If you have a taste for schadenfreude and intramedia blood sport, the recent cat fight between Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire and right-wing YouTube star Steven Crowder has been a delight to behold. It’s an absurd yet revealing spectacle, with both sides claiming to act on high principle while slinging mud and chasing profits, even at the cost of selling out friends and cozying up to the supposed enemies in Big Tech.
It began with a tweet from Crowder announcing that he was “done being quiet,” followed by a video detailing a contract spat with an unnamed potential employer. That potential employer turned out to be The Daily Wire, which clapped back in kind. Then on Jan. 23, the timbre of the back-and-forth changed when The Daily Wire’s Candace Owens made a thinly veiled threat to out Crowder as gay.
Though it’s easy to view Crowder, Owens, and Shapiro as little more than YouTubers, they are in fact billionaire-funded millionaires within an oligarch-funded media landscape. The evangelical fracking billionaire Farris Wilks provided $4.7 million in seed funding for The Daily Wire, and remains one of the media company’s four owners. Just as on the left, whose media is underwritten by the likes of Laurene Powell Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Pierre Omidyar, the right’s new media celebrities are not examples of free-market, competitive capitalism as much as beneficiaries of billionaire largesse.
The latest episode in this particular soap opera of conservative celebrity swirls around Crowder, one of the most popular political pundits on YouTube and a star within the growing media ecosystem of the online right. Producing brash culture-war humor and commentary for a largely young male audience, he has almost 6 million subscribers, several hundred thousand more than MSNBC’s YouTube channel. A big part of Crowder’s appeal is his campy macho persona, a blend of frat-guy energy and Rush Limbaugh-brand right-wing radio politics. With scruffy beard, signature gun holsters, and muscles showing beneath his too-tight sweaters, he angrily stands up for “traditional masculinity” and mockingly impersonates gay stereotypes. Confusingly for some, Crowder also has repeatedly dressed in drag—seemingly for “comic” effect—and throws the epithet “fag” around with the casual frequency I’ve only seen among virulent homophobes and the gayest twinks on Earth. The combination has made him a target of gay-rights activists as well as anti-gay bigots, who allege that he might be in the closet himself.
The right’s new media celebrities are not examples of free-market, competitive capitalism as much as beneficiaries of billionaire largesse.
Until recently, Crowder’s juvenile but wildly popular show was distributed by The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s online network. But at the end of last year, with that arrangement coming to a close, Crowder went looking for a new home. On Jan. 17, he released “It’s time to stop …” in which he indignantly blasted the “slave contract” offered to him by an anonymous conservative platform, which would have saddled him with financial penalties if any of his content lost the company sponsors or was demonetized by tech platforms like YouTube. Though Crowder demurely refused to name the company he accused of kowtowing to Big Tech and described as “Big Con,” the obvious target of his ire was The Daily Wire, the right-wing goliath co-founded by Ben Shapiro.
Two days later, The Daily Wire’s CEO, Jeremy Boreing—Crowder’s former friend—released a 53-minute video addressing the claims point by point. Boreing politely implied that Crowder was being idiotic, and included a couple of extra points Crowder had failed to mention: that this opening term sheet was for $50 million over four years, with weekends off, four weeks holiday, full editorial control, and an option to renew the contract for another two years. Boreing also noted that Crowder’s agent had countered that offer with a $120 million ask.
In response to Boreing’s post, Crowder released audio that he had secretly recorded of one of his last conversations with Boreing. Crowder was using this audio in the interest of promoting his new venture at StopBigCon.com, where Crowder fans were encouraged to do their part in defending freedom and fighting Big Tech tyranny by becoming paid subscribers.
Boreing and Shapiro mostly kept things clean in their rebuttals, portraying the whole spat as a kind of guerrilla marketing campaign, with Crowder making war on his former allies to gin up publicity for his new subscription service. But that changed when Boreing’s and Shapiro’s underlings decided to go dirty. On Jan. 23, Candace Owens—the Kanye-praising, Hitler-defending, self-appointed “Red Pill Black”—called Crowder everything from a “bitch” to a “socialist” before abruptly changing tack and releasing a somber segment labeled “Pray for Steven Crowder,” in which she said:
Over the weekend I was given a lot more information regarding Steven Crowder … Steven has a lot going on, I guess that’s the best way to say it … Rather than being angry, I would like to implore my audience … not to condemn him, but to pray for him. Sometimes people need a prayer. Sometimes people need a scripture. You know, Steven purports to be a Christian, and I believe that he needs to lean into his faith, and I am certain that, in the near future, more information will come out. … I am unsure at this moment if it is my place to say more than that. You know, maybe if I feel in further defense, something should be said or maybe if I feel the public has a right to understand certain circumstances, but at this moment I think I would just like to carefully back out. I am genuinely praying for Steven Crowder. I am praying that he is reminded that there is always help in the form of the Lord.
If Owens thought she was being subtle, listeners quickly caught the drift, concluding that her point here was that Crowder is a closeted gay man. It’s an old form of homophobic blackmail: to destroy one’s credibility, reputation, and career through the accusation that they are secretly a queer. What makes it interesting in this case is that the people driving it otherwise delight in depicting those on the left as our culture’s most egregious busybodies and scolds.
In Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, Tablet Magazine columnist Jamie Kirchick writes about how the accusation of being gay was once perceived as so grievous that gay government employees came to be considered a threat to national security—it was falsely assumed that they could easily be blackmailed, and that they would sooner betray their own country than be outed. As Kirchick documents, the supposed gay traitor held up as an example of this, Alfred Redl, was driven to betray his country by financial recklessness, not because of his sex life. However, threats to expose one’s homosexuality were no fiction. Britain’s criminalization of homosexuality created a thriving industry of blackmail, forcing gay men to pay up—or else be exposed and pay the price.
“The insinuation of homosexuality was once the most dangerous weapon in American politics—more likely to destroy a reputation or a career than the accusation that one was a communist,” Kirchick told Tablet. “Thankfully, that’s no longer the case, which is why Owens’ veiled threat against Crowder seems impotent in addition to being craven.”
In fact for years, the talking heads at The Daily Wire have insisted that they are no longer interested in prosecuting people’s private desires and that their real objection is to the state intervening in the public square to promote ideas about sex or gender ideology. They’ve marketed themselves as principled truth-tellers, preaching about the values of conservatism and trying to inoculate a growing online audience against the ugliness and immorality of the “radical” left. But that whole argument crumbles—even if Shapiro himself stays out of the fray—when his Daily Wire underlings turn gay rumors into a cudgel.
Ross Anderson is a freelance writer and 2020 Tablet Fellow. He tweets from @thatrosschap.