Milo Yiannopoulos would like you to know that he is “Dangerous” — that was the title of his abortive nonfiction debut. Milo Yiannopoulos is selling T-shirts that say, “Everyone who hates me is ugly,” and, “Guantanamo Bay Waterboard Instructor.” A Milo Yiannopoulos fan once shot a protestor at one of his speaking engagements in the stomach, causing a critical injury. Milo Yiannopoulos would like you to be very indignant that he was recently heckled at a Manhattan bar.
The setting: Manhattan. The opponents: member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, who paid for his beers before launching into a raucous chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” Yiannopoulos responded by alleging that he was “shoved” — disproven by video — and that he had feared for his life. (DSA members claimed that their plan, should Yiannopoulos not have made such a rapid retreat, was to sing “Solidarity Forever” verse by verse at him. Granted, this is a meaningful threat. It’s a terrible song.)
Yesterday, the Washington Examiner ran a column in response to the incident, outlining “the far-left’s ironic Nazi problem.” (The far left’s ironic Nazi problem, in this instance, is that they “render themselves exactly that which they claim to oppose: Nazis.”) This was, however, no beer-hall putsch. There wasn’t even a beer-hall push. The whole incident was nonetheless recounted in breathless tones on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where it was posited as a sign of the nascent fascism of the American left. This earnest outrage at Milo’s shunning — the furor over the fact that a self-described “thought criminal” finds it “impossible. . . to go out for lunch in most major cities” — is not without a certain rich vein of irony. But more importantly, it speaks to an intellectual barrenness at the core of Trump-era conservatism. Having found themselves in political power, but nonetheless without complete cultural dominance, these conservatives must manufacture a sense of powerlessness.
Also instructive in highlighting the hollow core of Trump-era conservatism is the high-profile case of Kevin Williamson. Earlier this month, Williamson lost a columnist gig at the Atlantic after less than two weeks on the job, when certain of his past inflammatory comments resurfaced. He’s managed to parlay this tribulation into thousands of published words about his own silencing. Thus far, by my calculation, his columns this week alone make up a substantial portion of the word count of the Book of Job. This discounts the meta-Williamson discourse, generated by such leading lights as Ross Douthat, Conor Friedersdorf, Erick Erickson, Noah Rothman, et al., who have generated more words than could fit even in Williamson’s capacious beard. What all these hot takes share is an insistent refrain: this is, if not authoritarianism, then its prelude; it is “chilling”; it is a flexing of the muscles of a fledgling despotism; it is a Soviet-style censorship regime.
You could be forgiven, amid all this furor, for forgetting that Williamson was fired for stating — publicly, repeatedly, and emphatically — that women who have abortions should be punished by execution. That is, women who have had abortions — fully one-quarter of American women — are a criminal class, and some portion of them, after being convicted, should be publicly hung by the neck until dead.
There are, of course, a multiplicity of ironies here — that a man so blithely willing to strip women of their rights is so avid in defense of his own; that the inventors of the terms snowflake and triggered overheat so easily at a professional slight; etc. — but at its heart, what arises when one surveys a media landscape pitted with Williamson hot takes is an emptiness at the heart of conservative rhetoric, and an attendant need to create victimization where none, in fact, exists.
In the absence of material oppression of any kind, one wonders what motivates conservatives to cant toward martyrdom — to seek, perpetually, a marginalization that cannot be measured. Recent research suggests that the Trump-era right suffers from “status anxiety”: to wit, a fear not of losing their ability to speak, but rather that their speech will become part of a chorus of equals. In expressing a groundless fear of being silenced, they reveal their true fear — that of no longer being in a position to dominate the national conversation.
To an extent I empathize: It is difficult to maintain a sense of utter righteousness, difficult to feed the great maw of the white page, without a real claim to struggle. There are those who say that creative generation only comes through struggle; that forward momentum is possible only when obstacles arise to be smashed; that only a rough road can lengthen one’s stride, and straighten one’s back, and lead one forward to brighter lands. So it is not without some sympathy that I look to the nation’s conservatives who, finding themselves in possession of all three branches of government, and a plurality of state governments too, find themselves so bereft of struggle that they must invent it. What I cannot forgive is the laziness of the central metaphors, which return again and again to the well of twentieth-century authoritarianism, without ever pausing to consider how transparently ridiculous these metaphors become.
Thus we find Laura Ingraham calling a Twitter boycott of her prime-time cable news show “Stalinist.” One need not be a student of Russian history to recognize that Stalin’s primary methods of punishment were not bitchy tweets, and the Soviet Union did not, historically speaking, have much of an advertising industry to boycott in the first place. Stalin tended to line his opponents up and shoot them. He tended to exile them to Siberia, or confiscate their grain, under the guise of “dekulakization,” until they starved to death. Laura Ingraham lives in what the Washington Post described as a “gated Northern Virginia mansion.” But it is entirely possible that she avoids eating grain (too many carbs).
There have been so many column inches in the New York Times and the Washington Post excoriating college students for protesting speakers that one might justifiably think this is the most pressing problem facing the United States educational system. (Never mind that many of these speakers were invited precisely to attract such a response, and the concomitant editorials, an ouroborous of specious victimization. And please, ignore the teachers’ strikes erupting in multiple states, and the fact that many public school students cannot even afford pencils.)
The great irony here is that Kevin Williamson and his ilk do not wholly lack talent. (Although I must admit I find Williamson’s talent, so lauded, to be somewhat exaggerated: His latest for the Weekly Standard compared New York magazine’s refusal to publish a column by him as “the journalistic equivalent of the Gemütlichkeit Spamwich created by Lisa Dziadulewicz of Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” surely a crime against the humble consonant.)
Nor is there — as is plain for anyone to see — a lacuna of genuine problems to address in the United States of 2018. We are a country of patriarchal domination, of appalling racial injustice, of rising seas and falling wages. The problem with the Williamsons (and newspaper conservative columnists) of the world is that they have willingly chosen to turn a blind eye to what exists. Faced with the proverbial widow and orphan, conservative ideology posits stripping them of food aid. Faced with injustice in the courts, the conservative instinct is to embrace a status quo that perpetuates it. In an era in which conservatives find themselves winning — with officials like Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos stripping this country of onerous regulations that do things like protect the air, or transgender students — I am almost disappointed to find these would-be heralds unable to trumpet their success. It turns out that the rhetoric of celebration, of triumph, is too one-note for these wordsmiths. In service of obscuring the oppression they ignore, they must create one of their own.
The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.