The last time we spoke to conservative writer and journalist Ben Shapiro, back in February 2013, he was editor-at-large of Breitbart News and a rising star in conservative media.
Consider his star to have risen. Shapiro is now the host of a podcast, The Ben Shapiro Show, that is downloaded 15 million times per month and is widely regarded as a top program for young conservative listeners. The show was picked up by national syndicate Westwood One in April.
He is also the editor-in-chief of Daily Wire, a news website, and of late has taken on a greater role as an outspoken public intellectual alongside fellow “intellectual dark web” stars Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Jonathan Haidt, and Dave Rubin. He is also the author of seven books.
Shapiro took the time to update Mishpacha about the direction his career, the country, and political discourse have taken since we spoke to him last.
You broke with Breitbart News in 2016 over that news site’s coverage of President Trump. What led to that decision?
I stepped down from Breitbart because Breitbart had essentially become a tool of the Trump campaign. You can be pro-candidate or anti-candidate, but what Breitbart did was make journalism secondary to their support of President Trump. It all crystallized during the Michelle Fields incident, when Cory Lewandowski, the Trump campaign manager, grabbed [Breitbart reporter Fields] hard enough by the arm to bruise her. [Lewandowski] then basically lied about it and Breitbart took the side of Trump campaign and threw its reporter under the bus. That’s when I said: I’m out. I can’t be involved with a website that basically covers for a candidate, as opposed to reporting on the candidate, just because they support the candidate.
I recall that in 2016 the ADL said you were among the most harassed Jewish journalists on Twitter. Did the harassment come because of the elections? Was there any connection to you leaving Breitbart?
Yes, it had a lot to do with the elections, and it escalated dramatically when I left Breitbart. I was by far the most targeted Jewish journalist in the country for anti-Semitism on social media and Twitter, and a lot of that was because I was considered insufficiently supportive of candidate Trump. A lot of that was because I left Breitbart, and all of that was centered on the fact that I was Jewish. And therefore I was the target of a lot of white-nationalist and alt-right anger.
You are not a Trump supporter, correct?
I didn’t vote for President Trump in the last election, because neither he nor Hillary Clinton met the minimum standards to be president of the United States. So I didn’t vote for anyone on the top of the ticket. Since he became president, I have cheered him when he does something good, and when he does something bad, I rip him. That’s the fairest way to cover the president, I think. The elections only come every four years, and when it comes around again, I’ll decide whether I’ll vote for him. For the moment, it’s just a matter of analyzing what he’s doing. I like a lot of his policies. I think a lot of his rhetoric is bad and I think he’s a man of low character by virtually every moral standard, but it doesn’t mean that his policies are bad.
Regarding the various investigations swirling around him and the legal troubles of his former employees, what’s your view? Do you think this could lead to his impeachment?
He could certainly be impeached, but he could have been impeached before as well, because impeachment is not a legal matter, it’s a political one. It really matters whether the Democrats decide to impeach him or not. Do they have grounds to impeach? Sure, but they don’t really need grounds to impeach — they could do it for any reason. Did it get worse for him with all of what Michael Cohen said? Yeah, it gave them legal basis to at least claim that he’s an actual criminal, and that he must be removed from office not because they hate him but because he’s participated in a crime. I think the case is still a little bit shaky, and I think he has a couple of robust defenses that he can apply, but things are going to get a lot uglier for him before they get better.
Turning to your podcast and public speaking, who is your audience? How would you describe them?
Disproportionally young — about 75% of our audience hasn’t yet reached 35. They are mostly conservative, but we have a fair number of liberals who listen to the show. I try to be as objective as possible, so that has attracted a lot of folks who just want an honest take on the news. We have about a million people who engage with the show every day, and we have a website with a 100 million page views a month.
You wrote your first book, Brainwashed: How American Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, when you were just 17. What brought you to write the book?
Basically when I went to college, I thought I was going to major in music and genetic science, and instead I ended up majoring in political science. Part of that is because within the first couple of weeks of stepping on campus, I saw an editorial in the paper comparing Ariel Sharon to Adolf Eichmann. And I walked into the office of the college paper and asked if I could write a response. That turned into a column at the paper [that eventually became] a syndicated column. One of the people I reached out to at the time was David Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh’s brother, and he told me that if I ever chose to write a book, he’d be happy to promote it. I wrote Brainwashed based on my experiences in college, and it did really well.
You just mentioned music… Are you still doing anything with music?
Yeah, I still play with my dad, who is a professional pianist. We have a grand piano, and when I have time, I like to play the violin. But these days it’s been hard to take out the violin and practice because I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son who loves the music so much that he tries to climb up on me and grab the violin every time I play. That’s a bad idea, because violins are kind of expensive, so I have to wait till he goes to bed to play.
Speaking of your family, your wife is Israeli, right?
She is, she was born in Haifa, in Tirat HaKarmel, and her family moved permanently to the US when she was 12.
So Israel is a thing in the family, beyond being a thing for Jewish People in general.
Yeah, certainly it’s a thing in the family. I was married in Israel — there were like six people from my side of the family and 190 from hers [laughing], so Israel is still a thing, for sure.
You are Orthodox and wear your kippah everywhere. What do you say to people who are afraid to wear their kippah in public?
People are going to identify you as Jewish anyway, and wearing a yarmulke is the best way to show people, one, that you are proud of your religion; but also, two, that when I do things that I think are good, it’s reflective of the values that I’m trying to live out, so it’s a reminder of the fact that I’m trying to do things for a higher purpose. I’m a big fan of wearing a kippah. It wasn’t actually a conscious decision — it wasn’t like I ever didn’t wear it — so when people say, “Wow, you wear a kippah,” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Over the last two years, your speeches have been interrupted by opponents, and you have required security at public events. Who are the people who are trying to stop you from speaking? Why do they do it?
The reason they’re trying to stop me is because they think that campuses are supposed to be completely sealed-off bubbles of leftist thought, and anybody on the right shouldn’t speak on these campuses. It’s not just me, it’s also Jason Riley from the Wall Street Journal, it’s [critic of Islam] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, it’s [political scientist] Charles Murray, it’s a whole bunch of people on the right who’ve basically been banned from particular campuses. Also, there’s an attempt by some people on the left to conflate any speech they don’t like with violence, so if I say something and they don’t like it, they claim it’s the same thing as me being violent. That of course is nonsense, but indicative of a close-minded worldview.
What is your next book about?
My next book is finished and is coming out at the beginning of next year. It’s about how and why the West has lost its influence and strength. My basic is take is that the West is built on two forces, Athens and Jerusalem. It was built on Judeo-Christian principles that spring from the Bible. It was also built on Greek notions of reason, and we’ve abandoned the morality of the Judeo-Christian system and we’ve abandoned reason of the Greek system. The result has been a radical subjectivism that says that there’s no such thing as anything remotely approaching morality or purpose. That means we’ve lost touch with what it is that makes us free — why we ought to be free and what are we fighting for.
What sort of United States would you like to leave for your children?
My main hope would be a world in which people rediscover the idea of virtue, and we create a social fabric where a community supports its members, but where the government doesn’t become a gun that you point at somebody else; where community standards prevail because we’ve decided as a community that we want to support one another out of a sense of doing the right thing.
In researching this article, I could not find a single debate that you had lost. Have you ever lost a debate?
There were certain debates where I feel that I could have done better. I think to objectively lose a debate means that you have to take a position that is defeated logically, and I don’t tend to take positions I think can be defeated logically. So if I’m arguing a position that I don’t know so much about, I’ll say I’m not in a position to take a position. So part of winning debates is being honest about what you know and what you don’t.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 726)
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