Every time someone takes my photo,I lose a little bit of my soul.” Ben Shapiro is joking as he poses for a photographer, his hand jammed into his front pocket, parting his business-minded blazer and accentuating his blue jeans, his thumb liberated.
The automatic response for many in deeply liberal Seattle is likely to wonder whether the 30-year-old conservative talk-radio host has any soul at all. Already the author of four books railing against liberalism, Shapiro is a rising hero on the right and a growing pain in the ass of the left. Right now, posing in the Nesholm Family Lecture Hall at McCaw Hall on a mid-April evening, he is preparing to play both roles. Later this evening the hall will fill with almost 400 of his listeners—and a smattering of detractors—as he debates Seattle City councilmember and avowed socialist Kshama Sawant about the $15 minimum wage.
“Tonight! Watch me debate in hostile territory,” tweeted Sawant earlier in the day. Shapiro responded: “will be educational. Shouldn’t be hostile.”
Now he sits in one of the hall’s seats and turns on his own recorder for the interview. “I’ve been misquoted too many times,” he says. “I promise you no matter how fast a note-taker you are, there will be inaccuracies.” He’s likely right, for Shapiro speaks quickly. And as his jaw thrashes, the skin on his cheeks and chin quivers, offering momentary glances of the jowls that will likely accompany him in older age. He begins by talking about Seattle.
“It’s clearly a bellwether for the left in terms of being kind of a testing ground for a lot of left ideas like 15-dollar minimum wage,” he says. “It tends to lead the nation in that regard. It’s also one of the few areas where the leftist policy hasn’t completely crippled the city yet, so it’s an interesting phenomenon.”
“Leftist” ideas have had a crippling effect, Shapiro says, in Los Angeles, where he grew up and where he currently lives with his young family. The city also happens to be a more convenient place for Shapiro to project his conservative and libertarian views as editor-in-chief for high-profile conservative site breitbart.com, talking head on the cable-news circuit, and host of The Ben Shapiro Show, which was just picked up this past January by Seattle talk-radio station KTTH 770AM, presenter of the evening’s debate.
Prior to his dealings with the station, Shapiro had never set foot in Seattle. He has since visited five or six times by his count, and developed a theory of Seattle’s success, attributing it to a unique demographic makeup that is high on education and low on diversity. It’s a convenient point of view. “If leftism is going to fail in Seattle, it’s a good indicator that leftism is going to fail elsewhere,” he says. “If leftism succeeds in Seattle, that’s not necessarily a good indicator that leftism is going to succeed elsewhere.”
An hour later, the hall full, Shapiro is in command, a rhetorical pugilist in friendly territory. His philosophy is free-market purism and his strategy is selective restraint; he encourages politeness by calming his crowd during heated moments, only to later strike with a mocking one-liner that—in the eyes of his followers at least—deflates his opponents’ arguments. To a moderate crowd, his sarcasm would be a liability, but here it’s played for laughs, clearing the table for some conservative red meat.
At the suggestion that it is immoral for people who work full time to live in poverty, Shapiro responds: “People want a lot of things. Housing, health, to live forever, a pony . . . The reality is that there is no pony tree, which makes that difficult. So when it comes to the morality of this, bottom line to me is that it is not vicious, cruel, or immoral for me to make you an offer that you consensually accept. In fact, it is vicious, cruel, and immoral for someone who is a third party to get involved or for you to leverage a gun to get into the middle of that consensual relationship.”
The crowd goes wild.
Listen to the entire debate between Ben Shapiro, Paul Guppy, Rebecca Smith, and Kshama Sawant here.