The concept of “punching down” has never had a more perfect champion than conservative syndicated provocateur Ben Shapiro.
Punching down is a modern idiom used particularly in comedy to describe making a joke or argument at the expense of the less fortunate. Rather than being the humor of the oppressed, punching down is the humor of oppression and it’s basically never funny. But in recent years, the philosophy of punching down has become part of a particular brand of conservatism often associated with President Donald Trump. But Trump isn’t the picture of punching down that best illustrates the concept.
The most adept at punching down is, at least in 2019, Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire. This is best illustrated in his latest claim that people who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet have a “you problem,” and should simply seek out better-paying jobs (there aren’t very many).
The lifestyle Ben Shapiro enjoys depends on thousands of people more industrious and smarter than him, working jobs that need doing that he doesn't think need to pay well enough to put food on the table. https://t.co/PiyIlE683o
— David Atkins (@DavidOAtkins) August 14, 2019
Who is Ben Shapiro?
Ben Shapiro did not emerge organically from the same vat of right-wing aggression that produced other infamous internet trolls and agents provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos, Chuck Johnson or Gavin McInnes. He came about through careful creation by Hollywood producer Jeremy Boreing, who took a conservative ideologue more comfortable dressing like a banker in his father’s suit to the sleek muted blues and jeans of a 2010s political pop star.
The core of his brand is his aggression. Regularly provoking others to engage him online, Shapiro’s catchphrase is “debate me.” So common is the throw of this particular gauntlet Salon wrote an article in case a reader happens to be challenged to debate Ben Shapiro. The thing is, these challenges get attention for Ben. His efforts to debate Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) made headlines. When the occasion rises, Shapiro does not always rise to the occasion — he stormed out of a BBC interview when the facts didn’t care about his feelings.
But that artificiality is the candy coating of Shapiro’s brand. Shapiro’s platform, the Daily Wire, is funded by wealthy fracking magnates Farris and Dan Wilkes, who own the site. This effectively insulates Shapiro from the real issues faced by online journalism, like the myriad ways Google and Facebook are eating ad revenue and the struggle to get readers to pay for content (Grit Post hasn’t paywalled this article, by the way, and you’re welcome). But more than that, Shapiro’s billionaire backers shield him from the consequences of his actions.
Shapiro invoked his sponsors during an appearance at a pro-life demonstration in which he mulled over the ethics of killing “baby Hitler.” As a result of their ads being read live at a venue they didn’t want an association with, sponsors pulled their support of his syndicated radio program “The Ben Shapiro Show.” However, his Daily Wire is immune to the shifting whims of advertisers thanks to its deep-pocketed parents.
Ben Shapiro is a Bullied Bully
That lack of accountability provided by immense wealth extends well into Shapiro’s personal life. Grit Post attempted to contact Shapiro to ask if he’d ever, for even a day, worked for an hourly wage and has yet to get a comment from Ben on the subject. His parents were a television executive and Hollywood composer. His father, David Shapiro, once went to his high school to confront students who bullied young Ben. As a result of that experience, Ben claims a deep hatred of bullies — a title he readily gave former Breitbart coworker and fellow provocateur Steve Bannon.
“I hate bullies,” he told Slate. “I think bullies are evil. From the time I was pretty young I had to grow a thick skin. You can either feel like you’re victimized or you can decide that success is the best revenge.”
Here’s the problem — punching down is literally what bullies do. It’s actually not unusual for the bullied to become the bully. Slate‘s dive into the psyche of Shapiro characterizes his lowest instincts as those of a victim turned aggressor, which isn’t all that unusual. When you can’t punch up, many people turn to punching down. Though Shapiro might despise Trump — he has stood against the Trump avalanche so many of his fellow trolls acceded to — his focus is not on punching up against the president, but down against minorities.
When someone actually debates Shapiro and he doesn’t storm out in a huff, his base carry the verbal slings and arrows long after the event is done, hurling punch after punch long after the last bell was rung. Then there are the punches Shapiro himself throws. He smacked down virtually all minorities saying that systemic oppression wasn’t real, denies that transgender people exist, and, as the internet discovered Wednesday, thinks poor people should decide to stop being poor.
“If you had to work more than one job to have a roof over your head or food on the table, you probably shouldn’t have taken the job that’s not paying you enough. That’d be a you problem,” Shapiro said Wednesday.
It doesn’t matter that this is a cisgender, white, wealthy man who is insulated from the consequences of his actions and the actions of others, whether it be by his dad protecting him in high school, or the Wilkes Brothers protecting him today. Of course Shapiro doesn’t make room for hardship in his understanding of poverty — he simply has no concept of it. He is insulated from oppression, and is free to deny its existence.
Why Shapiro’s Bullying Works
Still, when you can’t punch up, you punch down. The idea that poverty is a moral failing is a centuries-old lie, but it is useful to people like Shapiro. Bullying can act as a temporary release valve for stress and anxiety for those without a positive method to deal with their problems. It’s how the bullied become the bullies. It’s how Shapiro’s high school nightmare has become America’s national nightmare.
There is a cycle to bullying. The people once bullied often take that out on others. It’s cyclical violence that manifests both on the schoolyard with typical bullying, and in an even darker shade as domestic violence creates more domestic violence. For a certain minority of victims, finding someone else to victimize is a manifestation of that wound. This isn’t necessarily a natural byproduct of abuse, but could be the self-fulfilling belief in this cyclical violence.
We do this politically. Punching down is easier than punching up, and we use the systems of privilege to turn serious social stratification against one another to prevent any from attaining meaningful success. It works remarkably well. Moreover, we use a misunderstanding of privilege to make those benefiting from it resent those oppressed by it.
For a recent example of this, look to the naughts-era fight for LBGT rights and the concept of the “silent T,” that by casting off the transgender community, it raised the likelihood of successes for the gay community. While that’s changed over time, the stratification within the LBGT community does remain a serious problem to unified action. The same is true with the propensity of white feminists’ tendency to “other” their comrades of color.
Shapiro’s form of bullying uses this to charge those with little against those with less. And it works well: It helped launch Donald Trump from a fringe joke to a political star in the rural South and the Heartland.
Ben Shapiro wants for nothing, risks nothing and has turned punching down from a comedian faux pas to the art of the conservative troll, all while being slickly produced and artificially created to galvanize the young disillusioned generations being radicalized toward the right-wing online.
And it’s far from harmless politicking, as 98% of domestic terrorism committed in the U.S. last year was done by those with affiliations to far-right political causes.
In the event Ben responds to Grit Post‘s request about his employment history or challenges us to debate him, this article will be updated to reflect his comment.
(Featured image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.