Ben Shapiro at Politicon on July 30, 2017, in Pasadena, California. Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for Politicon.
By Alex Kotch
Ben Shapiro’s been called a conservative “wunderkind,” a “cool kid’s philosopher,” and a “principled gladiator.” While these types of profiles tend to ascribe some kind of preternatural persuasive skill to Shapiro, the reality is that his path to success has been gilded by a number of conservative billionaires and multimillionaires, many of whom are major Republican political donors.
Two organizations that promote Shapiro—Turning Point USA and Young America’s Foundation (both heavily pro-Trump)—are propped up with cash from wealthy conservatives. And both groups put Shapiro in the company of racists and Islamophobic figures.
Prominent GOP political donors to these groups include Charles Koch, Education Sec. Betsy DeVos and her family, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, prolific GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus, and Wyoming gubernatorial candidate Foster Freiss.
While the funding behind Breitbart News and Shapiro’s current platform, The Daily Wire, is well known, a full picture of the money behind Shapiro makes it clear that his career depends on a much larger group of major conservatives than he would perhaps like to admit.
“I’ve never met the Kochs, DeVos[es], Mercers, Rauner, Uihlein, or Marcus, and I’ve only met members of the Bradley family and Freiss in passing,” Shapiro told TYT. “Not a single one of these people, or any of our funders at Daily Wire, have ever exerted an iota of editorial control. My opinions are my own, and they’ll stay that way.”
As the money has piled up, much of it from Trump supporters, Shapiro’s “never-Trump” stance appears to have softened, something Shapiro denies.
In March 2016, Shapiro resigned from the far-right site Breitbart News, known for its racist and anti-immigrant content and for its financial support from the billionaire Robert Mercer, saying that the site had become far too subservient to Trump for his liking. “It is now a propaganda platform,” he told Frontline.
Following his departure from Breitbart. Shapiro quickly founded the Daily Wire with funding from its owners, brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, Texas fracking billionaires who supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. The brothers and their wives combined to donate $15 million to a pro-Cruz super PAC in the early election season.
Shapiro told TYT that his support for Cruz predated his relationship with the Wilks brothers. “Now, usually, the follow-up question is whether I supported Ted Cruz because they supported Ted Cruz. The obvious answer is no: I backed him all the way back in 2012 when he ran against David Dewhurst.”
‘LOOK OUT SNOWFLAKES’
Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is a conservative nonprofit founded in 1960 that maintains the Reagan Ranch and books far-right speakers such as Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, Dana Loesch, and Ted Nugent.
YAF has “Young Americans for Freedom” student chapters at colleges and universities around the country. The nonprofit helps organize and sponsor campus lectures, and Shapiro is one of YAF’s most prolific college speakers. Since 2015, YAF has organized over 35 Shapiro speaking gigs, according to the organization.
In November 2017, YAF announced that it would be the “exclusive home” of Shapiro’s 2018–2019 college speaking tour, funded by Fred R. Allen. (It’s unclear who Fred Allen is, and YAF did not return an inquiry about his identity.) The group announced on July 25 that six universities will host Shapiro this fall with the headline, “LOOK OUT SNOWFLAKES.”
HUGE ANNOUNCEMENT: Following more than 1300 requests to host @benshapiro on campus, just SIX SCHOOLS were selected for his fall campus lecture tour ⬇️
— YAF (@yaf) July 25, 2018
YAF also recently announced sponsored speaking tours for two Daily Wire podcasters, Andrew Klavan and Michael Knowles.
Some YAF speakers, including Shapiro, Horowitz and former YAF speaker Ann Coulter, have faced protests at university speaking engagements due to their previous racist, homophobic, or Islamophobic rhetoric. Shapiro has a history of anti-Islam language.
Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) September 27, 2010
Backing YAF is a fleet of billionaire GOP donors from powerful conservative families. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, named after the in-laws of Betsy DeVos, has directly donated the most to YAF. In 2012, the foundation gave YAF $2 million, and it reportedly gave $6 million from 2009 to 2011. More recently, the donations are smaller; the foundation gave $25,000 in 2014. The affiliated DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative added $1 million in 2012.
The Mercer Foundation donated $100,000 to YAF in 2016, and the Charles Koch Foundation and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation ($65,000 in 2015 and $75,000 in 2016) have also contributed directly to YAF.
In addition to direct contributions from their family foundations, all four families donate to donor-advised fund Donors Trust, which, along with its sister group Donors Capital Fund, masks the identities of its donors and gives money to YAF and other conservative causes. Koch family foundations are some of the biggest donors to Donors Trust.
An even more controversial organization that often books Shapiro at its events is the campus conservative group Turning Point USA, led by the young Trump devotee Charlie Kirk. Shapiro has spoken at various TPUSA events including the recent Young Women’s Leadership Summit, the 2017 Student Action Summit, and a Creighton University event hosted by the school’s TPUSA chapter.
The right-wing group has been the subject of recent controversy, including meddling in student government elections and a series of staff members who’ve made racist comments. YAF, which was aligned with TPUSA, circulated an internal memo in May condemning TPUSA for for falsifying numbers, “Boosting Numbers With Racists & Nazi Sympathizers,” and “unethical activity.”
“The long-term damage TPUSA could inflict on conservative students and the Conservative Movement can no longer be ignored,” wrote YAF Vice President and General Counsel Kimberly Begg.
Despite being a key speaker for YAF, Shapiro went on to speak at the Young Women’s Leadership Summit in June, after the memo circulated. Kirk “does a lot of great work for the country,” he said in his speech.
TPUSA and YAF share donors the Bradley Foundation and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. The student group has also taken in funding from other GOP billionaires including Rauner, Uihlein, Marcus, and Friess.
From 2014 to 2016, the Ed Uihlein Foundation gave TPUSA $275,000, according to IRS tax records previously reviewed by this author. The family foundation of Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a former private equity executive worth an estimated $500 million, donated $150,000 to TPUSA from 2014 to 2015. In 2015, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus’s foundation donated $72,600 to TPUSA. The Henry and Lynde Bradley Foundation gave TPUSA $20,000 from 2015 to 2016, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation gave $10,000 in 2015. Public records don’t reveal Friess’ donations to TPUSA, but Bloomberg reported that Freiss, a member of TPUSA’s advisory council, gave Kirk a “five-figure check.”
While Shapiro’s statements on Trump are mixed, TPUSA could not be more supportive of the president. TPUSA events often feature speakers from the Trump family, Trump administration officials, and personalities from the president’s favorite cable news outlet, Fox News. Shapiro says that this dynamic hasn’t affected his rhetoric.
“If you think I’ve stopped critiquing Trump at TPUSA events, for example, I’d recommend you actually watch my speeches at TPUSA. As for my perspective on Trump, I’ve always said that I’ll call balls and strikes—and while I’ve been pleased with a lot of his administration’s policies (particularly on judges and the Middle East), even a basic perusal of my work will show that I’ve been damned critical of him when I think he’s wrong (see tariffs or personal failings).”