“We’re not experts at anything,” Matt Christman says. “We’re just some assholes!”
Christman is one-fifth of “Chapo Trap House,” a crass, obnoxious and frequently hilarious podcast that comes across like a morning zoo radio show produced exclusively by socialists. Since the podcast’s launch in the spring of 2016, the Chapo gang has amassed over 20,000 paid subscribers, collectively good for $100,000 a month ― an impressive haul for Christman and his comrades Felix Biederman, Amber A’Lee Frost, Will Menaker and Virgil Texas, who have no corporate sponsors, advertisers or overlords of any kind. The show isn’t for everyone, but it has become an undeniable force in the struggle to define the post-Obama Democratic Party. The Chapo team can draw thousands of people to a comedy theater on tour and headline fundraisers for lefty politicians back home in New York. They’re probably the most successful openly Marxist project in America since the 1970s.
So the group’s new book is an important statement. The Chapo Guide To Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, And Reason is not really a manifesto, and it’s not ultimately very interested in revolution. It’s a comedic novelty object full of dick jokes, porn references and grotesque illustrations of tragically endowed right-wingers. It’s also a deadly serious critique of American history and American media that doesn’t quite hang together.
Here’s what the book gets right. For Chapo, the eternal enemy of truth and liberation is conservatism. “In the right-wing vernacular,” they write, “freedom means the freedom to exercise one’s God-given right to dominate anyone deemed lower than you. This includes rich over poor, men over women, employers over employees, white over black, and America over the rest of the world.” This desire to dominate has been repackaged with different varieties of hip, cool-guy language or sophisticated, academic arguments over the years, but once the aesthetics are stripped away, conservatism amounts to a worship of hierarchy for its own sake.
That’s a rough approximation of the thesis of Corey Robin’s intellectual history, The Reactionary Mind, and while the Chapo guys aren’t as rigorous, they’re perfectly convincing.
Against the right wing cult of power, Chapo sees a Democratic Party controlled by useless liberals with “a giant sucking void at the core of their being. In place of real beliefs, liberals have guilty consciences; in place of politics, they have a Democratic Process to assuage those consciences.” As a result, liberals are capable of producing “positive social change” only “when pressured ― sometimes terrorized ― by militant and/or popular left-wing movements.”
So far, so good. When the right plays for keeps and liberals play for their own feelings, the result is a nation constantly engaged in meaningless wars abroad while chronically incapable of living up to the values it claims to hold dear at home. The Democratic Party’s domestic agenda since the 1970s looks much as Chapo sketches it ― an effort to sand the edges off a project constructed by Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan.
But this is also where the Chapo story begins to lose its footing. The Chapo team elevates an accurate observation about the Democratic Party in the neoliberal era into a comprehensive national history in which every ostensibly progressive political leader has always been doing nothing more than the bare minimum to avert a socialist revolution. Only abolitionist John Brown survives the acid bath of irony and diarrhea jokes as a genuinely Good Dude.
If you’re here for the diarrhea jokes, you’ll get your $25 worth. But the book isn’t called The Chapo Guide To Shit. It’s ostensibly concerned with radical politics, yet the history it presents is untethered from the reality of political struggle in America. The writers have nothing to say about the women’s suffrage movement. They take Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to task for preserving the racial caste system of the Jim Crow South, but evince no interest in the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ role in pressing the fight for trans-racial equality in the same era. The Voting Rights Act comes across like a devious ploy to stymie the Black Panthers instead of the culmination of a long and hard-fought national movement.
By approaching American history as a line of failed emperors, The Chapo Guide ignores the radical tactics, ideas and coalitions that succeeded in making gains for working people ― an important story even if you believe everything from Plymouth Rock to the foreclosure crisis has been overseen by war criminals. It’s not so much a guide to anything as a sustained insistence that the American elite can’t be trusted.
Or as Christman says: “The book is pointing out that the biggest cultural and political actors are making everything shit and hell and awful.”
For all its political preoccupations, The Chapo Guide is ultimately concerned with defending what used to be called slacker culture. The hosts often describe their fans as “failsons” or members of the “Dirtbag Left,” and the book functions as a paean to all the beautiful losers who see through the slick phonies on cable TV and corporate media. In an alternative universe where Silicon Valley never destroyed the music industry, it’s easy to imagine the Chapo team playing in a band styled after The Replacements or Pavement instead of doing political satire. They’re offering a similar brand of snarky, sensitive-white-guy masculinity in which theatrical displays of aggression cover for personal insecurity and traditionally feminized values. Where indie rock dudes had loud guitars to toughen up their poetry, Chapo has vulgar insults to compensate for their opposition to literally all forms of hierarchy.
“If you’re reading these words, you’re likely living in despair and hopelessness,” they write in their book’s introduction. “You’re fed a steady diet of thin, flavorless gruel by your leaders, your parents, fake friends who love drama, the fascist mods on Erowid and r/celebritytoes, the lying sheeple news media, and, most especially, all previous works of political satire.” You are so, so, unsatisfiiiiiiieeeeed.
This suggests a youthful audience, and the brief portrait of socialist Chapotopia presented at the end of the book is essentially a vision of permanent adolescence. The wonders of technology have already rendered anything beyond three hours of work each day unnecessary for the maintenance of a decent society. The only major tasks ahead are to redistribute the bank accounts of the rich and transfer control of the apps and factories to the workers. After that, “work” will become “something you squeeze in between posting, gaming, and having a nice, big wank.”
It is a vision in which ― like Chapo’s brief history of America ― community, solidarity and democracy don’t get much attention. Chapo presents no real account of how we might actually transition from a world where rich people control everything to a society where everyone plays video games and masturbates all day. And it can’t. Because slacker culture is incompatible with a revolutionary agenda. There is a reason why Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus railed against The Smashing Pumpkins instead of the means of production. If you actually don’t care, then “you’re empty, and I’m empty” is enough. There’s no need to fight the power.
Chapo’s commitment to defending the losers against the phonies ultimately undermines the “half-baked Marxism” the team offers up. They insist that what really matters in American political life is the economic “base” of society, upon which “law, morality and culture” are structured. But they direct the overwhelming force of their rage not against the machine down below, but the very cultural superstructure they declare insignificant.
Power-worshipping squares in the media like Matt Yglesias, Chris Cillizza and Megan McArdle are ridiculed at length, while the actual sources of power these servants of capital adore ― billionaires, Wall Street, Silicon Valley ― are mentioned only in passing. Capitalism is the problem, Chapo says, but capitalists, by and large, emerge unscathed.
Despite its Bolshevik iconography, The Chapo Guide is not truly interested in radical politics or radical thought. It’s concerned with young people, and young men in particular.
There are a lot of frustrated teens and 20-somethings right now who recognize that older generations have failed them. They want alternatives to the bad baby boomer politics they’ve lived through for most of their lives, but they also feel powerless to change any of the big forces pushing the planet towards apocalypse ― climate change, fascism, parents. Chapo offers these guys an anesthetic, some topical jokes to help them weather however many years of hell we have ahead of us.
Christman says Chapo wants to expand beyond its Patreon footprint and break into YouTube, the preferred digital platform of the young and, ominously, the alt-right, which has built an enormous video network intertwined with mainstream conservative products like “The Ben Shapiro Show” and the libertarian-ish “Rubin Report.” Chapo’s slacker aesthetic could indeed be an effective way to keep the politically curious from falling for the dark side. While khaki-and-boat-shoe law schoolers like Shapiro have to fake their hipster routine (a typically unconvincing Shapiro-ism: “socialism is rape, capitalism is consensual sex!”), the Chapo gang really are a bunch of disaffected “assholes.”
It’s a good digital strategy. But these guys are smart enough to write a better book.