The Dirtbag Manifesto

The Dirtbag Manifesto

As liberal comedy flounders, Chapo Trap House issues a welcome corrective—a brand of humor that is not just combative, but offers a systemic explanation for capitalism’s ills.

Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker, the founding hosts of Chapo Trap House (Photo: PR)

Chapo Trap House operates one of the most popular Patreons in the world. If that sentence is meaningless to you—if you do not know what a Patreon is or what a Chapo Trap House is—nobody can really blame you, but this means you probably do not spend much time on Twitter. Put in material terms, this means 23,527 people pay a cumulative $104,998 per month to listen to a left-wing podcast. The crowd-funding website Patreon takes a cut and whatever’s left goes to Chapo.

As Jia Tolentino reported for the New Yorker in 2016, the name—a mash-up reference to El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord, and crack kitchens—comes from a ninety-minute recording, a sort of pilot, that the show’s original hosts, Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker, broadcast on YouTube that same year. In time, Chapo added another two men, Brendan James and Virgil Texas, and a woman, Amber A’Lee Frost, to its roster of hosts, though James departed the show in 2017. Episodes don’t follow a set format, but they tend to focus on current events or controversies in the news cycle or on Twitter. The show is part mockery, part serious analysis; Chapo often interviews journalists and academics to provide background on the episode’s chosen topics. (Like many other journalists, I’ve appeared on the show to discuss my work.) The show is known as much for its unapologetically vulgar humor as it is for left-wing politics, a trait that both adds to its appeal and makes it a target for criticism. Over the course of its relatively short lifespan, Chapo has taken regular aim at Beltway punditry and technocratic liberalism; it expresses disdain for liberal conspiracy theorists like Seth Abramson as well as for Trump voters, whom the hosts refer to as “MAGA chuds.” It’s rude, but in rudeness there is occasional catharsis. For its fans, the podcast serves as an important corrective to liberal satire that reaches larger audiences, like HBO’s John Oliver or TBS’s Samantha Bee.

A new book co-written by Biederman, Christman, Menaker, Texas, and James redoubles the group’s commitment to an explicit anticapitalist position. “Our case is simple: Capitalism, and the politics it spawns, is not working for anyone under thirty who is not a sociopath,” the authors state early in the introduction to The Chapo Guide to the Revolution. The book is likely to reignite a longer-running debate over the exact position the podcast occupies within the broader democratic socialist left, a debate that has for the most part taken place online. Chapo’s hosts are active Twitter users, and Chapo episodes often reference tweets or Twitter controversies. The show’s fans also tend to be extremely online; as a result, writers or figures the show criticizes often face invective from Chapo’s listeners.

Chapo’s online orientation isn’t necessarily misplaced. Political life now has a significant digital dimension, and this is unlikely to change as long as the president of the United States threatens war on Twitter. Social media similarly played an influential role during the heated Democratic primary—the same conflict that contributed to the success of Chapo. The show launched in the spring of 2016, and its hosts unequivocally took the side of Senator Bernie Sanders. They did so in strident terms, putting forward a critique of liberalism that was familiar to the socialist left, but not so much to many of the young voters who rallied to Sanders’s cause, or to supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Chapo’s hosts say that the show isn’t meant to launch a movement. “That’s not at all what we think is going on. It’s entertainment,” James explained in a 2017 interview with Harvard student Matthew Watson. Similarly, The Chapo Guide isn’t a work of critical theory, and despite the tongue-in-cheek title, it’s not a handbook for organizers. It’s political, but deeply satirical. Both book and show are best understood in that vein—as collections of aggressively critical, sometimes despairing, usually entertaining riffs on current events.

Likewise, the book’s tagline—A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason—isn’t just a joke. Chapo is a reaction to many things, but especially to the conflation of rationality with liberal politics that can dominate much mainstream comedy. Logic and reason did not prevent the election of Donald Trump and fact-checking his speeches has yet to lead to an impeachment. The racist backlash that greeted Barack Obama’s presidency would have occurred even if he’d governed further to the left, but it is also true that eight years of supposedly reasonable liberalism did not advance us as far as some comedians believed at the time.

In 2010, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gathered nearly 215,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Part group therapy, part consensus-building session, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear occurred at a pivotal moment for American liberalism. Obama had been president for two years, George W. Bush had gone gently into that good night, and Congress had finally signed the Affordable Care Act into law. But trouble loomed. The Tea Party was ascendant, backed by billionaires and enraged by false rumors that the ACA would create “death panels” of government bureaucrats empowered to decide who was unworthy of medical care.

The Tea Party succeeded, winning a surge of elections in 2010, and we live with the consequences now. That forces us to ask the obvious question: what was the point of rallying nearly a quarter-million people on the Mall that day? At the time, the objective seemed to be something like catharsis. Stewart and Colbert, in their old guises as liberal stalwart and unhinged conservative foil, battled each other on stage. Would sanity triumph, or would fear? The conclusion felt predetermined, as if it reflected America’s political circumstances as both the hosts, and much of the liberal crowd, understood them to be. Sanity would win. It had to. If we can pull any coherent politics from that wreck, it’s this: merely unite behind reason, and all will be well. But this didn’t quite work in 2010, and there’s no reason to think it will solve much in 2018.

Satirists don’t need to tell people how to vote, but they should at least force us to confront ugly truths. Stewart pointed to the absurdity of death panels, even dedicated an episode of his show to it. But when he brought conservatives onto his show the results were often muddled, civility mixed with condescension. “It’s like I like you, but I don’t understand how your brain works,” he told one conservative ACA opponent in 2009.

Meanwhile, Obama had to fight members of his own party to pass a defanged version of the ACA. The ACA did not actually create government “death panels” as Republicans claimed it would; it merely increased access to private health insurance through subsidies. But by doing so it left Americans vulnerable to the predations of an industry concerned only with its own profits. Incrementalism in the face of needless death: that’s the real, grim joke. And while neither Stewart nor Colbert has refrained from mocking Democrats, neither really captured the extent of the problems they sought to lampoon.

Chapo, meanwhile, mills all political fecklessness for material. The show’s hosts frequently parody the “lanyard dick,” the sort of liberal Capitol Hill wonk who spreadsheets his way into justifying all manner of hell, whether it’s killing a public option in the Affordable Care Act or making a Democratic case for the drone program. “The favorite shows of the lanyard dick set: Game of Thrones, House of Cards, West Wing, [all] share a vision of politics as elite brokerage,” Christman tweeted in 2016. In the mind of the lanyard dick, politics exists as pie charts and polls, a two-dimensional perspective that locks out moral considerations. The Democratic Party’s population of lanyard dicks prevents it from countering the Republican Party’s vehement moral claims.
“Lanyard dick” might sound crude, but Chapo’s use of irreverent humor to make what is a foundationally left-wing point is the style that distinguishes it from other forms of political entertainment. As Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker, Chapo co-host Frost coined the phrase “dirtbag left” to refer both to the show’s loudmouth posture and to its economically struggling millennial audience. But the term doesn’t just refer to an aesthetic. A dirtbag without politics is just a dirtbag. And so Chapo doesn’t restrict itself to simply mocking the architects of inequality: it strives to tell listeners exactly what those architects believe and why American institutions, from the government to the press to the think-tank world, provide them with refuge. The sharpest contrast between Chapo and the world of liberal comedy is not Chapo’s vulgarity, but its commitment to a systemic, structural explanation for the ills its listeners suffer.

As Chapo’s following grows, mainstream liberal comedy sometimes flounders in its attempts at political humor. John Oliver’s Donald Drumpf bit meant to make Trump’s hypocrisy a punchline, as Trump is descended from immigrants who anglicized the family name. After a neo-Nazi murdered a young woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tina Fey appeared on Saturday Night Live to suggest that perhaps anti-racist protesters should stay home and eat sheet cake instead. Jimmy Kimmel has advocated for healthcare reform, but in July joked that Trump had nominated Lord Voldemort to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the president is immune to charges of hypocrisy, staying indoors to eat cake is akin to surrender, and our enemies aren’t the stuff of fantasy.

Nearly two years into the Trump presidency, Chapo’s criticisms of the chattering class have largely survived scrutiny. It’s difficult to argue now that either the Democratic Party or the national press had much of a grip on the forces that led to Trump’s election, and that now sustain his presidency. The hunt for Never-Trump conservatives consumes the press and even at times the Democratic establishment, but all the Washington Post headlines in the world won’t turn John Kelly into a secret moderate. “Who are the people doing actually evil things in the Trump administration?” asked Virgil Texas on a 2017 episode responding to a series of chummy tweets between the Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes and Bill Kristol. “Guess what, it’s not Trump, because he’s not smart enough to do it. It’s lifetime Republicans. It’s people who are in good standing with the Republican party.”

The hosts are similarly critical of the Democratic Party’s complicity with a conservative agenda. “They don’t want the things that they say they want, they don’t want the things that their voters want,” Christman said of congressional Democrats in a 2017 episode. “Their job is basically managing the expectations of people, who they have no interest in actually seeing having their lives improved.” As proof, the hosts pointed to the ACA, which Democrats watered down to make palatable for conservatives who didn’t vote for it anyway, along with the party’s failure to pass national card check during Obama’s first term, which would have shored up union strength ahead of the 2016 election. It’s clearly not the sort of critique you hear on a mainstream comedy show.

Chapo’s instinctive hostility toward power makes it useful fare for political neophytes, those for whom the mere definition of neoliberalism is new information. Chapo fixates on public figures with public power, and while that focus may feel rudimentary to the organized left, it has particular value now. It’s not necessary to look much further than Senate voting records to feel a sense of disappointment and anger at the Democratic Party. In the harsh light cast by Trump, it is obvious that not even the reasonable and the sane are free from sin.
Chapo’s vulgar moral outrage doesn’t mean it forms some revolutionary vanguard, even in the comedy world. Dave Chappelle’s WacArnold’s sketch, which satirized the idea that fast-food jobs would help reduce black poverty, critiqued capitalism on Comedy Central twelve years before Chapo premiered. A podcast produced mostly by white men probably doesn’t occupy the best position from which to lampoon the administration of Donald Trump—not because the hosts of Chapo endorse Trump’s misogyny and racism, but because it’s more difficult to effectively satirize power when you possess some of it yourself. The resulting blind spots can be dangerous, and can alienate marginalized people whose rights ought to be priorities for any faction of the left. And perhaps this explains some of Chapo’s stumbles. The show’s hosts have used the slur “retarded” at times. In 2017, Menaker and Christman apologized and donated $10,000 to the Victim Rights Law Center after Los Angeles–based comedian Josh Androsky tweeted a photo of himself with the two hosts at Bill Cosby’s Hollywood star, with the caption “Hey libs try taking THIS statue down.” On Twitter, Androsky explained the joke as a satirical take on “the hypocrisy of Hollywood,” which had turned on Harvey Weinstein while Bill Cosby kept his Hollywood star.

Although Christman and Menaker didn’t tweet the Cosby joke, the backlash underscored a key tension in Chapo’s posture. Listeners will hold an explicitly left-wing podcast to standards they would not necessary apply to a Netflix comedy special. And Chapo isn’t the only socialist podcast around. Listeners who want humor mixed with their left-wing political commentary have other options available to them. For socialist feminism, there’s Season of the Bitch; to hear military veterans criticize the institution in which they served, there’s What a Hell of a Way to Die; for a reminder that the American left extends beyond the five boroughs of New York City, there’s the Trillbilly Worker’s Party, broadcast from Whitesburg, Kentucky. (I’ve appeared on TWP twice.)

If we look to the strand of democratic socialism now in the national spotlight, the future belongs less to Chapo and more to candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will almost certainly represent New York’s 14th congressional district in 2019, and Summer Lee, who ran from the left to defeat the Democratic incumbent in Pennsylvania’s 34th state house district. And Chapo itself seems to recognize this. The hosts have championed candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, the democratic socialist candidate for New York’s 18th state senate district.

At its strongest, Chapo’s comedy amplifies and translates the same convictions and indignations that inform the campaigns of candidates like Ocasio-Cortez. “We used to try to name and shame all the people who absolutely would sign up for the ‘drones are good, the National Security Agency is responsible,’ beat,” James told a repentant former “D-list lanyard” for the Democratic Party on an August 2017 episode. “This is like a track that’s promising for young, D.C. wannabe writers or policy people or whatever. It’s not completely beyond me why some people take it up. Like you said, you get some money for it, I guess you don’t care about any of the shit you’re writing about. And you feel like a serious person, and you’re welcomed into this community, and you start to shoot up pretty quickly.” The punchline is power; the setup, its abuses. The world is obscene. Satire itself won’t solve it, but neither will politics as usual.

Sarah Jones is a staff writer for the New Republic.

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