What Breitbart’s Email Leaks Mean for Public Perception of the “Alt-Right“

Far-right British commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted from Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkley campus after a speech. (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)Far-right British commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted from Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkeley campus after a speech. (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The celebrity of Milo Yiannopoulos has always been a balance between career-end charades and headline-grabbing stunts. While tabloids were still fawning over his wedding photos, especially on the race of his new husband, BuzzFeed was preparing a feature that further demolished his defenses against allegations of white nationalism. In the story published on October 5, Joseph Bernstein unveiled what was apparently years of private emails and Breitbart memos that outlined the far-right publication’s relationship with open white nationalists, including Yiannopoulos’s clear reliance on them. What this revealed was how Yiannopoulos’s celebrity became a tool by which Stephen Bannon engaged in an information war to “defend the West.”

While the term “alt-right” was roundly used to describe Yiannopoulos as he railed against Black Lives Matter and feminism, it was always a bit misapplied. The “alt-right” has always meant white nationalism, though in a dressed-up form that would rather cite esoteric German philosophers than David Duke. Yiannopoulos, a queer Jew, did not fit that bill, and while he enjoyed denouncing Muslims and immigrants, he did not meet the ideological litmus test that white nationalists like Richard Spencer or Jared Taylor might.

Instead, Yiannopoulos led what is now called the “alt-light,” a slightly more moderate sphere of angry far-right populists that have helped to mainstream “alt-right” memes and talking points without committing to their more shocking political fantasies. People like Anne Coulter, Lauren Southern, Gavin McInnes, Rebel Media and, of course, Breitbart, are all figures in this canon, and Yiannopoulos was simply their loudest and most prolific icon. Gaining fame by leading the misogynist troll army during Gamergate, Yiannopoulos was ported over the pond to work at Breitbart as a tech editor, but it was his pithy blogs going after Breitbart’s favorite targets that garnered his celebrity. In 2015 and 2016, Yiannopoulos mingled with white nationalism, bringing people like male tribalist Jack Donovan onto his podcast and writing his much-cited outline of the “alt-right” for Breitbart.

What has allowed for Breitbart’s and Yiannopoulos’s success has always been plausible deniability. Yiannopoulos can say almost the same things as the “alt-right,” but then ducks away from accusations since he effectively refused to take the final rhetorical step: He wasn’t talking about people of color or women per se, just these particular people. This has been a known strategy for years as Breitbart replaced Fox News as the radical right organ of news. The email leaks show that Breitbart’s connections to white supremacists were real.

In email after email, Yiannopoulos’s directives came down from Bannon, who excoriated Yiannopoulos anytime he refused to hone in specifically on Muslims and those “we are in an existential war” against. Yiannopoulos, for his part, made friends with the white nationalists early on, especially with Weev, the famous troll known for his vulgar neo-Nazism and work with The Daily Stormer. Yiannopoulos’s articles were shaped and edited by Devin Saucier of American Renaissance, the most prominent white nationalist organization in the country that focuses much of its time on trying to prove race differences in intelligence. Other “alt-right” figures did direct edits on stories, and far-right Breitbart investors like Rebekah Mercer of the Mercer Family Foundation filtered stories to Yiannopoulos through Bannon. While Yiannopoulos played the innocent dupe to the racism of the “alt-right,” in email after email, according to BuzzFeed News, he not only understood its racism full well, but it appeared as though he and Bannon reveled in it and used Breitbart as a well-coded tool to stoke those racist feelings in readers.

The relationships of tech impresario Peter Thiel and Bannon and the Neoreactionary movement — specifically race and IQ proponent Curtis Yarvin — was again made explicit, but this inspired few surprises. Yarvin became famous under the pen name Mencius Moldbug, and wrote a blog outlining his opposition to equality, democracy and social progress. Moldbug’s ideas have had major currency in Silicon Valley, and Thiel, as a major right-wing tech figure, was able to shelter himself from direct connections with Yarvin until the report was released.

Most damning of all, however, is likely the clip of Yiannopoulos’s April 2016 Texas karaoke event, where “alt-right” leaders threw up “sieg heils,” and Richard Spencer laughed in the audience. The private event was not open to the media, and presumably Milo had no intention of revealing his open admiration of the “alt-right” shown at the bar. Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, the host of the white nationalist troll-podcast The Daily Shoah, described on his show his own relationship with Yiannopoulos after the fact, admitting he was also at this karaoke event and that they had exchanged contact information.

What is more shocking, however, is the relationship that Yiannopoulos and Breitbart maintained with journalists at mainstream publications. Mitchell Sunderland at Vice’s women’s platform Broadly sent one email telling Yiannopoulos to go after the “fat feminist” Lindy West, a woman who has seen some of the most aggressive sexist harassment in the post-Gamergate internet. The undercurrent here is that Yiannopoulos’s brand of reactionary abuse was a popular pastime for people in the media, and his antics created more clickbait stories for even leftist publications to lap up.

There have been few believers in the “alt-light” claims of anti-racism, or of Bannon’s arms-length relationship with Neoreaction and the “alt-right,” and that is the dark spot that BuzzFeed’s info dump really elucidates. With such a massive leak as this, with such damning evidence, one could easily expect that the result would be firings (Vice did fire Mitchell Sunderland for his correspondence with Yiannopoulos), denouncements and social exorcisms. What is more shocking, in a sense, is that none of that will result because all of this is simply a confirmation for what has been both publicly known and privately accepted. That Breitbart is a tool for the development of white nationalism, that people like Bannon and Yiannopoulos know full well the type of violence they are stoking, and that backers like the Mercers and Thiel are allying with a revolutionary white supremacist movement is not particularly striking. Instead, we simply have the map laid out, our educated assumptions made transparent.

The recent fragmentation of the “alt-right,” which really started with schisms in the days after Trump’s victory, hit a fever pitch after Charlottesville. The effect of the social shift and the subsequent online platform denial the “alt-right” faced, as well as the betrayals that Yiannopoulos has brought on the “alt-right,” has given him no quarter in the wake of this revelation. Yiannopoulos went as far as to go on social media to declare that it was an “alt-right” plot to reveal this information. “I am told a figure on the Right paid one of Richard Spencer’s nutty goons $10,000 for this video,” Yiannopoulos wrote on Instagram, with little evidence of this transaction. “I have been and am a steadfast supporter of Jews and Israel. I disavow white nationalism and I disavow racism and I always have.” Figures like Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars have picked up on Yiannopoulos’s allegations, pushing a conspiracy theory that establishment journalists colluded with white nationalists to bring down Yiannopoulos.

Spencer, for his part, has continued his anti-Yiannopoulos campaign on social media and podcasts, repudiating a figure he once celebrated. Around the troll-sphere of the “alt-right,” Yiannopoulos’s response to the revelations and his inability to take ownership for his racist protocols has further demonized him. The former alliance between the “alt-right” and the “alt-light” has been delivered a heavy blow, and no amount of revelations of previous collaboration is going to resurrect their Trumpian beast. Instead, this has the ability to permanently sever any future connections, and for “alt-light” figures who attempt to co-opt the energy of white nationalists, it will act as a warning about the potentially public nature of that friendship.

Revelations like this could cause Thiel and the Mercers to try and back away from their public associations with white nationalist people and movements, but if what we already know about them was not enough for them to go dormant, this is likely not dangerous enough either. It is unclear how Breitbart will respond, if the network will use this as an opportunity to clear its ranks, or to simply ignore the allegations and press forward with its mission. The only thing that forces these connections to dissolve is massive public pressure — the kind that only organized movements with clear goals can grasp. All of these figures have been the target of anti-fascists over the past 18 months, and that is not likely to abate, but it will require larger coalitions of stakeholders to permanently unseat Breitbart’s place in the American electorate.