But he is not a moderate. His views are extremely conservative: Transgenderism is a mental illness, as per the encyclopedia of mental disorders before 2013. Yes, blacks have been historically discriminated against. No, institutions are not broadly discriminating against them today. The rich pay too much tax. Abortion should be illegal. Social Security ought to be privatized and Obamacare repealed.
Liberals loathe Mr. Shapiro. They say he is a pugilist who has built his brand on the nation’s addiction to outrage. He is part of an industry that whips up conservatives against the left, they say, and the fact that his audience is mostly young will deepen the divide for years to come.
And even some former fans say Mr. Shapiro is a brilliant polemicist, but in a tribal nation, he’s just one more partisan mobilizing his troops.
“He’ll never concede anything to the left,” said William Nardi, a college student in Boston, who used to look up to Mr. Shapiro. “He’s saying the left is wrong and I’m right. Kids love that. All they care about is this feeling that they are right and that their identity is preserved. That’s what he gives them.”
Conservatives say he is a force for good. Liberals may not like his conclusions, but they are guiding young people at a time when the conservative movement is adrift and ideas of white nationalism are competing for their attention. Mr. Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, was one of the first to call out the alt-right movement, denouncing it as racist and anti-Semitic at a time when most people saw it as counterculture and cool. He paid a price. He received 38 percent of all anti-Semitic tweets in 2016, the largest single share, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“There’s a real battle for hearts and minds going on right now and Ben is one of the main warriors,” said David French, a columnist for National Review. Mr. French calls Mr. Shapiro a “principled gladiator.” His aggressive tone draws in audiences, he said, but he does not attack unfairly, stoke anger for the sake of it, or mischaracterize his opponents’ positions. He even hits his own side, as he did with Sean Hannity for not weighing in on Roy S. Moore, the embattled Alabama Republican, and Mr. Bannon for supporting him.
“He appeals to the better angels of his audience’s nature, while still being a pugilist, and that’s quite a skill,” Mr. French said.
Mr. Shapiro grew up in Los Angeles in a Jewish family of Reagan Republicans. His parents both worked in Hollywood, his mother as an executive of a TV company and his father as a composer. They lived in a small house, his parents in one bedroom and he and his three sisters in the other. They had political discussions around the dinner table. He was patriotic. He dressed up as John Adams every year for Halloween from the age of 5. He had a favorite musical: 1776.
He is less established than Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, but his audience is younger. And instead of hunkering down in a studio, Mr. Shapiro travels the country, speaking at colleges (he’s been to 37 since early last year) and on panels.
“So often I’ve felt turning on Fox, it makes you dumber, but you listen to Ben Shapiro and you are likely to be both entertained and enlightened,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative pundit and Trump critic. “He’s high octane. He reads books. His mind works really fast. He likes to get under people’s skin. He’s clearly part of this younger generation. I could imagine Bill Buckley looking down and smiling.”
People often discover Mr. Shapiro by seeing a video clip of him arguing with somebody. Some have been watched millions of times, like one from a college in Michigan in February. After a back and forth with a young woman in the audience about transgenderism, Mr. Shapiro asked her how old she was. She said 22.
“Why aren’t you 60?” he asked. “What is the problem with you identifying as 60?”
The young woman looked at him and hesitated, lowering the microphone slightly.
“It’s not the same as gender,” she said. “You can’t just …”
Mr. Shapiro looked at her, his face impassive: “You’re right,” he said. “You can’t magically change your gender. You can’t magically change your sex. You can’t magically change your age.”
In an age of partisan warfare on college campuses, this video clip is a rare weapon. It is also vintage Shapiro. He takes apart arguments in ways that makes the conservative conclusion seem utterly logical, like putting a key in a locked door. The clip has had about 47 million views on Facebook.
“There is a hunger in conservative millennial land for a different kind of voice,” Mr. French said. “They want someone who will unapologetically stand up for conservative values, but who is also articulating a movement they can feel proud of.”
Mr. Shapiro has always been deeply conservative and does not pretend to be objective. But he says his market niche is giving cleareyed reads of current events, not purely partisan rants. He is often compared to his former colleague at Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos. On the surface, they seem the same. Both speak on college campuses. Both draw protests. Both used to work for Mr. Bannon at Breitbart. Both are young.
In fact, they are very different. Mr. Yiannopoulos, a protégé of Mr. Bannon, was good at shocking audiences, saying things like “feminism is cancer.” But critics say that he was empty of ideas, a kind of nihilistic rodeo clown who was not even conservative. Mr. Shapiro broke with Mr. Bannon last year, saying Breitbart had become a propaganda tool for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Yiannopoulos’s act collapsed this year. But the fact that it lasted so long says a lot about the right’s fury against mainstream liberalism, Mr. Shapiro said.
Years of cultural dominance in TV, movies, comedy, media and to a large extent, universities, left conservatives feeling looked down on and labeled. Mr. Shapiro, who still lives in Los Angeles, wrote a book about it, “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” Add to that economic frustration, and taboos around race, gender and sexual orientation, and you start to explain Mr. Limbaugh’s explosive success 20 years ago.
“Trump won the nomination because he was anti-left, not because of any political viewpoints,” Mr. Shapiro said in an interview. “He was slapping people on the left and people on the right went, ‘Yeah, those people need to be slapped!’”
But Mr. Shapiro does it too. He thinks it’s easy to provoke the left, which he says has become intellectually flabby after decades of cultural dominance. It’s not good at arguing and relies instead on taboos and punishing people who violate them. That is the essence of his stump speech.
“The left believes in a hierarchy of victimhood,” he said in Utah. “If you are L.G.B.T.Q., then we suggest that you are very top of the victimhood hierarchy. You have been most victimized in the United States and therefore your opinion must be taken with the most gravitas.”
He ticked off others.
“Black folks have been historically victimized in the United States, which of course, is true. But the idea that every black person now is being individually victimized by the United States is not true.”
Then he got to the group that made up most of the audience.
“Way down at the bottom are white straight males. Those are people whose opinions do not matter at all. Because those are the people who are the beneficiaries of the system. They don’t get to talk about the system because they were the ones who built the system.”
Critics say that is great red meat for his audience, but it’s nonsense. Even if straight white males are low on the left’s pecking order, they have most of the power in Washington, in statehouses, in every corporate boardroom. They run America.
Mr. Shapiro says he’s about more than tribal polemics. In an age of combative politics, you have to be a fighter to be in the game. And he says he’s willing to defend conservatism against those on the right as well as the left.
“I am trying to militantly defend conservative ideas,” he said. “I’m not going to be anti-left for the sake of it.”
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