In the last 36 hours, alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos has lost his book deal, his speaking spot at the Conservative Political Action Congress, and his position as Breitbart's troll-in-chief. He has not, however, lost his audience.
This week, Yiannopoulos was finally dropped by the Republican establishment. It turns out that defending pedophilia—not rampant misogyny, transphobia, and Islamophobia—was the straw that broke the elephant's back. But lost in the knee-jerk celebration over his downfall is the dark truth that, while Milo may not be currently useful to mainstream Republicans, he has radicalized a fanbase that vehemently continues to support him.
Yiannopoulos's fans already knew he is misogynist, transphobic, and Islamophobic. They already knew he went on the Joe Rogan podcast and defended "coming-of-age" sexual relationships between young teenage boys and older men. This Rogan tape is not a revelation dredged from the bowels of the internet, it's a clip from a podcast that Rogan says gets roughly 30 million downloads monthly. He discussed similar topics on the Drunken Peasants podcast, which is popular with Yiannopoulos's GamerGate fanbase. Yiannopoulos's tendency to say whatever he wants is not a bug, it's a feature.
In that sense, for his fans, Yiannopoulos on pedophilia is reminiscent of two recent caught-on-tape dustups. There's Donald Trump's "grab-her-by-the-pussy" Access Hollywood tapes, and the Wall Street Journal's investigations of YouTube star PewDiePie's anti-Semitic "jokes." Each of these incidents have been treated by the media as revelatory killshots destined to sink figures who—the media thinks—are inexplicably popular.
But Trump bragging about sexual assault on tape was seen by his supporters as "locker room talk," another example of how Trump isn't like other politicians. It fit with what they liked about him. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, watched and reported on PewDiePie's videos—which his fans had already seen—and acted as though it had done investigative journalism, playing perfectly into PewDiePie's ongoing narrative about being at war with and mistreated by the press.
While the mainstream saw each of these cases as election- or career-enders, fans of Trump, PewDiePie, and Yiannopoulos did not. Trump was dumped by the establishment, but they came back after it was clear his base hadn't left him. PewDiePie's fans were shocked and offended, not by the YouTube star, but by the evil media that had attacked him. Responses to his YouTube statement on the Wall Street Journal report have overwhelmingly defended him. Yiannopoulos's Facebook fans have likewise defended him as a free speech warrior, and GamerGate subreddit Kotaku in Action is currently discussing how "the Milo 'scandal' coupled with the attempted character assassination on PewDiePie once more demonstrate how the media and establishment still haven't learned."
The lesson we've learned from Trump, PewDiePie, and the alt-right is that mainstream rejection has become a badge of honor
We're not doing anyone any favors by pretending that Milo-is-a-shithead is a new revelation. And we've been through this enough times to know that he can't simply be willed away. Milo, PewDiePie, and Trump have repeatedly shown that it's possible to get terrifyingly huge audiences without the help or support of the establishment. There's no point in spiking the football as that establishment takes mainstream platforms from a self-styled free speech warrior like Yiannopoulos, who is already using this incident as an example of censorship.
"This is a cynical media witch hunt from people who don't care about children," Yiannopoulos said in a press conference Tuesday. "These videos have been out there for more than a year. The media held this story back because they don't care about victims, they only care about bringing me down. They will fail."
I won't pretend to know the solution to hate speech and extremism online. I disagree with Yiannopoulos on essentially every issue he stands for, and I'm certainly glad Yiannopoulos will be pushed to the corners of the internet rather than welcomed as a normal part of our public discourse. But I also know that he's not just going to disappear. After all, Yiannopoulos is already talking about starting his own media network, and he's got a built-in audience of rabid fans.
There may have once been a time when the establishment could push unsavory characters to the margins and forget they exist. The lesson we've learned from Trump, PewDiePie, and the alt-right is that mainstream rejection has become a badge of honor and an invitation to build their own platforms.