ROS: It’s all right — I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists. (2.68–70)
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
This is a story about how trolls took the wheel of the clown car of modern politics. It’s a story about the insider traders of the attention economy. It’s a story about fear and loathing and Donald Trump and you and me. It’s not a story about Milo Yiannopoulos, the professional alt-right provocateur who was just banned from Twitter permanently for sending racist abuse to actor Leslie Jones.
But it does start with Milo. So I should probably explain how we know each other and how, on a hot, weird night in Cleveland, I came to be riding in the backseat of his swank black trollmobile to the gayest neo-fascist rally at the RNC.
Milo Yiannopoulos is a charming devil and one of the worst people I know. I have seen the death of political discourse reflected in his designer sunglasses. It chills me. We met four years ago, before he was the self-styled “most fabulous supervillain on the internet,” when he was just another floppy-haired right-wing pundit and we were guests on opposing sides of a panel show whose topic I don’t remember and can’t be bothered to look up. Afterwards we got hammered in the green room and ran around the BBC talking about boys. It was fun.
Since that day, there is absolutely nothing I have been able to say to Milo to persuade him that we are not friends. The more famous he gets off the back of extravagantly abusing women and minorities, the more I tell him I hate him and everything he stands for, the more he laughs and asks when we’re drinking. I’m a radical queer feminist leftist writer burdened with actual principles. He thinks that’s funny and invites me to his parties.
“Feminism is cancer” is one of Milo’s signature slogans, and yet it took him only seconds after learning we’d both be at the Republican Convention in Cleveland to offer me a lift to his ‘Wake Up!’ rally, billed as the most fabulous shindig at the end of America. This time—god help me and the things I do for journalism—I said yes.
So here we are at the Convention, where howling psychopath Donald Trump has just been confirmed as the presidential nominee, to the horror of half of the party and every remaining moderate conservative in America as well as the 15,000 members of the international press who flocked to see the circus in realtime. Milo is loving every second of it. He lost no time climbing on the back of the clown car of the billionaire demagogue who, with ghoulishly oedipal glee, he calls ‘Daddy.’
The roads around the convention center have been scrubbed of humanity, clean and bristling with police barricades under the streetlights. I put on my one nice frock and wait for Milo outside the Ritz. After half an hour of loitering, I’m ushered into a large black Ford, where Team Milo is off to pick up their star.
Team Milo consists of his tour manager, Tim, one Breitbart writer, one pretty young man with a neat beard and a ‘Dangerous Faggot’ band T-shirt, and Milo’s personal trainer and driver, who is the sort of American jock I had considered largely fictional. The gang kills time by asking if I’d rather shag Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage. I accuse them of psychic violence, which is a joke, although I also mean it.
Just as we set off, news breaks that Milo has been suspended from Twitter. A frenzy of jubilant activity: this is a huge win for Milo and his brand. He’ll be trending worldwide within the hour.
The car pulls up outside a dinner being held by Fox News, and two giant, besuited security guards get in on either side of me. They are the single most massive individuals I have ever met.
Then, at last, Milo arrives.
He slides into the front seat, all bleach and bling and giant sunglasses—I won’t get to see his eyes all evening. He asks me how I’m feeling.
Milo is excited. This is his night. How does he feel about his suspension?
“It’s fantastic,” he says, “It’s the end of the platform. The timing is perfect.”
He was planning for something like this. “I thought I had another six months, but this was always going to happen.”
Milo shows no remorse for the avalanche of misconduct he helped direct towards Leslie Jones, who is just the latest victim of the recreational ritual abuse he likes to launch at women and minorities for the fame and fun of it. According to the law of the wild web, the spoils go to those with fewest fucks to give. I have come to believe, in the course of our bizarro unfriendship, that Milo believes in almost nothing concrete—not even in free speech. The same is reportedly true of Trump, of people like Ann Coulter, of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: They are pure antagonists unencumbered by any conviction apart from their personal entitlement to raw power and stacks of cash.
Milo puts on a bulletproof jacket before his big entrance. He does this “because it’s funny,” although he worries that it may be insufficiently flattering. “I’m going to send it to my guy at Louis Vuitton.” It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend. Milo Yiannopoulos is the ideological analogue of Kim Kardashian’s rear end. Trickster breaks the internet.
The larger of the two security guards takes the wheel. Milo strokes his arm and tells him it’s all right to go fast. There follows the single most terrifying car ride of my life. I allow myself 10 seconds of hysterical laughter. “Everyone’s a good person deep down,” I whisper to myself. “Everyone’s got good inside them.” I make it to the venue intact apart from my faith in humanity.
“Get Laurie a cigarette, darling,” Milo says to his personal trainer, who has charge of the handbag. We smoke in the car park behind the event space as Milo’s camera crew arrive and hook him up to a microphone. Then the crew livestreams the delighted Twitter martyr’s Reservoir Dogs strut through to the VIP room—a carpeted ballroom on the seventh floor of hell full of manic trolls and smug neo-fascists from every slimy corner of the internet.
Over by the bar, Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader, is having a nice chat with two republicans of the sort who look like they’ve been poured into their suits. I realise that I have stumbled into a den of goblins. It’s way too late to cast a protection spell.
Milo swoops away to hold court. I hear a throat clear right in front of me.
And there is Daryush Valizadeh, also known as Roosh V, self-styled leader in the “neo-masculinity” movement, author of a suspicious stack of sex travel guides and headline-hunting nano-celebrity in the world of ritualised internet misogyny. Roosh hates feminists for a living. He asks me what I’m doing here. I ask him the same question.
The interaction that follows is the most surreal episode in a deeply surreal evening. Roosh is tall and well-built and actually rather good-looking for, you know, a monster. I have opportunity to observe this because he puts himself right up in my personal space, blocking my view of the room with his T-shirt, and proceeds, messily and at length, to tell me what my problem is.
Number one: my haircut, and he’s telling me this as a man, makes my face look round. This is absolutely true. Number two: I seek to destroy the nuclear family, and disturb traditional relationships between men and women. This is also true, although I remind him that the nuclear family as it is currently conceived is actually a fairly recent social format. He insists that it’s thousands of years old, and asks me if I truly believe that it’s right for gay men to be able to adopt children. I tell him that I do. He appears as flummoxed by this as I do by his presence at what is supposed to be a party to celebrate Gay republicans. He’s here for the same reason I am: Milo invited him.
What surprises me about Roosh is that he seems to be a true believer. Unlike Milo, he appears to be—at least to some extent—convinced of the truth of what he’s saying. He is bitter and vindictive, convinced of his own victimhood as a self-made blogger who was never given his due by the mainstream media. He tells me that the reason I have a column is that I’m a useful idiot and all my readers have low IQs. I ask him if he’s negging me.
I turn to leave, and Roosh suggests that we should start some sort of “fake fight” on the internet, because that’s “part of the game”. “I’m good,” I say, genuinely confused. There is no way I could have a fake fight with this man. We clearly have real, profound differences. I think he’s a dangerous manchild with an army of credulous misogynists at his disposal. I cannot fight him insincerely, and I don’t want to fight him in good faith because he’s already had too much of my attention. What — truly — does this extravagantly-bearded sociopath think he’s playing at?
The most widely accepted definition of a troll is a provocateur—someone who says outrageous, extreme or abusive things to elicit a reaction in an imagined audience. For them, the reaction itself is the win. That doesn’t cover the various sub-species of troll in this well-catered goblin market.
The key distinction, at this convention and among the petty demagogues here assembled, is between the attention hustlers—the pure troll howlers who play this grotesque game for its own sake and their own—and the true believers. Roosh is a true believer, and that puts him at a disadvantage.
Roosh means what he’s saying, but he’s still aware that he’s playing a game — the same game almost everyone in this crucible of A-list internet con-men is playing. It’s the game of turning raw rage into political currency, the unscrupulous whorebaggery of the troll gone pro. These are people who cashed in their limited principles to cheat at poker. Milo is the best player here. Like Trump, and like a lot of successful politicians in this postmodern circus, they channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind. They offer new win conditions for the humiliated masses. Welcome to the scream room. There’s a cheese plate.
I run into a British writer from the Spectator, a moderate right-wing magazine, who takes the opportunity to apologise for being mean to me on the internet. He thought that was just how you’re supposed to do Twitter. We become, briefly, allies on foreign soil. A certain school of spiteful camaraderie, of bloodless political jousting before dinner, has long been the form of political discourse in Britain, where the mainstream media is dominated by private school graduates who were trained to debate as if it were a bloodsport in which empathy is a handicap. London media wonks routinely treat one another as sparring partners and drinking buddies despite their political differences: after all, aren’t we all on the same team really? Aren’t we playing the same game?
I have never understood this game. That’s why I’ve always refused to debate Milo in public. Not because I’m frightened I’ll lose, but because I know I’ll lose, because I care and he doesn’t—and that means he’s already won. Help and forgive me, but I actually believe human beings can be better than this.
My new Spectator friend is as bewildered as I am by the way Americans take Milo and his ilk seriously, by their willingness to take pride in performative bigotry and call it strength. It works. It sells. It’s the unholy marriage of that soulless debate culture that works so well in Britain, transplanted to a nation with no social safety net and half a billion guns. It works, in part, because of the essentially cult-like nature of U.S. culture and the structured ignorance that accompanies it. America is a nation eaten by its own myth. The entire idea of America is about believing impossible things. Nobody said those things had to be benign.
Geert Wilders is also a true believer. I am introduced to the euro-fascist and his dead-badger hair by a genial young Dutchman I met earlier on Tinder. He tells Wilders that I am a left wing journalist, and Wilders does not alter his tone of voice as he turns to me and starts vaguely explaining how the whole of France is about to be abolished and replaced with a giant Halal kebab.
Wilders is the most obviously disturbed member of the neo-right suicide squad in attendance. He cannot finish a sentence. His voice drifts, and he trails away, already out of the room. There is a dustbin fire behind the blank eyes of his human suit.
Wilders is a less polished, wholly charmless rendition of the neo-right demagogue character creation sheet that gave us Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. These people do not have personalities, they have haircuts. Ugly ones. And we have fallen through the looking glass in which they see themselves reflected as small gods.
I stumble downstairs to hear the speeches. The public hall is packed with nervous journalists and plastered with photos of naked young men in Trump caps. Pamela Geller, a minor right-wing pundit, is speaking her brains, telling the punters that Islam is the real threat to gay rights, and that Trump will save America by kicking out immigrants. You’ve heard all this before. I don’t want to quote it, and I don’t need to.
Then it’s Milo’s turn.
His speech is cabaret from start to finish. He sashays up to the podium and strips off his bulletproof vest, giddy with the attention, and announces that he’s been banned from Twitter. The news draws cheers from the assembled Gamergate goons whose masculinity is so fragile that they believe the new Ghostbusters film to be an active identity threat.
I’m not going to quote Milo’s speech here. You can find it online if you want to. It’s a very good speech, for a given value of “very good” that’s designed to leave decent people keening in a corner over the death of reason. He tells a racist joke. The crowd goes wild.
Milo peddles a pageant of insincerity that is immediately legible to fellow Brits. Americans understand irony differently, and sometimes not at all. The crowd of excitable young and young-ish people gathered to hear him pontificate believe what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t. Which he doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t mean it. It doesn’t matter that he’s secretly quite a sweet, vulnerable person who is gracious to those he considers friends. It doesn’t matter that somewhere in the rhinestone-rimmed hamster wheel of his mind is a conscience. It doesn’t matter because the harm he does is real.
He is leading a yammering army of trolls to victory on terms they barely understand. This is how we got to a place where headline speakers at the Republican convention—one of the most significant political events in the national narrative of world’s greatest superpower—are now actively calling for the slaughter and deportation of foreigners, declaring that Hillary Clinton is an agent of Satan, and hearing only cheers from the floor.
They ventriloquise the fear of millions into a scream of fire in the crowded theatre of modernity where all the doors are locked, and then they watch the stampede, and they smile for the cameras.
I’ve seen enough. This is an evil place, airless and soulless as the inside of Pamela Geller’s head. We have to get out. For a brief and terrible moment we’re stuck in an elevator with some Twinks for Trump, crawling brainlessly between floors. The Salon journalist next to me shivers inside his button-down, clearly wondering if he is already dead and trapped forever in the special hell for bad liberals who didn’t pay their dues.
“We’re here! We’re queer! Your politics are really weird!”
In the humid dark of the plaza outside the event, a dozen young activists covered in sweat and glitter have got together an impromptu protest. Shell-shocked members of the press stumble out into the street. One journalist from a major mainstream outlet breaks down in tears.
“It’s just — there’s so much hate,” she says, as a couple of glitterpunks move in to comfort her. “What is happening to this country?”
What’s happening to this country has happened before, in other nations, in other anxious, violent times when all the old certainties peeled away and maniacs took the wheel. It’s what happens when weaponised insincerity is applied to structured ignorance. Donald Trump is the Gordon Gekko of the attention economy, but even he is no longer in control. This culture war is being run in bad faith by bad actors who are running way off-script, and it’s barely begun, and there are going to be a lot of refugees.