By excusing Donald Trump’s behavior, some evangelical leaders enabled the internet provocateur’s ascent.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) takes place this week near Washington, D.C., the first such gathering since Donald Trump took office. The conference purports to be a gathering for like-minded folks who believe, generally, in the well-established principles of the conservative movement, as enunciated by the American Conservative Union.
This year, aside from President Trump himself, activist Milo Yiannopoulos was briefly granted a featured speaking slot, and it caused a lot of disruption, garment-rending, gnashing of teeth, and in-fighting on the right.
Yiannopoulos, who prefers to go by MILO (yes, capitalized), is a controversial figure with dubious conservative credentials, most famous for being outrageous during speeches on his college campus tour, soberly called the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Throughout the 2016 election, Yiannopoulos seemed to enjoy nothing quite so much as the crass, antagonistic side of candidate Trump. He didn’t just celebrate it; he rode it like a wave to greater stardom.
But on Sunday, a Twitter user recirculated several old interviews with Yiannopoulos, in which he defended the merits of relationships between “younger boys” and “older men,” called for consensual sex between 13-year-olds, and said that a relationship he had with a Catholic priest when he was 14 (he now claims he was 17) was consensual and in fact the child is the “predator” in such a relationship. Critics quickly denounced his invitation to speak at CPAC as evidence of the decline of the right; if not in electoral power, then at least in moral authority.
By mid-day on Monday, he had offered a lackluster defense of his words on Facebook, and CPAC rescinded his invitation.
If Yiannopoulos is a cultural leader for what remains of the conservative movement, then conservatism does not represent millions of people who once claimed it as their philosophical home. But it remains to be seen how the throngs of Trump-supporting Milo fans react to what will undoubtedly be referred to as a silencing of free speech. And already they are making a concerted effort to paint the dissent that led to his downfall as the work of the same group of #NeverTrump conservatives that Trump fans believe symbolizes the “death throes of the Establishment.”
They’re right. That’s precisely who threw a wrench in CPAC’s plans to ride the coverage of controversy that a Milo speech would bring.
But what’s more notable is who did not intervene: evangelical leaders.
Milo’s ascent over the last year was, to a tragic extent, enabled by the willingness of some evangelical leaders to offer their endorsement for the very behavior on display today.
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