Beez in the Trap
Friends, colleagues, comrades: I have a confession.
I like Chapo Trap House.
Yes, that’s right: I am a big fan of one of the most popular podcasts in existence. I listen to it regularly; I talk about it with some of my friends; and I look forward to each new episode. Hell, I even contribute to it financially; I am, in the show’s parlance, a Gray Wolf — a premium-level subscriber who coughs up five hard-earned American dollars a month to the vile hate-mongers who create the show, in return for which I get bonus episodes in which they further spew their intolerable venom by playing Call of Chthulhu or make fun of Ben Shapiro’s terrible men’s adventure novels. (I have no idea what they do with the money. I assume that they spend it on cocaine and prostitution, like all respectable entertainers.)
In fact, as long as we’re getting all struggle-session here, I like the Chapo Trap House people as, well, people. The talent behind the show — Will Menaker, Matt Christman, and Felix Biederman (along with a mysterious figure of questionable extraction known as Virgil Texas, a woman they have brainwashed with the vigorous application of Mansonian mind-control methods named Amber Frost, and whoever the fuck Brendan James is) — have long been a presence on what we used to call “Weird Left Twitter” before we knew it by its true name, “Racial Hate Pro-Rape Twitter”. I have followed all of them on social media for quite a while; I’ve been friends with Matt on social media ( sorry, “friends”, it’s not like the guy drives me to the airport or anything) for half a decade, long before there even was such a thing as Chapo. Amber Frost won my eternal admiration for coining the term “dirtbag left”, a phrase that captured my own self-perception as an adherent of Marxist politics who came from a background of failed aspiration, working-class futility, and a complete lack of the kind of propriety and respectability that has so often come to replace the acquisition and execution of power as the end goal of politics.
This confession likely puts me in bad odor with two separate camps: fellow leftists who go mining for problematic content everywhere and have found a handful of comments by the Chapo crew to be insufficiently sensitive to people who despise them, and liberals who already think the left is a savage morass of murderous, hateful dudebros who helped overthrow the rightful ascension of Hillary Clinton to the presidency of the United States. The former group has come to believe, with at least some justification, that the success and prominence of Chapo Trap House has made it synonymous with the insurgent left, and that the use of intemperate phrasing by its hosts, used ironically or not, will tarnish the reputation of legitimate and serious socialists. The latter group views the show as a synecdoche for the left as a whole, and cherrypicks the hosts’ every public utterance in search of a club to beat the left back to the fringes to which they believe we rightly belong.
The former group has at least some of my sympathy. Leftists are not used to winning in this country; it makes us uncomfortable. For any leftist project to catch the public imagination is a shock to our system and we don’t quite know how to handle it. We saw what they did to Bernie Sanders, and in a sense, we’re always anticipating the moment when the other shoe drops: when will it come out that Bernie really hates Latinas? When will Will Menaker get caught with his dick in a goat? It has to happen sometime, because we can’t have nice things. There’s also some legitimacy to the charges; the left has its issues with racism and sexism and homophobia, just like every other ideological tendency in this country, and we don’t like it when uncomfortable words come from our allies, or those who are said to be our allies. Agonizing over the purity of our own is practically a leftist tradition.
But it’s hard not to suspect that all this sweating over cultural capital is more of a liberal holdover than a genuine process of self-inquiry. As someone who’s been on the left an awful long time, I certainly cringe at some of the language I used when I was a lot less enlightened, and I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better over time; I’ve seen no evidence that the Chapo crew doesn’t feel the same way. (There’s also the fact that a lot of this vitriol gets directed at Felix Biederman, whose self-confessed struggles with mental health issues would seem to justify a sympathy that is extended to others but denied him.) I’m also still an unrepentant fan of irony, one of the most valuable items in the human toolbox, and I’m not quite ready to give up on it just because some people can’t keep pace.
The liberal critique we should dismiss out of hand, as we would a similar critique from the right. Neither of these groups are friends of the left, and neither is arguing in good faith. Demanding change to placate one’s enemies is a loser’s strategy; no form of appeasement will ever be enough, as they seek not satisfaction but annihilation. You can see the nature of their attacks by looking at how quickly they took a perfectly innocuous turn of phrase by Will Menaker and turned it into either an endorsement of racism or a sign of intimate familiarity with sexual assault; there was not a strand of honesty in the entire sorry display. As a friend put it, we should demand better behavior from our allies because it’s to our collective benefit, not because it could ever silence the baseless slanders of opponents.
It is easy to say what the Chapo Trap House hosts always say: that what they do is catharsis, therapy, entertainment. It’s easy because it’s true! It’s one of the most entertaining shows around, and I can’t tell you how much I look forward to every episode to give me some relief after I spend all week scrabbling for pennies at the four jobs I work just to stay ahead of my debt, or after I spend the rest of my time working with the Democratic Socialists of America to try and advance and organize a politics of human need at a time when the richest country on Earth is dominated by two parties that value money over everything. And it’s also easy, and true, to say that nobody elected Matt Christman the President of Socialism, or that one can be a dedicated and hardworking leftist without ever hearing, liking, or even knowing about Chapo Trap House. Anyone who says it’s an inseparable element of the modern left is selling you their own hustle and shouldn’t be trusted.
But you know what? Chapo Trap House brought hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the modern left. They’re smart, funny people who managed to find a way to make money off of a smart, funny show entirely on its own merits, without corporate approval or the largesse of some rich Silicon Valley asshole who wants to look edgy. They steered some good people towards the DSA. They have featured guests on their show who have talked plainly and sensibly about subjects — American foreign policy, the labor movement, racial justice, leftist politics, imperialism, BDS — that you will never hear about on the evening news or in any of the country’s largest newspapers. They hate all the right people and they are extraordinarily adept at making those people howl; it is practically a guarantee that if someone gets especially heated up about Chapo, that person is a fraud.
It’s not a show for everybody, and it doesn’t have to be; I leave culture-war virtue signifying to the liberals and the conservatives, who have elevated it to the only art form they care about. (It’s easy to see why they perceive Chapo fandom as a referendum on someone’s personal politics, because the only lens they have for viewing political virtue is a cultural one.) But it’s for me. I want them to be perfect, but I won’t turn my back on them because they aren’t. The bullets people are sweating over their perceived flaws aren’t hollow-points; they’re just hollow.