In May 2016, I found myself covering the UCLA stop of Milo Yiannopoulos' "Dangerous Faggot" tour for Heat Street, a News Corp. site launched by Louise Mensch, a former Conservative member of the British Parliament. Yiannopoulos' talk itself would surely be posted on YouTube, stamped with a bright orange "B" for Breitbart, so my job was to witness and honestly document the protests surrounding a discussion lasting less than an hour.
I tend to cover protests the same way I've navigated 21 years of coastal, limousine liberalism: silently align myself with the politically-correct left, listen to them, understand their concerns and then go in for the kill with facts. I don't jump in with anything terribly emotional or evocative, but instead I ask a few challenging questions with the aim of eliciting either a measured or irrational response.
The protesters and the Yiannopoulos fans had divided themselves as physically as possible, with the former standing above the steps and the latter on the grass below. I went to the upper tier and began talking to the protesters. Lined with students cursing wildly at attendees decked in starchy "Make America Great Again" caps, the assortment of protesters fit the usual bill, save for a rather unusual addendum.
Two professors stood with the students. I asked them the usual questions for events like these: "When did you first encounter this person's work and why do you object to it?" Both professors had never read a single word Yiannopoulos had ever written or spoken. They simply knew that he had once given a speech called "Feminism is cancer."
He was provoking the students, they told me. Provocation is not conducive to education, they told me. About two minutes after, one of the students saw Yiannopoulos approaching with his usual entourage.
"There he is!"
A hawk and a spit. I got it on camera.
Since the protesters hadn't actually read anything of his — though one did assert that he was a "Nazi" — our conversation was more or less over.
The courtyard gradually started filling up with more and more MAGA hats and protestors with taped mouths. Then came the signs saying that the First Amendment "doesn't protect hate speech." Soon, a protester came out with a Native American headdress and a red painted face. A girl standing next to him carrying a sign that read "ni santas ni putar, solo mujera" (in Spanish: neither whore nor saint, just a woman) started yelling, pointing into the red-capped and red-faced audience: "Trump doesn't want us here!"
Realizing that she was being drowned out by the crescendoing cries of her fellow protesters, she yelled, "Trump doesn't want any Mexicans here!"
As a reporter, I sat back and observed. Privately, I figured that she might be right. Not that it mattered. The growing MAGA-clad crowd wasn't going to care about a criticism that had been levied against every Republican candidate in their lifetimes. Instead they grew more boisterous, more braggadocious, more unapologetic.
Faced with the same insult levied against decent Republicans for the last two decades, the Trump base has essentially responded with the same righteous indignation I saw at UCLA that evening. In essence, the political left were the boys who cried wolf for 20 years, and now it was too late.
Without even trying, the American political elite, dominated by a rapidly expanded Democratic executive branch, has inoculated the public from shock over the course of decades. Remember the "racist," "classist" and "chauvinistic" pig who once ran for president? Oh, not the one who actually questioned a federal judge's objectivity on the basis of his ethnicity or the one who refused to denounce former KKK leader David Duke on live television. No, I'm talking about the greedy, unfeeling, malicious Mitt Romney.
Despite fostering a massive tea party insurgency into local, state and congressional offices throughout President Barack Obama's first term, the Republican Party faced a sizable defeat in the the 2012 presidential election, not just in terms of the loss itself, but also in branding. Romney wasn't deemed just out-of-touch and too blue-blooded; he was a bigoted, dog-whistling racist.
NPR's Cokie Roberts accused Romney of traveling to Poland, a nation arguably neglected by the Obama administration's foreign policy, just to get white "ethnic voters excited." Kristian Davis Bailey of Mic accused Romney not of being out of touch and economically insensitive with his infamous 47 percent speech, but of "racially othering." As for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Bailey took it a step further, declaring him a literal "white supremacist," employing "racism and xenophobia," for the following remarks:
"It's a path that grows government, restricts freedom and liberty, and compromises those values, those Judeo-Christian, western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place."
Despite focusing on values emphasizing individual freedom and autonomy, two principles that structurally transcend race and that every marginalized group in American history has sought to attain, Ryan obviously hates black people. You know, the same Paul Ryan who's spent months touring the country with black community organizer Bob Woodson to explore the roots of and local solutions to chronic poverty.
When Donald Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "murderers" when he announced his black swan bid for the presidency, the media lunged for the usual words: racist, bigot, white supremacist. Then when he committed explicit and egregious instances of actual race-baiting and discrimination, conservatives began to employ the same language. But the mainstream media and the left? Well, they were out of words. They had just run off the euphemism treadmill. And they were going absolutely apoplectic.
Many Never Trump conservatives, myself included, continued to denounce each race-baiting, tactless and uncouth scene performed by Trump. It's not as though we were eager to compromise our own moral values for a Wilsonian strongman to corrupt the principles of the Republican Party with a reactionary appropriation of identity politics. However, Middle America found in Trump a candidate impervious to the left's shaming. Sure, unlike fellow candidates Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, Trump actually deserved it, but he didn't care. Each supposed scandal was followed by an even more egregious tweetstorm.
In late August, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton still held a decent lead over Trump, she gave a speech targeting the burgeoning alt-right, saying, "This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have know it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the 'Alt-Right.'"
If you're asking yourself how that sounds any different than what pundits were saying about Romney, Ryan or even John McCain in 2008, it's not. The media successfully devalued every term meant to shame citizens into good behavior, so by the time Trump came around, Americans weren't outraged; they were fed up.
It ultimately took the audience and press alike nearly three hours to make it into the UCLA edition of Yiannopoulos' tour. Thanks to a bomb scare, the event was cut short, but not before two protesters infiltrated the event.
"Gawker more than any other publication made people scared to make jokes. Ordinary citizens were scared that Gawker would pick something up and ruin their lives because they made a joke about AIDS. That's the sort of tune that's coming to an end," Yiannopoulos said. "And the people who benefit from that sort of tyranny — the mediocre, the lazy, the hateful, the fat, the facially pierced, the blue haired, the people for whom being black is their only marketable skill …"
"You're spreading hate!" one girl stood up and screamed. Immediately the crowd began to laugh, with Yiannopoulos bantering with them, referencing a Breitbart column he penned as "How to beat me."
"I don't want to beat you," the second girl exclaimed. "I hate you!"
The crowd, roaring uncontrollably with laughter at this point, began the trademark chant: "Build the wall! Build the wall!"
I watched as the chant carried with wild laughter as the police escorted the girls out of the hall.
I noticed that the man sitting next to me and chanting along had no MAGA hat or Trump shirt.
"Are you a Trump supporter?" I asked him.
"No," he said. "But isn't it just so satisfying to watch the tables turn? They can't shame us anymore."
Tiana Lowe studies economics at USC Dornsife and attended the national political conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland this summer. You can reach her here.