Last week, Northwestern College Republicans announced Ben Shapiro, editor in chief of The Daily Wire, as our spring speaker. This selection has sparked significant controversy from students who object to Shapiro’s right-wing views and have even accused him of racism, citing his previous role as editor at large for the outspoken, pro-Trump site Breitbart News.
I believe much of the controversy surrounding Shapiro mischaracterizes what he has stood for throughout his career. While I have my share of disagreements with Shapiro, I believe he brings a valuable perspective as spring speaker for College Republicans.
The idea that students should protest Shapiro for his former involvement at Breitbart, let alone label him a racist for it, seems to somewhat misunderstand the nature of his role on the website. Several years ago Breitbart was a fairly mainstream conservative outlet, and its founder Andrew Breitbart was in fact known for defending gay voices in the conservative movement and fighting dubious elements in the Republican Party, such as the Birther movement. This is not to deny that today the website represents a source of some of the alt-right’s most hateful and disgusting content. However, it is important to note that it was the leadership of Steve Bannon, who is horrifyingly one of the president’s top advisers, that moved Breitbart to embrace the alt-right and adopt the hateful messages it champions today.
Shapiro’s role at Breitbart was not to encourage the spread of racism within the outlet, and his subsequent coverage of Breitbart suggests a strong opposition to the direction Bannon took it. After incidents during the Trump campaign led Shapiro to confront the new nature of Breitbart News, he resigned from his role as editor at large to focus on his own website, The Daily Wire. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Shapiro repeatedly denounced the Trump campaign and his former employer, as well as what he saw as racist elements in the Republican Party. What I respect the most about Shapiro is how he has continued his advocacy against Trump despite the devastating price he’s had to pay — according to the Anti-Defamation League, Shapiro was targeted by more anti-Semitic attacks than any other journalist during the 2016 election season. It is hard for me to understand how people can so casually dismiss someone who has faced this level of discrimination as a simple bigot.
This is certainly not to say that I agree with everything Shapiro stands for. In particular, I find his views on transgender rights to be deeply objectionable, and I fear that his advocacy against them will further perpetuate harm against what I view as the country’s most oppressed and vulnerable identity. Some of his other positions, especially his views on terrorism, lack enough nuance for me to take them seriously in a discussion of policy.
Inviting a speaker to campus, however, does not mean that one champions all of their positions, but rather believes their perspectives on the topic should be debated and discussed. I identify as a conservative because I believe that conservative ideas about free trade, welfare reform, lower taxes and reduced regulations have the potential to drastically improve human welfare, especially for poor and marginalized groups. The 2016 election was deeply painful to me as I saw large parts of the conservative movement reduced to a cult of personality by a proudly ignorant businessman that shamelessly embraced previously fringe racist and sexist elements of the Republican Party. I was ultimately unable to vote Republican as a result of these issues. At the same time, the Democratic Party seems to sink to new depths every day, growing ceaselessly more radical under the far-left influence of figures such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. With nowhere to go, many conservatives like me are forced to try to tolerate a party that is (hopefully just temporarily) controlled by the likes of Trump, trying to seize on victories we can agree with such as the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to rationalize our continued opposition to what the Democratic Party has become.
Northwestern students seem to view everything on the right wing as fundamentally associated with Trump and the ideas he’s has brought into the party. Shapiro is a good speaker because he has built his career fighting parts of the right that he disagrees with while continuing to be an unapologetic conservative — and hopefully Northwestern students can understand that position a bit more through his talk.
Jose Trejos is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.