As Donald Trump consolidates his executive power, a cadre of his advisors seems tangled in a web of shadowy connections that are raising fears across the aisle. The Russian connection dominates the news cycle, but underneath this surface there seems to be a much more complicated long game.
Stephen Bannon—the far-right extremist funded by the Mercer family, which invested both in Breitbart and Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign—is positioning himself with hands firmly on the administration’s future. He seems to know that a populist movement does not thrive on his own Machiavellian political machinations—it needs cultural support to energise itself as a movement and sell itself to the masses.
This is what defined the rise and fall of Milo Yiannopoulos.
Milo’s fit with the Breitbart alt-right could seem like something of a mystery. His former boss Bannon’s agenda is the re-establishment of a bygone America ruled by a ‘traditional’ form of Judeo-Christian morality. Milo, a gay immigrant with a self-proclaimed penchant for interracial extra-marital sex, hardly fits the image of those fabled (non-existent) ‘better days’ that Bannon’s ideology wants so badly to conjure in his supporters’ imaginations.
The scandal that led to Milo’s fall from grace over his apparent approval of paedophilia illustrates this mismatch perfectly: his crusade for ‘free speech’ was music to Republican ears, until free speech clashed with their larger social agenda. Just as Bannon had previously referred to Trump himself as a ‘blunt instrument’, perhaps Milo, this scandal-seeking ‘free speech activist’, was just another pawn in the battle to tear down America’s sense of democratic identity.
There is a useful historical analogue for Milo that can help us understand both his place in this larger movement and the cautionary tale of his quick rise and fall. If Trump’s anti-democratic penchant for power has elicited comparisons to Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, Milo’s cultural antics could align with those of an artist-provocateur from the fascist era.
In the early 1900s, the eccentric poet and rabble-rouser F.T. Marinetti launched an artistic movement whose goal was to rip apart the old Italian establishment, stoking chaos, revolution and war. Marinetti’s movement, called Futurism, believed that only by razing the liberal democratic institutions of the Italian state could the dead weight of the past be cast off and a new, stronger people thrust themselves onto the world stage where they belonged.
Marinetti was an artist, and his method for instigating change was a form of cultural politics: he used provocative performances to rally the energy of young men who felt stifled and were ready for a fight.
WE CAN COME STRAIGHT TO YOU, IF YOU WANT
Like Milo, Marinetti discovered the usefulness of provoking anger and chaos through mass spectacle. During the 1910s, Marinetti’s preferred method became the serata futurista: a futurist roadshow designed to instigate violence and disturb the social order. A typical futurist serata would take place in a large theater or (as their popularity grew) stadium, attracting crowds that were bigger than traditional stage shows. The futurists would take the stage, combining political declamations with poetry readings, painting exhibitions and noise-machine concerts.
Everything was unpleasant. Everything was designed to make the audience angry, to force them to respond – to turn the violence of futurist art into actual violence. They wanted the public to react, to pelt them with vegetables, whistle disapproval and shout insults. They wanted the police to intervene and break up the fight. They wanted the violence to spill out of the cancelled shows into the streets and piazze of whatever town they were visiting.
They wanted this so desperately that on some occasions they may have even planted their own agents inside the crowd with instructions to wait for the right moment and then start trouble. The futurists themselves could then claim to have been attacked and to have defended themselves with honor. They wanted for it to look like they were soldiers in a war for the future, valiant crusaders against social repression. This was their only effective recruiting tool.
The parallels to Milo are obvious enough, with his own traveling roadshow, the “Dangerous Faggot Tour,” fitting roughly the same pattern. Unlike the Futurists of a hundred years ago, Milo wasn’t interested in high art (painting and sculpture, musical composition). He traded in today’s pop culture—a brand of ironic comedy fused with reality television.
But the goals and methods align. He succeeded by provoking rage, pushing his audience to respond, and in the ideal case, stoking violence. The recent protest at UC Berkeley, interrupted by a violent attack on school property, is just one example. The angry reactions of his opponents served as Milo’s excuse to position himself as subversive, as fighting a battle against the oppressive social conventions of ‘political correctness’.
Much like the Futurists, whose enemies were the liberal democrats they characterized as ‘weak’ and ‘effeminate’, Milo and the alt-right represent themselves as holy warriors trolling sensitive liberal ‘snowflakes’—snowflakes who simultaneously are incredibly fragile but also, somehow, oppressive. His cultural battle was the attraction meant to establish his credibility, make his movement cool, and of course earn him a lot of money and power in the process.
The Futurists hoped to build a mass movement by creating the illusion that there already was one. After each serata, newspapers would publish reviews that Marinetti himself had authored (sometimes before the event even took place) and paid editors to print without his name. In this way he controlled public perception and created the illusion of a swelling movement of young men fighting for their future. He used his self-funded propaganda machine to depict himself as a cultural hero fighting the oppressive social conventions and political weakness of a degenerate ruling elite.
Milo’s role in the alt-right was similar. Stephen Bannon’s ideals of Traditionalism, fueled in part by the writings of a forgotten fascist philosopher, Julius Evola, aren’t exactly cool or popular. But Milo’s roadshow act could help to foment a spirit of revolutionary violence in the angry young people Bannon desperately needs to create his dark American future.
The Futurists believed that they were going to topple Italy’s government to usher in a new era of anarchic freedom and unbridled energy. They failed. But they did manage to buttress the rise of Mussolini, whose conservative vision for fascism seems ironically opposed to their own ideals. Once Mussolini had power, the Futurists were forced to choose between silence or falling in line. They, too, became fervent fascists, giving up on their free-spirited, anti-establishment game of challenging ‘oppression’.
It should be no surprise that the countercultural posturing of this self-proclaimed gay Jewish foreigner would end in a similar defeat–for Milo, but also for our society more broadly.
Lead illustration of Filippo Marinetti’s “Une assemblée tumultueuese” and Milo Yiannopoulos, taken by Kmeron for LeWeb.