Ben Shapiro is having a moment. Unfortunately, it’s the authoritarian moment. That’s the title of Shapiro’s soon-to-be bestseller being published on July 27, with the subtitle, “How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent.” Shapiro’s belief that the Left controls everything in America justifies, in his mind, the use of authoritarian power against them.
Shapiro chose an inconvenient year to publish this book, and his introduction tries to claim that the president who tried to stage a coup and led an insurrection on January 6 was, in fact, completely powerless compared to the leftist “authoritarians” who control America by expressing their ideas on campuses and in the media.
Shapiro admits that “Trump had certainly engaged in authoritarian rhetoric” but claims, “nothing happened.”(p. 11) Well, except for the insurrection. And the entire Trump Administration. But other than that, nothing.
Shapiro asserts, “Trump might have authoritarian tendencies, but he did not wield authoritarian power.”(p. 10) While it’s possible to argue that Donald Trump did not have authoritarian power despite his authoritarian desires, it’s not reasonable to simultaneously claim, as Shapiro does, that Nikole Hannah-Jones (whom he smears as a “professional racist”) and others on the left have authoritarian power over America. It’s a deranged vision of the world, and all the more frightening when you consider that Shapiro is often regarded as a kinder, gentler, smarter conservative compared to the extremes of Trumpist devotees. But while Shapiro walks an ideological tightrope by sometimes criticizing Trump, he is always devoted to the larger project of denouncing the left and asserting the victimhood of conservatives.
Shapiro identifies a long list of allegedly “authoritarian leftist” institutions, from academia to the media to science to Hollywood to business, but he barely even pretends to offer evidence for his broad and almost comical assertions. Who needs to provide proof when your audience already is convinced of your prejudices? Who needs facts when you have a (highly profitable) feeling to express?
What caused authoritarian leftism? Shapiro has a bizarre answer: Barack Obama. He writes, “Obama’s brew of identity politics and progressive utopianism emboldened an authoritarian leftism that poisoned the body politic. America may not recover.”(48)
According to Shapiro, Barack Obama (who famously declared, “there is not a black America, a white America”) was actually “racially polarizing” (p. 61) while Donald Trump, a leader of the birther movement who claimed Obama was really an African-born Muslim, was not racially polarizing. And Obama, says Shapiro, brought an ideology of “permanent revolution” to the government, with “top-down censorship of all those who would oppose that agenda.”(p. 64)
Shapiro’s first target is higher education: “Universities, once bastions of free thought, are now philosophical one-party systems dedicated to the promulgation of authoritarian leftism.”(p. 37) Shapiro imagines that there has been a “dramatic increase in college budgets directed toward useless fields–diversity studies directed not toward broadening minds but narrowing them.”(p. 87) What are those dramatic budget increases in diversity studies? Shapiro doesn’t say, because he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care about the facts. Shapiro is fond of grand declarations with no basis in reality, like this one: “Wokeism completely dominates our institutions of higher education.”(p. 87) Or this dramatic claim, complete with alarmist italics seemingly randomly thrown in: “Americans simply don’t learn very much if they’re majoring in the liberal arts.”(p. 75) Shapiro doesn’t even bother to have one of his minions toss in a footnote to provide any evidence for his claims.
Shapiro is also attracted to conspiracy theories, some of them quite odd. He denounces Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, claiming that it “was actually a mere pretense designed at gaining power and control.”(p. 89) In reality, the Free Speech Movement united liberals and conservatives alike who objected to campus bans on political speech, but Shapiro argues that “the students had plenty of areas designated for such activity” and happily endorses speech zones suppressing free speech on campus, at least when he thinks conservatives are not the victims. If even the early 1960s were a period of leftist authoritarianism, what year was this mythic past Shapiro invokes when colleges were “bastions of free thought”?
The authoritarianism that Shapiro wants is most evident in his attacks on Critical Race Theory, which he calls “ideological insanity,”(p. 71) and he demands the repression of this idea in America’s schools and colleges. Shapiro praises how Trump “ordered to cease” discussions of Critical Race Theory in the federal government, claiming (without any evidence) that “companies have been threatened with loss of federal contractor status for failure to abide by woke ideological standards.”(p. 68)
Shapiro speaks for the crackpot imaginary fears of generations of conservatives: “What happens if my kids are required to reject my values?”(p. 226) Shapiro pushes mindless fear-mongering: “Parents now have to fear the predations of state and local governments seizing control of their child rearing.”(p. 68) In reality, it’s Shapiro and the far-right who are using state and local governments to ban the teaching of the “wrong” ideas in public schools.
Media bias, of course, is something Shapiro takes for granted: “Our ideologically driven, authoritarian leftist media seek to destroy that marketplace in favor of a monopoly.”(p. 187) Somehow, Shapiro forgets that he’s part of the media, and that he runs one of the most powerful media outlets, Daily Wire. While the ideologically-driven media of Shapiro and his conservative allies have far more influence than left-wing media, he can invent a leftist bias and claim it’s “authoritarian” by ignoring conservative media and redefining all mainstream media as leftist, even when he has no evidence to support his claims.
The Authoritarian Moment might be dismissed as the unsupported ravings of an ill-informed ideologue, which was how I regarded Shapiro’s first book, Brainwashed, when I reviewed it in 2005. In that book, Shapiro made his prejudices plain: “If you pay tuition, you’re sponsoring the militant homosexual agenda. If you pay taxes, you’re sponsoring the militant homosexual agenda. If your child majors in English, you’re sponsoring the militant homosexual agenda.”
Today, Shapiro is the leader of a conservative media empire. He may be a kook, but he’s definitely not alone. While Tucker Carlson rules over cable TV, Shapiro is the true king of conservative media, dominating talk radio, podcasts, and especially social media. NPR reported last week, “over the past year, stories published by the site Shapiro founded, The Daily Wire, received more likes, shares and comments on Facebook than any other news publisher by a wide margin.”
Incredibly, Shapiro denounces the power of social media in his book: “For most Americans, the true dangers of social media don’t even lie in the censorship of news itself; the largest danger lies in the roving mobs social media represent.”(p. 206) Shapiro is the leader of the biggest social media mob, a fact that he somehow fails to mention. The enemies he smears routinely receive threats, personal attacks, and demands for dismissal, but Shapiro imagines that mobbing only happens to conservatives.
Shapiro actually denounces CNN reporter Jim Acosta for tweeting (a week after it was announced he would be leaving his role as White House reporter): “Just a couple of guys covering the White House on the last full day of the Trump admin. Think we will finally have time for that drink now @PeterAlexander?” According to Shapiro, “This is dangerous stuff. It’s dangerous that the guardians of our democracy–the media–aren’t guardians but political activists, dedicated to their own brand of propaganda.”(p. 187) When even the most innocuous tweets by a journalist are deemed evidence of a vast left-wing conspiracy, it shows how far Shapiro (and the conservative movement he leads) have descended into paranoia.
There’s no effort at nuance or even accuracy in many of Shapiro’s assertions, which often read like a parody of what the dumbest imaginable conservative might say, such as: “Scientific inquiry is forbidden.”(p. 113)
“I grew up in an America where we could make the occasional offensive joke,”(p. 226) laments Shapiro. Now, he says, “most jokes are now off-limits.”(p. 148) His proof? Two episodes of TV shows were removed from streaming services because they featured blackface. Maybe most jokes that Shapiro likes are racist, because it’s hard to find anyone else who thinks that “most jokes” are forbidden in America.
Mourning the loss of the good old days when “the business world trended toward conservatism,” Shapiro claims: “Today’s corporations are bastions of authoritarian leftism.”(p. 120) That would be a surprise to the leftists who try to unionize corporations, or the leftists who protest corporate actions, or the leftists who are routinely ignored or silenced by companies. But Shapiro says, “corporations live in fear.”(p. 127)
But Shapiro’s sympathy for the poor victimized corporations only extends to those companies who support his ideology. Shapiro claims that “lawsuits are fully merited” to ban private corporations from having diversity training: “Make your employer pay the price for doing so.”(p. 223)
Shapiro admits that this is “an ugly option” that violates “freedom of association.”(p. 224) But because Shapiro thinks the left is an all-powerful authoritarian controlling force, he argues that anything is justified to resist it: “Engage in the same tactics as the Left when it comes to our most powerful institutions.”(p. 224) In the name of fighting the “authoritarian leftists,” Shapiro is willing to embrace authoritarianism himself: “Why not force the authoritarian Left to back down…?”(p. 223)
One of Shapiro’s key proposals is “the formal expansion of anti-discrimination law to include matters of politics.”(p. 223) This would institutionalize the whiny victimhood of the far right into an endless parade of lawsuits, and allow conservatives to embrace the legal status of an oppressed minority. The goal here is not just to legally protect conservatives, but to undermine existing anti-discrimination by making any effort to end bigotry a violation of the law.
Shapiro imagines that in this book he has issued a damning indictment of the left. But in reality, his book does much more to condemn himself, and the conspiratorial vision of the conservative movement he helps to lead. This is Ben Shapiro’s authoritarian moment, and like so many conservatives he is embracing authoritarian tactics in the name of fighting his imagined enemies.