Forward Left: An Interview with Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House

Matt Christman is one host of the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, which has been “on-air” (meaning online) for nearly three years. The podcast has been profiled in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and is either a revolting or a cathartic dose of political wit and irreverence, depending on who you ask. Christman is perhaps most well-known among fans of the podcast for his rants, which effervesce with an intellect and a grasp of history rarely encountered elsewhere in the podcast universe. I sat down with Christman at WXOU Radio Bar, in the West Village, where we discussed his early life in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, his thoughts on the Left’s relationship to social media, and what he wants to see written. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. – Lucy Schiller

[Muddled talk about Alexander Cockburn]

Matt: His columns were really formative, in my high school years.

Lucy: Really, great. Let’s start with that…I don’t know much about your background besides that you grew up in Wisconsin, same town as Steven Avery—how do you say that?

Matt: “MAN-it-o-woc.”

Lucy: Manitowoc, okay. Not Mani-TO-woc.

Matt: Not Mani-TO-woc. The key to Wisconsin place names is they just cluster all together, like Miwockee.

Lucy: Miwockee, okay…Anyway, so I’d love to hear anything you want to share about how you became a leftist, about how you first started thinking about your politics, if you had a moment of political enlightenment, if there was something that you read, or if you were raised that way.

Matt: I get this question, and I always have a hard time answering it, because there’s no moment, there’s no road to Damascus moment. And there’s no immediate background that makes it make sense. I came from basically an apolitical family, nobody really talked about politics. My dad was a Republican but into talk radio and stuff and it was ambiently around, but it wasn’t like he was fixated on it or anything…If FOX News had existed, maybe he would have had his brains destroyed by it, but he had the beliefs but he just didn’t really press them too much. I kinda, when I was a little kid, sorta copied his beliefs. My mom never really expressed politics one way or another. The town I grew up in, Manitowoc, is a sort of mini-rust belt farm that had factories that were all closing down when I was a kid. It was just a classic sort of reactionary grievance stuff…The majority of immigrants were Hmong refugees. There’s actually tons of [Hmong] in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they settled after the fall of Saigon. So they got all of the racial stereotypes…So the context was one where there wasn’t a lot of exposure to Left ideas. I didn’t have any. When I was in high school I just felt alienated from my classmates and from the culture of the town. I guess I just started by defining myself in opposition to that. Whatever those guys were into, I did not like. And so that made me start thinking about politics in terms of …I don’t know. I had a libertarian instinct in terms of [criminalization], and people should have more autonomy in their lives, individual freedom and stuff, but I never had the economic part of it. I never thought that everything should be privatized. I didn’t have the language to articulate it.

Amber, my co-host, her theory for me is that the real thing that kind of guaranteed that I would become a Leftist as opposed to a logic guy, or an alt-right guy, or a Libertarian – which, when I look at my cultural preferences and the stuff that I like and my attitude, it’s kind of stunning I didn’t….Between my high school years and my college, I owned, either separately or all at once, a sword, a fedora, well, not a fedora, a Hamburg with a little feather in it, a trench coat, a Goodfellas poster on my wall, the Edward Hopper “Nighthawks” poster because I was existential, and a shirt that I fucking ordered online, early internet, a black shirt with white print that said some people are only alive because it’s against the law to kill them. And I look at that and I’m like “why am I not a cryptocurrency guy right now?” And Amber’s theory is that it’s because when I was in my senior year of high school, my dad died when I was a junior, and the next year, senior year, I was halfway through the first semester, I was gonna be in the play, “The Taming of the Shrew,” and I got back pain. My mom sent me to a chiropractor, he was like banging around back there, and I had a heating pad on for a month I just had this persistent back pain. But then one day, in December or early January, I woke up and one of my legs was just weak. I was limping. I made an appointment for a doctor but then when I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t move at all. Neither of my legs…they wouldn’t do anything. I had to go to the doctor and in Manitowoc they were kinda like [shrugging noise]. And then somebody in Sheyboygan had another idea, and then they ended up taking me to Milwaukee. And they said I had a lesion on my spinal cord…they had to do a spinal tap and MRIs and stuff. They went in and got it, and it was an abcess. The reason they didn’t know that’s what it was at first is that you’re not supposed to have that unless you have a really compromised immune system. And I did not.

Chapo Trap House logo.

There’s like a hundred cases of this happening without anything else. And most of those people die, because they do this wait and see thing. I had to be infused with antibiotics for a month, I had a PICC in my arms. After the surgery, I was in the hospital for a month, doing really intense rehab. I left the hospital in a wheelchair and then I spent the next four/five months rehabbing to be able to stand and walk. And I went from having braces on both of my legs to just one, and I went from a wheelchair to the braces, to crutches, to a cane, within six months. Had to do a bunch of horrible, really grody stuff to my body. And at the end of it, I kind of hit a plateau where I now have a limp, still, because I have something called Browns-Sequard syndrome, which is where the damage to your spine affects two halves differently. So my right leg is normal in terms of strength but it’s completely numb all the time, like it’s asleep. And then my left leg is very weak, and I drag it. It’s been that way since this happened. Amber’s theory is you see white males who are committed Leftists, and if they’re serious about it, there’s something that happened that gave them a sense of real vulnerability. They don’t take for granted their position anymore. I never thought about it that way. It was never a conscious thing. But when I look at my interests and my milieu, I think that theory is kind of persuasive. I just kind of laid low and felt vulnerable.

Lucy: And also maybe felt different physically from other people.

Matt: Oh yeah, and it just gave me this hyper-awareness of the happenstance of distribution of resources and abilities. How little we have to say about that. How much delusion is involved, and ideology is involved, in thinking, we are in any way in charge of this stuff. That we’re being rewarded, or that we deserve something. That really helped me to become really disabused of the idea that anybody can deserve anything, really, in this life, and that made it basically impossible for me to buy into the notions that undergird the political ideology that would have been more aligned with my social standing and sort of instinctive misanthropy.

Lucy: Why be online?

Matt: I mean, from my own experience, it beats reality. I didn’t have a lot of prospects, I didn’t have a career, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I didn’t have any skills, I was just a stunned floating head trying to escape an unpleasant reality where I didn’t have any place. I didn’t have a sense of real rootedness. After my wife and I left Wisconsin, and I followed her for her job a lot, and I never really had a lot of roots in the area, and it was hard for me to get any kind of job that wasn’t temporary. When you’re online, you can craft an identity there that’s more pleasing, and gives you a place to put out the frustrated creativity you don’t have anywhere else to express.

Lucy: One thing I think a lot about, and I think a lot of people on the Left think a lot about, is that our communication channels online are corporate. There are hashtags for every interaction when it comes down to it. Our space for these types of conversations, or these types of interactions, are owned by Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, which are doing very real damage in communities. I think there’s a huge tension and frustration around having to “bend the knee” to these corporations and have our discourse happen in these spaces we kind of forget, maybe, are being controlled by corporate interests, or conveniently forget at times. And instead, we take joy and community and optimism from the fact that these conversations are happening at such rapid speed with so many different people. Could you talk about that frustration, or how you see it?

Matt: There’s a danger to it, just in the fact that it’s a commodified, corporate platform. But also just the very nature of the conversation, the very nature of platforms. Not only is it a corporate, commodified thing, but you end up commodifying the interactions. Because you can get a name for yourself on the Internet, I think you might be able to use that to establish a career, and people have done that. We weren’t the first by any means. The first guys who got on Twitter in 2009, those guys are all in Hollywood, writing on television shows. The conversation isn’t the goal, the goal is self-promotion, and we all are turning ourselves into brands on this platform. We’re the product on social media, we’re being sold to the advertisers, and we’re selling ourselves to each other too. I feel bad condemning it because of how hypocritical that is, coming from someone who benefited from it more than most. People say it’s like a double-edged sword and I’m coming to the conclusion that I think it’s more bad than good, at this point. But the problem is, like with so much of this, that identifying the problem is relatively easy, and figuring out the alternative, a way to tell people who are suffering the same frustration and lack of creative satisfaction in their normal lives, to seek the same outlet online that you did, to tell them actually no, this isn’t good to be on here anymore…well, okay. What are they supposed to do? Acknowledging the fact that online is bad for people doesn’t change the fact that for most people, it’s better than nothing. It’s better than trying to live on the margins, as a lonely person, in a scary world, with little to no social network, and crucially, no area to express yourself. That’s the Marxist thing of either you don’t have a job at all and then you just feel completely bereft and useless because you’re not producing anything or you do have a job and you’re a cog, you’re a little puppet. You have nowhere to feel like you’re getting any control over your labor. But online, even if it is a quixotic effort to build an online brand, at least its unalienated labor, you know? It’s all you.

Lucy: But don’t you think, at a certain point, the Left, and I don’t know how long from now, the Left and tech are incompatible?

Matt: Oh no, yeah, I think it’s a recipe for doom. And I think the hostility to Silicon Valley is very good, but it’s always ringing hollow because it’s always in this context of owning them [online], but you’re inside these structures that there’s no way to get out of.

Lucy: Right, we’re doing it within their framework.

Matt: Right. And the way people now are really disheartening for me are the people who recognize the problem with worker control of social media spaces and then have decided that the fix for it is complaining to the management to get the bad people off of it. They’re not going to be making these decisions out of any sort of commitment to your ideas.

Lucy: No, they don’t care at all about anything that anyone is saying.

Matt: And that’s why it’s funny. And then I see other people saying “don’t cheer purging bad people from the internet because then that justifies them doing it to you.” But the thing is they don’t need justification. The people I see fixating on cleansing the platform and the people I see saying don’t do that, both of them are operating under a false premise: that they [social media companies] care. They don’t need justification. They don’t need case law. They don’t need precedent. They can do anything, because they run it.

Lucy: So what should we be thinking about with regards to social media and tech? What should our strategy be? To use it to a certain point, and then what?

Matt: I’d say that use it to build real-life connections like I obviously have problems with the DSA and their online presence is incredibly enervating and makes you want to put your head in a microwave. But I’ve been a member of a local, when I was in Cincinnati, I was active in founding their DSA chapter. I haven’t done anything since moving here because we got to a point where I didn’t want to make it about me. I couldn’t be anonymous…But my friends who are still there, they do things on the ground that don’t make it online. They’re getting together in real life, having meetings, doing actions. They’re relearning a Socialist tradition that has been completely obliterated over the last thirty years. And it wouldn’t really have been possible without online. But what made it valuable was that it got offline. So I think that if you really want to take, if you really want to use the internet for activism for a tool, then it has to be towards the purpose of getting off of it. And meeting people and making connections in your community.

Lucy: Do you think that’s happening?

Matt: I think it is, but not enough. The insufficiency of the Left right now is the one abiding reality that everyone should be operating off of. That’s another frustrating thing where debates play out. Some of the operating themes about the capacity of the Left are so delusional…The United States has no meaningful Left and it hasn’t for a generation. And so activating people has to be the number one goal. And the internet is a part of that. But if it stays online, it just becomes and it largely is a subculture. An internet subculture just like the Anime people and the horse girls and the Furries. It’s just another subculture which can be commodified and advertised to.

Lucy: Speaking of self-branding and celebrity, do you feel like there’s a danger with Chapo Trap House in that sense of spawning an endless feedback loop of people who just exist online to discuss the episodes?

Matt: Yeah, definitely. I’ve seen our subreddit. And…uhhh…at a certain point, I think about this a lot, because even when we started we thought about the danger of this. Our initial episode, when no one listened to us, we were talking about the danger of people substituting consumption for politics. A sort of, “I listen to this, and that makes me this and this.” Even to yourself: “I’ve done my politics because I listen to this thing I like.” And I’d say that probably does happen with fans of the show. I don’t know how it couldn’t because the ground is just so…the terrain is just so bad for these kids. I look at the subreddit and a lot of them are very young, with minimal prospects. And most of them don’t really have a lot of social network of any kind or friend networks or even family. And a lot of them have bad jobs or no jobs. I don’t know how you can tell someone in that situation “you need to be out in the world.” [They might think] “I’m out there, it sucks. What do you want me to do? I live in my parents’ basement in an exurb. You want me to go to Trivia Night at TGI Fridays and start talking about Capital?” And that’s the thing. If the objective reality is the way it is, and so hostile to people making any kind of real connection in real life, and it’s so much easier to do it online, that’s an impossible choice to ask people to make.

And I guess the hope is that, like with DSA, that’s an example of the feedback loop breaking. I went to the convention in August and there were all these people there. They’re all out there, doing actual things, and they wouldn’t have done that without the internet. And it’s just a question of when we reach the inflection point, when the ground is such that people are willing enough to talk about it, there are enough opportunities to meet and make connections and be activists and organize, that they are then not as tempted to go online. No individual can make that happen. It has to me the cumulative choices and the cumulative responses to changing conditions. And that’s why I think that even though I’m very skeptical of electoralism—I think the record is pretty clear that electoral efforts on the Left basically exist to be coopted because of a lack of institutional leverage and power by workers, that in this moment of total disorganization and hopelessness in a country where politics is filtered through a lens of electoralism instinctively, and that’s how people that aren’t extremely online process politics—that the campaign this next two years, this mobilization of people who are going to try and beat trump, is the best opportunity the Left has since honestly I can’t remember. To build capacity on the ground. More people are going to be paying attention, more people are going to be open. More people are going to be pissed than ever. Which means that maybe you don’t have to dump it all onto a subreddit, maybe you can talk to a coworker or a classmate, because you have a common language now.

The idea that you’re just going to cold talk to people who don’t have a political lens on the world and make them believe what you believe, change their mind, it really doesn’t work that way. My hope is that this happens. I look back at something like Occupy and it’s very easy to criticize. I think it made a lot of mistakes, but at the same time, you look at the ground that existed, and nothing else could have happened, because the vocabulary didn’t exist. The whole reason it was so paralyzed and unable to articulate something was because the language didn’t exist. They had that one slogan [about the 99%]. Ok, well what does that mean? And then they got trapped in horizontalism and [questions about] what their relationship was to politics. And they had to, because what was the world we were living in? It was first term Obama, all we knew was this system that was totally in collapse but the alternative was just this rebranded version of the same thing. And there was no language for a different politics, so of course they couldn’t endorse the political system because to them it only meant this continuity. But this liberal hegemony stated to break up in 2016. I think the fractures are going to get more and more serious. These fissures—that’s what makes it almost impossible to ever predict what’s going to happen. No one has ever done a good job of predicting political developments. Strategies that come before a recognition of the material reality are doomed to fail because you have do see where the breaks are. If you have a crowbar just to break through a system, and it’s just a big concrete wall, where do you break first? Where do you go? If you apply pressure and cracks start appearing, well, that’s where you go. Put it in the cracks. But the cracks have to show up first. There was never a recovery after ‘08 and there was a feeling of precarity, of doom, and now the additional awareness of climate change. I gotta be honest, a year ago, I was thinking we’re just going to walk into that without putting up a fight. But amazingly, in the last six months, the urgency of discussion on [climate change] and the action and the ideas have exploded. And that’s not something I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a year ago. And that’s a crack…I guess I wouldn’t call it optimism. But that’s a hope. Because no one knows what’s going to happen. But we have the capacity. And having the capacity is the first precondition. And so we can only just move forward and hope that we can exploit those moments of crisis and tension when they appear.

Lucy: Have you seen First Reformed?

Matt: I did.

Lucy: There’s a line in that, I think you might remember, with Ethan Hawke, where he’s like “the key is keeping hope and despair, both, in your mind at the same time.”

Matt: That’s a really good movie. That scene with him and the guy that that’s part of, where they’re just sitting there. I had no idea that was coming. I just thought it was about this horny priest. I do like that Paul Schrader is from there, from a family of Calvinists, he wasn’t able to watch TV as a kid. His dad never talked to him about any of his movies but he called him and asked him about The Last Temptation of Christ, where it was playing, because he protested it.

Lucy: Would you say you feel more hope or more despair?

Matt: I think I’m at a quantum state.

Lucy: A Quantum of Solace?

Matt: Yeah. I’m at a quantum of solace. All of life – the universe exists because existence and coexistence can’t exist in the same space. The Big Bang happened. Our entire lives are determined by the spontaneous consciousness of our mortality and the fact that we cannot conceive of nonexistence. “We exist, how can we not exist?” That contradiction drives us forward in every element. And why wouldn’t we have the same relationship between hope and despair, where they just smash into each other?

Lucy: Two questions around reading and writing: Who do you think people should be reading more of, and what hasn’t been written that you think really should be written?

Matt: I was talking to my producer Brendan about this, and we were talking about Vice. I liked it a lot. The most fascinating part was because it was a bio of Dick Cheney and it was about the Bush years, it had a recognizable structure that I remember because I was a young person, I read those blogs, I was an obsessive anti-Bush guy. That’s why it’s funny watching the Mueller stuff, because I remember watching Patrick Fitzgerald. I remember that and it’s the exact same thing: the good cops are gonna come in. And I believed that because I was a child. But I read all those blogs and you see, watching the movie, oh you remember this story, and this story, and it’s like a fossil record of all these discrete scandals and actions and decisions, and you’re going through them. I just remember thinking how alien that is. How alien that mode of observing politics is: the idea of things happening in a discrete sequence that’s placed out for you. Because now it’s just this giant firehose from these one or two platforms without any real differentiation all happening simultaneously…you can’t put them in order, you can’t line ’em up, it’s just one thing that’s been happening simultaneously. It’s one moment that’s been nonstop. And I would like to see someone try to tackle that, because I do think it’s new. I’d like to see someone talk about it. It really does feel like it’s the biggest shift in media consumption and media relationship since, like, the television. I think it’s huge. Not even the internet, but the internet post-Facebook, post-Twitter: the social media internet to me has changed our relationship to reality, and I would like to see somebody talk about that, because how do you talk about anything if you know it’s not being processed the way things used to be? It used to be oh, what happened today, and you’d get the take from Lawyers, Guns and Money, or CounterPunch. And now it’s just everyone screaming about everything that happened at the same time and there’s no discrete event.

Lucy: So would you want to see a nonfiction book?

Matt: It couldn’t probably be captured in a linear narrative. It feels experiential. The best movements in Vice are when they get frustrated with narrative and break past it, break the fourth wall and have these moments of pure cinema. I feel like that is pointing at the awareness that the current moment can’t really be contained. It’s like a Dada moment where we need something hyper-absurd, hyper-opposed to making an argument or doing anything coherent. [The Chapo Trap House hosts] went to Lincoln Center to present Starship Troopers, and I was making the point after the movie that it’s a fantastic piece of satire but it’s obsolete, because the going behind the wall aspect of satire becomes superfluous now. The wall is now bare. So someone asked me “Well, what would you do, if you were making a satire now?” The only thing that came to mind was something that would be plotless, no characters, and just a parade of degradation, just violent horror without coherence that was aggressively incoherent. And that denied your any attempt to make sense of any of it. And that instead of having traditional structures of a narrative, only had sensory overload. As soon as you start ordering this, or making sense of this, you’re misrepresenting it.

Lucy: It’s hard to think of a way around narrative.

Matt: Yeah, it’s hard.

Lucy: But that’s the problem with narrative in general: it’s subjective, it’s artificial. That’s why writing is so miserable.

Matt: Yeah, it’s awful. Yelling into a microphone is better. Yelling with friends.

Lucy: Or just…I know a lot of writers who are like, oh God, it would be so much better to be a musician than a writer. At least you can elicit a feeling in someone, dependably, if you do it well. Rather than hoping you get your point across by being ham-fisted with a metaphor. But is there anyone that you think we should be reading? There are so many new recruits to DSA, for example, and people interested in labor history for the first time who might not necessarily have a grounding in that.

Matt: There’s a book by J. Anthony Lukas called Big Trouble that’s this huge monumental history of the trial of Big Bill Haywood for the assassination of the former Governor of Idaho. It uses this case as a digressive, opening flower into every element of turn-of-the-century America, from early detective fiction to baseball to the rise of the grand hotel concept to mining to the labor movement. It’s not only a great moment in labor history but it’s also a great approach to history.

Lucy: It’s digressive. Like Mike Davis does that, with City of Quartz.

Matt: Yes, Mike Davis. Another person who I love very much.

Lucy: Do you have trouble reading? I think a lot of people are having trouble reading. Putting eyes to paper.

Matt: Ohhhh yeah. I mean honestly I am embarrassed. I have read so little in the last couple of years. But I made a resolution lately, I’m gonna start reading. I just finished reading Isaac Deutscher’s Trostsky trilogy. I used to read books like that all the time. I think I made a breakthrough on reading. I highly recommend those, by the way.

Lucy: In the past year, I feel like I’ve had to listen to something at all times in order to feel like I’m doing something. I think a lot of people feel that way. Do you think it’s out of a sense of productivity, a sense of needing to be connected to the news cycle, a sense of political anxiety?

Matt: Me too. I think it’s partially not wanting to be lonely. And then not wanting to think about all the shit that sucks. And if you think too long, eventually you start thinking about how you’re gonna die. So you just want to have someone in your ear.

Lucy Schiller is an essayist based in Iowa City. She’s at work on a book about the musician Arthur Russell and on a collection of essays.