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Ben Shapiro and the extreme nonsense of the horseshoe theory

It brings no fortune and a great deal of confusion

November 10, 2019

4:53 PM

10 November 2019

4:53 PM

wrote last week that Catholic nationalist ‘groypers’ were beating the likes of Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro at their own debate nerd game. Shapiro tried to return fire on Thursday. His speech at Stanford University was aimed directly at the ‘alt-right.’

I agreed with much of what he said, about the immorality of equating skin color with moral worth and of jokes about the nature of the Holocaust. Shapiro made a good point in saying that ‘irony’ can be a weaselly rhetorical maneuver inasmuch as it allows people to express contentious opinions with the escape clause of insincerity.

But Shapiro’s speech had serious weaknesses in style and content. Firstly, he refused to name anyone that he was referring to. This can be an effective power play if the goal is to suggest that someone is too insignificant to be called out. Given that Shapiro quoted Nicholas Fuentes word-for-word and addressed much of his speech at him and his supporters, though, it felt odd that he didn’t acknowledge him.

A more substantive problem was Shapiro’s insistence on connecting the alt-right with the ‘hardcore left’.

Shapiro made two arguments. The first was that the left ‘needs’ the alt-right to be able to accuse mainstream conservatives like Shapiro of being racists. ‘The goal is to delegitimize the entire right,’ he said.

That may be true. But does Mr Shapiro not think the left would be attempting to delegitimize conservatives anyway? When the alt-right was nothing more than a twinkle in Richard Spencer’s eye, leftists were calling Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign racist. Perhaps a rhetorical bogeyman has some effect on the efficacy of such campaigns but I doubt it is significant.

Shapiro can rattle off a list of very real differences between his politics and those of the alt-right – in its various forms – but no leftist will clap their hands to their foreheads and apologize for misjudging him. He has opposed abortion, affirmative action, gay marriage and the rights of trans people to be acknowledged as being of the gender they have chosen, and leftists will see him as being different from Nicholas Fuentes only inasmuch as conservatives view Trotsky as being different from Stalin. I’m not saying that it is fair, only that it is true.

Shapiro’s second argument is more familiar. It is a variation of the ‘horseshoe’ theory of politics, which maintains that the far-right and left closely resemble each other. This can be the case. Fascists and communists hate bourgeois liberalism. The far-right and the far-left tend to be anti-American and anti-Israel. In the 1930s, there was such a thing as the ‘beefsteak Nazi’, who was brown on the outside and red on the inside. Or there is Horst Mahler, who belonged to the revolutionary communist group the Baader-Meinhof gang but later converted to Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism. Extremes, like opposites, can attract.

Yet Mr Shapiro and his colleagues have commonalities with the left as well. They all maintain the state should be more or less neutral when it comes to private morality. They all maintain that mass migration has been advantageous. They all maintain that race is a social construct. Does this mean mainstream conservatives and the left have an ‘alliance’?

Shapiro also has commonalities with Fuentes. They both think life has value from conception. They both believe marriage should be between a man and a woman. They both think sex before marriage is sinful. Is there an ‘alliance’ between Shapiro and the groypers or should we admit that political tribes can have various things in common yet remain extremely different?

If you think race is more than ‘melanin level‘ and a ‘place of origin‘, Shapiro says, you are ‘identical to the identity politics left’. Well, the far-right and the far-left both believe in ‘race’ as a concept but their conceptions of it are completely different. The far-right thinks race is a biological fact and that different races should live entirely separately. The far-left thinks race is a social construct and that all races should be mixed. To say they are ‘identical’ because both believe in race is like saying Marxists and anarcho-capitalists are the same because they both believe in stateless societies.

This matters especially because it commits Shapiroesque conservatives to a self-defeating individualism. Shapiro, for example, struggles to maintain that Hispanic migrants might be as open to right-wing fusionism as previous generations of Americans. He makes the point that while Hispanic voters in California lean towards the Democrats, Hispanic voters in Florida lean towards the Republicans. The use of the term ‘Hispanic’ here obscures a difference Shapiro must be aware of: Hispanic voters in Florida tend to be Cuban. That underlines rather contradicts the fact that ethnic demographics – as well as age, class and gender demographics – can be predictive of voting patterns. I suspect Shapiro cannot accept this because observing group differences, however you explain them and whatever the conclusions you extract from them, might put you in league with his hated extremes.

There is much more that could be said about last week’s events, but a small positive development in right-wing discourse might be the abandonment of the horseshoe theory. It brings no fortune and a great deal of confusion.


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