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Suffice to say, Ben Shapiro was long overdue for his opportunity to be the one who gets “destroyed” in a debate. And who would’ve guessed that the occasion for his destruction would be in an interview with the septuagenarian Andrew Neil of the BBC?
And here’s the real twist: It was not even Neil who destroyed Shapiro. Rather, Shapiro “destroyed” Shapiro. And that was quite a feat.
From his ridiculous suggestion that Neil—a longtime member of the Conservative Party—is on the Left, to his pompous declaration that he is somehow superior because he is “more popular” than Neil, there is enough in the arrogance he displayed to undo him.
But rather than belabor the question of Shapiro’s childish behavior and what it says about his temper, his inability to debate anyone who’s not a blue-haired college feminist, and his unjustly inflated ego, it would be more useful to examine what Shapiro revealed about his actual ideas, such as they are.
For even in that brief interchange before Shapiro stormed off in a rage, quite a lot was revealed about his political ideas. These are ripe for more careful examination, and that examination will demonstrate the inconsistencies within his own beliefs. In this case, his arrogance—though difficult to miss—should not overshadow how objectively wrong he is on the substance. Nor should it obscure how—in more ways than the damage that comes from such petulant displays—he is not helping the American Right.
Shapiro tried to frame the current state of affairs on the American Right as a series of debates between what he considers the “old guard” of conservatism and the rising Trump movement. He characterizes these debates as “Nationalism vs. Patriotism” and “Populism vs. Free Marketeerism” (now that’s a word you’ve probably never heard before).
This is either disingenuous on his part or else he grossly mistaken. In the American context, there is no distinction between nationalism and patriotism. An American nationalist is a patriot and an American patriot is a nationalist. To suggest otherwise shows a clear lack of understanding of one, or the other things and, perhaps, of both.
Patriotism is a generic love of one’s country, whereas nationalism is the belief that one’s country is the greatest country in the world, and therefore superior to all others. Considering that many a conservative—including those from the NeverTrump camp—talk endlessly about America being the greatest country on God’s green earth, they should have no issue with American nationalism.
But because President Trump has used the word “nationalist” and they want very much to dislike and disown him, they will find fault because remember: “Orange man bad.”
In trying to pit populism against “free marketeerism” (whatever that is) Shapiro is being downright absurd, if not simply harmful to crucial and necessary developments on the Right.
First, populism is not an economic theory. It’s a broader political idea that has to do with the consent of the governed, specifically, it refers to the dynamic between the populace and its leaders as their chosen representatives. It is manifested in leaders who repeatedly make appeals to their people and vow to stand for them against an entrenched political elite; a very common thing in politics. And last I checked, socialism is the opposite of “free marketeerism” and capitalism. Not populism. If Shapiro is worried about defending capitalism, perhaps he should be more concerned about the threat coming from socialism and join forces with the populists who are having some success in fighting it.
If we are to do some of the heavy-lifting for Shapiro (and it wouldn’t be the first time), then he is most likely referring to the economically populist ideas that President Trump has introduced into the mainstream and is now utilizing to the fullest with his trade policy, as well as his support for a massive infrastructure spending bill, among other things that bucked the traditional conservative orthodoxy on government measures in the economy. Instead of seeing these as potential methods to fend off socialism by ameliorating the harsher effects of unbridled capitalism, Shapiro is happy to label everything that doesn’t match up to the talking points he memorized in the early 2000s as “socialism.” Shapiro is not a strategic thinker.
Other examples of things Shapiro finds anathema are the broader push for government to step in against Big Tech censorship, or to halt the damage to workers brought on by the alarming rise of automation in many blue-collar industries. Freedom, for Shapiro, isn’t secured by protecting the political rights that are in place to protect the dignity of all American citizens, it’s secured by foolishly genuflecting at the altar of predatory economic enterprises who have weaponized a woke ideology for fun and profit. Forget that these emissaries from the tech industry and other quarters have become the kind of seething factions Madison warned us about in Federalist 10.
As Tucker Carlson explained in his conversation with Shapiro, taking up some of these positions on the Right is not a betrayal of capitalism, nor is it somehow the opposite of free-market thinking. This is how we protect America from the socialists and persuade voters who do not have their interests served by the policies Shapiro advocates.
Such economically populist ideas (which is only to say that they are more popular than the status quo that Shapiro upholds) are simply staking out a middle ground between the hardline, Ayn Rand-worshipping conservatives who think the free market has the powers of a benevolent god, and the socialists who want total government control over everything.
If such a middle ground can be staked out—one that serves the economic interests of the vast majority of the American voting population—it would be the most politically genius move in a generation. It would have the potential for massive crossover appeal for Republicans and make it possible to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on the middle class, and even cut through some of the more intransigent identity politics of our time. Let me be more clear: unless we do this, we will lose our country. There is nothing to be gained from tacking firmly to the right for the sake of a donor class worried primarily about losing its privileges, if it means we risk losing the vast middle class to the socialists.
Apparently, Shapiro didn’t learn a thing from that exchange with Carlson. Not surprising.
Punting the 2020 Issue
Shapiro’s political ignorance was on further display as he gave one of the most basic and elementary takes on the 2020 election, defaulting to the conventional wisdom that Joe Biden is Trump’s biggest threat (yawn). His reasoning is that Biden supposedly has appeal in the Rust Belt, and has a long political career that has established him to much of the American public. This familiarity, he claims, makes Biden a bigger threat than some of the political newcomers who Trump “drags through the mud,” as Shapiro says.
In the first place, familiarity does not automatically equal good press. Sure, people know who Biden is, but how many of those people only know him for his creepy touching of women? Or his numerous and idiotic gaffes? They probably know he was vice president. And?
Secondly, the claim that Trump only does well against political newcomers would come as a surprise to Hillary Clinton (nevermind how ironic that sounds coming from a man who established his career as a slayer of ill-informed undergraduate students). Hillary Clinton is a terrible politician, but she’s no greenhorn.
It’s safe to bet that even Dick Morris could probably produce a more compelling—and accurate—election take.
If nothing else, it was interesting to see Shapiro forced into a corner on the subject of his political loyalties going into the next election. When Neil pressed him on his opposition to Trump in 2016 compared to 2020, he eventually forced Shapiro to admit that he’d vote for Trump over Biden. Let’s all see if he keeps his word on that (but please, don’t hold your breath).
Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee
While skirting the issue of his own brand centering around videos showcasing his alleged ability to “destroy” his opponents, Shapiro tries to put the blame on his fans who make such video compilations of him, rather than on his own videos that also make use of what Neil describes as “coarse” language.
When Neil further presses him about such labeling, Shapiro defaults to platitudes about the First Amendment, saying “I think that people can describe me however they please. It’s a free country.”
This is especially laughable, considering that Shapiro was much less sanguine about being labeled “alt-right” when The Economist recently so labeled him in one of its articles. But, of course, that label wouldn’t help him sell product.
Shapiro’s response then was to go on an obsessive multi-tweet rant in which he attacked President Trump and Steve Bannon, listed all of the times he has virtue-signaled against the alt-right, and then ended his tirade with a demand that The Economist retract the “pathetically inaccurate and defamatory nonsense” immediately; a demand with which they eventually complied by changing the title.
But if some rambunctious kids can label Shapiro with coarse “bro-language” why can’t The Economist’s label Shapiro as it sees fit? The First Amendment is not a one-way street that only allows people to label you however they please when they are fans of yours, making video compilations that paint you in a way that suits your interest; they also extend to those who oppose you and wish to talk about you in critical terms. This mindset is no different than the one held by the social media giants who endlessly seek to silence one side of the political spectrum, while letting the other side run free.
If it’s a matter of genuine defamation by falsely labeling someone alt-right, then by that same logic, Ben Shapiro is just as guilty as The Economist—or, for that matter, every single leftist who recklessly labels everyone they don’t like as “alt-right.” In August of 2016, he infamously tweeted out an almost entirely erroneous list of “alt-right and alt-right friendly people,” which included such notorious “white supremacists” as Milo Yiannopoulos, Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Ron Paul, and… President Donald J. Trump.
When the Destroyer Becomes the Destroyed
Although this is certainly not a medical diagnosis, it might be safe to say that Shapiro suffers from short-term memory loss.
He didn’t remember anything from his debate with Tucker Carlson; he completely forgot about his tirade against The Economist simply exercising its free speech rights against him (which was on top of also forgetting how he, too, has falsely labeled people “alt-right”); he conveniently forgot about all the videos that he himself has posted using the word “destroys” in a reckless manner; and, somehow, he forgot that Donald Trump defeated a career politician to become president of the United States.
Even Shapiro’s excuse for this shoddy interview performance seems to prove this theory. He claimed that he “wasn’t properly prepared” in advance . . . for an interview about a book that he just wrote.
This is only worth mentioning because it further highlights how Shapiro truly only lives in the moment, and couldn’t care less about what happened yesterday or what could happen tomorrow. His entire persona is built on short clips of him “destroying” dumb college kids in rooms filled with hundreds of his fans, eager to offer him blind applause and accolades.
When you’re living in moments like those, it’s all too easy to feel as if you’re on top of the world, God’s gift to the American people, the best debater you’ll ever see, and the absolute greatest conservative commentator to ever exist. With such a devoted following in such carefully-constructed bubbles, everything he says must feel revolutionary, new, bold, and provocative.
But as soon as he steps outside of an auditorium, into a place where no sycophants are in sight to goad him on, and he meets someone who is determined to do his job and ask genuinely tough questions, the entire Hollywood-invented facade crumbles apart in spectacular fashion. Once again, a demigod manufactured by Conservatism, Inc. bleeds; and it could not be more satisfying to see.
Photo Credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images for Politicon