Ben Shapiro Laid a Trap For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
by Benjamin Studebaker
I was dismayed this week to see Ben Shapiro successfully trap Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This is a good opportunity to talk about political rhetoric–the art of talking political smack. It’s important to know not just how to do it but when not to.
As my good friend Nathan Robinson has pointed out in Current Affairs, Ben Shapiro is a bit of a troll. He frequently offers to debate left wing people. When they say no, he accuses them of being unwilling to face him. When they say yes, he deploys logical fallacies, lies about statistics, and doesn’t conduct the debate in good faith. And of course, he avoids debating anyone who is quick enough to point this out in real time and pin him to the wall (like Robinson, who has repeatedly offered to debate Shapiro and received no response). At this point, some of us know Shapiro’s game, in no small part thanks to Robinson’s excellent piece. But there are still many people who don’t know what he’s up to. These people may have seen Shapiro get published in seemingly respectable places like National Review and discussed reverently in the pages of The New York Times. They don’t know his history. They don’t realise these news outlets are not particularly trustworthy arbiters of what counts as “intellectual” conservatism.
So when Shapiro tweeted at Ocasio-Cortez and offered to debate her, most people likely took his offer to be sincere and genuine:
It’s very likely that Ocasio-Cortez, or someone on her team, has read Robinson’s piece. They know that Shapiro is doing a nice guy routine and that he has no intention of making real arguments based on anything true. For Shapiro, debating isn’t about getting at the truth–it’s an opportunity for him to generate right wing propaganda. Knowing this, Ocasio-Cortez has three options:
- She can debate Shapiro and walk directly into his trap. He knows from watching her on TV that she’s not quick enough to nail him to the wall in real time. He wouldn’t have asked if he weren’t absolutely certain he could get away with his tricks in a debate with her. And Ocasio-Cortez’s people know that, too. Debating Shapiro would not go well, not because Shapiro would make good arguments but because he would use misdirection and misinformation to make very persuasive bad arguments.
- She can ignore Shapiro. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running against Shapiro. She doesn’t owe him a response.
- She can make a point to refuse to debate Shapiro, explicitly drawing attention to her refusal. This will make her look like a coward to his fans, and if in her rejection she gives Shapiro any ammunition whatsoever, she can be sure he will run with it. Responding to Shapiro also validates him as someone worthy of response, and that strengthens his brand and makes it easier for him to play his tricks on other people in the future.
The safe response–and in my view, the smart response–is to ignore Shapiro altogether. He isn’t worth Ocasio-Cortez’s time, and he should be handled the way her campaign would handle any internet troll who tweets nonsense at her.
But there’s a reason Shapiro targeted Ocasio-Cortez. She is inexperienced. She is the kind of person he could mess with in a debate hall. And that’s why she didn’t ignore him. Instead, she tweeted this:
This response is bad on many levels. Firstly, Ocasio-Cortez is giving Shapiro precisely what she is saying he’s not entitled to–a response. Secondly, because Ocasio-Cortez has herself criticised her political opponents for refusing to debate her, she looks hypocritical:
Thirdly, by referencing catcalling, Ocasio-Cortez makes her response about gender. One of the things that annoyed people about Hillary Clinton is that they felt she too often accused political opponents–including even Bernie Sanders and his supporters–of sexism. In going straight to the catcalling accusation, Ocasio-Cortez reminds people of something they don’t like about Hillary Clinton. It is not good for a left wing, anti-establishment Democrat to remind people of Hillary Clinton in any respect whatsoever.
Shapiro and his friends had a field day, accusing Ocasio-Cortez of hiding behind her gender and of having, by her own definition, previously catcalled her opponent. I won’t subject you to their tweets.
It is hard for me to imagine a constituency which would feel that Ocasio-Cortez played this situation correctly. Ocasio-Cortez comes from a district which contains parts of Queens and the Bronx–urban counties which went for Clinton over Sanders in 2016 by more than 20 points. Maybe in her district reminding people of Hillary Clinton is a vote winner.
But this is not going to work on the national level, and certainly not in red states. Tweets like this play badly outside all but the most solid of Clinton areas. It’s the kind of thing which diminishes Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to help left-wing candidates in other races. It makes me not want to stick her in front of a camera.
This is unfortunate, because the left could really use a young spokesperson that TV networks are willing to book. If Ocasio-Cortez had better political instincts, she would be a much greater asset to the left. But after this, I suspect it might be best if she lays low for a bit. Ocasio-Cortez was already in danger of being overexposed. Now she’s embarrassed herself (and by extension the left) before a national audience, and given aid and comfort to the career of Ben Shapiro in the process. It has not been a great week for our side.