Today's conservative commentators are greatly indebted to two events that occurred in 2008. The first is the election of Barack Obama. The second is the publication of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
The book—in which Goldberg argues that fascism is a left-wing ideology fathered by Mussolini and introduced to the Democratic Party by Woodrow Wilson—is provocatively written and well researched. The same can't always be said for the dozens of copycat books it has inspired over the years, which merely apply this now well-worn argument to current trends in American liberalism.
In The Authoritarian Moment, Ben Shapiro takes this format to the extreme. The book, which is billed as an explanation of "How the Left Weaponized America's Institutions Against Dissent," reads more like a "Worst of 2020" monologue, in which Shapiro opines on everything from the George Floyd riots and Dr. Fauci to critical race theory and Shonda Rhimes.
Shapiro offers plenty of examples that illustrate the problem of progressive intolerance. Unfortunately, he offers few suggestions on how to solve this problem. Those he does put forth are vague, often contradictory, and occasionally troubling. The result is a book that sacrifices substance for urgency and potentially makes itself irrelevant in the process.
In his defense, Shapiro probably didn't have a choice. In 2021, most Americans will agree that our dominant institutions—from the federal government and corporations to Hollywood and the media—have a decidedly progressive bent. Authors trying their hand at the "liberal fascism" genre can't just leave it at "actually, lefties are the real authoritarians!" They have to raise the stakes.
Shapiro is very good at this. As mentioned, he packs the book with references to events so recent, it's amazing the ink has even dried on the pages. There's a decent amount of polemic, as in the introduction that tells the reader that "there is no respite: your employer requires your fealty to woke principles … [and] each day you wonder if today will be the day the mob comes for you."
And then, there are The Concepts™. Some authors use clever shorthand to distill complex topics and make it easier for readers to think through their argument. Shapiro does the opposite, in a bid to make self-evident concepts seem weightier than they are.
There’s the "Ultracrepidarian Problem," which refers to experts opining on things they aren't experts in. It often leads to the "Bleedover Effect," where things that should be apolitical are politicized. These concepts are the twin roots of "Science™" and "Journalisming™," which refer to the politicization of—wait for it—science and journalism, respectively.
This technical language and panicked rhetoric aren't enough to compensate for Shapiro's contradictory take on leftism. His confused argument is most clearly on display in the chapter on entertainment.
Shapiro opens by identifying Moonlight‘s 2017 Best Picture victory as the moment when "Hollywood had embraced woke politics as the sine qua non for art." But he goes on to note that this was "merely the culmination of a long-lasting movement in Hollywood to propagandize on behalf of leftism, slap at flyover country, [and] undercut traditional values." Shapiro goes further when he claims that, beginning in the 1920s, "Hollywood both reflected and drove forward America's generalized move toward liberal causes."
So, which is it? Is "leftist authoritarianism" a terrifying new phenomenon or something that has always been with us? Is our "new ruling class" actively working against some patriotic silent majority, or is this merely proof of O’Sullivan's Law: "All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing"?
Shapiro gestures at answers. Some even get names, like "the Cordiality Principle," the idea that the ruling class has taken advantage of conservative politeness to silence dissent. More compelling explanations, like the technological and regulatory elements that drove the rise of cable news and social media, are not given the serious treatment they deserve.
The Authoritarian Moment‘s inconsistent genealogy of leftism is not the book's biggest contradiction. That honor lies with Shapiro's inconsistent take on where the country is headed.
In the book's introduction, Shapiro raises the stakes of leaving leftism unchecked. When individuals can be ostracized for not falling into lockstep with woke pieties, it will be "the end of the republic." Later, he claims that if "woke capital" is allowed to flourish, it will lead to "two separate systems of commerce in the United States" and make it "very difficult to share a country."
For most of the book, Shapiro seems rightly worried about the dissolution or bifurcation of the country, and calls on his readers to combat the disturbing trend toward separation. He assures Americans that "they can't cancel us if we don't let them." He calls on an "intransigent majority" to stand up to the left, to "return [our institutions] back to actual normalcy … and pry open the doors they have welded shut."
And then he just gives up.
In the book's brief, final chapter Shapiro lists "building alternative institutions" among conservatives' best options for combating leftism. Shapiro disclaims that this is not his "preferred outcome," but he believes it "may be the most realistic outcome: two Americas, divided by politics."
It's not entirely clear whether Shapiro thinks Americans don't stand a chance against regnant leftism or simply lack the courage to oppose it. But by the end of the book, his message seems clear: There's no hope of conservatives returning to the mainstream.
The Authoritarian Moment begins like so many books that it seems to emulate but ends with a new kind of rhetoric, one that is increasingly common on the right. At best, Shapiro is preparing his reader for some kind of civil war. At worst, he's encouraging them to push for it.
Herein lies the book's ultimate—and most worrisome—contradiction. Shapiro is right to defend the Republic and the protection of unalienable rights upon which it was built. He is right to oppose authoritarianism and other threats to a nation so conceived and so dedicated.
It is precisely because he is right on these points that he errs in giving intellectual cover to the idea that Americans would be better off if the country splinters more than it already has. It doesn't matter whether the separatist force is coming from the left or the right. When the end result is a divided country, all that matters is we find a way to avoid it.
The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America's Institutions Against Dissent
by Ben Shapiro
Broadside Books, 288 pp., $28.99