English feminist writer Laurie Penny recently reported on her experience chumming around with the flamboyant alt-right (“alternative rightwing”) provocateur Milo Yiannopolous at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Penny and Yiannopolous seem the classic case of ‘frenemies,’ having met on a BBC panel show four years ago and enjoyed a seemingly warm social relationship since then, Penny now writes unironically that she “hate[s] him and everything he stands for.” 

Just what do Yiannopolous and his alt-right comrades stand for, then? An editor at Breitbart and pied piper to several hundred thousand Twitter followers, Milo (as everyone seems to call him) makes a living befuddling the left-right binary. He is a gay Catholic, Trump-loving, anti-feminist “free-speech fundamentalist;” a Greek-British transplant to the American right wing who takes apparent glee in causing apoplexy among the web-based left. 

More broadly the alt-right refers to a collection of bloggers, gamers, and chat-room gadflies who identify as enemies of democracy, modernity, and all forms of political correctness, led by an intellectual vanguard of neoreactionaries (NRx’ers, for short), who wish for the introduction of monarchy to America. One leading NRx’er, Michael Perilloux writes in apparent sincerity that Donald Trump, if elected president, should,

“cancel the constitution, declare martial law, declare himself emperor to be succeeded by his children, nationalize the banks and media, hang some of the worst criminal bankers, send the Israelis back to Israel, call the National Guard to roll tanks into Harvard Yard, place all communists and other anti-American elements under house arrest, retire all government employees, replace the [U.S. government] with the Trump Organization, and begin actually rebuilding America and western civilization”

But back to Laurie Penny. It is not so much Milo’s actual positions that offend her (though she repeatedly makes clear she loathes them) as much as it is her fear that Milo doesn’t really hold them after all. That is, she thinks ultimately that “Milo believes in almost nothing concrete.” She seems more perplexed than angry when she notes how for her ersatz friend “it’s all an act, a choreographed performance by a career sociopath.” 

Her conclusion is that Milo’s act, which would seem an eccentric bit of political performance art in the “soulless debate culture” of Britain, gets taken too seriously by earnest Americans who just don’t get the joke. Penny worries what happens when the sideshow becomes the the main event in a “nation with no social safety net and half a billion guns,” and, predictably, ties this all to the improbable rise of Donald Trump. 

I do think Penny is making a bit too much of all this. There have always been reactionaries and contrarians and iconoclasts, even among the Founding Fathers. And of course America is not a country “with no social safety net” and there is reason to believe there is yet still some flexibility in the joints of our civil society. And surely engagement with the new alt-right, however distasteful one may find it, would be a better strategy than summary dismissal. 

But she raises an interesting question about the role of sincerity in political discourse. Before being banned from Twitter for comments he made about the actress Leslie Jones, Yiannopolous’ handle was ’Nero,’ suggesting with more than a wink that the commentator saw his role as fiddling happily while Rome burns. Do we expect our pundits and pamphleteers to be true believers? Do we need them to be? Or is their job, pace Penny, precisely to perform a sort of role, representing the full spectrum of positions on a given issue for the public good? 

I don’t have a perfect answer to those questions, but I at least have more of a tolerance for showmen like Milo than Penny seems to, if only for the useful role they play in illuminating the full American political landscape as it actually exists. After all, if Penny is right that Yiannopolous’ followers pose a threat to democracy, surely it is better to have that threat out in the open and self-identified, rather than stewing in the dark back-alleys of the internet.