For those of us who had yet to realize that 2016 was the year we had to start looking out for a fresh, hip new breed of Nazi wannabes, Milo Yiannopoulos came as something of a shock. Openly gay, extremely outspoken, and absolutely committed to a) building his brand, and b) spreading his employer Breitbart News’ worldview, Yiannopoulos burst onto the scene during the run-up to last year’s election, rising from “right-wing tech editor” to “would-be demagogue” with alarming speed.
And while Yiannopoulos—who resigned from Breitbart earlier this year over comments implying that he held a favorable opinion of sex between gay teenagers and older men, and who lost his recent book deal with Simon & Schuster at roughly the same time—appears to have been at least temporarily defanged, it’s worth taking a look at how he got to his national position in the first place. That’s exactly what a new Buzzfeed piece does, charting Yiannopoulos’ rise at Breitbart, and specifically his role as a flashy, outspoken bridge between the Steve Bannon-led news outlet and the fringes of the conservative movement—specifically, white supremacists and the then-nascent “alt-right.”
Buzzfeed built its piece from a number of acquired internal Breitbart emails, which show Yiannopolous asking a number of self-described white nationalists and Daily Stormer staffers for their opinions on his (or, rather, his ghostwriter’s) pieces for the site. (There’s also footage of him enjoying a night of karaoke alongside white supremacist and internet-favorite-punch-receiver Richard Spencer.) Meanwhile, conversations with Bannon and Breitbart’s editor, Alex Marlow, show how carefully the site walked the line of outright racism, cutting explicitly anti-Semitic or racist jokes while letting the implications linger.
Editing a September 2016 Yiannopoulos speech, Marlow approved a joke about “shekels” but added that “you can’t even flirt with OKing gas chamber tweets,” asking for such a line to be removed. Marlow held a story about Twitter banning a prominent—frequently anti-Semitic and anti-black—alt-right account, “Ricky Vaughn.” And in August 2016, Bokhari sent Marlow a draft of a story titled “The Alt Right Isn’t White Supremacist, It’s Western Supremacist,” which Marlow held, explaining, “I don’t want to even flirt with okay-ing Nazi memes.”
“We have found his limit,” Yiannopoulos wrote back.
More surprising than Yiannopoulos’ personal “dog whistle” collection, though, were the identities of some of the people who served as his sources. His status as an “alt-right magnet” positioned him not just as a contact point for overt or outright racists, but also for men in liberal-leaning fields who vented to Yiannopoulos about their feelings of “oppression.” According to the Buzzfeed emails, former Silicon Valley writer Dan Lyons sent Yiannopoulos questions about the gender of GameGate target Zoe Quinn. (Kumail Nanjiani, one of the HBO show’s stars, tweeted today that he was “sick to his stomach” over the report.) Meanwhile, former Slate writer David Auerbach passed Breitbart information about feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. And, perhaps most shockingly, Mitchell Sunderland, a senior staff writer for Broadly, Vice’s site focused on women’s rights and issues, sent Yiannopoulos a message asking him to write a hit piece on New York Times columnist Lindy West, writing, “Please mock this fat feminist.”
Buzzfeed’s piece is a long, measured look at the manufacturing of a right-wing star, complete with the ways Yiannopoulos was encouraged to rub shoulders with—and serve as a bridge to his more rabid fans for—the conservative elite. (Most prominently Bannon, but also former White House staffer Seb Gorka, Breitbart financiers in the Mercer family, and Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel.) It’s also a thoroughly disheartening reminder that he wasn’t (and isn’t) some anomaly blotting out the online media landscape, but a natural outgrowth of the angry, bitter resentments that still power so much of its uglier side.