Milo Yiannopoulos and the Folly of Personal Brands

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With his resignation as Breitbart tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos has signaled the end of his career’s present iteration. Oh, I have little doubt that this self-admitted water-carrier for the Alt-Right will come back in some way or another, perhaps following a few months of personal reflection and retooling. But after losing a book contract and being disinvited from CPAC, resigning from Breitbart means big changes for Milo. As it should. Defending pedophilia and pederasty, as he apparently does in two videos that recently surfaced, isn’t okay. But joking about how a priest taught him oral sex wasn’t this provocateur extraordinaire’s only mistake. He set himself on a course for failure when he hung his career on a personal brand. Everyone in the blogging and media world should learn from his example.

“Building your brand” is incredibly popular right now. The idea, as career coaches will tell clients, is that “you are your product.” Through endless hours of social media posting and late nights writing blog entries and clawing for clicks, shares, and retweets, aspiring commentators or authors hope to reach that critical mass necessary to score interviews, speaking engagements, and book deals. The “hot take” has become an art form, refined to spark the maximum reaction at the opportune moment. It doesn’t matter how well-considered your remarks are, as long as you’re the first one to make them during that fleeting window of opportunity. Outrageous is the name of the game, because you’re not ultimately selling a piece of writing or even a provocative opinion. You’re selling yourself.

Milo embraced this model with both arms. In the press conference announcing his resignation, he admits that the edgy image he learned to project in his twenties has stuck with him a little too closely. His constantly changing hair colors and three different last names smack of a man who’s learned to become whatever he must to win attention. And he’s good at it.

Over the last year, he’s soared in popularity thanks to his outspoken support of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right, and a college speaking tour that’s exposed the cartoonish excesses of left-wing censorship and ideological fragility. Milo has taken Trump’s love of instigating trouble and distilled it into his own unique label of 200 proof trolling. But all of this has come at a cost.

Like liquor, provocation tends to lose its edge if you engage in it too heavily and too often. You become accustomed to the normal dosage and find you must add another two shots to achieve the same results. Milo’s personal brand as a flamboyantly homosexual anti-progressive gadfly and free speech champion forced him to constantly up his game.

In the final year, his jarring persona reached new extremes on television and behind podiums, and incited some genuinely scary reactions from the left. Students and faculties on several university campuses truly did abuse their freedoms and authority in an effort to silence Milo. And they deserve to be criticized.

But many were rightly surprised to see a conservative movement that just two years ago was spilling ink and energy fighting gay marriage laugh at this young man’s jokes about his partners’ penises. Here was no traditionalist by traditional standards. Milo was and is a sexual revolutionary with a muddle of beliefs borrowed from libertarianism and the European right. Yet social conservatives implicitly agreed to overlook his choice of leisure for the joy of watching him whip progressives into apoplectic rage. I remember wondering weeks ago whether there was any line. Evidently, there was: child-sex.

It was inevitable that Milo would cross this Rubicon. He had to. His brand as a multimedia right-wing shock-jock required it. And as a victim of childhood sexual abuse himself, he obviously felt he had license to flirt with that boundary in interviews and teleconferences. He didn’t. No one does, at least not yet.

But Milo’s willingness to push his subject matter beyond the merely burlesque to the criminal shows what can happen when maintaining your own cult of personality becomes a stand-in for substance, excellence, and hard work. Purveyors of similar brands like Ann Coulter have resorted to increasingly clownish antics in recent days, calling Donald Trump “head of church” as well as head of state–a remark in keeping with the title of her most recent book, “In Trump We Trust” (see the Donald-is-God theme?).

She and Milo are in good company. In a media world dominated by the Internet, young writers like me feel the shock-jock impulse–the urge to fire off well-timed hot-takes and outrageous hooks. The ever-escalating social media arms race makes these shortcuts seem like the only way to get noticed, to break free from the stifling anonymity of being one voice in a billion. But as we survey the ruins of Milo Yiannopoulos’ career, we should remember that personality is a sandy foundation on which to build a resume. Unlike the hard work of earning trust, communicating truth, and accumulating a track record of excellence, a personal brand is a house that collapses easily. And great is the fall thereof.

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