Milo Yiannopoulos fancies himself a provocateur. His track record of behaving in ways designed to shock and provoke and the name recognition his antics have yielded would lead any observer to conclude he is pretty good at his chosen profession. Surely, he must be as surprised as anyone that, of all things, an invitation to serve as the keynote speaker at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) inaugurated a forensic examination of his past statements, which has already cost him his book deal.
Yiannopoulos is indicative of a condition that plagues the right’s media landscape. He is a creation of the modern conservative media environment that no longer identifies as conservative; a product of a business model that has become a victim of its own success. Conservatism itself no longer shocks because it no longer provokes. Those who make their living on shock and provocation have been forced to diversify.
Conservative opinion-entertainment has been wildly successful, and not just as a commercial product. The methods pioneered by its most influential voices—first in print and later in radio and television—were remarkably effective by any standard. Marrying the pugnacity and ideological assuredness of “Firing Line” with the instincts of stand-up comedians, the right’s AM talkers played a not insignificant role in the transformation of the American political ethos and the relationship of its citizens with the state.
Many self-identified conservatives under the age of 40 will likely confess that their introduction to conservatism came not from reading the philosophy of John Locke and Edmund Burke but from a casual exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. At some point along the way, they became committed converts to the ideology that prized self-reliance over collective responsibility and limited government over the paternalism of the state. Those same conservatives might also confess a sense of betrayal as those voices they came to trust conjure up tortuous excuses for Donald Trump’s every venal excess. It is no coincidence that the younger the conservative, the more reluctant they are to fall in line with Trump’s brand of populist Republicanism.
The right’s entertainment class managed a powerful feat, one the left only began to mirror in the last decade: marrying partisan politics with the kind of provocation that projects vitality. For conservative broadcasters, provocation came easy. They didn’t need to be photographed adorning themselves with Nazi regalia, disseminating racist memes, or touting the maturity imposed on children by their molesters. Conservative philosophy and policy prescriptions were sufficiently radical and largely alien in mid-to-late 20th Century America that they alone sufficed to shock and—for many—provoke.
The hyperbolic reaction that boilerplate conservatism inspired in its detractors—manifest in garment-rending protests, organized campaigns attacking advertisers, and ubiquitous accusations of racism resulting from even the most milquetoast conservative positions and reforms—became its own source of validation for the broadcast industry. By the middle of the last decade, however, the Republican Party was undeniably also a conservative party. A generation of conservatives, self-taught on the conservative theory and political philosophy to which they were introduced by the broadcast class, had come of age. The conservative lawmakers who rode the waves of 2010 and 2014 to federal office are the children of this revolution. The average age of the GOP’s congressional leadership is 47 (a stark contrast to the Democratic Party’s 76); it’s no accident that this Republican-led Congress is also one of the most conservative in the country’s history.
This conservative Republican Party is also in a period of ascendancy unseen since the 1920s. It has become more representative of the majority of the American voting public, emblematic not merely of conservatism’s ascendancy but of the collapse of the New Deal Democratic model. Conservatism has been mainstreamed. Those responsible for mainstreaming it appear to resent that.
Proponents of the so-called “alt-right,” like Yiannopoulos, comfort themselves in the notion that conservatism has failed to keep cultural and political progressivism at bay, but this is a demonstrable myth. Conservatism’s victories are manifold and exceed even the wildest imaginings of the insurgent mid-century conservative reformer. Conservatives-turned-conservatism’s-critics are engaged in a transparent quest to vindicate themselves. Conservatism was once as much an attractive political philosophy as a vehicle for controversy and, thus, attention. Conservatism no longer shocks, and so the right’s entertainers have had to go back to the well.
Yiannopoulos is a function of this impulse, but so is Donald Trump himself. The president campaigned in the style of a shock jock, forever in pursuit of the latest headline-generating pronouncement that would push the envelope of political decency or unworkable policy that satisfied the darkest impulses of the nation’s misanthropes. Trump showed the right’s entertainers that they could scandalize and titillate without the cumbersome constraints imposed on them by morally staid, nostalgic, and theoretical conservatism. He demonstrated that the kind of transgressive populism that was formerly the province of the radical left could be appropriated by the right, too.
The struggle of the pro-Trump intellectual and entertainer class will be to graft some meat onto the bones of a reactionary philosophy that revolves around the whims of one man—and an unusually capricious one at that. Conservatism’s foundations predate the American experiment, and so conservatism may still make a comeback. Yet its former allies in the talker class may not be coming back, if only because the basic tenets of the philosophy they once espoused no longer offend American sensibilities like they once did. In the pursuit of professionally gratifying effrontery, the talker class now finds conservatism wanting.