Ben Shapiro is a conservative columnist, former Breitbart editor-at-large, and Never Trump–er who’s now facing anti-Semitic threats from the alt-right. On The Gist, he spoke with Mike Pesca about Donald Trump’s election and what Steve Bannon really means for this country. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is Steve Bannon an anti-Semite?
No, I have no evidence that Steve’s an anti-Semite. I think Steve’s a very, very power-hungry dude who’s willing to use anybody and anything in order to get ahead, and that includes making common cause with the racist, anti-Semitic alt-right.
Is that anti-Semitism?
I want to be careful about attributing personal anti-Semitism to him. I will say that it is appeasement of anti-Semitism, which in my book is certainly not a good thing.
So whatever he has in his heart, he countenances it for either political or media gain.
He certainly did with the alt-right, for sure. And that doesn’t mean that Breitbart itself has been anti-Israel—it hasn’t been. It’s a very right-wing site when it comes to Israel. It also doesn’t mean that Jews who work there, like Joel Pollak for example, have been discriminated against, because they’ll say they haven’t, and I wasn’t when I was working there.* What it does mean is that he allowed the site to be taken over and used by a bunch of alt-right people who are not fond of Jews, are not fond of minorities.
Is this basically the comments section? I have heard him talk about how important it was to let the comments bubble up and drive the direction of the site.
I’m talking about that. I’m also talking about the relationship that he’s had with some of the popularizers of the alt-right, people who wouldn’t consider themselves overtly alt-right but have made a big deal out of providing popular appeal to it. People like Milo Yiannopoulos or the folks who they call the Meme Team who traffic in alt-rightness.
For folks who don’t know what the alt-right is, it might be worthwhile to just sort of start at the beginning and talk about what the alt-right is—because there are a lot of these various definitions floating around, nearly all of which are wrong.
Basically, the alt-right is a group of thinkers who believe that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously. It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization. As you may notice, this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and Vox Day. Those kind of folks will openly acknowledge that this is their thought process.
Richard Spencer was just in a big alt-right conference, and his speech ended with a bunch of arm salutes, people yelling “Sieg Heil!” and him winking and quoting in the original German, and criticizing the press using a Nazi phrase.
Yeah, they’re not good people, I think that’s fair to say. Those people have been given this new intellectual veneer by folks like Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo wrote this piece called “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” It was given heavy play over Breitbart, and that piece basically made the case that these are just intellectuals who have made common cause of folks like paleo-conservatives—Pat Buchanan and other folks of that ilk.
What the alt-right is trying to do, and what they’ve been trying to do now ever since Donald Trump came to prominence, is a couple of things. One is they’ve been broadening the definition of alt-right; I just wrote this piece for National Review for the print edition this week. They’ve been trying to broaden the definition of alt-right so they can suck people into believing they’re alt-right even though they don’t believe the central tenets of the alt-right. So they’ll say things like, “Well if you just don’t like Paul Ryan, that means you’re alt-right,” or “If you just like memes, that means that you’re alt-right,” or “If you think that the Republicans are too weak-kneed, that means you’re alt-right.” No, that doesn’t mean that you’re alt-right; it means that you’re not an establishment Republican. I’m not a big Paul Ryan fan, per se, but that doesn’t make me alt-right. I’m their No. 1 target, according to the Anti-Defamation League, this year.
So they’ve tried to broaden the definition so they can suck people into believing they’re alt-right, and then make themselves seem indispensable by saying, “Look at all these alt-right people. They’re all out here, and if the Republican Party pushes them to the side, then they’re going to pay an electoral price for that.” And then you have people winking and nodding at them because they think they’re an important constituency. So it’s a couple-step process, and glomming onto Trump has been part of that because Trump, I don’t think, is alt-right. I don’t think that Trump is particularly racist. I think he’s an ignoramus. I think that more than anything, Trump is willing to pay heed to and wink at anybody who provides him even a shred of good coverage. So if the alt-right, which worships at the altar of Trump—if they provide him good coverage, he’s willing to wink and nod at them and not wreck them.
How much does Steve Bannon subscribe to those notions of European centrism? At what point will he stop?
I think that Steve will stop if it becomes politically convenient for him to stop. Steve is not a deeply principled guy on politics; it’s not like he’s coming in with this ramrod agenda. He’s coming in and he’s talking about big government spending. He’s talking about trillion-dollar infrastructure packages. If you had to peg Steve down on ideology or philosophy, you’d say he’s sort of like a European far-right leader. He’s more like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage than he is like a constitutional conservative. He doesn’t like constitutional conservatism; he thinks that it’s an obstacle in the way of building this new Third Way movement, this independent political movement that is focused on heavy spending—even some redistribution inside the country—but closed borders and tariffs for everybody outside. He calls himself an economic nationalist. They say, “Are you a white nationalist?” and he says, “No, I’m an economic nationalist.” And then when he’s asked about white nationalism and its effect on the far-right in Europe, he says that will sort of fade away as time goes on, and they’ll legitimize. I don’t think so. I’ve never seen a bad movement or a bad person, yet, given power and they become better people.
So you think that Bannon is using the alt-right to get his agenda passed? But do you think that the alt-right thinks it’s using Bannon to get its agenda through?
Yes, and they’ll say it openly—they’ll say, “Bannon isn’t one of us. Breitbart isn’t us. Trump isn’t one of us. But they’re the most useful tool we’ve ever found.”
And they’re not doing that just to distract attention to the media? They really don’t think that Trump is one of them, but he’s a useful idiot?
I think that’s right. I don’t think that they sit around thinking Donald Trump reads Jared Taylor. I mean, I don’t think they think Donald Trump reads books, right? They think that Donald Trump has positions. Those positions are sufficiently warm toward their positions. He’s not throwing them out of the tent. And because he won’t throw them out of the tent, that makes him their best ally.
You think Bannon is wrong morally to play footsie with this group. Do you think it’s wrong politically?
I think it’s wrong politically because I think that everyone’s taking the wrong lessons, right and left, away from this election cycle.
I think on the right, people are taking it like Trump won this big, broad victory; Trump lost the popular vote by over 1 million votes, and he won by very, very narrow margins in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. And the fact is that when all is said and done, the groups that are growing demographically in the United States are minorities, women, young people—millennials will be 40 percent of the voting population in 2020. And so if you’re banking on this ever-shrinking group, the alt-right, in order to put you over the top, that seems like bad politics. It’s alienating politics; it’s not something that’s going to help.
By the same token, I think that the left is making a huge mistake by labeling everybody on the right “alt-right.” Because what they’re doing is they’re pushing people into the arms of the alt-right. You call people racist enough, and they begin to think OK, well, who’s not calling me a racist—I’ll side with that guy. So the worst thing the left can do is continue to suggest that everyone who backed Trump was a racist, sexist, bigot homophobe; everyone’s evil, everyone’s terrible. What they really should be doing is they should be saying, “Look, we understand one of the reasons that we lost is because Hillary Clinton was a uniquely terrible candidate”—she really was—“and because of that, we’re not trying to throw you guys out of the tent. We think it was a bad choice to choose Trump, but we would sort of appeal to the better angels of your nature—that if we think he’s divisive as time goes on, that you recognize that he’s being divisive.” I think it’s a big mistake to have the left pushing the notion that they’re just going to double-down on the Obama coalition and tell everybody else to go screw.
Can conservative populism succeed without playing footsie with some elements of what we now call the alt-right?
I think they can. I think the alt-right is a very, very small movement that has gained outsize credibility because they’re extraordinarily loud online.
I mentioned earlier this Anti-Defamation League study that said that I was the No. 1 target of anti-Semitism in the journalistic world this year. And that’s because one, I’m Jewish; two, I left Breitbart; three, I didn’t back Trump. I think they said there were, between January and September, something like 20,000 anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists. And I was the personal recipient of 7,400 of them. So the top 10 was me by a landslide, and then a bunch of people coming in behind. They traced virtually all of these tweets, or a huge percentage of these tweets, to 1,600 accounts.
So it’s a very small but vocal group, and they’re making their presence felt using the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook and online. And they’re waiting for the left to overplay its hand. And that’s what the left needs to not do.
I’ve been as critical of Steve Bannon as anybody in the media. I was the first critic of Bannon because when I left Breitbart in March, I specifically named Bannon as a nefarious influence at Breitbart, by name. And yet, I was forced last week to defend Steve Bannon. I think that he’s a terrible person. But because the left can’t just say, “This is a guy who made way for the alt-right, which is quite terrible, and he’s doing a real disservice to the nature of the country by doing so.” The left had to accuse him personally of racism and anti-Semitism, and they had to overstep. This is the big mistake.
You want to empower the alt-right? Keep overstepping. Again, it’s the overstepping by the left that’s driving people into this almost white tribalism. It’s really negative. I hate tribalism on all sides—I hate it on the left and I hate it on the right—and what I’m seeing is that increase across the board.
When you were at Breitbart, how much did you look around how much did what you see bother you? Before you quit, how much was it weighing on you?
The Trump move bothered me because it looked to me like a sellout of any sort of conservative principle on behalf of a guy who Andrew Breitbart rightly called in 2011—when I was wrong about Trump, he was rightly calling Trump a clown in 2011. So I thought that that was disturbing. I didn’t follow the comments section too much, because you guys know from being online, following comments sections is a quick way to the asylum. So I really didn’t spend a lot of time messing around in the comments, if any. I heard the rumors that the comments sections had become an alt-right cesspool, but I didn’t pay attention to it too much. The real obvious shift, to me, in terms of content, came after I left. I declared that I was #NeverTrump on Breitbart, actually, and then three weeks later was the Michelle Fields incident, and I left over that.
She was the reporter who was grabbed by Corey Lewandowski in Florida. And she was a Breitbart reporter, and Breitbart did not stand by her at all.
Not only did they not stand by her, they undercut her. They ran a piece suggesting that it never could have happened the way that she said it happened, and then they still have columnists at their website who claim that the whole thing was a hoax set up by me and Michelle and Ben Terris from the Washington Post—we got together in a dark room and decided to come up with the worst conspiracy in human history.* This kind of stuff is crap, obviously.
But to me, the major public move in favor of the alt-right came after I left. Not to be self-centered, but I think part of it had to do with the fact that I was one of the biggest-name writers on the site, just in terms of social media following. And after I left, they looked around at their staff, and they said, “Who can we elevate?” The next biggest name was Yiannopoulos. And so two weeks later, they come out with that alt-right piece glorifying Richard Spencer and such.
What was your relationship with Milo Yiannopoulos then, and what is it now?
I never had a relationship with Milo. We sort of would joke around with each other online. I thought that he was kind of—he’s a provocateur, so like all provocateurs, he did some stuff that was funny and some stuff I thought that was over-the-top. But I thought he was doing some stuff that was interesting, if over-the-top.
And then there was a breaking point where he said the Constitution and conservatism were done, and it was going to be replaced by this new rising alt-right movement that didn’t care about the Constitution—you’re cucks, you’re losers, all the rest of this stuff. And then it gradually got worse, to the point where, when my second kid was born in May, Milo—who pretends that he’s not alt-right—sent a tweet at me with a picture of a black kid. Because the way that this works is that if you are not alt-right, if you’re anti-Trump, then according to the alt-right you must be what they call a “cuck”—for those who don’t follow this sort of stuff—because you have two brain cells to rub together. Cuck, according to the alt-right, means that you’re a white person who wants to watch his wife have sex with a black man, right? Because you’re poisoning the racial stock of the United States, so you want your own racial stock “poisoned.” I always found the whole thing bewildering. I’m not interested in my wife having sex with a man of any race; I’m not sure why a black guy would be significantly worse, just overall! It seems pretty terrible all the way through.
That’s a little nuance I hadn’t really thought of. They’d be OK with the white man having sex with their wife? Again, one of those not-too-well-thought-out aspects.
As long as he’s a pure Aryan shtupping your wife, then you’re fine. The whole thing is—that’s asinine. But he tweeted a picture of a black baby of me on the day that my son was born because I’m a cuck, because I didn’t back Trump. As soon as Milo was banned from Twitter—by the way, I don’t favor bans on Twitter generally. Twitter’s a private company, and it can do what it wants, but I don’t like people getting banned on Twitter unless there’s active harassment. I think it’s dangerous territory. But I can say this: When Milo was thrown off of Twitter, 70 percent of the anti-Semitism in my feed disappeared immediately.
If one wants to oppose what one perceives as some of the possible excesses of the Trump presidency, what is the best way, knowing what you know about Bannon and Breitbart and the alt-right, to oppose those aspects that I’m certain almost all of the listeners on my show would want to oppose?
I understand why people are concerned about Trump being president; I’m concerned about Trump being president. I think that it’s up to everybody to hold him accountable. But if you’re asking what’s going to impact policy? As I said to Charles Blow on CNN, please do not turn everything up to 11. Everybody’s going deaf. If you’re all going to go nuts over a Hamilton tweet, wait until he’s using the White House to do business for Trump Inc. Look at what his people want. And I’m not talking about the alt-right; the alt-right is going to back him no matter what. I’m talking about the traditional Republican voter who wants to see him do certain things. Watch where he commits a heresy and then say, “If the shoe were on the other foot and this were Obama, you’d be ticked.”
So for example, if Barack Obama went to an event, was booed, and then started tweeting about how terrible the event was and how all the people should shut up and apologize, you’d be ticked. It wouldn’t mean that he was censoring anything, but you’d be ticked, and you’d have a right to be ticked.
The same thing is true for some of the Trump business reports. There’s a report today that may or may not be verified—we’re still finding out—about him trying to hit up the president of Argentina for a special favor on Trump Tower. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but we do know, according to the Washington Post, that Trump Hotel representatives have been telling ambassadors to use Trump Hotels when they come to town. That’s a serious conflict, obviously.
I think that the more the left focuses on the things that are actually serious regardless of your politics—like corruption, like policies that are self-directed, that kind of stuff—that will have more of an impact than just going around shouting, “Racist, racist, racist!” I think one of the big problems here is that if you called Mitt Romney a racist in 2012—as Bill Maher said, if you turned it all the way up to 11 for Mitt Romney—it’s very difficult for people to hear you when you turn it up to 12 for Trump.
Correction, Nov. 23, 2016: Due to transcription errors, this post originally misspelled Joel Pollak’s and Ben Terris’ last names.