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Ben Shapiro Goes Trolling in Hollywood

The conservative gadfly’s new film studio is a bid to monetize the battle against cancel culture.

PHOTOGRAPH BY AMY LOMBARD FOR THE NEW REPUBLIC

The war over cancel culture is reaching new levels of absurdity. Earlier this year, Lucasfilm dropped the actress Gina Carano from its Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian after she likened conservatives—who she said are “hated” for their political views—to Jews who had died in the Holocaust. Her comments generated the usual cycle of backlash: #FireGinaCarano trended on Twitter, Lucasfilm responded by canning her, and her agent dropped her as well. This time, though, the story didn’t end there. Carano found salvation in the form of Ben Shapiro, the impish right-wing media personality best known for coining the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings.” A few days after Carano was fired, Shapiro agreed to finance her next movie under the auspices of his new entertainment venture, a wing of his news website, The Daily Wire.

Shapiro’s film venture will never compete with Goliath industry players such as Disney or Warner, but that isn’t the point. His aim is not to build a separate entertainment ecosystem for conservatives, but to funnel movie money into the ongoing debate over cancel culture, by drafting stars like Carano to serve as pawns in a war over media representation.

The Daily Wire’s entertainment division represents a new kind of Hollywood ploy, one uniquely suited to the era of online outrage. For decades, Tinseltown stars have crossed over into conservative politics—Charlton Heston joined the NRA, Ronald Reagan became president, Clint Eastwood argued with a chair. Only recently, however, have political operatives like Steve Bannon or Andrew Breitbart begun to use film as a vehicle to bring conservative arguments into the mainstream, producing everything from a scaremongering Obama documentary to a hit job on Occupy Wall Street. Still, these projects were aimed at a reasonably normie audience—the kind of conservative who wants to take a break from Fox News to watch a film about the same things Fox talks about: the evil plans of the Democratic Party, the specter of socialism, the honorable deeds of the Troops.

Shapiro, on the other hand, is less interested in capturing mainstream eyeballs than he is in catering to those who already keep up with the cancellation du jour. Although he was raised in Los Angeles by a Hollywood composer and a TV executive, Shapiro has branded himself not as a tribune of the moviegoing masses but as a right-wing Socrates who can dismantle liberal policy arguments with “logic.” After getting a nationally syndicated column at the age of 17, he started The Daily Wire with money from a fracking billionaire and went on to become the host of a logorrheic podcast. His core audience is not sofa-bound boomers but alienated teenagers and devil’s-advocate campus conservatives, and his new entertainment venture seems poised to cater to this more online section of the right.

Over the past year, Shapiro has devoted constant attention to the vagaries of cancel culture, ginning up outrage over political correctness at Smith College and the decision to cease printing Seuss books that contained racist imagery; his foray into film represents a new phase of that campaign. The stated goal is to check the power of a Hulu or Netflix by producing “edgy, entertaining, awesome movies” and “comedies and dramas ... that don’t take advantage of your viewership to promote Leftist causes.” Yet so far, Shapiro mostly seems interested in providing a safety net for movies and stars with nowhere else to go. The first film The Daily Wire acquired was a teen slasher flick, Run Hide Fight, whose previous producers had been plagued by wage complaints and assault allegations; the second seems to be a vehicle for people outraged on Carano’s behalf.

The irony here is that Shapiro’s war on cancel culture is at odds with his loudly proclaimed faith in the free market. Even if you disagree with Carano’s firing, it’s clear that the decision did not involve state coercion—it was the result of a private company reacting to market pressure. If Shapiro succeeds in creating a home for people like Carano, he will in effect be working against the market—exploiting sympathy for canceled stars in order to monetize the very “feelings” he once ridiculed. He built a career by flattering his audience that they were freethinking mavericks; now, he plans to make money by treating them like snowflakes.