Last week, Ben Shapiro—editor emeritus of the conservative media organization the Daily Wire, prolific right-wing firebrand, and someone who seems to wear a blazer and button-up every day of his life—played a round of Minecraft on his YouTube channel. Often, the sandbox game is about the quiet joys of pastoral life, where players construct homesteads, rear livestock, and grow crops in a world made up entirely of perfectly equilateral cubes. It’s also the best-selling game ever, which is why Minecraft videos tend to pop up on the channels of blue-haired Twitch celebrities, not a 39-year-old political commentator who initially entered the upper tier of pundit-influencers as an anti-anti-Trump Republican who toured America’s college campuses in order to argue with 19-year-olds about Marxism. Yet here he was, in 2023, doing his best to defeat the Ender Dragon for all five and a half million of his subscribers.
“I’m still hitting the wrong buttons here, I’m not used to the controls,” Shapiro said as he limply gestured his pickaxe toward a stone laden with glowing rubies.
“Can we play a good game next time? Like Connect 4, or Quake?”
Years ago, Shapiro was the world’s foremost teenaged conservative. At 17 he was penning newspaper columns, and by 2004, at the age of 20, he published his first book—Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth—which greased the wheels for his supreme right-wing stardom. Shapiro started posting YouTube videos in 2016, and the earliest incarnation of his channel mostly served as a repository for all of his testy debate interactions and viral-ish highlights from his podcast, The Ben Shapiro Show. (Scroll deep enough into the archives, and you can find him wrestling with James Comey’s termination during an episode of his podcast, to the piddly tune of 33,000 views.) In those days—not long after he quit Breitbart for a pretty good reason—Shapiro seemed to be an ideal Serious Republican, possessing a faint, scholarly-ish, truth-telling tinge and residing comfortably in the fat part of the ideological bell curve. Yes, Shapiro held monstrous views on abortion, LGBTQ rights, and health care, but he also possessed enough of those recondite professional principles to keep his reputation clean enough for the CNN-panelist junket. Case in point: Shapiro was a Ted Cruz primary voter, and he isn’t currently under investigation for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.
But lately, Shapiro’s YouTube brand has drifted in some strange ways, diverting toward an omnivorous content stew that—while still emitting a debate-me conservative odor—is a lot more juvenile in texture. His gaming dalliance is just the tip of the Minecraft block. Shapiro has started “reacting” to old (mostly transphobic) South Park clips, in the same way a teenager might duet a Dua Lipa choreography on TikTok. (“Everything South Park parodies eventually becomes reality,” says Shapiro, introducing the video.) Elsewhere, Shapiro issues a pickled meditation on the profit ethics of MrBeast, the extremely popular YouTuber who is perhaps most famous for recreating the Squid Game obstacle course. (“These people don’t understand the value of free markets,” he says, reacting to a few random tweets criticizing his multimillionaire content peer.) Late last year, Shapiro returned to his crusading debater roots by squaring off against ChatGPT. He argues with a white screen about the differences between unborn fetuses and unborn babies, the nature of feminine identity, and also, of course, his height. The chatbot believes Shapiro to stand at 5’7”, while Shapiro himself maintains that he is at least 5’9”.
The channel does still contain some of Shapiro’s vintage, broadstroke-Republican takes; to this day, the catalog is mostly structured around his podcast highlights. (On Thursday he took careful stock of the Trump/DeSantis proto-primary fight.) But it’s become clear that Shapiro no longer thinks that his peculiar political punditry—this eternal MAGA flirtation—is enough to carry a digital media persona alone. Shapiro is now using his YouTube channel to meme; to goof around; to shed a bit of his nerdy movement-guy skin; to be more in league with Markiplier and Ninja rather than Carlson and Hannity.
By all accounts, this content pivot has helped add “YouTube star” to Shapiro’s various laurels. Years ago, when he cut a more Breitbart-esque silhouette and his podcast was doing numbers in podcast feeds and on terrestrial radio, he was lucky to ever scrape more than 50,000 views per upload on his YouTube channel. This is par for the course on a YouTube algorithm that has historically favored facile, childish, and scurrilous content. Unfortunately for Ivy League conservatives, some of the biggest right-wing stars on the platform include legit wingnuts like Steven Crowder and, until recently, Andrew Tate; the unknowable undercurrents of the site do not tend to surface many treatises on Straussian economics. (Minecraft, meanwhile, tends to be an eternal hit.) That means Shapiro needed to adapt, and today, his South Park dispatch is sitting at a mammoth 1.8 million views. The man has finally found his destiny. Everyone who tries to make a living on the internet eventually becomes an influencer. We’re all playing by the house rules, even Ben Shapiro.
You can still find flickers of Shapiro’s former, non-YouTuber character if you look hard enough. The man has cultivated an impressively diverse media footprint; for instance, he remains a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and in that venue, Shapiro doesn’t spill much ink on the financial virtues of MrBeast, or his showdowns with ChatGPT. Last weekend, a Shapiro column appeared in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald, where he griped about big government liquidity following the Silicon Valley Bank collapse. That, my friends, is some boring, old-school Mitt Romney terrain, and it’s tough to imagine the topic making waves on the YouTube channel.
Shapiro also still holds onto one of the most-followed Facebook pages on the planet, where he leans into more broadstroke, landfill viral coverage—the true sausage-making of the web. I doubt that Shapiro is a diehard fan of The Wire, but his page still shared the news of Lance Reddick’s passing accompanied by a Daily Wire insignia. He’s got fingers in every pot. It’s unclear if these experiments are a mere extension of the overarching, monolithic Ben Shapiro brand or a full-throated sea change, but I think it is clear that the man is feeling around for his future on the internet, one reaction video at a time.
So Shapiro will likely remain a prominent, wealthy conservative commentator for quite some time. The numbers say he’s winning—5 million YouTube subscribers is nothing to sneeze at. But I still can’t help but savor the schadenfreude of his success. The last six years have proven that there is no commercial value or cultural appetite for the type of New York Times–bylined conservative that Shapiro once carved out for himself. But now, more than halfway through Biden’s first term and after a humiliating, market-correcting defeat at the midterms, it is unclear how much the MAGA contingency has left in the tank, either.
Where does that leave Ben Shapiro, who was never pro-Trump, but was definitely anti-anti-Trump? I’m not sure he knows, either. For now, you can find him idling on a Minecraft server, waiting to see where the wind will turn next.