Ben Shapiro, the 32-year-old former editor-at-large of Breitbart News, doesn’t come across as the sort of conservative who would be cannibalized by his ideological fellow travelers for being too soft. The titles of his books and e-books, for example, suggest solidly right-wing beliefs: Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, and The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against the Obama Administration, to name a few.
But these are strange times on the right, and since his resignation from Breitbart in March, Shapiro, currently editor-in-chief of Daily Wire, has increasingly found himself targeted by the so-called alt-right movement, a loose conglomeration of online personalities — many if not most of them anonymous — currently devoted to tweeting and posting their support for Donald Trump and attacking those who disagree, often in racist and anti-Semitic ways. They have been denigrating Shapiro as a “pussy,” a “cuck,” and — inevitably, given the nature of this movement — a “Jew” and a “kike.”
His former employer has gone after him too. Shortly after Shapiro resigned, Breitbart published — and then quickly pulled down — a bizarre article bylined with a pseudonym previously used by Shapiro’s father on Breitbart and headlined “Ben Shapiro Betrays Loyal Breitbart Readers in Pursuit of Fox News Contributorship” (Shapiro’s father, David Shapiro, stepped down as a contributor at the same time Shapiro did — Ben told Politico that his father had written under a pseudonym to shield himself from the death threats Ben receives). Then, last week, Breitbart published a piece by an alt-right Twitter personality known as “Pizza Party Ben” — yes, that was how his byline appeared on the site — that consisted mostly of a video mocking Shapiro for having complained about anti-Semitism, the alt-right, and Trump:
The nadir came a couple of weeks ago, though, when Shapiro’s wife gave birth to the couple’s second child. As the Daily Wire noted, Shapiro was hit with a wave of vicious anti-Semitic abuse, including multiple Holocaust references and requests that Shapiro and his family be sent to the ovens.
It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. Until he left Breitbart, Shapiro, a conservative wunderkind who graduated from UCLA when he was 20 (he also published his first book that year) and Harvard Law when he was 23, was the site’s young, telegenic face. On YouTube, there are dozens of videos of him on TV and at speaking events discussing everything from Black Lives Matter to media bias favoring the “anti-Israel” left to the “spoiled children” of the microaggression era, and they tend to rack up hundreds of thousands of views or more. Even if you disagree with him — and, full disclosure, I disagree with almost every one of his positions on everything — it’s hard not to acknowledge that he is a forceful speaker. Breitbart made a regular habit of publishing articles about the protests and controversy Shapiro’s campus appearances sparked.
During the Republican primary, Shapiro supported Cruz — no surprise given that both men are staunch conservatives. But his overriding focus this campaign season has been on Trump, whom he views as not only a fake Republican, but a legitimately dangerous figure. So on March 4, Shapiro “came out” as a #NeverTrump proponent on the Daily Wire:
I will never vote for Donald Trump because I stand with certain principles. I stand with small government and free markets and religious freedom and personal responsibility. Donald Trump stands against all of these things. He stands for Planned Parenthood and trade restrictions and targeting of political enemies and an anti-morality foreign policy and government domination of religion and nastiness toward women and tacit appeals to racism and unbounded personal power. I stand with the Constitution of theUnited States, and its embedded protection of my God-given rights through governmental checks and balances. Donald Trump does not. I stand with conservatism. Donald Trump stands against it.
I stand with #NeverTrump.
It was clear that this put him at odds with Breitbart, which by then had transformed itself, in the eyes of many, into something of a Trump propaganda outlet. Breitbart employees themselves had taken note of this: Last August, BuzzFeed ran an excerpt from McKay Coppins’s then-upcoming book, in which he revealed that staffers at Breitbart “Believe[d] Trump Has Given Money to Site for Favorable Coverage,” as the headline put it. At a time when Trump had only recently established himself as the GOP front-runner, Coppins noted that Breitbart had “set itself apart by plastering its homepage with fawning headlines about the candidate, and all-caps assaults on his critics.” Others noticed this, too: By February of this year, Glenn Beck was angrily lashing out at Breitbart on his radio show for what he saw as overly favorable coverage of Trump, comparing the site’s executive chairman, Steve Bannon, to Joseph Goebbels.
At first, Shapiro didn’t react to this shift. In the months preceding his departure, he explained to me, “I didn’t pay much attention to what else was going on on the site. I wrote my pieces, but I didn’t read the rest of my site, and I certainly didn’t read the comments sections.” He did get the sense, however, that the site’s higher-ups were growing more and more comfortable stoking the racial resentment constantly bubbling up from its comments section (as rough as the rest of the internet can be, the Breitbart comments section is basically the sewer from Ghostbusters 2).
It was the Michelle Fields incident that severed Shapiro’s relationship with Breitbart, though. In March, Fields, then a reporter for the site, was grabbed hard by Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Corey Lewandowski, after a press conference in Florida. Breitbart did not exactly come out swinging in defense of Fields, raising eyebrows among journalists both outside and within the organization — the prevailing assumption was that Breitbart’s higher-ups didn’t want to jeopardize the site’s cozy relationship with Trump, even in an instance where one of its reporters had been manhandled by a campaign operative. (Fields, who posted photos of her bruised arm, filed charges against Lewandowski, but they were later dropped by Palm Beach County.)
When Fields resigned in protest, Shapiro went with her (as did various other staffers) — and on his way out the door he made a loud point about what he saw as Breitbart’s dangerous trajectory. “Andrew’s life mission has been betrayed,” Shapiro wrote in his statement about his decision, referring to the site’s founder, the controversial conservative-media figurehead Andrew Breitbart, who died in 2012 and was a mentor of Shapiro’s. “Indeed, Breitbart News, under the chairmanship of Steve Bannon, has put a stake through the heart of Andrew’s legacy. In my opinion, Steve Bannon is a bully, and has sold out Andrew’s mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump; he has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda, to the extent that he abandoned and undercut [Fields] in order to protect [Lewandowski].”
Once Shapiro had bashed his former employer that assertively, an open feud quickly erupted. And Shapiro’s main nemesis in it has been Milo Yiannopoulos, the flamboyant 31-year-old British provocateur who, since carving out a name for himself as a Gamergate supporter in 2014, has been one of Breitbart’s most attention-getting figures, largely by writing and saying outrageous things about Black Lives Matter, feminism (“feminism is cancer” is one of his catchphrases — he sells a shirt with those words emblazoned on them), and everything else. His current college speaking tour has left a wake of upset students, and just as Breitbart has capitalized on the outrage generated by Shapiro by covering that outrage itself, the site has done the same with the even greater campus drama sparked — and sparked quite consistently — by Yiannopoulos (just this week, he was threatened by protesters who climbed onstage at one of his events at DePaul University).
At first glance, Shapiro and Yiannopoulos occupy — or occupied — similar places in the Breitbart ecosystem: Both are youthful pundits whose main draws are their ability to appeal to young people, and who can capably do a lot of TV and campus appearances.
But to Shapiro, at least, the similarities end there. In his mind, he is a principled defender of an embattled conservative ideology, while Yiannopoulos, who refers to Trump as “Daddy,” is a clown who is simply trying to get attention by stoking and excusing the very extremism that is hollowing out American conservatism. In their feuding, the two have something like the dynamic you might see between a straight-edge older brother and party-animal younger one. (Yiannopoulos: “DONALD TRUMP IS MY DADDY”; Shapiro: “No, Donald Trump Isn’t Your ‘Daddy.’ Grow Up.”)
One reason the feud between Shapiro and Yiannopoulos has escalated is that, as part of his project of promoting the alt-right and attracting its followers to himself and to Breitbart, Yiannopoulos has repeatedly excused and explained away the movement’s anti-Semitism, which targeted Shapiro and which seems to target basically any Jewish writer (myself included) who expresses anti-Trump or anti-alt-right opinions on Twitter.
Recently, for example, Yiannopoulos — who at various points has said he identifies as Catholic, Jewish, or having matrilineal Jewish heritage — told the talk-show host Dave Rubin (as quoted by Daily Wire):
Generation Trump, the alt right people, the people who like me, they’re not anti-Semites. They don’t care about Jews. I mean, they may have some assumptions about things, how the Jews run everything; well, we do. How the Jews run the banks; well, we do. How the Jews run the media; well, we do. They’re right about all that stuff … It’s a fact, this is not in debate. It’s a statistical fact … Jews are vastly disproportionately represented in all of these professions. It’s just a fact. It’s not anti-Semitic to point out statistics … The anti-Semitism on the internet, which is really important, I want people to understand this because nobody seems to, when Jonah Goldberg of National Review is bombarded with these memes, and anti-Semitic “take a hike, kike” stuff, it’s not because there’s a spontaneous outpouring of anti-Semitism from 22-year-olds in this country. What it is is it’s a mischievous, dissident, trolly generation who do it because it gets a reaction. Right? That’s been the case for young people for generations … They can get to people in positions of power, and people in positions of power and keep biting, they keep taking the bait … It’s a direct response to the language policing, it’s a direct response to being told they can’t say things.
Around that same time, Yiannopoulos co-authored an article with Breitbart reporter Allum Bokhari in which the duo wrote, “Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish ‘Shlomo Shekelburg’ to ‘Remove Kebab,’ an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.” They went on to write that the openly racist websites VDARE and American Renaissance “have been accused of racism,” and they cast a variety of figures widely understood by just about everyone to hold racist or anti-Semitic views as part of some sort of vibrant intellectual movement reacting to the strictures of political correctness.
That article earned Breitbart a rebuke from the Southern Poverty Law Center: In an article posted on that organization’s website, SPLC staffer Stephen Piggott ran down the many recent examples of Breitbart’s racially charged content and then argued that Yiannopoulos and Bokhari’s article represented “possibly its most disturbing piece to date. The piece ignores the racist views of the Alt-Right founders — white nationalists Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor and others — instead referring to them as the movement’s ‘intellectuals.’ The piece is a striking example of the direction the network has moved over the past year.” (Disclosure: Bokhari recently wrote an article that was critical of my reporting on an internet controversy, and I have in the past been critical of Yiannopoulos’s reporting.)
There is a kernel of truth to the idea that there are some anti-Semitic Twitter accounts that seem to exist more to provoke outrage by tweeting out offensive content than to express the actual felt sentiment of the person behind them, and this elevation of gonzo ultra-offensiveness to a first-order virtue is one driving force behind 4chan and other communities where alt-righters gather. But for any Jewish writer with even a bit of internet sophistication, it’s not hard to distinguish these accounts from the many that are run by actual, real-life Nazis and white supremacists who, if they don’t really and truly hate Jews and view them as part of an attempt to corrupt the European Union and America, sure do put a lot of time into playing those roles on Twitter as soon as someone tweets about Trump or the alt-right. Plus, plenty of self-professed white-supremacist and anti-Semite figures, among them David Duke, have explicitly endorsed Trump — it’s not like the idea of a connection between Trump and white extremism was conjured up the Donald’s political opponents.
So it’s not surprising that commentators from across the political spectrum have forcefully disagreed with Yiannopoulos’s characterization of the alt-right’s beliefs and motives — many of those commentators, like Shapiro, solidly conservative. Ian Tuttle argued convincingly in National Review, for example, that in examining the intellectual roots of the alt-right, any thread you tug on leads invariably back to figures with genuinely racist understandings of human relations.
All of this explains why Shapiro doesn’t spend much time parsing the distinction between “real” and “trolling” online anti-Semitism. “[Yiannopoulos’s] argument seems to be that an alt-right person tweeting a gas chamber at me in a way that’s indistinguishable from David Duke tweeting a gas chamber at me, or an alt-right person calling me a cuck Jewish supremacist, versus David Duke doing the same thing — it’s my responsibility to attempt to distinguish between the two and read into their mind a distinction that simply doesn’t exist in objective reality.”
This is a consistent refrain from the debate-minded Shapiro: Words have meaning, and we can’t pretend otherwise. He described the Yiannopoulos approach to speech as “a populist counterpart to the left-wing deconstructionist movement. So left-wing deconstructionism basically says language has no meaning, and therefore meaning is whatever we assign to it. The Trump movement — and it’s not this intellectual, but on a gut level this is what they think — they basically say that all words also have no meanings and therefore whatever I say that’s truly offensive or terrible, it’s your fault if you’re offended by it; it just shows that you’re a weak-minded person if you’re offended by anything I have to say — even if it’s ‘Your wife and your two children and you should be put in a gas chamber.’ If you’re offended by that, that’s really your problem, it’s not the problem of the person who is tweeting it at you.”
Shapiro sees this same logic at work in the alt-right’s constant use of the slur cuck, short for “cuckservative,” which Yiannopoulos referenced in a tweet he sent to Shapiro shortly after his child was born:
The “joke” here, of course, is that Shapiro’s wife had sex with a black man. This is a not-very-veiled reference to the alt-right idea that effete progressive white men, as well as RINOs, secretly want to watch their white wives have sex with black people. “The idea is that you’re somebody who puts Western civilization in danger, because Western civilization is based on white supremacy, and so you are pandering to black people and minorities because you are desperate to have a minority person have sex with your wife,” explained Shapiro. “That’s why it’s an insult to these people. So there’s obviously a pure racist bent to the word cuck, and it’s been true a long time.”
Then, as with the anti-Semitic memes, there are the trolls who simply hurl the insult in an attempt to provoke. “So if they use the word cuck and it gets a rise out of you, then they’ve succeeded in their goal,” said Shapiro. In short, Shapiro thinks that the alt-right is attempting to shift the boundaries of discourse in such an extreme fashion that anyone who expresses any offense at anything is, by definition, a “cuck” who lacks the manliness to support Trump (one can only assume Twitter eggs spewing racism at journalists are a virile, muscular bunch, of course). “What you’ll see is that if you even mention [the alt-right’s racism and anti-Semitism], it’s, Oh, he’s a weakling. Oh, you’re a child, Oh, you’re so easily offended — you’ve become a social-justice warrior!” said Shapiro. “I think a ‘social-justice warrior’ is someone who is offended by a basic fact — they think a social-justice warrior is just anybody who is offended ever, for any reason.”
And he views this stance as not just stupid but hypocritical. “Of course, the irony is that they are the most easily offended people on Earth — the Trump people are so easily offended,” he said. “If you insult the stubby fingers and Cheeto face of their orange god-king, then they lose their minds. They absolutely lose it. And, obviously, Breitbart’s pretty easily offended, because when I point out the level of anti-Semitism that’s crept up in their comments section and that’s being patted on the head by their editorial board, the first thing they do is they run a lead story on their website by some Twitter follower of Milo’s named Pizza Party Ben — the estimable journalist Pizza Party Ben.”
Shapiro believes the Trump movement and its online supporters reflect a corrupted, harmful ideology — “a mash-up of nationalism without constitutionalism, vileness masquerading as political incorrectness, and frustration at the status quo misdirected to support a corrupt insider,” all of it “channeled into a frightening cult of personality” with Trump at its center.
And he thinks Breitbart’s decision to pander to this crowd is couched, for the most part at least, in a lack of principle. “The way you get traffic now is there’s a whole untapped side of the web that people in the mainstream conservative movement haven’t wanted to get into — the Reddits and the 4chans and all the rest — that are also new to a lot of people who are older in the conservative movement,” said Shapiro. “And so kind of embedding yourself there is smart business, but it also means embracing some of the politics of these things, because they are underground trends. What makes it feel cool and underground is the fact that it’s underground.”
It may seem cool to frustrated, politically inexperienced kids, but Shapiro also views flirtation with the alt-right as a potentially damaging dead end for young people who fall into a Milological view of the world. “I’ve met all these kids who think getting a rise out of people is the equivalent of being brave, and they don’t understand that the moment they say this stuff online they destroy whatever chance they have of working in polite society,” said Shapiro. “It’s easy for Milo to do it, because Milo is making his money off of being a provocateur, but these kids are being told to do things that Milo himself would never do.” One example, Shapiro told me, jumped out at him: a kid he met at one of his college speaking events who introduced himself as a Trump supporter. “We do the event, and after the event, as he’s walking away, I make a joke about how the Trump supporters are constantly mocking me about being short and all this stuff. And he turns to me and says, ‘Another Shoah,’ which is one of their online things. He grins at me like it’s fine to say this sort of thing.”
So to Shapiro, a generation of young would-be conservatives are getting the message that to fight for free speech is to tweet anti-Semitic memes at Jewish writers, and to make casual jokes to them about the Holocaust, and, during this awkward exploratory phase, many of them could do permanent damage to their life prospects by dabbling in rhetoric that has previously been associated with — and only with — hate groups, with hardened Nazis and other species of white supremacists.
Whatever lumps Shapiro has taken since leaving Breitbart in March, he’s about to have a chance to go toe-to-toe with his ideological nemesis in a place where he’s very much at home: the debate stage. About a month ago, Shapiro told me, Rubin and the conservative comedian Steven Crowder both offered to host a debate between him and Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos originally refused, said Shapiro, claiming his employer wouldn’t let him, but last week he relented, and Shapiro — despite feeling a little weird about debating someone who publicly joked about his wife cheating on him — wants the debate to happen soon (though he says Yiannopoulos hasn’t yet responded to the dates he proposed last Friday).
“I’m hoping against hope that people will see the intellectual incoherence and childishness of the alt-right and ardent Trump support base — I feel obligated to attempt to at least make the argument,” he said. But he realizes that debating with someone who calls Trump “Daddy” and is cheered by his adoring fans for doing so is partially, by the inherent nature of the exercise, a lost cause — however the debate goes down, in other words, Breitbart is still gonna Breitbart: “I fully understand that, no matter what happens, Breitbart will declare Milo the big winner, and so will the alt-right. But those aren’t the people I’m talking to.”