Today, Milo Yiannopoulos and Jonah Goldberg exchanged several antagonistic tweets today. You may think this is simply a Trump vs. Anti-Trump slap fight, but in reality, it exposes a powerful lesson in rhetoric and the reasons behind the ongoing power shift on the right. Below is one example of one of the exchanges.
No one listening to the Left’s RACIST! HOMOPHOBE! BIGOT! routine any more. Figures that conservative media would now take it up. @JonahNRO
— Milo Yiannopoulos ✘ (@Nero) May 18, 2016
Before we get into current events, it is important to look at the pasts of both men.
I became aware of Jonah Goldberg, like many others, when his book Liberal Fascism was released while I was in college. It was not only a good book with a well-evidenced thesis and an interesting subject, it succeeded massively well on rhetorical levels.
The big reason was the cover.
The smiley-face with a crudely drawn Hitler-mustache was simply incredible imagery. The juxtaposition not only perfectly described the thesis of the book in an image, it was easily understandable and provocative. The title communicated the exact same point in words.
This caused what can only be described as a ruckus on the left. It managed to pierce its way into the mainstream in the midst of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s primary battle. It forced the left to defend ground in print, a rarity among books by conservative pundits. I’m sure it also did wonders for Goldberg’s fame and income.
Needless to say, books and media like Liberal Fascism are exactly what the right should have been producing during the Obama years: unapologetic attacks in enemy territory .
Instead the conservative movement has produced a string of products like Goldberg’s second book, The Tyranny of Cliches. Lacking any visual anchor and reserving the book’s target for the subtitle, The Tyranny of Cliches was far from the rhetorical success it’s predecessor was. This led to the book having less of a cultural impact as the first.
This isn’t because of the content of the book; both are enjoyable reads, and both are informative. It is because of the underlying rhetorical devices in each. Both attacked the left, and both made salient points.
However, Liberal Fascism attacked left-wing identity in its very title and cover. It was an attack that demanded rebuttal by the left. In effect, it benefited from the forces which people like Milo Yiannopoulos and, dare I say it, Donald Trump, have explicitly made use of for their advantage.
If The Tyranny of Cliches had been re-titled, and I’m just spit-balling here, “The Left’s Biggest Lies” with a cartoon of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama dressed as Pinocchio, it might have been more of a success.
Milo Yiannopoulos, on the other hand, has risen to prominence (eclipsing Goldberg’s Twitter follower count this spring) by harnessing these very same forces to his benefit. Milo first came to my attention when he dropped the first supportive piece on GamerGate from any well-known news outlet.
The political genius of this was entirely lost on the rest of the right. Becoming the champion of gamers against the worst elements of the left, he forced people on the left to defend their most despicable elements, stay silent, or join him. It forced the left to fight on its own turf.
He’s done the same thing with the zaniness on college campuses. With his speaking tour, Milo has repeatedly stirred controversy. This has led to forcing people on the left to distance itself from the worst of the craziness in a way no other conservative has done.
Milo has reaped huge dividends from this strategy, both as a proponent for the right, and personally.
So, why is there conflict?
The simple answer is that Jonah and Milo are avatars for each side of the generational schism on the right. While not an old man himself, Jonah is their representative. The old men on the right seek to hold the line in a conflict of attrition with the left over disputed ground. The young men seek to fight on what the left thought was safe turf.
This brings us to the specific conflict today.
There are two groups of people on the right Jonah, and the rest of the old men revile. The first are agitators who knowingly say extreme things aimed to upset the old men. They are getting trolled, and are looking bad as a result. The whole point of the activity is to make the old men angry, and in their anger for them to act in a way that turns people off from them. It’s a classical rhetorical move explained by Aristotle. They seek to inspire anger in their targets and succeed. The other group are simply people who take a more extreme right-wing view than is considered socially acceptable.
The old men and Jonah Goldberg hate these people more than they hate the left, as they seek a monopoly of right wing though, and Milo Yiannopoulos has no interest in condemning them. He even delivers apologia for them.
Now the apologia may help elevate himself personally, stoking controversy around himself. But there are tactical reasons for doing so as well. The first is, working to delegitimize opponents to your right, just makes the center of opinion move left. People will always succumb to the fallacy of moderation and split the difference between extremes. That means having a healthy extreme is a good thing tactically. Secondly, they act as shock troops, forcing the left to defend assumptions and positions it isn’t used to defending. This makes it easier to gain victories for the right as a whole.
All-in-all it is a case of friction between the successful and growing young right and the old and stagflating old men of the right. As always, it will be interesting to see what’s next.