I hadn’t listened to an episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast until a few days ago, for a variety of reasons. For those not in the know, Chapo Trap House is a popular podcast hosted by Will Menaker, Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and a variety of other twitter nano-celebrities. In the profiles of Chapo that have become ubiquitous in the last couple weeks, the hosts are usually described as operating at the intersection of “left twitter” (“Neoliberals are bad!”) and “weird twitter” (“Hitler is good!”).
My lack of interest in the podcast was the result of the little bit that I knew about the podcasters. Without listening to their podcast and going solely by their online presences (especially Felix’s) there’s a visible proximity to a loose agglomeration of what George Bell calls “dissociative shitposting personalities heavily influenced by channer culture.” In a series that’s absolutely worth reading, George explains how members of this sub-culture “purport to be on the left, and even occasionally mouth opinions which approximate mild social democracy,” but “None of this, however, distinguishes them from the alt-right, with whom they share the channer cultural indicia.”
This affinity crops up repeatedly, from the Chapos dubbing their fans Grey Wolves, after the fascist Turkish gang; to the “ironic” references to alt-right inspired terminology, like Menaker’s frequent bend the knees and much of Felix’s timeline; to the group’s affiliation with Nick Mullen, a fellow “ironic” podcaster and Chapo roommate who did shit like tweet jokes comparing President Obama to apes. In the brave new Left, nothing racist or fascist seems genuinely objectionable anymore, as long as someone is popular, has popular friends, and gestures at general positive feelings towards social democracy. These are people who want to make rape jokes and call people “retards” while also having free health care (TW: rape A good microcosm: a user on the Chapo subreddit with the name “CosbyMixedDrink” saying “That’s why I like Chapo is that they don’t do this whole speech bullshit but are still respectful of people in general.” The Left is back, baby—a hearty cheer for the return of The Left!).
“Crypto Cuttlefish” has written an excellent thread on the Strasserite National-Socialist vibe of this sort of politics, and the danger of allowing it anywhere near something claiming to be “the Left.” This sort of thing, coupled with the mainline-democratic socialist bent expressed by the podcasters, makes for a finished product that one favorable write-up summarizes as “equal parts Dissent and 4chan.”
So I never listened to Chapo, because Dissent-meets-4chan sounds fucking horrible.
However, this week, an IRL friend recommended that I listen to Chapo Trap House, specifically the episode “From Russia with CHUD.” By way of self-crit (I had to atone for the fact that somehow I’m giving off the impression that I want to hear about Chapo Trap House), I listened to the actual episode, which threatened to reveal what the Chapos and a writer for The New Republic thought about the Democrat/CIA anti-Russia campaign. A New Republic scribe skewering the hypocrisies of the Democrats–let’s have another round of cheers for the triumphant resurgence of The Left!
Having listened to an episode, it’s clear why Chapo is so popular. Chapo Trap House is basically The Daily Show for dummies who are a little too woke to be #WithHer Democrats. It’s mostly preening and in-jokes about cartoonish right-wing cretins, although it’s meaner and more reliant on internet memes and arcane twitter minutiae than the Comedy Central version.
Having established the template for smug liberal stroke-fests in the 21st century, The Daily Show looms large as a media product. In a piece whose title dubs the trio “vulgar, brilliant demigods of the new Progressive Left,” co-host Matt Christman sells the show as something other than “the smug above-it-all snark of The Daily Show or the quaver-voiced earnestness of, like Chris Hedges or something.” Their New Yorker profile makes distinctions against The Daily Show, as do plenty of other articles and blog posts looking to puff up the show.
It’s bullshit: when you’re not in thrall to the show’s assiduously cultivated brand story, it’s clearly in the vein of The Daily Show. Since this may sound shocking to someone familiar with Chapo’s “radical” dissident branding, it’s worth doing bit of a closer reading.
The episode in question (#118), costarring The New Republic’s Sarah Jones, deals mostly with today’s anti-Russia campaign. The Chapos correctly identify that the Democratic Party is whipping up a jingoistic anti-Russia hysteria in order to distract from the party’s own “shortcomings,” and they give a decent summary of Democratic “hawkishness.” It’s an alright summary, although it’s nothing you couldn’t find on AlterNet or Truth-Dig, and it’s not a fraction as funny as its fans all say it is.
The Chapos also say that Russia probably interfered in the election, that the Trump campaign probably colluded with Russia in a way that “was almost certainly criminal,” that Russia is a declining second-rate shithole, that they wouldn’t object to Trump being ejected from the Oval Office, that the Democrats are inept, that “the problem is the Republican Party being in power,” and that RT is a disreputable news source that “does pretty much suck.” Then there’s a bit of riffing about the degeneracy of the Slav—ironically, of course!
The stuff that’s supposed to be really edgy is when the Chapos tear into some of the prominent figures fomenting the current anti-Russian hysteria, especially Louise “Britain’s Sarah Palin” Mensch, Eric “Always Be GameTheorying” Garland, and the legions of nitwit Hillbots churning out gigabytes’-worth of tweets about the Putinite menace. That’s cool, but these are also really easy targets. Louise Mensch is human garbage, and Eric Garland is an obvious bullshit peddler. Given that Hillary Clinton was running for president with a record to the right of George W. Bush’s, making fun of those in her orbit is as challenging as clowning on the Bush junta circa 2005 (and since the #resistance is rehabilitating Bush admin wall-bait like David Frum, some of the faces are even the same).
Actually, most of the Chapo’s favorite targets are low-hanging fruit: Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’s stable of “reasonable Republicans” that that publication is so in love with, is a frequent punching-bag. Ross Douthat is also so insipid that he makes David Brooks look inspired, so mocking him takes as much imagination as razzing Tom Friedman. Likewise for Matt Yglesias, Eli Lake, Max Boot, and Donna Brazile and Joy Anne Reid and Peter Daou.
Kayfabe is a wrestling term that most of Chapo’s fans will probably be familiar with, and it refers to the shared suspension of disbelief that wrestling fans engage in so that they can enjoy the spectacle. So many staged political fights have an element of this to them, and Chapo is no different. Fans surrender to the fantasy by ignoring the fact that mocking people like libertarian scumbag Megan McArdle is actually really, really easy—which is why the Chapos spend so much time at the end of each episode on their “reading series,” where they zing the hypocrisies and alleged myopia of this or that neoliberal clown. Episode 118’s installment of the reading series focuses on a Bloomberg piece by McArdle, in which she argues that the Grenfell tower fire which killed 80 mostly poor people in London was a necessary evil, since onerous regulations may not have saved anyone, anyway, so why bother? With McArdle having argued that “poor people being incinerated en masse is fine,” the Chapos then spend about 20 minutes discussing how that’s Actually Bad, and that poor people should not be burned to death by the dozens.
They’re right, of course. But it’s also instantly apparent to anyone who’s not a total piece of despicable shit why that’s a Bad Take, and it’s not hard to explain why. Deeper into the bit, one of the Chapos nails Megan McArdle with a WMD of double-standards:
The one who skypes in (Christman, maybe?): “Where the hell was this absolute paralysis in the face of the butterfly effect when she was like ‘you know what? Go invade Iraq.’”
All the rest and Sarah: YES! YES, ABSOLUTELY!
LOL, hypocrisy much? Do these right-wing turkeys even UNDERSTAND how HYPOCRITICAL they’re being?? Can you believe a libertarian doesn’t want to spend taxpayer money on social programs, but DOES want to spend public funds on war?
Well, yes, of course they do. If you have a 101-level understanding of Marx—a genuine understanding, not an empty posture—then that’s a totally consistent position. Yup, a propagandist will advocate not spending money on social programs, and will also agitate for costly imperial wars, since both of those things benefit their employers, a.k.a. the ruling class. This is what a radical, class-based, socialist understanding of ruling class praxis sounds like. What Chapo provides is, to quote Michael Parenti, a liberal complaint, not a radical analysis. So no wonder their show pulls in almost a million dollars a year.
This liberalism is the foundation for what people call “democratic socialism,” and it’s at the heart of Chapo’s commentary. One of the Chapos speaks positively in #118 about Canadian author John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards, a left-liberal holy book, which posits that liberalism served a progressive purpose several centuries ago, but it’s now a fetter on human development. In other words, Saul recapitulates an elementary Marxist truism without all that icky Communism. When discussing US foreign policy, the Chapos invariably use the royal “we” to talk about the predations of the ruling class, a dead giveaway that someone lacks a class-based analysis, and is thus a liberal, not a radical. This is in keeping with their non-radical tendency to defer to Beltway-speak like “hawks,” “doves,” non-interventionist foreign policy,” etc., rather than something grounded in a class-based analysis (though they’ve obviously read the seminal socialist text Interventionist Foreign Policy, the Highest Stage of Capitalism).
This is exactly what anyone should expect from people drinking from the brackish ideological puddle that is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—the Chapos are “aligned with the Brooklyn arm” of the DSA, they praise the DSA often, and occasionally host fundraisers for the organization. Large numbers of their fans flash their DSA membership on twitter via rose emojis (and promises to hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire, LOL). February 2017 pieces in both Al Jazeera English and Rolling Stone on the surge of post-Trump interest in “socialism” credit Chapo Trap House with steering people into the DSA.
The DSA was formed in the 1980s as the brainchild of Michael Harrington, an activist who initially supported the US bombing of Vietnam due to the “Stalinism” of the Vietnamese, only coming around to opposing it because the slaughter made Communists sympathetic. Harrington’s political philosophy can be summed up in two statements: “the left wing of realism is found today in the Democratic Party” and “I am anti-communist on principle because I am pro-freedom.” Harrington is a perfect representation of countless generations of radicals, socialists, and Leftists whose radical socialist Leftism amounts to Liberalism = good, Communism = bad.
To its credit, the DSA barely pretends to be anything other than a Democratic Party annex. Check out this post-election “rally” which a New York DSA chapter sold as a chance to “march to [Senator Chuck] Schumer’s home [to] deliver protein bars and weights to Schumer, so he can regain his strength” (if playing Mickey to Schumer’s Rocky Balboa sounds radical to you, I know a podcast you’ll like). Most of the leading lights of the whatever-left get around to echoing or hinting at the same sentiment eventually: case in point, DSA enthusiast, Jacobin managing editor, and self-described “far right of the radical left” Connor Kilpatrick went on Chapo Trap House (#13) and eventually mumbled out “uhh yeah, I’m uhhh voting…for Hillary,” which did not provoke paroxysms of laughter and mockery from the hosts. Neither did Chapo’s fans subject Kilpatrick to a barrage of substance-free invective and asinine ad-homs on social media, the way they do to radicals who are insufficiently enamored of the coolest new podcast sensation. Kilpatrick was kind enough to have the following exchange with David Simon, where the two “democratic socialists” do the what about agency? thing while “hoping to god” that Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the election.
I wonder if when the Chapos “take aim at Clinton supporters,” as a new profile in the Guardian has it, that means not inviting Kilpatrick on their show a third time?
And the Chapos manifest the traditional DSA anti-communism, though they may be more down-low about it than Harrington, who showed what his peers called an “obsessive anti-Communism.” Nothing like a Communist idea espoused on Chapo, and while one or the other may drop a ruling class here and there, the gang doesn’t show a genuine grasp of the fundamentals of class power. To the degree that the Chapos engage with Communist ideas at all, it’s to mine conformist laughter by sneering at “tankies” and “Stalinists” (the difference between sensible, rational Communists and evil, crazy tankies hinges on how much the reds in question love Chapo Trap House). For a good laugh, check out the edgy radicals in this Chapo subreddit thread whining about all the actual Communists in the online left. And for a list of successful Democratic Socialist revolutions, and a tally of human beings fed, housed, and made literate by Democratic Socialist regimes, open a new browser tab and stare at the blank page.
Given how the Chapos’ politics are leftish liberalism (at best), it’s no wonder that, amidst the shitshow of the current anti-Trump hashtag-resistance histrionics, Chapo Trap House has been designated the premier spokes-‘cast for whatever the hell “The Left” is supposed to be.
And make no mistake, Chapo has obviously been selected for this position.
Well, this is obvious to anyone with an actual grasp of how the ruling class manages its propaganda system, but it’s not obvious to Chapo’s fan base, whose criticism of the media is entirely superficial. As with every new crop of Leftie heroes we’re told to listen to, the Chapos are heralded as radical gatecrashers, who managed to circumvent the traditional media barriers through some D.I.Y. bootstrap ingenuity. Apparently the ruling class didn’t hate socialism because it threatens their bottom-line, they only wanted it sexed-up with a ton of riffing about esoteric twitter kerfuffles among the punditocracy.
In their case, Chapo Trap House’s mythology holds that they incubated in the most ironic corner of twitter, finally rocking the boat via their uniquely incisive online presences and nebulous crowdfunding paradigm. “The thing that drives Chapo haters the most insane,” writes Chapo Menaker, “is that they can’t get us fired from anywhere,” a reference to the fact that the show’s creators receive 70 grand a month from mostly anonymous sources via Patreon, allegedly insulating them from the traditional propaganda model.
Their radical cred is seemingly earned when “the establishment” pushes back, embodied by risible centrist trash like Jeet Heer and the sort of radical liberals who say that it’s racist and misogynistic to hate drone strikes. Once the anointed ones and their handlers have written the satisfying origin story, their legions of credulous fans repeat the outsider fairy tale they’ve been told to say—and in Chapo’s case, harass detractors with twitter pile-on campaigns and seemingly automated streams of inanities.
However—and the smart kids whose radical media critique is Actually Good can probably see where this is going—there are no exceptions. No outsiders get to muscle their way into the public eye based on grit and gumption alone, and genuinely radical notions are allowed absolutely no booth in the marketplace of ideas. The media is a megaphone which the ruling class uses to tell us what to think, and any arguments about radicals sneaking in the side door in order to crash the party are at least two decades past their sell-by date.
This much should be apparent in Chapo’s case, even if one was just going by the really obvious things like profiles, ranging from positive to fawning, in The New Yorker (11/8/16), The A.V. Club (12/7/16), Mediaite (4/12/16), Pacific Standard (8/12/16), The goddamn Washington Post (7/20/17), The Guardian (7/23/17), et cetera, or a June 2017 piece in The New York Times where writer Nikil Saval calls Chapo Trap House “prime originators of the left’s liberal bashing.” Eat it, Mao—and can we get three big-ass cheers for the rebirth, resurgence, and renaissance of The Left?!
Dig a little deeper, and it’s even more obvious how fraudulent the “dissident” narrative is. As laid out in a blog post titled “The Cafe.com Rabbit Hole,” Felix Biederman made a jump from twitter personality and Glenn Greenwald hanger-on to paid content-provider and thinkfluencer via the good graces of tech entrepreneur Vinit Bharara, who started an oddly unprofitable-looking site called Cafe and swept up Biederman and future Chapo co-host Virgil Texas, along with various other tech and media apparatchiks including a New York Times editor and a former staffer for Chuck Schumer. “To pull this all together, a New York state, top-brass Democrat and former Clinton spokesman now pens satire as a fictional character online” alongside Biederman. “Odd trajectory, isn’t it?”
Episode 116’s reading series touches on a piece by Katha Pollitt, a liberal serious-person who writes pieces with titles like “liberal elites are not the problem.” Before the bit starts, Menaker makes a big show about leaving the booth, swearing that it has nothing to do with the segment causing him “personal strife, for my family or anyone I know.” This is that irony they’re all about these days: the joke is that the truth is the opposite, because Will’s father, Daniel Menaker, is Pollitt’s longtime friend, collaborator, and occasional editor. According to Chapo’s New Yorker profile, “Daniel Menaker, is a former executive editor-in-chief of Random House, and was also a fiction editor at The New Yorker for twenty years.” Being a member of an elite liberal media family probably helped Will get that job as an assistant editor at a subsidiary publisher of W. W. Norton, and it probably played more of a role in nailing down that New Yorker profile as the new face of The Left than doing uniquely good irony. Also, “Will Menaker’s grandfather was a KGB turncoat who snitched so hard that his FBI handler built a vacation home next to his.”
So Chapo Trap House is very much a part of the media system that it’s claiming to be lobbing bombs at from the outside. Biederman mocks the Democratic Party leadership and Silicon Valley while getting paid by a tech entrepreneur to write anti-GOP “satire” with Democratic Party functionaries—on a website that seems all-but-guaranteed to lose money, yet is funded for some reason (and “the guy who sold Diapers.com to Amazon doesn’t pay $5 million out of pocket to publish your Carl Diggler character because they believe in the cause of Democratic Socialism”). Menaker engages in high-profile mockery of the elite media kaffeeklatsch while being the second-generation scion of an elite media family. They roast this New Republic writer while enlisting the expertise of that New Republic writer; and mock the pretensions of The New York Times and The New Yorker while receiving affectionate profiles in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The outsider branding is savvy marketing, nothing more.
Is it too much to ask that The Left’s designated spokespeople not have direct relations to the ruling class and the Feds? Well, yes, actually, it is too much to ask, since these are the sorts of people who will always be elevated to prominence. It just happens to be Chapo’s moment in the spotlight, since enough people may have figured out that Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee are smug dipshits, or at least picked up that they should feint towards thinking so. That’s why so many puff-pieces about Chapo include reasons why it’s not like The Daily Show: people were sold a right-wing mediocrity like Obama through endless repetition of how he was unlike anyone who’d come before him, despite all the ways that he was exactly like everyone who had come before him. Every time Chapo’s fans are told it’s not like the Comedy Central mainstay which it does very much resemble in content, people are being told this time the hype is real… this time the hype is real… this time the hype is real…
They’re hearing this because Chapo is just the latest in a line of entirely compromised and not-very-radical heat sinks that comes along periodically to scoop up disaffected liberals. Post-Trump, those liberals who aren’t begging the CIA to stage a coup so Hillary can unleash atomic armageddon on the treacherous Orient have decided that they love the color red and that they’re socialists now. There’s clearly a push to brand liberal anger at Trump with a “radical” façade and keep frustrated, furious people in the existing electoral system, which is why Rolling Stone says the DSA “is poised to become a leader in the national resistance against Trump’s administration,” and a Guardian piece speculates that the Chapos might be “the future of Democratic politics.” People are shepherded through these shifts by various ideologists and elite-approved culture-creators: Stewart and Sorkin and Michael Moore laid the groundwork for Obama; those progressives who eventually stopped swooning over Barack were made to fall in love with Jacobin and The Intercept, and on to Bernie Sanders and the DSA. By the time one brand loses its luster, another one that’s been waiting-in-the-wings is given the spotlight, and people are told that the important new thing is the future of The Left. I mean, remember when they said it about Obama?
Now it’s Chapo’s turn, and they’re remarkable for just how hard they’re being pushed at the moment, and the unanimity with which they’re being heralded. Jeet Heer and Rebecca Traister are just about the only paid writers of any prominence who don’t say that Chapo Trap House is important, different, radical, and necessary. At the same time that The Washington Post is publishing daily agit-prop against the Venezuelan government (including calls for foreign intervention), it’s celebrating the return of “Old Left socialism” under the banner of Chapo Trap House as “the voice of a new left.” If a “socialist” sees this and it doesn’t set off any alarm bells, then they haven’t learned a single thing about the media since the headiest days of Obamania besides a new set of radical-looking gestures.
What Chapo has going over all the other is supposed to be the irony, which both provides ample space for some of the most retrograde elements of internet culture to spew filth freely, while also putting everything the Chapos and their fans say outside of criticism. Like so much about what they do, it’s a lot of smoke-and-mirrors.
The Chapos do very much speak with the “the quaver-voiced earnestness of, like Chris Hedges or something,” when the subject is supporting Bernie or Jezza (in #116, one of the Chapos calls Corbyn’s almost-election “world-historic,” LOL). Ditto when discussing the necessity of supporting the Democrats and making common cause with liberals: listen to one of the Chapos in #118 discussing the plight of the anguished progressives who “had” to grit their teeth and vote for Hillary and you can practically see the moon face of Chris Hedges scowling right at you. Amber Frost’s paeans to the DSA are almost as earnest as that story Hedges always tells about the Bosnian farmer, and about as fun as hearing him say “the corporate state.” The same register comes out when waving their crosses at the Stalinist menace or whinging about neoliberal hypocrisy.
So there are all sorts of middling liberal ideas espoused every time the show or their crowds of largely DSA-aligned fans decide to get programmatic, because disaffected liberals are both Chapo’s members and the bulk of its fanbase. But when their mild social democracy or injection of reactionary content gets criticized, then the “smug above-it-all snark” comes out. The ideas are supposed to be immune to criticism because of “irony,” and their cruel troll squads blast skeptics with insults and “it’s ironic,” “you don’t get it,” and “go on Cum Town.” The show doesn’t avoid the extreme poles of treacly earnestness and smarminess; it uses both, and retreats from one to the other depending on whichever’s rhetorically convenient at a given moment.
At least people who love Hillary Clinton and John Oliver will generally own up to having actual opinions. At the same time that they’re providing cover for reactionary trash, the Chapos are selling tepid DSA-style social democracy as revolution, and teaching their fans to deploy the dumbest, meanest, and most dishonest tactics against anyone who doubts the radical potential of this project. This shit is toxic beyond imagination, and the one saving grace is that it only has minimal appeal for anyone other than Chapo’s target audience: America’s downwardly mobile petty bourgeois “failsons,” whose revolutionary potential is and always has been essentially nil.
Can we get one last, big hurrah for the long-awaited re-birth of The Left?