In May 2019, a young man in Indiana was sentenced to three years in federal prison for a hate crime. Nolan Brewer, along with his then-17-year-old wife, Kiyomi Brewer, spray-painted a Nazi flag on a garbage shed at a Carmel, Indiana, synagogue and set fire to its lawn. While Nolan had never before defaced a house of worship, after the Brewers’ arrest, investigators linked Kiyomi to at least two other incidents regarding houses of worship in the surrounding area, starting with break-ins and theft and escalating to vandalism and arson. Despite being a minor at the time of the crimes, Kiyomi was tried as an adult for state charges of arson and was sentenced to two years’ probation.
The Brewers’ crimes come at a time of increasing antisemitism throughout the United States. The government argued for an “upward departure” in Nolan’s sentencing—that is, more jail time than federal sentencing guidelines recommend given Nolan’s plea, criminal history, and severity of the act—pointing out that a strict penalty for Nolan would deter other acts of antisemitic violence such as the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in 2018.
Evidence against Nolan showed an affinity for Nazism. His phone’s wallpaper displayed a swastika; he wore a pendant with a swastika-like design; he shared Nazi and racist memes with co-workers; one had even referred to him in a text message as “lil Hitler.” And yet, in arguing for leniency, Nolan’s defense team claimed it wasn’t Nolan who inspired the attack, but rather Kiyomi, who, Nolan claimed, had herself been set on the path to neonazism by a series of increasingly reactionary media sources. Among them was conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
Shapiro, 36, is a former Breitbart staffer who has since become editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, a conservative opinion website. Best known for his liberal-tweaking quips, such as “facts don’t care about your feelings,” or his declaration that “‘Right side of history’ may be the most morally idiotic phrase of modern times”—a tweet later undermined when he published his 2019 book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great—Shapiro has frequently advocated for right-wing positions on social issues. He opposed Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide; he supports a total ban on abortion; and he’s argued that more than half of Muslims worldwide are “radicalized.” After the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of transgender protections under Title VII this June, with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch penning the majority opinion, Shapiro lambasted the conservative Justice, calling his decision “a bad, outcome-driven legal decision.”
It wasn’t the first time Shapiro has been cited as inspiring reactionary violence. Evidence against Alexandre Bissonette, who killed six Muslim men at a Quebec City mosque in 2017, shows that he frequently visited Ben Shapiro’s Twitter profile in the months before his rampage. In 2019, U.S. federal authorities charged Matthew Haviland, then 30, with cyberstalking and threatening to murder a university professor partly because of the professor’s liberal views on abortion and gender; in now-deleted YouTube videos, Haviland had encouraged his YouTube followers to check out Shapiro’s videos.
Shapiro rejects the idea that he’s influenced these far-right violent actors and categorically denies any association with the Alt Right. As a Jewish man, he says he’s been targeted himself by the hate of the Alt Right, which blames Jews for so-called societal ills. Private chat records from numerous neonazi groups (leaked by independent media collective Unicorn Riot) demonstrate reactions to Shapiro’s work that range from tepid acceptance to outright hostility. And to be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Shapiro has explicitly called for violence or that he approves of it.
Nevertheless, Shapiro has joined an ensemble of right-wing leaders cited by perpetrators of bias attacks. The man accused of killing 51 Muslims in the 2019 Christchurch massacre in New Zealand referenced Black conservative media personality Candace Owens in his manifesto (although perhaps mockingly). The trial of a married couple who were fans of former Breitbart writer and Alt Lite star Milo Yiannopoulos, for allegedly shooting a counter-protester and pepper-spraying others outside one of Yiannopoulos’ campus events in Seattle, ended in a mistrial. Both the mass package bombing and Kroger shooting in late 2018 were committed by fervent supporters of President Donald Trump. An ABC News investigation found over 50 criminal cases involving violence, threats, or assaults invoking Trump’s name.
More recently, a man allegedly shot a protester during a rally to remove a statue of Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The alleged shooter’s Twitter account shows he replied multiple times to Shapiro’s tweets, in one case posting a tweet in defense of the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
So frequently are violent right-wing acts linked to well-known conservative personalities that right-wing media outlets have developed rapid responses to distance themselves. From straw man arguments to outlandish conspiracy theories, these tactics are designed to deflect and distract from the underlying story, often employing “DARVO” tactics—that is, to deny, attack, and reverse the victim and offender. When Buzzfeed reported on the Brewers, for example, a tweet promoting their story mistakenly stated that Nolan, rather than Kiyomi, was most swayed by Shapiro’s rhetoric. Although the article itself was accurate, and the tweet was quickly corrected, this minor gaffe gave right-wing media all the ammunition needed to attack the report. These counter-narratives also pointed to Shapiro’s Jewish heritage and his status as a victim of Alt Right rancor as evidence that he could not possibly inspire hate crimes. Soon, articles attacking Buzzfeed’s credibility sprung up in the Daily Caller, RT, the Washington Examiner, The Blaze, and others. A chorus of conservative voices ridiculed Nolan’s claim that Shapiro’s work had helped radicalize his wife.
But Shapiro’s invectives against trans people, Arabs, Muslims, and even “Bad Jews”—by which he means Jewish people who vote against his political interests—is otherwise indistinguishable from standard Alt Right rhetoric. This unified defense by right-wing media seems designed less to absolve Shapiro of accusations of bigotry than to provide him rhetorical cover to continue promoting it.
This is no mistake. Shapiro and many of his peers are not Alt Right personalities themselves. And there’s little doubt that Shapiro sincerely abhors attacks on synagogues. But he nonetheless traffics in inflammatory rhetoric against marginalized individuals with language that frequently overlaps that of Hard Right movements. He regularly criticizes the transgender rights movement, claiming in at least one case that gender confirmation surgeries “don’t work.” He often engages in Islamophobic rhetoric, including his claim that there’s “not any evidence” that only a minority of Muslims are radical.
Shapiro’s comments are typically short on actual policy or factual analysis, and instead seem designed to provoke anxiety in his supporters: kernels of populist right-wing identity politics that help drive a rightward shift in the Overton window—the spectrum of what political viewpoints are considered acceptably mainstream. Time and again, these talking points have been found in the motives and manifestos of violent far-right actors, as almost unavoidably, some fans, like the Brewers, use this rhetoric as a stepping-stone to more reactionary positions.
Shortly after their attack on the synagogue, Kiyomi and Nolan Brewer met with recruiters from the White nationalist group Identity Evropa—one of the organizations responsible for planning the fatal 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—and mailed in membership dues to join. After details of Nolan’s sentencing were made public, Patrick Casey, the group’s leader, released a statement claiming that the membership dues paid by the Brewers applied only to Kiyomi, that the organization was unaware of the Brewers’ crimes or that Kiyomi was a minor, and that Kiyomi’s membership was promptly terminated. Facing a bevy of legal and public relations challenges stemming from Unite the Right, Identity Evropa recently rebranded as the American Identity Movement and has tried to rehabilitate its image as a non-violent, pro-White identitarian movement. Nevertheless, despite this ex post facto attempt to distance themselves from the incident, their extended legacy as a violent hate movement is a permanent blemish on their veneer.
Violent White supremacist groups have long sought legitimacy by sanitizing their image without toning down their hateful views. While these groups may despise Shapiro for both his Jewish faith and his proximity to mainstream conservativism, nevertheless, as the Brewers’ case demonstrates, he and his peers provide a gateway to more radical corners of the Right, where violence is part and parcel of the territory.
 United States v. Brewer, 1:18-cr-00286-TWP-DLP 1, 225, COURTLISTENER (S.D. Ind. 2018).
 State v. Signorino, 07C01-1808-F5-000397 (Ind. Brown Cir. 2018).
 “2017 Hate Crime Statistics,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, released fall 2018, https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2017/topic-pages/incidents-and-offenses.
 United States v. Brewer, 1:18-cr-00286-TWP-DLP 1, 364, COURTLISTENER (S.D. Ind. 2018).
 United States v. Brewer, 1:18-cr-00286-TWP-DLP 1, 585, COURTLISTENER (S.D. Ind. 2018).
 Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro). 2014. “‘Right side of history’ may be the most morally idiotic phrase of modern times. History is not God, and has no morality.” Twitter, May 12, 2014. https://twitter.com/benshapiro/status/465869637872521216?lang=en.
 Amanda Coletta, “Quebec City mosque shooter scoured Twitter for Trump, right-wing figures before attack,” Washington Post, April 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/04/18/quebec-cit….
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 Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro). 2019. “.@TheEconomist, this is a vile lie. Not only am I not alt-right, I am probably their leading critic on the right. I was the number one target of their hate in 2016 online according to ADL data. I demand a retraction.” Twitter, March 28, 2019. https://twitter.com/benshapiro/status/1111261175268794369?ref_src=twsrc….
 “Message from WilderBeast in Nice Respectable People Group #general,” Discord Leaks, Unicorn Riot, messaged September 25, 2018, https://discordleaks.unicornriot.ninja/discord/view/1787326?q=shapiro#m….
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 KRQE Staff, Jami Seymore, “City of Albuquerque removes statue of Juan de Oñate in Old Town,” KRQE, June 16, 2020, https://www.krqe.com/news/albuquerque-metro/city-of-albuquerque-to-remo…
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 Claudia Koerner, “An Indiana Man Who Vandalized A Synagogue With Nazi Symbols Admitted How Far-Right Figures Radicalized Him,” BuzzFeed News, May 26, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/claudiakoerner/indiana-man-vandali….
 BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews). 2019. “We have deleted this tweet because it was inaccurate: the man told prosecutors his road to radicalization included his wife reading Ben Shapiro, Breitbart News, and the Nazi propaganda site Stormfront.” Twitter, May 27, 2019. https://twitter.com/BuzzFeedNews/status/1133065921373843456.
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 “BuzzFeed panned for claiming synagogue vandal was inspired by Ben Shapiro – an orthodox Jew,” RT, May 28, 2019, https://www.rt.com/usa/460406-buzzfeed-ben-shapiro-nazi/.
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 Shapiro, Ben (@benshapiro). 2011. “The Jewish people has always been plagued by Bad Jews, who undermine it from within. In America, those Bad Jews largely vote Democrat.” Twitter, November 8, 2011. https://twitter.com/benshapiro/status/133918830073352192?lang=en.
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 United States v. Brewer, 1:18-cr-00286-TWP-DLP 1, 421, COURTLISTENER (S.D. Ind. 2018).
 Casey, Patrick (@PatrickCaseyUSA). 2019. “Statement on Nolan and Kiyomi Brewer.” Twitter, May 27, 2019. https://twitter.com/PatrickCaseyUSA/status/1133200972002615296.
 Hatewatch Staff, “White Nationalist Group Identity Evropa Rebrands Following Private Chat Leaks, Launches ‘American Identity Movement,’” Hatewatch, Southern Poverty Law Center, March 12, 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/03/12/white-nationalist-group-….