Described in a recent interview as a “leftist podcast whose hosts swear sometimes,” Chapo Trap House has seen an incredible groundswell of listenership since it began. Loosely analogous to a type of irreverent, absurdist political humor made popular by the likes of Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, the avowedly socialist Chapo Trap House are something else entirely.
Chapo began as a spontaneous Google Hangout between Twitter friends Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker in March 2016, discussing the primaries while a Hillary Clinton presidency was all but certain. Their weekly podcast tapped into a young American frustration with the failures, hypocrisies, and complacencies of the neoliberal establishment that rallied around the populist surge of Bernie Sanders.
Now, in the throbbing hell of the Trump administration, Chapo Trap House have become their own sort of leftist institution. They added co-hosts Virgil Texas and Amber A’Lee Frost as podcast hosts after the election, and last month released a book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic. In both, the Chapo hosts take heavy aim at the Trump presidency, but no less frequently critique the corporate-friendly Democratic elites (like Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Clinton) they believe have so lost touch with the American public to have opened the door to a generation of working-class voters to become vulnerable to the messaging of the right-wing.
It’s hard not to draw a connection from Chapo’s ascendancy to the country’s increased interest in socialism, anti-capitalism, and a broader articulation of the frustrations with the Democratic Party from the left. (Which in turn has raised the hackles of some pundits within the liberal establishment.)
The show has modeled a way of talking about leftist and emancipatory politics that, as Matt Christman said in that same interview, “speaks to the same people who might not be able to sit through a Noam Chomsky lecture; that might otherwise be drawn to someone who cheaply breaks taboos by doing ‘edgy’ jokes about race and gender and things like that ... a show that is irreverent and humorous without being cruel [and] without finding scapegoats.”
Aesthetically, Chapo’s not for everyone, of course. It is a group of bitingly ironic and scathingly critical young people — that consists of and has attracted mostly white men — who criticize the institutions that liberal-minded people believe are our best hope in defeating (or #resisting) the truly evil forces of the Trump administration. But it’s funny, well-informed, and — as the contemporary right-wing sells itself as the party of “free speech” — wades in a type of irony, vulgarity, and entertainment that fundamentally punches up.
Chapo Trap House appear at Port City Music Hall on Thursday, September 13. The Phoenix spoke with Chapo co-host Virgil Texas by email.
The Phoenix: Your performances on Chapo (and Twitter) have done a lot to articulate a dissatisfaction with the mainstream, pro-war, free-market liberal establishment as well as major players in the Trump White House and congressional and cultural rightwing. How do you distinguish your targets?
Virgil Texas: I think you answer your own question. The politicians, writers, “thinkers,” and apparatchiks on the right are the enemy of all good and decent human beings by virtue of their beliefs and actions. The liberal establishmentarians run the gamut from possibly well-meaning but utterly feckless people to actors who are just as venal and corrosive as those on the right. Pitching in to rebuild a Democratic Party run by and for the benefit of those people is not something any of us are interested in. And, from the looks of things, many Democrats are not interested in that either.
In your state I’m under the impression the Democratic Party establishment has rallied around an independent Senate candidate [Angus King] over their own standard-bearer.
What do you say to detractors who argue that attacks on the Democratic party embolden the GOP?
If a group of podcasters who lack the competence to assemble a folding bed is causing irreparable damage to your national political party then maybe your party fucking sucks.
One of the cultural shifts I think Chapo has addressed is that unlike the staid conservatism from when I was growing up, present-day right-wing forces have attempted to stake claim to vulgarity, humor, “free speech,” challenging taboos, and a sort of individualistic freedom. As we’ve learned from the “alt-right,” this appeals to a lot of angry, disenfranchised young people with no real sense of a future. Since you operate with your own sort of vulgarity and humor, it’s prompted a lot of decency liberals to categorize you as virtually interchangeable with the alt-right (a/k/a “Bernie Bros” or the “alt-left”). How do you make the distinction, and how important is this to establishing a progressive political coalition going forward?
The distinction is that we aren’t Nazis. One of the vital tasks of the nascent socialist movement is to expose and pursue the underpinnings of white supremacy in society, many of which are tacitly or explicitly supported by white liberals who are often the beneficiaries as well. Amplifying the demands of ICE abolition, prison abolition, and the like over the objections of such white moderates is a necessary step towards building such a coalition.
Chapo Trap House | Sep 13 | Thu 8 pm | Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St, Portland | $25-30 | www.portcitymusichall.com