Note: This piece was originally published in National Review on Aug. 15, 2017. Its author has appended a new introduction in advance of Robert Spencer’s speech on campus.
In 2015, the president of the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) supported John Kasich for president. He also worked for Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the moderate Republican congressman, in the summer. Most other members of the club supported Marco Rubio. A few liked Rand Paul, and a few liked Ted Cruz. In a word, SCR was boring.
In 2017, SCR’s next president quit, having been all but pushed out. The membership wanted action. It wanted to take the fight to the Left. It wanted to bring Robert Spencer to campus. You see, 2016 happened in between, and like its elder brother, campus conservatism was sick. It still is.
Who is Robert Spencer? He is not Richard Spencer, a Nazi. He is not Milo Yiannopoulos, a fellow traveler. He is not “alt-right” in any sense. Rather, he is hysterical about Islam. It is his right to oppose the religion and to think the Koran is uniquely flawed, but this is a man who co-founded an organization called “Stop Islamization of America.” I maintain simply that his is not Stanford material and that SCR can do better.
If Spencer’s shtick is paranoid, then SCR’s is cynical. They invited someone just borderline offensive enough to get others to discuss their irrelevant group without ruining their future careers. Maybe now they’ll finally get some people to turn out to their event. In exchange, they have ceded all moral high ground, but then the campus Left may cede it right back during their protest. This is SCR’s desperate, sad hope.
Well, let us congratulate them. They may needlessly offend their fellow students, but they have successfully baited the Left. They may drag their cause through the mud, but they have scored attention.
On Tuesday night, the Republicans will win, but they will not rule. Neither loved nor feared, admired nor respected, SCR will remain a rump. In that sense, the group has little to lose. It never had Stanford students’ esteem in the first place.
***Why did so many otherwise respectable conservative groups host Milo Yiannopoulos, an apologist for the alt-right, on college campuses across America? After the violence in Charlottesville, it’s time we looked in the mirror. Steve Bannon was far from the only man who gave the alt-right a platform to spread its hate.
Remember the first of February, when Berkeley burned amid left-wing riots after Yiannopoulos showed up to speak? Conservatives made it into a national story, and rightfully so. “This is what tolerance looks like at UC Berkeley,” said Mike Wright, a member of the Berkeley College Republicans, at the time. Berkeley’s conservatives were showered with media attention, which they skillfully used to skewer liberal intolerance and political violence.
Perhaps distracted by all the attention or correctly disinclined to blame the victims instead of the perpetrators of violence, nobody bothered to ask why the College Republicans had invited a guy like Yiannopoulos to speak in the first place.
Later that year, Stanford’s conservative publication, the Stanford Review, considered hosting an appearance by Yiannopoulos. A lone graduate student had invited him, but needed to find a student group to sponsor the event. I was present in the Stanford Review ’s meetings. “Someone should sponsor his lecture — it’s a matter of free speech,” argued a confused fellow editor. Soon, other editors made different arguments: “This will create a huge stir,” said one. “It will drive the social-justice warriors crazy,” offered another.
This was certainly true, and a point worth considering. Campus leftists would definitely have protested the event, and might even have tried to shut it down. As one influential editor put it: “Best-case scenario is that the SJWs freak out and we get another Berkeley.” We all knew what he meant: Inviting Yiannopoulos could bait the Left to do something silly and destructive, drawing media coverage that would allow us to act as martyrs for free speech on campus. That is, the left-wing riots were not the price or downside of inviting Yiannopoulos — they were the attraction.
This makes a certain, perverse sense. Campus conservative groups face three undying challenges: They are always broke, their leaders are always about to graduate, and nobody on campus ever cares about what they have to say. Consequently, conservatives from Boulder, Louisiana State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, and dozens of other campuses turned to Yiannopoulos. He charges no speaking fees and, with minimal effort and planning from the students, guarantees them attention and controversy. He gives conservative student groups everything they could want.
But it comes at a cost: Every invitation extended to Yiannopoulos validates the idea that his alternately childish and hateful views are in some way “conservative.”
Yiannopoulos was once a legitimate, if failed, British technology journalist. In fact, it was from his next perch as a technology writer at Breitbart that he gained prominence for his early coverage of the “Gamergate” controversy, supporting the online harassment of feminist video-game programmers and tech bloggers. From there, he began to heap praise on Donald Trump, whom he calls “Daddy,” and to become an aggressive online culture warrior.
He delights in offending or “triggering” leftists. He labels them “snowflakes,” mocking their delicate sensibilities, while also calling them “fascists” for opposing free speech. In this, he can delight the Right. Campus conservatives often defended him as “provocative” but ultimately useful for his defense of free speech. But that hides the truth.
In March 2016, Yiannopoulos co-authored “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” at Breitbart. In it, he denies that the alt-right is bigoted. Instead, he says, they just seek to “fluster their grandparents” with “outrageous caricatures,” including anti-Semitic ones. Yiannopoulos takes great pains to differentiate the alt-right from skinheads. “The alternative right are a much smarter group of people,” he writes, “which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much. They’re dangerously bright.”
He then explains just whom he finds so intelligent. “The media empire of the modern-day alternative right coalesced around Richard Spencer,” writes Yiannopoulos. This is the same Richard Spencer who promoted the rally in Charlottesville and marched next to neo-Nazis and Klansmen. In fact, Spencer’s speech headlined the rally. (Tim Gionet, better known as “Baked Alaska,” served as Yiannopoulos’s tour manager in 2016, scheduling his appearances with campus Republican groups. He, too, showed up to speak in Charlottesville, holding up a torch, chanting that Jews “will not replace us,” and claiming, “I’m proud to be white,” alongside a flurry of Nazi salutes.)
“The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race,” Yiannopoulos openly admitted in his article. But he went on to defend them on those exact terms. “The bulk of their demands, after all, are not so audacious: they want their own communities, populated by their own people, and governed by their own values,” he writes. According to Yiannopoulos, “they want what every people fighting for self-determination in history have ever wanted.”
This was an outright apologia for racist white separatism. And yet, time after time in 2016, campus Republicans held Yiannopoulos up to the world as their champion against the Left. Even as he made statements such as “The Jews run everything” and “I don’t generally employ gays, I don’t trust them,” he continued to be invited.
To defend himself from charges of anti-Semitism, Milo occasionally calls himself Jewish. Actually, he is a Roman Catholic, and has even posted photos of himself wearing the Iron Cross so beloved by Nazis everywhere. To counter charges of homophobia and racism, he told the New York Times that he has sex only with black men, in essence using identity politics to defend his own bigotry. Jamie Kirchick has astutely characterized him as a “caricature of what resentful, misanthropic, frat bros believe a gay man to be: morally depraved, sexually licentious, and utterly self-aggrandizing.”
All of this is to say that even before videos surfaced revealing his endorsement of pedophilia, Yiannopoulos’s derangement was obvious. Anyone who did even a cursory Google search would have quickly concluded that giving him a platform was a bad idea. Yet the Berkeley College Republicans gave him a platform anyway, and they were not alone in that choice.
In short, campus groups helped make Yiannopoulos and his alt-right sympathies more popular, and gave him the attention he craves in spades. Certainly, their actions couldn’t be justified then and can’t be justified now, no matter how much media attention they yielded.
None of this, unfortunately, is restricted to the lead-up to the turbulent 2016 election. For the fall of 2017, for example, Columbia University’s College Republicans plan to host alt-right popularizer Mike Cernovich as well as the English Defence League’s Tommy Robinson. If other groups copy them, Yiannopoulos may come to look relatively benign in comparison.
On Saturday, we watched videos of alt-right leaders chanting about white pride alongside actual Nazis — at a rally in which a white supremacist killed someone. If it wasn’t already, it should now be clear that a portion of the campus Right has disgraced itself.
Elliot Kaufman, a senior studying political science, is a former editorial intern at the National Review and a former editor at the Stanford Review. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Examiner.