Like many conservative intellectuals, Ben Shapiro reacted to Donald Trump’s rise with horror, declaring, “ I will never vote for this man.” After Trump’s election, some of them drifted away from the Republican Party, while others plunged headlong into his cult. Shapiro joined the largest faction in undertaking what he probably regards as a sensible middle course. He has pared back his criticism to the barest form, and directed nearly all his considerable bile against Trump’s critics. Trump’s shortcomings are now a subordinate clause. All the real evil is done against him.
His new book, The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent, is painful evidence of these contortions. The book is the distilled evidence of anti-anti-Trumpism. Shapiro’s method is to confine his analysis narrowly to Trump’s enemies, as if there was nothing they were reacting against. Imagine a tightly framed film of a man hurling insults and abuse, looking like a maniac because his interlocutor is entirely offscreen, and you have a sense of Shapiro’s method. It is a political manifesto for a world in which Donald Trump barely exists.
Shapiro’s central argument is that the left is wrong to believe “the greatest threat to America’s future came from right-wing authoritarianism.” (I am one of the liberals he names who believes this.) Instead, he argues, “the most pressing authoritarian threat to the country” comes from the left’s control of academia, Hollywood, journalism, and corporate America.
Shapiro’s apparent intention to advance this bold thesis was to almost entirely ignore Trump’s four years of Nixonian abuses. The January 6 insurrection seems to have made this untenable, and Shapiro devotes a large chunk of his introduction to explaining that the storming of the Capitol, while regrettable, was a minor episode carried out by a few bad apples lacking any political support. “All Americans of goodwill — on all political sides — decried the January 6 riots,” he notes with satisfaction.
In fact, Trump has been insisting the riots were not riots at all, but a lovefest of hugging and kissing, while simultaneously laying the entire blame on the police for shooting Ashli Babbitt, whom he has turned into a martyr. Shapiro completely ignores Trump’s campaign (beginning long before the election) to depict any defeat as fraudulent, and likewise ignores the Republican decision to back off first impeaching him for his attempted autogolpe, and then even a bipartisan investigation.
The bulk of Shapiro’s argument that left authoritarianism is more dangerous than right authoritarianism is done by simply ignoring the latter category altogether. Shapiro has published rationales for Trump’s abuses of power before, but they are largely absent here. The formula is to argue x > y, then proceed to focus entirely on x.
That is not to say Shapiro’s one-sided indictment of the left is baseless. His book mainly consists of a chronicle of the illiberal left’s very real efforts to ideologically cleanse elite institutions. The list of horribles is pretty familiar: social-media mobs whipping up panics against the likes of David Shor, Donald McNeil, Gina Carano, and many others.
I know most of these episodes and have written about several of them. They are important markers of a disturbing cultural change, and too many liberals succumb to the temptation to justify or ignore these cases merely because they are exploited by people with bad motives, or because the right is worse. Of course, if you refuse to speak out against your own side’s abuses because the other side is worse, you are setting your standards at their level.
But within its narrow frame, Shapiro’s condemnation of the left suffers several enormous flaws. First, even while castigating the excesses and misfires of anti-racism, he barely engages with the reality of racism itself. Shapiro only concedes once, in passing, that racism continues to exist at all. He notably fails to acknowledge anywhere that the upsurge in (sometimes misguided) anti-racist activism might have anything to do with the fact that a man who routinely uttered racist comments was elected president of the United States.
Shapiro could still make a solid case that anti-racism often goes too far or attacks the wrong targets while acknowledging that Trump’s racism has contributed to it. Shapiro refuses to concede this. Instead, he argues, incredibly, that the left “began with a simple recognition” that conservatism had a weak point: its “militant insistence on cordiality.”
I would argue that a movement that has lionized figures like Joe McCarthy, Jesse Helms, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin before turning to Trump is not cursed with excessive belief in cordiality, let alone “militant” cordiality. Obviously Shapiro disagrees. But I can say with absolute confidence that nobody on the left believes conservatives are unusually cordial and that this weakness can be exploited. Like many of the sweeping characterizations Shapiro throws around, he does not bother to support this one with even a single example of a leftist believing the right’s Achilles’ heel is that they are too darn nice.
Second, Shapiro’s complete lack of introspection is even more pronounced on the principle of free speech. He is correct that progressives are often imposing illiberal speech norms on schools, companies, and cultural institutions. Yet he is unable to sustain even the illusion of supporting free speech norms on a principled basis. Shapiro keeps letting it slip that his actual complaint is these institutions are shutting down the wrong people. Shapiro attacks Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, wistfully recalling how, in 1996, the NBA suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf without pay for doing the same.
Trump publicly boasted that the NFL was blackballing Kaepernick because owners were afraid of being attacked by Trump if they signed him. This seems like a more precise comparison to the McCarthyist blacklist than any of the episodes Shapiro likens to the ’50s blackballing of communist screenwriters.
Shapiro doesn’t even mention it. In another odd aside, he argues that the 1960s Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was actually “authoritarian.” The students simply wanted power, and they seized university land and gave it over to … unregulated space for the exercise of free speech. You would think a book devoted to purportedly upholding liberal values would have the good sense to ixnay open longing to silence the left, but Shapiro lacks the ideological sophistication to keep up the pretense.
The most gaping hole in Shapiro’s argument is the fact that almost every example of genuine illiberalism he cites involves actors outside the Democratic Party. And while social-media mobs and Robin DiAngelo–style struggle sessions can do real harm to liberal norms, an actual authoritarian political formation needs to exercise government power.
Shapiro gets around this problem with his trademark cocktail of sweeping assertions unsupported by any evidence. The “Democratic party leadership has shifted from liberal to leftist,” he writes, a claim that would come as a surprise to both the Democratic Party’s leaders and any self-identified leftist. He repeatedly describes Barack Obama in hysterical terms: “Obama domesticated the destructive impulses of authoritarian leftism in pursuit of power … declaring himself the revolutionary representative of the dispossessed, empowered with the levers of the state in order to destroy and reconstitute the state on their behalf.” Obama also apparently claimed “all criticism” of his agenda was “actually racially motivated.” As usual, Shapiro treats these absurd characterizations as so self-evident that they require no proof.
The oddest thing about Shapiro’s effort to present Obama as the father of left-wing cancel culture is that Obama has denounced left-wing cancel culture repeatedly, publicly, and at length. “When I hear, for example, you know, folks on college campuses saying, ‘We’re not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas,’ you know, I think that’s a recipe for dogmatism,” he said. Obama has reiterated the theme many times, including here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
If there is some way to reconcile Shapiro’s assertion that left-wing political correctness has taken over the Democratic Party with the fact that the two-term Democratic president forcefully attacked political correctness, I can’t imagine what it is. As you might have guessed by this point, Shapiro’s way of dealing with this massive and seemingly fatal flaw in his argument is to ignore it completely.
Anti-anti-Trumpism is a simple game consisting of two steps. First, Trump’s authoritarianism must be ignored or, if that becomes impossible, downplayed (he was just joking, he was stopped in the end). And second, the flaws of the Democratic Party — which, like any party, consists of human beings subject to greed, stupidity, and other human failings — must be hysterically exaggerated. Thus, his naked racism and undisguised ambition to seize unelected power is enveloped in a protective layer of rationalization.
What Shapiro has amply demonstrated is that an aspiring authoritarian does not need all his supporters to enlist in his personality cult. It is enough that they simply go along and direct all their animus at the opposing party. The road to despotism is paved with hackery.