishization might fail to recognize. In sum, the talk is short on facts, though occasionally he drops some dubious statistics which he incidentally fails to cite in the Q&A when pressed. Convenient.
If Milo made you wonder how much of what the alt-right said was truly political rather than for the lulz, Richard Spencer shortly arrived on the scene to answer your question: all of it. The very same “any publicity is good publicity” phenomenon that worked for Milo worked for Richard Spencer when he got sucker punched on camera during an interview.
Comedian Aamer Rahman explains the situation pretty perfectly:
But for those too lazy to watch the video, Richard Spencer got punched in the face while explaining the significance of the Pepe the Frog meme, turning him into a meme. Much to my delight, Spencer resents being turned into a meme, but that is neither here nor there. Pardon me while I try and fail to suppress my snickering. Anyway, maybe it was being turned into a meme, or maybe it was his elite (though unfinished) academic training, but he has tried his damndest to market himself as a serious “dissident intellectual.” (At this point I’d like to remind everyone that this man is a Nazi and a blatant racist spouting nothing more than an ideology of white supremacy and hatred). The fact that anyone has invited him to speak at a University as an intellectual figure is, frankly, terrifying and a testament to how successfully he has fooled people.
Well, maybe not everyone. Recently, Spencer had some trouble at University of Florida. I watched his press conference at UF as well as the entire “speech,” such that it was. Spencer, though surely believing he’s the paragon of style and erudition, is dressed like some sort of 1930’s used car salesman, his hair styled in the iconic Nazi high-and-tight haircut. He frequently tugs at his fussy suit, looking rather nervous as the heckling in the audience grows more and more out of control. “Go home, Spencer! Go home, Spencer!” the crowd chants. “You think you’re speaking truth to power?” he sneers. “You’re speaking truth to Richard Spencer.” By this he is telling the protestors they aren’t protesting against any real powerful entity, they are only protesting against a powerless lecturer.
Yeah, right. The crowd doesn’t buy it, either. Though Spencer tries various tactics to get the crowd to listen to him– insulting them, comparing himself to them, piquing their curiosity– the protestors stonewall him nearly the entire time, their chants almost drowning him out at points. It’s cringe-worthy watching him try to continue on with his speech, and I’m amazed at the protestors’ persistence as Spencer berates them as babies, animals, and anti-free speech. As for Spencer’s tactics, his politeness (he doesn’t swear) and preoccupation with free speech lend credibility to the idea that there’s nothing controversial to see here. Even though his ideas are incredibly dangerous— at one point he openly defends Nazi Germany– he uses academic-sounding jargon and euphemisms to such a degree it lulls one to sleep until he says something shocking like “peaceful ethnic cleansing” or “white ethnostate.”
The white ethnostate thing is Spencer’s pathetic attempt to put his own spin on white nationalism, and is basically exactly what it sounds like– an all white state that would be an ideal haven for white people. He seems particularly enamored with Poland as a current example of a white ethnostate, mentioning it every chance he gets. Incidentally, Poland’s political climate is fantastic right now , and Richard Spencer just got banned from Poland, probably because they don’t need his Nazi ass stirring shit up even more. Just a guess.
I applaud the students, faculty, and press at UF, because they applied some heat to Spencer. One student demanded he take responsibility for what happened at Charlottesville, to which he replied James Fields’s car was “attacked” and he deserves “justice.” Then, he instead blamed Antifa for violence:
“The Antifa is engaged in violence […] You are all engaged in a kind of violence by attempting to suppress speech.”
Violence culminating in death versus violence culminating in pissing Richard Spencer off are two very different things, I’d wager. No comparison.
Next, in an accusation so paranoid one might be forgiven for thinking Spencer was in the midst of a fever dream, Spencer said UF professors told their students to “attack” him:
“Ah, they might not have explicitly said ‘We should have attacked Richard Spencer,’ but it was just a wink wink, nod nod…”
That’s pretty rich coming from him, after siccing his followers on people time and again, most notably in Charlottesville. Honestly, I had to wonder if he was actually projecting or something.
The most stunning point of his talk, however, was towards the end of the Q&A, when a brave young woman confronted him about his defense of fascism as free speech:
Audience member: “Fascism shouldn’t be up for debate. We already did this in WWII.”
Spencer: “We debated by bombing Germany, really? We debated on behalf of the Soviet Union, by the way, that was America’s essential ally in that war […] You literally won that argument by unifying with communists and using bullets and bombs. That’s a very weird thing to say. I don’t think you’ve thought it through.”
Audience member: “You don’t think Germany deserved that?!”
Here, Spencer’s mild-mannered lecturer mask slips. He becomes visibly angry on behalf of Nazi Germany. For all but, you know, Nazis, this would be a very weird hill to die on. But this is exactly what Spencer does. The man is a master propagandist. If one is going to listen to him at all, then listen to what he actually says. He alternates between meaningless faux-demic dribble and dangerous hate speech.
For such a populist group as the alt-right, I would have expected Spencer’s academic pretensions and background to count against him more than it has, but maybe his supporters realize how he wields it like a weapon against leftist academics. It didn’t surprise me at all when at one point he claims to have identified as liberal in the past, because at varying points during the talk and the press conference, when he spoke about the alt-right, he had clearly lifted language directly from leftist conversations about identity politics and transposed it onto his own politics. I’m sure it was no accident he chose to use this familiar language when speaking to leftist audiences.
He also clearly knows that leftists can never resist a debate with their opponents, especially ones they underestimate. As comedian Aamer Rahman pointed out in the video linked above, some well-meaning but misguided liberals believe we can defeat Nazis in the “marketplace of ideas” through debate. Not only is any liberal with that point of view refusing to truly pick a side, but they are legitimizing hate speech. If you believe there is value in engaging with a completely incoherent, unsubstantiated set of hateful beliefs about minorities, you are saying there is some value in that set of beliefs. That is exactly what the alt right wants, to be legitimized. Think about it. What is the compromise between fascism and democracy? What is the compromise between wrong and right? We’re coming dangerously close to entertaining these questions as leftists. Stop thinking we have to hear everyone out. Not all opinions are equally valid.
Besides that, arguing with the alt right is a game you can’t win, because they literally can’t play by the same rules of debate as everyone else simply because their ideologies lack any and all substance. Spencer likely quit academia because he knew there was no validity to what he was doing and no committee of academics would ever grant him a degree. This is why the alt-right is obsessed with bawling about free speech all the time, even though they don’t actually seem to understand that free speech doesn’t mean they are entitled to go around spewing awfulness wherever they see fit. Unlike the left, which is busy wringing its hands over whether we should be listening to Nazis, the alt-right doesn’t actually care about free speech. Notice whenever it’s liberals’ free speech in question, our speech is “violence,” or “the mob” mentality. Protest is one of the few tools we have left to push back against the Trump administration and white supremacists like the alt-right, and we would do well not to forget it, no matter how much the alt-right would like to shame us into thinking we’re violent for using our voice.
4 thoughts on “Why Richard Spencer Supplanted Milo Yiannopoulos as the Figurehead of the Alt-Right”
You might be interested in the current stoush between Milo and Clementine Ford here in Australia. One of our self-styled maverick right-wing politicians, David Leyonhjelm, invited Milo recently to speak to a group of parliamentarians and he seems to have tacked on a speaking tour. So he’s got some temporary relevance back, here at least. Apparently he puts up photos of a young Clementine and superimposes the word ‘unfuckable’, which plays back the script that a lot of Clem’s work attracts. She’s one of our galvanising figures around the idea that the left shouldn’t concern itself with the niceties of listening to Nazis.
Clem wrote recently about the issue of engaging Milo and the alt right in debate, making a similar point to yours, i.e. that fascism doesn’t get to be treated as an intellectually robust idea worthy of debate just because fascists want a spot in the public square. She refused to engage or debate except to call Milo out for the things that he’s already said himself. And of course there’s been vigorous, reactionary criticism of her for refusing to dignify alt-rightism with considered debate. What seems to be coming out of it all here is that there’s an increasingly vocal group who say and/or act as if they believe that trolling is a legitimate type of political engagement, and Milo’s both tapping into that and providing it with material. We hear a lot from the right here about ‘political correctness gone mad’, and trolling seems the alt-right’s natural response. I guess it’s kind of diametric? I think we’re in that mess you mention, of what trolling does to encourage extremism from the self-identifyingly disaffected right.
Ha! So someone threw Milo a bone, eh? I’m very sorry to hear that Clementine Ford is Milo’s latest target. He does seem to have a particular bee in his bonnet about feminists that a lot of the other alt-right/alt-lite figures don’t really have. (Because women are just completely irrelevant to them?).
Here’s my take: trolling is absolutely a type of political engagement. I don’t know if it’s legitimate or not, but it’s obviously incredibly powerful in certain instances. The problem is when people conflate trolling with legitimate debate. The “debates” the alt-right wants to have with leftists are absolutely entered into with bad faith. Even still, I’ve seen many well-meaning people anywhere on the political spectrum cluck disapprovingly at folks like Clementine Ford who refuse to engage in “debate” with the alt-right, the reason being the alt-right’s whining about their free speech. But what does it say when a “debate” devolves into one side throwing around slurs and personal insults while the other side attempts to use logic and facts? I don’t know if you happened to see the presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, David, but it was EXACTLY that type of dynamic. Trump was trolling her the entire time while she was trying to discuss the questions the moderator presented. This has become a dangerous precedent for what passes for a debate, I’m afraid, and I do think it’s in large part thanks to trolling from the alt-right.
Is this because people might be drawn to vote for a personality rather than a set of policies? I suppose it’s possible to admire (or even like?) someone’s personality even if you have never heard them say anything you trusted to be literally true. Internet comment threads often suggest to me that there’s a goodly number of people out there who admire trolling in a sort of philosophical way; the idea that deliberately derailing and preventing debate is a sign of cunning. And only insiders are clever enough to tell that’s what’s going on. ‘Free speech’ whining is a smokescreen with a huge wink to the audience attached* in that case.
*I like a mixed metaphor.
Haha! You make a good point about trolling being inherently theatrical. Makes perfect sense given Trump’s background. It was absolutely his personality that gave him a leg up.