Friday, July 19, 2024

Ben Shapiro, the Right’s Millennial Moses, Builds Empire in Wilderness

Before the end of the last term, British students at Cambridge University set aside their studies for a bit of verbal combat, stepping to the microphone late one evening with loose pieces of notebook paper in hand, or the Notes app open on their phones, all hoping their prepared questions would stump, or at least slow, the fast-talking, conservative champion across the dais. They fail.

Halfway through the procession, a bespectacled undergraduate acknowledges the inevitable. “Before you answer,” the student says after a stemwinder of a foreign policy question, “I’m ready to be destroyed by Ben Shapiro.” The American laughs and then obliges.

Shapiro seems half-machine, as if whirring gears are sorting through a downloaded compendium of stored data before selecting and spitting out blistering answers to questions about everything from abortion policy to climate change to the economic austerity measures of the United Kingdom. The root directory of his computer mind: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

One wonders when he laughs if it is because he found something funny or if a pop-up has flashed on an internal screen warning him to slow his speech to avoid overheating his circuits and overwhelming the audience. But the software is sound. The routine works. His young interlocutors at Cambridge, and those the night before at Oxford University, all have some ideological objection. The ones inside the debating halls, not the protestors outside accusing him of backing “genocide,” seem grateful for the exchange.

“Much of the West has spent the past few decades apologizing not for its sins, which you should apologize for, but for its very existence,” Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, tells the Cambridge Union in regard to the Oct. 7, 2023, attacks on Israel by Hamas terrorists. His stated mission on both sides of the Atlantic: the prevention of ideological suicide. Western Civilization can only be preserved against its enemies, Shapiro declares, when “the West stops being ashamed of itself and begins to defend its own values.”

That provocative boy gladiator whom the New York Times profiled nearly a decade ago – he is all grown up. Shapiro has an empire now. And at Cambridge and Oxford last November, he returned to form as the Harvard Law School-trained pugilist, giving it the old college try. Video of both nights on YouTube racked up nearly 10 million views.

Off stage, back stateside seven months later, the conservative superstar is a bit bashful. “Ben Shapiro here to see Speaker Mike Johnson,” he says to a young staff assistant on Capitol Hill as if an introduction was necessary. Her eyes widen, his entourage crowds into the small hallway, and Shapiro laughs nervously, if not a bit awkwardly.

For the unacquainted: Shapiro serves as an ad-hoc millennial Moses, defining conservative orthodoxy as the Republican Party wanders through a wilderness of ideological uncertainty. He insists the West must defend its own values to survive. Those values remain in flux. But Trumpism, what he calls “a necessary” but “corrupt anti-left impulse,” is not a long-term solution. All the same, Shapiro has made a home in the desert.

The Daily Wire, the media conglomerate he co-founded in 2015 with business partner Jeremy Boreing, has more than a million paid subscribers, an annual budget of more than $200 million, and the kind of audio, print, and video content that regularly attracts an audience in the tens of millions. The assembled masthead includes Dr. Jordan Peterson, the reclusive psychologist who fills stadiums with disaffected young men; Matt Walsh, the acerbic pundit who sarcastically describes himself as “a theocratic fascist”; and, until recently, Candace Owens, the most prominent black conservative in America, who is now in the middle of a messy and ugly split with her former employer.

“You doing a profile on this guy? I wish there was something to write about him,” Speaker Johnson jokes to RealClearPolitics, teasing the world’s most popular conservative pundit. Then, the two disappear for the better part of an hour, leaving his entourage to pore over their phones in the lobby. They are unfamiliar with D.C. The Daily Wire is based in Nashville, Tennessee. Shapiro works from Florida. He rarely comes here. A plan to swing by the House cafeteria for lunch is aborted; it is summer intern season, and Shapiro might not escape the swarm. A sudden rainstorm and a forgotten umbrella make it impossible for him to retreat to his motorcade for an interview without getting soaked before his next meeting, this one with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A Shapiro staffer wonders if it might be possible to borrow a boardroom. The speaker’s team immediately obliges. How could they not?

“I’ll put it to you this way: There are very few podcasts that I have time to listen to anymore,” Johnson tells me as he leads Shapiro out of his office. “I listen to his because he is so well informed and on top of everything, and it’s a great value to the movement,” the speaker says, even as young staffers do a bad job of discreetly snapping photos. In case all that praise wasn’t enough, Johnson piles on: “He is just a national treasure.” Shapiro, in a grey suit, sans tie, complete with kippah, stands by suddenly sheepish.  

What brings Mr. Shapiro to Washington? In the borrowed boardroom, he tells RCP that he is here to ensure lawmakers that “their voice is being heard in the commentary,” just as he wants his audience to feel that their voices are being heard in the halls of power.” In other words, a sort of routine check-up.

But most every Republican here would guzzle from the Potomac River for a chance to take his call if risking the dysentery in that putrid water meant soaking up some of his star power ahead of an election. Shapiro’s reach is vast: He has more than 21 million followers across various social media platforms, and his eponymous podcast earns an average of 25 million downloads each month.

Shapiro was scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill next month anyway. On July 10, he will testify about the business practices of Facebook before the House Judiciary Committee, RCP is first to report. (Once a Facebook-dependent company, Daily Wire believes “petty tyrants” have unfairly pressured the social media giant to throttle their traffic.)

The reason he has dropped in early to speak with the leaders of the Republican Party? Well, Shapiro believes the right is about to royally screw itself.

“This is a historic opportunity for conservatism to make a comeback because Joe Biden has been such a terrible president. Instead, what I’m seeing is a sort of chaotic response by a movement that is somewhat undefined,” he says, building steam and returning to fast-talking form, pausing briefly for air and to qualify that chaos, in and of itself, isn’t always bad.

“The movement is going to have to come around a set of principles other than ‘Fuck Joe Biden,’” Shapiro continues. Another qualification: “I agree with that general principle, but there needs to be a secondary principle.”

In other words, conservatism remains in the wilderness. He deems the old guard, who populate places like National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, too weak to police the gate. Assuming, that is, that a wall between the acceptable and the verboten even exists anymore. Enter the Daily Wire, the biggest and fastest-growing media company on the right. Shapiro and Jeremy Boreing founded the company in 2015 and borrowed a business plan from Barack Obama. Sort of.

A Texan who is as soft-spoken as Shapiro is loquacious, Boreing believes that the greatest lasting contribution Obama made to American society was convincing institutions to abandon neutrality, telling them, “You should be agents of social change now.” Comedians couldn’t just tell jokes anymore. Reporters couldn’t just write the news anymore. Shaving companies couldn’t just sell razors anymore. Even corporations had to take a stand.

And many did, including the millennial-minded grooming company, Harry’s Razors, which dropped the Daily Wire as an advertising partner, citing “misaligned values” on LGBTQ issues. So Boreing and Shapiro started a shaving line called Jeremy’s Razors, complete with explicitly conservative values.

The profit motive wasn’t the driving force, at least initially. “What we’re attempting to do is create economic incentive for these companies to once again be more neutral,” he tells RCP. In the process, they made bank: Jeremy’s Razors reportedly brought in more than $22 million in 2023, or about 10% of the company’s annual revenue. If the left is hell-bent on splintering the economy, they say the Daily Wire is happy to be a corporation catering to the conservatives left out in the cold.

Cultural and political commentary remains their bread and butter, but the conservative media brand has expanded to include everything from a line of socially conservative chocolates to a socially conservative cinema company (last year, they launched a Walt Disney Company competitor called Bentkey with a full line of socially conservative children’s programming). Is the goal to sell razors to conservative superfans or to hold a razor to the status quo they ostensibly hate? Both, Boreing says.

“A safe space for conservatives as a means to an end of upending the status quo,” he explains. Shapiro says the same: “The goal has been to grow to the extent possible, and then to explode outward into more mainstream spaces.”

An overcorrection to the right, Shapiro and company seem to believe, is the only way to wrestle back society from the left. Only by providing an alternative, by eating into the market share of companies that have gone “woke,” can corporations be cajoled into neutrality. In the meantime, they have made more than enough money to fuel their media empire.

Atop it all sits Shapiro, now editor emeritus of the Daily Wire. Conversations with conservatives about the media mogul inevitably start to sound like the script of “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Some wonder if his habit of flaming “snowflakes” behind a podcast microphone for an hour a day makes him the next Rush Limbaugh. Others point to his 16 books and his sesquipedalian speaking style to say he might just be the next William F. Buckley. George Will, the Washington Post columnist and once the closest thing conservatives had to an intellectual don, doesn’t know Shapiro well enough to say definitively. “I don’t do podcasts,” he told RCP when reached by phone. “Period.”

The 83-year-old Will met the 40-year-old Shapiro exactly once and will not definitively categorize him. And yet the man, whom Buckley hired to be National Review’s Washington editor during the Nixon presidency, is effusive.

“Book tours, and I have done 16 of them, can be awful ordeals. My most recent one was for ‘The Conservative Sensibility,’ 500 pages of dense stuff,” Will recalls. “In all my different tours, I have never had a better, a more assiduous, a more prepared interviewer more ready to engage with the book itself than Ben. It was a marvel of good criticism.”

Recalling his late friend Buckley, Will explains that “Bill was a kind of founder, and once the founder’s foundation has been laid, other people come in and take the baton and go their own way.” The thing that made the polysyllabic pundit unique, what Will calls a “special élan,” was his time and place and actions, “standing athwart history crying ‘halt,’ whereas subsequently people have been wielding the movement Bill summoned into existence, not to halt history, but to change its trajectory.”  

Acceleration in American cultural and political life has left plenty of heads spinning. Shapiro provides a reference point in that confusing storm, says Matthew Continetti, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.” Yes, Shapiro is a provocateur and entertainer, but he is also a tutor available everywhere online and where the cost of tuition is just to like and subscribe.

“It’s valuable because there’s so many young people who just don’t have any frame of reference for what’s happening in American politics or society or culture,” Continetti continues, pointing to Shapiro’s New York Times bestseller “The Right Side of History” as just a single example. “The schools have now robbed multiple generations of a cultural inheritance.”

Yet some early fans see Shapiro as a teacher corrupted. “Ben Shapiro had to make a choice. He was solidly and eloquently anti-Trump for years, and then he decided to get on board. He can probably explain his motives better than I could, but he’s not alone,” says Charlie Sykes, a pundit and Trump critic. “This is the kind of thing that is oozing throughout the conservative ecosystem.”

It is true that Shapiro did, in fact, flip-flop and tumble from anti-Trump in 2016 to anti-anti-Trump in 2020 to pro-Trump in 2024. He says this evolution has as much to do with the former president governing as a conservative as it does with “Democrats losing their minds.” Regardless, it is enough for the remnant of the anti-Trump right to excommunicate him from their shrinking movement. Sykes once told the New York Times that while Shapiro was anti-Trump, he could imagine the late Buckley “looking down and smiling.” He amends that quote, telling RCP he now believes Buckley must be “rolling in his grave.”

Whatever historical analogy applies, Shapiro confronts a nagging criticism. Jane Coaston, a writer at the New York Times, opined that the firebrand was only “shadowboxing” and that “if he wanted to be genuinely brave, he’d challenge some of the wrongheaded ideas held by his right-wing fans.”

When asked about this criticism – that he overlooks the authoritarians to his right – Shapiro replies, “I find that hard to believe.” Seated in the same office trashed by rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, he concedes, however, “There is a temptation in every human heart that likes a strongman.” Yet he insists that authoritarian desires are written more into the DNA of Democrats than Republicans. And after the 2020 presidential election, Shapiro was not silent. “I’m one of the only major people on the right who said that Donald Trump was not telling the truth that he won the election.” The receipts are all online.  

When Trump declared himself the winner, even as votes were still being counted, Shapiro warned, “No, Trump has not already won the election, and it is deeply irresponsible for him to say he has.”

When rioters were roaming the halls of Congress, some of whom chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” Shapiro called it “a horrible day for the country” and called for those guilty to “be met with the full brunt of the law.”

When the horde was gone, Shapiro reflected the next day that their actions were “horrifying and disgusting” but added that “the attempt to blame all conservatives or Trump voters for the actions of those they have consistently and overtly condemned is politically motivated, deliberately divisive drivel.”

“I was as vociferous in my opposition to that as anybody,” Shapiro says of the Stop-the-Steal saga. For conservatives under 40, the demographic most likely to cut the cable news cord, he was their guide, not just to that election but the years that followed. Now that the reach of Shapiro and the Daily Wire has become so vast, it is easy to assume the juggernaut always existed. Shapiro’s rise started, instead, with 14 minutes on CNN.

“We locked horns in rather spectacular fashion,” Piers Morgan tells RCP of the dust-up on his CNN show with the then little-known pundit. Shapiro accused his British inquisitor of pushing gun control while “standing on the graves of children.” Morgan recoiled, demanding of his American sparring partner, “How dare you.” Shapiro pointed to the Second Amendment and slid a pocket Constitution across the table.

Morgan rolled his eyes at what he called “your little book.” The heated exchange went viral, and Shapiro caught fire. “I obviously didn’t think I’d be talking 12 years later lauding his praises,” admits Morgan, who has since taken his eponymous show independent. “It has been quite a journey.”

Morgan did not know much about Shapiro at the time. Outside the youthful precincts of conservatism, few did. His producers were just searching for a guest to discuss gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, and the Breitbart editor fit the bill. “He clearly came to my CNN studio with one aim in mind,” the host recalls, “and that was to take me down.”

Good theater, the exchange did not sow permanent enmity. “He understands instinctively what makes good television,” observes Morgan, who has since welcomed Shapiro back to his show. But there is more than just the entertainment value. “He’s obviously from the right, but he’s not one of these intractable right wingers where they don’t want to hear anything from the left,” Morgan says of his unlikely friend. “He actively likes to engage in debate with the left.”

“That’s a really important thing in these increasingly toxic tribal days,” he adds. “People just seem incapable of having old-fashioned debate.” Shapiro was built for them. With the backing of Young America’s Foundation, a conservative nonprofit founded in the 1960s with the help of Buckley, Shapiro hit the college tour hard.

Liberals complain that the Harvard-trained lawyer “punches down” by besting campus undergraduates. Conservatives liken him to an insurgent parachuting into unfriendly territory. The content though, well, that’s undeniable. The open forum is his hunting ground, and Shapiro never hides his tricks. Actually, he wrote them all down a decade ago in a mostly overlooked pamphlet titled “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument.”

Shapiro welcomes all takers on any topic, fielding their arguments, addressing their objections, then pouncing (Rule 1: Walk Toward the Fire). One illustrative exchange, famous among his fans, came at Ferris State University in Michigan in 2017 after a lengthy exchange with a female student on the differences between transgenderism and what Shapiro called “gender identity disorder.”

He asked her how old she was. She said 22. “Why aren’t you 60?” Shapiro demanded. “What is the problem with you identifying as 60?” (Rule 6: Force Leftists to Answer Questions).

“It’s not the same as gender,” she started to reply. “You can’t just …” Spotting his opening, Shapiro interjected, “You’re right!” (Rule 3: Frame Your Opponent). He continued, “You can’t magically change your gender. You can’t magically change your sex. You can’t magically change your age” (Rule 4: Frame the Debate).

Game, set, match, at least, according to his fans on the Internet, where the exchange now lives forever. The topics have changed. The routine never does. In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks, when debating on the campuses of Cambridge and Oxford, Shapiro forces one question whenever students say the “Israeli occupation” must end. He replies, “What part of Israel?” One student answers, “All of Israel.”

“There we go. So, what you’re calling for is the obliteration of the state of Israel, and all of this is just a cover for that. I appreciate your time,” Shapiro explicates.

Another student says “the entirety of Palestine” should be free, though she protests that she isn’t “calling for the destruction of Jews.” Shapiro fires back, “Thank you, once again. I appreciate you expressing your full genocidal intent for the Jewish people living between the river and the sea.”

And on and on Shapiro goes. This time, though, the response has been different. Conservatives like Buckley once called for making Israel “the 51st American state,” a whimsical proposal underscoring solid support for Tel Aviv. Now some of the loudest voices on the right have joined their leftist counterparts to cast a more critical eye on U.S.-Israeli relations.

“There’s a lot at stake in how we encourage Israel to respond,” Tucker Carlson said in the aftermath of the attack, warning that a U.S.-backed escalation could draw Iran into a war with the West. “Once a war like that starts, you could easily imagine the use of nuclear weapons.” American neoconservatives, the former Fox News host charged, were “reckless” and “bloodthirsty.”

Shapiro shot back on his podcast by calling the other conservative goliath “a pacifist,” adding, “Peace through strength has been a conservative position for as long as I’ve been alive.” In an interview with Saager Enjeti, host of the news show Breaking Points, Carlson later said Shapiro “doesn’t care about the country at all,” going on to accuse the pro-Israel pundit of being too “focused on a conflict in a foreign country as their own country becomes dangerously unstable.”

Calls and texts to mediate the dust-up in private, or air the argument in public, went unanswered. “The thing that I haven’t done to Tucker is challenge his motivations. I’ll assume until further notice that Tucker is not motivated by animus purely,” Shapiro says. “He doesn’t seem to make the same assumption about me.” Carlson, who declined to comment for this story, has no interest in a debate routine. And in this way, the two poles of the online right became crossways, an episode in miniature of the larger war over what conservatives actually believe anymore.

What Shapiro believes: The conservative flock hasn’t changed; the voices have. In the speaker’s office, he lambasts, instead, the bad shepherds “in the commentariat,” who are trying to meddle with long-established principle and who will restart once-settled fights for clout so long as they have an opening. “Because Trump is a non-ideological creature,” he says, looking to the future, “that allows a lot of people to try to redefine, or reclaim, what conservatism means.”

Practically from the moment Trump stepped onto the escalator and into American politics, Shapiro had opposed him. He vowed in March of 2016 to never vote for him and encouraged his audience to do the same. Later that year, Shapiro, then editor-at-large of Breitbart, split with the publication, in large part, over their coverage of the candidate. Leadership of that publication, he wrote in his resignation letter, “has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda.”

Fast-forward eight years.

When Trump entered the crystal ballroom at his Miami golf club this past March, the two men were all smiles. “Ben Shapiro, Ben Shapiro, you used to love Ron DeSanctus, but now you’re going to love us so much more, you’re going to love us so much more,” Trump told the once NeverTrump pundit now working to return him to the White House. They’d never met in person, and Shapiro thought to himself, “Fine, sure, Mr. President.”

The Shapiro case for Trump is a pragmatic one. The warnings he delivered about Trump in 2016 were wrong; while in office, Trump surpassed most of the expectations of most conservatives. He still has hesitations about Trump’s character, though Shapiro reports that, in person, Trump is “very warm and a hysterically funny human being.” He appreciates Trump on policy, particularly foreign policy, which he likens to “a fifth-grade playground,” where the biggest bully, in this case the U.S., “gets to throw its weight around.”

Even Shapiro admits things escalated quickly. “I didn’t vote for either of the candidates in 2016,” he says. “By 2020, I endorsed him … and by 2024, I’m fundraising for him.” It is Democrats, in his view, though, who have come unglued. And while partisanship has jumped up a notch in the last chaotic eight years, Shapiro does not believe MAGA will stand the test of time.

He insists that there is no “‘Conscience of a Conservative,’ Barry Goldwater, 1964 version of MAGA.” Instead, there is, and only has ever been, the man himself. “The truth is that MAGA is Donald Trump; Donald Trump is MAGA. Donald Trump is not the entirety of the Republican Party, but he is the leader of the Republican Party. So that’s sort of like saying, ‘What’s compassionate conservatism outside of George W. Bush?’ And the answer is, not much.”

To drive home that syllogism, Shapiro adds: “If God forbid something were to happen to Donald Trump tomorrow, or he would decide to retire from politics, would the MAGA political movement out-last Donald Trump?”

Shapiro’s answer: “It’s very hard to see how that would be a cohesive movement.” On the eve of a third consecutive Trump nomination, no expiration date is obvious. Whether or not it was originally a hostile takeover, the former president has remade the Republican Party in his image. Even the anti-Trump diehards have their doubts. “Well,” laughs George Will, “from Ben’s lips to God’s ears.”

As Shapiro goes abroad calling for those in the West to stand up for their values, at home, those values are in play thanks to the man he has endorsed for president. “Because he’s so rhetorically heterodox,” he says of Trump, “that opens a lot of space for people to play in the corners where he’s leaving those corners open.” It’s not just on conservative foreign orthodoxy, or the host of other issues that Trump has put up for debate, from entitlements to industrial policy. He believes that some “on my side of the industry” are struggling with “reality,” suggesting that “it’s possible, through sheer willpower alone, to simply reverse the effects of bad legislation.”

“If politics is the art of the possible, you have to define the possible, and there are people in my industry who have defined the possible as jumping off a 30-story building without a parachute, suggesting that a Republican Congress can fly,” he says with building exasperation.

The Shapiro mission is not, however, to retroactively backfill MAGA with an ideological foundation. In that endeavor, others, from Breitbart to the Claremont Institute, he believes, have tried and failed. He is looking for something more lasting. Hence a call to Kevin Roberts of the Heritage Foundation.

Roberts hears it all the time from the interns who visit Heritage for a summer and from the donors who write the big checks. “He has become an institution,” the think tank president tells RCP. The two spoke earlier this summer. “He wanted to know what we think is going to remain permanent about conservatism,” Roberts reported, “but also what we are nodding towards in terms of new applications of principle.” The intellectual right has experienced growing pains in recent years, or perhaps atrophy depending on perspective, and Heritage has been at the forefront, trying to marry a new right, populist and impatient in character, with an old right, suspicious and protective of orthodoxy by temperament.

“He is trying to figure out what post-Trump conservatism looks like,” Roberts said of Shapiro’s endeavor, “not in a way that is dismissive towards Trump but that has a longer-term focus.” An obstacle to that metamorphosis is “the ever-growing group of grifters,” the policy wonk said of the hangers on who have no “ideological mooring but are just sort of piggybacking on Trump’s frame.”

“He has a real desire to eradicate them from the movement,” Roberts concluded, “which I agree with.”

Does Candace Owens fit that description? Shapiro won’t say. The black conservative was approaching super-stardom at the Daily Wire when she was fired in March after not just criticizing Israel but claiming, among other things, that “sinister” shadowy Jewish “gangs” were running the entertainment industry and government.

“Daily Wire has a gag order on me, I am not allowed to speak on this issue,” he says when asked about his former colleague. This won’t satisfy his critics, like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who now accuse him of hypocrisy.

Whatever happened to Shapiro, the free speech champion who once sued the college administrators who rescinded his speaking gigs? “He’s acting as if this is a justified reason for firing people,” comedian Andrew Schulz said on his podcast, “when you built your identity and platform off of no censorship and freedom of speech, facts don’t care about your feelings?”

Shapiro finds that criticism ridiculous. “The idea that it is our obligation to provide a forum for literally all views, that obviously isn’t true,” he says. His company is a publisher, not a platform, he explains, and while debate is welcome within its walls, there is a limit. For instance, Daily Wire has a company line on abortion. They oppose it and hire accordingly: “We don’t hire anybody who is pro-choice. We are a pro-life company.”

“The notion that I am obligated to hire Briahna Joy Gray or someone else because we run Daily Wire is an absurdity on his face,” Shapiro says, referencing the former Bernie Sanders press secretary who, days later, would be fired from the Hill for dismissing allegations of Hamas rape against Israeli women. He isn’t advocating for ideological opponents to be censored though, Shapiro says. They can be published in any other publications, just not his, and they “have every right to be on other platforms. Go be well, but in some of these cases, God bless the czar and keep them far, far from us.”

“That’s always news to me,” Matt Walsh tells RCP of allegations that Daily Wire doesn’t allow its host to criticize Israel. He joined the company in 2017 and says that foreign policy “is something that me and Ben disagree on. I tend to be considerably more isolationist than him.”

Outside of Shapiro, Walsh is probably the most prominent political commentator at the company. His 2022 documentary, “What Is a Woman?” – a critical examination of transgenderism which liberals panned and conservatives loved – was the Daily Wire’s greatest success in that genre. He has criticized U.S. foreign aid to Israel. He has said the Israelis “should be left to sort out their own problems without our money.” He still has a job.

Owens has subsequently gone independent, and earlier this month, during an interview with a British broadcaster, said that the United States should not have entered the Second World War. When reached for comment, Owens replied, “I won’t participate in the obvious ‘Jewish’ angle of this piece,” before calling the controversy surrounding her past statements about Israel “boring” and adding, “People are growing tired of it.” 

Concerning the claim from Walsh that he’s never been barred from discussing certain topics, Owens continued, “I am similarly disinterested in the media’s routine angle of trying to pit Christians against one another. Matt remains a friend who I enjoyed working with immensely over the years. We very much agree on Israel.” The current conservative constellation is a strange universe. Trump remains at its center, advancing new doctrine as much as he explodes the old. Disparate intellectual constituencies are loosely connected by varying levels of Trump admiration or simply antipathy toward Biden. Whenever the axis shifts, as it often did by tweet, pieties get flung forever into the expanse as other things suddenly get added.

The conservative moment has had various gatekeepers over the years. Buckley did the job at National Review, cordoning off the John Birch Society in the 1960s, making their conspiracy theories verboten in polite conservative company, thus allowing a respectable movement to emerge. Can Shapiro do this? Does he want to?

“If Buckley had expelled the Birchers, and the Birchers had become more and more numerous, and Buckley had become more marginalized, then there would have been no expulsion,” Shapiro says of line-drawing exercises generally. “It is certainly possible in an ideological battle to gain more credibility than your opponents,” he adds, but in a disorganized plebiscite, especially the online kind, the score can’t be tabulated in real time. But results of primaries can be. And in the Republican presidential primary, the GOP base told Shapiro that their feelings didn’t care about his facts.

Ron DeSantis was a candidate after Shapiro’s own heart. Florida’s governor did everything possible to make himself impeccable – on paper. War with Disney. Bans of “woke” books. The opposite of a vaccine mandate. DeSantis gave those on the right everything they said they wanted, promoting the Sunshine State as a conservative utopia during each of his many interviews with Shapiro. He finished far up the track in third place.

Shapiro lost that debate. All the facts and logic in the world, he admits, couldn’t “break the heart connection that Republicans have with Donald Trump.” DeSantis could run the tape of all his policy victories, but absent relitigating the 2020 election in the 2024 primary, Shapiro says DeSantis was incapable of overcoming the “gut-level connection” Trump enjoys with the GOP base. The contest was about feelings, not facts, he admits: “Beating Hillary Clinton gives you an awful lot of halo effect.”

“We live in that tension,” Boreing says, not just of recent Republican politics, but of how the Daily Wire approaches and interacts with its audience. He admits that there were moments, like when Shapiro came out swinging against Trump in 2016, that “we didn’t know if we would survive.” And when they shifted from a Facebook-dependent business model to one built on subscriptions, it wasn’t clear the audience would follow. On the tail end of the pandemic, before “What Is a Woman?” dropped in 2022, he admits, “We were just completely out of money.”

But the Daily Wire has thrived, and Boreing believes that central to it all is how the talent and the business navigate the discourse openly with their audience.

“You cannot forsake them, you can’t insult them, you can’t spit in their eye and tell them they are stupid because they are not,” he explains, calling them “collectively the font of the majority of wisdom in the country.” And yet, he continues, “as a leader, you also don’t give into the every impulse of your audience.” Fumble that balance, “if you get out of whack one way or the other,” Boreing said, “and you become either a populist or an elitist.”

What keeps the audience subscribed, and what sells their razors and merch and commentary, Shapiro believes, is hitting that sweet spot. “It’s my job to tell my audience what I wish would happen. And I think it’s important to establish what the principles are, right? You have to actually say, here are the things that we believe in,” he explains, as his entourage ends the interview and hurries him to his next meeting.

Except for a group of summer interns who seem pulled to him by some unseen magnet, the Capitol is almost empty when Shapiro walks late in the afternoon from the House over to the Senate to sit with McConnell. One young, very over-eager staffer vigorously shakes Shapiro’s hand while pushing his phone into the hands of a member of the entourage.

“Would you like a picture?” Shapiro asks, laughing and very much at ease.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.