It’s Tuesday night and Donald Trump has just gone from presumptive contender to confirmed nominee. Many people in Cleveland are still dazed about it, but none of those people include Milo Yiannopoulos, the swooning Trump fan and contentious, openly gay Breitbart editor who is throwing his own celebratory party in a ballroom less than a mile from the Quicken Loans Arena. The party is called “Wake Up,” as in gays should wake up to the threat of Islamic terrorism. Earlier in the evening, an overflow of people, including protesters, crowded outside the ballroom, hungry to get in. By the time I arrive at a quarter past midnight, however, Yiannopoulos has already spoken, as has Pamela Geller, the notorious critic of Islam.
Inside, techno music attempts to keep the fete alive as some partygoers begin to file out. A few tipsy journalists (including this Playboy correspondent, who chugged three beers after escaping the RNC’s mad rush of reporters and delegates) observe a couple of delegates swaying among scores of Yiannopoulos’s fans. The man himself, king of all he surveys, stands in front of an unwieldy line of admirers. A blonde girl dressed in blue elbows her way to the front in aggressive fashion, only to be stopped by security. Almost everyone else in line is male and worshipful.
I crane my neck between two tall men and a trashcan to yell at the host. “Milo! Do you want to talk to Playboy?” I shout. I get his attention after a second try and am beckoned into his presence. He’s wearing a shiny bracelet, sunglasses and a tank top sporting a rainbow flag-adorned gun and the words “We shoot back.” His hair appears to be freshly peroxided blonde. He shines under the fluorescent lights.
At first, he assumes I am the interview organizer, not the actual journalist, but immediately apologizes. With at least 100 men waiting to be blessed by his holy, politically incorrect self—were there any other women here?—Yiannopoulos offers me a whole nine minutes of conversation, which amazes his fans. A 40-something man from Detroit, who came to Cleveland solely for Yiannopoulos’ party, half jokes that this is one event where women shouldn’t be allowed to cut in front of men. It’s hard to see if the awe I get from winning so much of Yiannopolous’s attention is because of his alleged sexism or merely because his fans are happy to earn even a moment of his time.
“It’s wonderful news for gay people. Donald Trump is obviously the most pro-gay candidate in American electoral history,” Yiannopoulos says about the night’s events. “Hillary Clinton is funded by people who murder homosexuals. She has shown no indication of stemming the tide of Islamic immigration, or stopping our mollycoddling and pandering to Islam. These things are direct threats. Not just to culture, but to the lives of gay people in America. Donald Trump is the only person who has shown any indication—out of anybody who ran for president this year—that he is going to be tough enough to stop it. His speech after Orlando was magnificent.”
“So when you say tough enough, what do you want him to do?” I ask.
“Close the walls,” he responds firmly.
Like his ‘daddy Trump,’ Yiannopoulos grows taller whenever he gets to be the crucified Messiah of the anti-PC masses.
Yiannopoulos’s edgy rhetoric (to say the least) is what has catapulted the Greek-British writer, podcast host and self-promoter into an incessant media story. Only minutes before our meeting, Twitter banned Yiannopoulos for inciting racist tweets against Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, who later quit the site in disgust. Yiannopolous’s reputation demands this kind of behavior, and what he isn’t willing to say, his followers will on his apparent behalf. He has tweeted seemingly racist jokes about his former colleagues’ babies and shamed a heavyset man working out at the gym, the latter of which actually caused a backlash among some of his fans because it seemed, for once, to be inordinately cruel.
It’s easy to hate Yiannopoulos when you read his writing and his tweets, but when he’s towering almost a foot above you and gamely responding to attempts at tough questions, he comes off as neither a drooling moron nor a rude asshole. Alas, he’s almost likeable.
“The government does a lot of stuff that it shouldn’t do,” Yiannopoulos says. “Most of the federal government could be shut down. The whole homeland security system in this country is totally fucked. TSA hasn’t worked for a very long time. The best thing that could possibly happen is it’s swept away and replaced by something smarter, and better, and probably more expensive, and a lot tougher.”
“Do you think the government is capable of pulling that off?”
“It should try for the sake of women and gays, unless you want this country to turn into Sweden or Germany, where no woman can walk on the street after 11 p.m. without the risk of being raped. In western European countries, that is a daily reality for women. It isn’t for the women in America. College campuses in America—these hysterical centers of crazy conspiracy theories about rape culture—are the safest places for women to be anywhere in the world. Now, some of the most dangerous places for women to be in the world are modern, Western, rich European countries. Why? One reason: Islamic immigration.”
No doubt, Yiannopoulos’s brand is fear, and in person, he is a deeply confident man. The disturbing part is how his ranty passion reminds me of my own style of communicating. For a man often branded as a professional troll, and whose opinions have changed enough in the past five years to make it wise to distrust his sincerity on every issue, he sure seems to care. But that attempted earnestness and British charm is also soaked with fear, the root of his widely popular justifications for impossible government projects of deportations, profiling and wall-building.
This underlines one theme that has marked this election cycle and the RNC so far. That is, that fear can bring us all together. But for Yiannopoulos, his own followers’ fear, and Trump’s, of the left’s political correctness only helps.
“Trump’s total anti-political correctness is great,” he says. “It’s political correctness that killed in San Bernardino. It is political correctness that killed in Orlando. People knew there was something wrong with this guy, and they didn’t report him. They said afterward they didn’t report him for fear of being seen as racist or Islamophobic. People knew there was something wrong with this guy and they didn’t say anything. They didn’t want to be accused of Islamophobia and racism.”
In this election, Yiannopoulos knows that fear plays a lot better than empathy or worry, yet the man who comes off utterly sincere and passionate in person does not appear to have any consistent principles beyond his own passions. When I later ask him whether Trump can truly fix everything, he waffles. “I don’t know whether Trump’s the guy to do it,” he says. “But he’s the closest of the field. In some degrees, I’m a libertarian. I’m socially conservative in some things. I don’t know a label that fits, honestly.” He doesn’t bother praising the convention itself. “The fun things are the things I’m at, like this,” he says.
Still, like his “daddy Trump,” Yiannopoulos grows taller whenever he gets to be the crucified Messiah of the anti-PC masses. While this new lack of a social media platform will be annoying to him, it does in a way prove to his believers that because he was banned from Twitter for “for getting in a fight with a black Ghostbuster,” the world is truly against him—and against non-liberal gay white men. He has now become a martyred patron saint of free speech, and tomorrow, Twitter will boil with outrage that the platform banned Yiannopoulos simply for having hordes of followers who are meaner and less literate than he is. Free speech and fear has played well throughout the RNC, and Trump has ridden that to the nomination like nobody else since George W. Bush in 2004. Perhaps like no American candidate ever. For those who don’t subscribe to Yiannopoulos’s fears, it’s laughable and creepy to see so many people howling about immigrants and cheering for war.
I end up leaving the party with some drunken Yiannopoulos fans a little before one a.m. As I walk out, a young, brown-skinned man with an unobvious accent approaches me. He asks what outlet I’m with.
“Playboy,” I say.
“Oh, Playboy,” he replies. He then adds “Allahu Ackbar” and something else I can’t understand in careful Arabic. “We will remove you from the planet sooner or later.”
“Why would you say that?” I probe.
“I say it in the name of Allah. Allahu Ackbar.”
My female instincts overtake my journalistic curiosity and I walk away, too baffled, tipsy and paranoid to say anything to anyone—even the cops on the corner. Is he a troll? A plant to perfect the xenophobia Yiannopoulos favors? Or is he a man about to do something terrible? What should I do about it except run back to my hotel to sober up?
It’s far too early to stare at Trump and say, my God, it’s Nuremberg. If you survived a George W. Bush adolescence, Trump’s rhetoric feels more kin to that than some exaggerated fear of the Fourth Reich. Yet, one man did send me running to my hotel room with my tail down, cowed and creeped out. He also made Yiannopoulos’s inflected, posh-sounding soft fascism somehow seem more acceptable. A stadium full of people cheered on speakers this week about how yes, they feel unsafe! Let’s do something! “Nothing is safe anymore” has a tremendous power, and both Yiannopoulos and the man outside his party-—whomever he really is—know that to be true.