There’s stiff competition, but the most noxious personality to emerge from under the metaphorical rock of the Donald Trump phenomenon has to be the British Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Much like his idol, whom he calls “Daddy,” this flamboyantly homosexual, attention-starved chancer has made a career out of antagonizing oversensitive college students, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, and other disciples of left-wing identity politics. One of Yiannopoulos’s prime targets is the gay media and political establishment, which he accuses of being a censorious, humorless, easily offended herd of independent minds. And so when OUT Magazine recently profiled Yiannopoulos and included the requisite photo spread of him donning a variety of clown costumes, how did said gay media and political establishment react?
Like a censorious, humorless, easily offended herd of independent minds.
“The profile negligently perpetuates harm against the LGBT community,” thundered an open letter signed by dozens of leading LGBT journalists and activists. By equating a piece of writing with the infliction of physical violence, their assertion exemplified the hysterical censoriousness of much of the left. Accusing the magazine of publishing a “puff piece” about a “white supremacist,” the letter was written in impenetrable, jargon-heavy prose, featuring such gems as the following: “The excess of this narrow branding of the queer community results in erasure of all those who are not highlighted, an erasure that allows stereotypes, discrimination, and abuse to continue unabated against those invisible intersections.” A free steak dinner if you can tell me what the fuck that means.
Seriously, though, Yiannopoulos isn’t worth the outrage. A failed tech-journalism entrepreneur who left behind a trail of unpaid employees in London before finding a fan base in gullible Americans who thrill to a British accent, Yiannopoulos has extended his fifteen minutes of fame by hitching himself to the “alt-right.” That’s the euphemism adopted by Trump-supporting white supremacists who cleverly understood that getting people to call them “alt-right” was better for their cause than more accurate labels like “neo-Nazi” or “racist.” Banned from Twitter for inciting a campaign of abuse against African-American Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones, Yiannopoulos habitually boasts of his love for “black dick” whenever asked about his affinities for what is essentially white identity politics, as if that were dispositive of his racism and not a confirmation of it. In similar fashion, he and his defenders mention his purportedly Jewish maternal grandmother, citing this (alleged) ancestral irrelevancy whenever the anti-Semitism of his fans is broached. “I’m a provocateur,” Yiannopoulos once declared to CNN, the sort of thing that actual provocateurs—like CIA agents or royalty—don’t feel the need to say if it’s actually true.
Getting in high dudgeon over a magazine profile that was hardly the hagiography they shrilly claimed it to be, Yiannopoulos’s critics gave him precisely the sort of pearl-clutching reaction he wanted, and they delivered it to him on a silver platter. Indeed, by responding to the trite and trivial Yiannopoulos with self-righteous sanctimony, signatories to the open letter made the same elementary mistake that the broader left does whenever his idol, Ann Coulter, opens her mouth: they took him seriously. Over a decade ago, long before a Trump presidency was even a gleam in Coulter’s eye, Andrew Sullivan provided the best description of her yet when he remarked that she is “a form of camp,” a piece of “postmodern performance art,” and “a drag queen impersonating a fascist.” Milo, you might say, is a fascist impersonating a drag queen.
Yet as much as they might despise him, Yiannopoulos is a creature of the very progressive forces who wish to see him blacklisted. A poseur whose sole purpose seems to be offending the easily offended, he is the obnoxious, inevitable backlash to the suffocating cultural hegemony of the identitarian left.
So, in a way, was Trump the political manifestation of this same phenomenon. To be sure, Trump’s election is a moral and political catastrophe, and no amount of liberal condescension toward middle America—what many now allege to have been a major cause for his victory—can ever justify voting for such a corrupt, authoritarian ignoramus. Before the election, the alt-right and the radical left were engaged in a more or less equal struggle for power and relevance. Since Trump’s shocking victory, however, the former has emerged as a political force, while the latter seems anachronistic and hapless.
The refusal to rationalize support for Trump, however, should not distract us from a major element of his electoral appeal: resentment. Trump’s blustering campaign, for which the phrase “politically incorrect” does not even come close to doing justice, was ultimately a giant middle finger to the effete elites, establishment officialdom, kale eaters, and anyone else who still believes that basic decency and respect for those with differing opinions have a part to play in our politics. Trumpism isn’t so much a coherent ideology (how can it be, when it’s namesake doesn’t have one?) as it is an attitude—and an unremittingly boorish and adversarial one at that.
A primary target of this newfangled populist conservatism is the “social justice warrior,” or “SJW.” Epigones of the feminist, gay, and racial minority activists who emerged in the 1960s, SJWs are waging an uncompromising war of attrition on American culture, higher education, and traditions of free inquiry. Through the creation of physical “safe spaces” on university campuses, where students need not encounter a single idea or argument that troubles them, to the insertion of “trigger warnings” at the outset of classic texts dealing with potentially traumatic subject matter, SJWs try to shut down intellectual inquiry and shame those who do not adhere to their rigid dictates. But you don’t have to be a loyal viewer of Fox News or a reader of Breitbart.com to conclude that the SJWs are getting out of hand. When their high priests excoriate brilliant actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor for playing transgender roles, deem the practice of yoga and eating sushi as offensive forms of “cultural appropriation,” or insist that Bernie Sanders is a “white supremacist” because he once suggested to an aspiring Latina politician that being a Latina is not a sufficient campaign platform, even the most well-intentioned progressives throw up their hands in frustration.
The rise of a majoritarian (i.e., white male) identity politics is the lamentable yet entirely predictable reaction to decades of minority identity politics. The alt-right is literally a reactionary movement, reacting to the perceived denigration of mainstream American culture by grievance-mongering radicals for whom the very word “white” is a slur. Absent the intellectual totalitarianism and bullying hypocrisy of the ascendant social-justice-warrior left, the Trump phenomenon would have lacked potency. The two sides exist in a sick, codependent symbiosis.
Of course, racism, sexism, and nativism existed long before Trump, and nothing can excuse the demagogy and divisiveness engaged in by the president-elect and his surrogates. But we should be able to critique the excesses of identity politics without being called racists.
That’s what Columbia professor Mark Lilla tried to do in a postmortem essay for the New York Times titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” A liberal in good standing, Lilla reassessed the prominence afforded to identity politics as the engine of the left’s value system and appealed for a return to a more universalistic politics that focuses more on broad economic concerns than narrow racial, sexual, and gendered ones. “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing,” he wrote. For this, a Columbia colleague angrily likened Lilla to David Duke, both men being accused of “contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown.”
To grasp just how far the proverbial goal posts have moved with regard to what constitutes racial “wokeness” ( i.e., enlightenment), witness the controversy surrounding National Football League player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal, in protest of police brutality, to stand for the national anthem, a move applauded and encouraged by Black Lives Matter activists. To most Americans, many black Americans included, Kaepernick’s weekly kneels look less like a patriotic protest than a rude rebuke to the country that has rewarded him with a $126 million professional-sports contract. Surely, there are more pointed—not to mention effective—ways of drawing attention to the racism in the criminal-justice system than behaving in a way so easily interpreted as a slight against the country itself and the men and women serving under arms to protect it.
But woe betide anyone who dare criticize the immoderations of Black Lives Matter. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned this lesson the hard way when she compared Kaepernick’s protest to flag burning. Refusing to stand for the national anthem, she stated in an interview, was behavior that, however “dumb and disrespectful,” deserves constitutional protection. Ginsburg’s liberal fans, who had bestowed her with the hip-hop moniker “The Notorious RBG,” suddenly faced a crisis of conscience: given her temerity in questioning the left’s cause du jour, could they still venerate the octogenarian hipster icon whose visage emblazoned everything from coffee mugs to tote bags? For several days, it appeared that the liberal jurist had been relegated to the status of thought criminal. But all was forgiven once she apologized for her “ill advised” remarks and groveled for absolution.
The PC left is no more forgiving when it comes to gender. “Lawrence of Arabia is a prime example of old-Hollywood sexism,” declared a recent video produced by New York magazine. How so? Well, it turns out that this classic, Academy Award–winning epic about early twentieth-century British imperialism in the Middle East did not feature any female characters. To which one might add, neither did The Boys in the Band or Glengarry Glen Ross. Of course, the absence of women in these films is not prima facie evidence of misogyny but attributable to nothing more sinister than the fact that they’re about, respectively, a gathering of gay male friends in late 1960s Manhattan and a group of time-share salesmen. Yet when identity politics is all consuming, everything is a potential slight.
Writing in the New York Times several weeks before the election, novelist Lionel Shriver observed how many Americans, decent and well-intentioned people, are becoming increasingly turned off by ceaseless talk of “cultural appropriation,” “micro aggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and other manifestations of political correctness retailed by self-appointed spokesmen for allegedly oppressed minority groups. Shriver had herself recently become a victim of this sort of intellectual totalitarianism, condemned for having the gall to argue at a literary festival that fiction writers ought to feel free to create characters of various ethnic backgrounds that are different from their own—in other words, that they be permitted to write fiction. “The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump,” she presciently lamented.
The Trumpian right and the social-justice-warrior left are two sides of the same, identity-politics-obsessed coin. Trump and his media acolytes don’t operate in a vacuum. Their existence is at least partly explained by Newton’s third law of physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Those wanting to deflate the allure of the Trumpian right must also tackle the excesses of the social-justice-warrior left.
This article originally appeared in FourTwoNine’s 9th issue. Read the full issue here.