Much has been made over the past several days about the right’s embrace of Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay, right-wing provocateur who has stirred up controversy with his odd mix of far-right politics with sexual libertinism. Lately the controversy surrounding him erupted into a frenzy when students at Berkeley violently demonstrated against a Yiannopoulos speaking event and then again when a video surfaced that showed Yiannopoulos defending pederasty.
Some on the political left will say that it’s no surprise that the right embraced Yiannopoulos, whose rhetoric many people see as racist and xenophobic. Even though his lifestyle seems at odds with conservative values, his political opinions seem to confirm everything that progressives have feared about the right. But the truth is more complicated than that.
First, the current political right shares little in common with true conservatism—the conservatism of Edmund Burke and his progenitors. Conservatism isn’t populism or nationalism, and it certainly isn’t merely reactionism. It isn’t anti-change or xenophobic. At it’s core, conservatism is the belief that change can be good or bad, that we ought to know the difference between the two, and that any change to a society ought to be carefully considered. There can be no better evidence than the rise of Donald Trump that the political right of today isn’t really conservative. The fact that he is not only the President but also the de facto symbol of the right means that the right has in many ways abandoned its core principles.
Second, as Ross Douthat points out in a recent New York Times piece, the right’s embrace of Yiannopoulos isn’t so much a case of shared values as it is a case of people thinking that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It isn’t that Yiannopoulos holds to the same values that conservatives in America have always held; it’s that he’s afraid of the same things that people on the populist right are afraid of: political correctness and the so-called “Establishment.”
The controversy surrounding Yiannopoulos this week has brought to the forefront one of the real dysfunctions of contemporary politics. The fact that people who claim to be conservative were willing to climb in bed with a provocateur like Yiannopoulos belies the truth of their conservatism. As Douthat points out, “It would be . . . interesting to send this story backward in time to a distant era like the year of our Lord 2004, and see what people back then made of it. . . . From Dubya’s evangelical conservatism to Milo’s Rimbaudian new right . . . is a rather dizzying trajectory.” Dizzying, indeed. To say the least, it’s difficult to call yourself a Burkean or a Reagan conservative and hold to the same ideas as Yiannopoulos.
And it isn’t as if people on the right are the only ones who have ever gotten in bed with people simply because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Over the course of American history alone, people of all political stripes have embraced figures whose values conflicted with their own simply as a means of sticking it to their political enemies. We ought to know better.
As usual, comics can help us think about this problem. Civil War, which is still one of the best comics to explore political questions, dealt with the enemy-of-my-enemy myth pretty explicitly.
In that book, Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America) find themselves at odds over the question of superhuman registration. Tony supports the Superhuman Registration Act, which forces anyone who engages in superheroics to work for the government, while Steve opposes it. Their disagreement about the SRA brings them into conflict, and each side cozies up with some unsavory characters in order to accomplish their goals.
For example, Cap and the rest of the anti-registration movement allow Frank Castle, the Punisher, to join them for a short time. It surprises everyone on Steve’s team that he is even reluctantly willing to work with Castle because the two men hold such different values. One might say that the Punisher is to Captain America what the alt-right is to conservatism. The two of them happen to share one similar goal—to stop supervillains—but their methods are diametrically opposed, and their basic political philosophies are not really compatible with one another. Cap fights in order to preserve liberty, defend the nation, and to protect individuals. The Punisher’s primary goal is simply to eliminate criminals and supervillains. Even though they often fight the same bad guys, they do not have the same aims.
(Before anyone pounces on me: no, I’m not saying that members of the alt-right movement are murderous vigilantes. What I am saying is that even though the alt-right and conservatism sometimes find themselves opposed to the same enemy, their goals are not really the same.)
Cap changes his mind—one might say comes to his senses—when Castle summarily executes two supervillains who show up and volunteer to help Cap’s side.
The scene clearly rattles both Cap and the rest of the team, not least because Castle makes them wonder how different they are from Punisher. “Same guy, different war,” one hero says. “Wrong,” replies Cap. “Frank Castle is insane.” But even the Sentinel of Liberty seems to stop and wonder what has happened to him that he would be willing to work with the Punisher.
The pro-registration side is perhaps even more guilty of getting to cozy with the enemy. At the end of Civil War #4, Tony Stark and Reed Richards reveal that they have rounded up supervillains like Bullseye, Venom, Jack O’Lantern, and the Jester and plan to use them as soldiers in the fight. And in Civil War: War Crimes, Tony turns to the Kingpin for help.
Tony’s use of supervillains in the fight against Cap and the rest of the dissenters backfires in several ways, but where Steve Rogers ultimately reevaluates his behavior in the war and in the end maintains his principles, Tony never seems to question himself—at least, he never seems to ask what it says about his principles that he is willing to work with serial killers and crime bosses in order to reach his goals. It isn’t that Tony doesn’t mean well. The problem is that his willingness to accept almost any means to achieve his ends leads him down a dark path that is ultimately in conflict with his original intentions in supporting the SRA.
People on the political right ought to give some thought their own willingness to accept a man with views as problematic as Yiannopoulos’s. This week the Conservative Political Action Committee rescinded their invitation to have Yiannopoulos speak at their annual conference. That’s a good step. But the fact that they invited him to speak in the first place—even in the interest of a cause as important as freedom of expression—ought to give them pause. The enemy of my enemy is usually still my enemy—unless my own values and commitments have changed.