You Are Not Chapo Trap House

I love Chapo Trap House. However, I don’t get much from most of the left media that followed them. The only other leftist podcaster I listen to regularly anymore is Derick Varn, who preceded the Chapo wave and also used to be a kind of conservative. I’m not sure if either of these things is why Varn gets it and it’s more likely that his working-class background, his supreme intelligence, and the fact that he doesn’t do media for a living helps him weed out the bullshit.

But other than Chapo, Varn, CounterPunch and a few other places the leftist media sphere is as problematic as the mainstream media in my opinion. Many have tried and failed to tail Chapo.

When Chapo came on the scene Matt Christman noted that the show was going to be different from alternatives that came before. It was not for example going to be like: “smug above-it-all snark of The Daily Show or the quaver-voiced earnestness of, like, Chris Hedges or something.” They have achieved this in my opinion. I like Hedges and Stewart too but Christman nails it when he describes the newness of his show.

I also find that Stewart and Hedges are both leagues ahead of most of the post-Chapo universe. Why is that? This is not Chapo’s fault but I want to observe how people really miss the point of their show even when they state it in a very clear way.

The criticism of Chapo from liberals was that they were dirtbag leftists. This was more or less the same critique liberals have of rap music where they clutch their pearls at crudity while missing the entire serious critique that the genre is making. Chapo’s copycats however have often also missed the point of the dirtbag left in an opposite way.

While Chapo certainly is politically incorrect they are also joking. But the left and society in general really lacks a sense of humor and it goes completely over their head. Now we have many leftist personalities, especially those who consider themselves to be comedians, making shows with no jokes where they whine about not being able to be fascist online.

In the broadest sense, I do agree free speech is under attack in a horrifying way and I will defend anyone’s right to it, including fascists, however, this is far from the point of Chapo’s show. Chapo makes these kinds of jokes and they are kidding. Underneath them is a radical critique of those who take themselves seriously enough to become reactionaries. The nuance goes right over people’s heads.

The other problem is the partisan leftist. Most are either apologizing for Democrats or Republicans as such is their brand. Chapo is an equal opportunist and makes fun of anyone who should be made fun of.

Why is this? Again I think it is because they don’t take themselves too seriously. While most online personalities try to construct the perfect ideology that all their followers should follow Chapo’s number one point other than entertaining the listener is to remind them where they are when they are consuming this crap. They are online, alone, making a fake world that no one else is good enough for, and unless they are sincerely enjoying their time here they should log off and make a friend.

Again this basic point is lost. Not only is there a crisis in humor there seems to be a crisis in charisma and basic social functioning. Listen to leftist media and you will find that it’s mostly people trying to outsmart each other with arcane points that one could only know if they were in this universe already.

Ultimately it’s always a commentary on itself where the same personalities attempt to destroy each other because they are in market competition for a very slim number of clicks. Rather than sell the best hamburger people try to sell the best ideology. Mass culture is frequently referenced but almost always severely misunderstood. Too often it’s clearly people who don’t get out often trying to make sense of what they saw on the internet by making a joke that doesn’t land because they didn’t get the popular concept in the first place.

At the same time what is popular is referenced as the real revolution and we are constantly told to engage with so-called everyday people who the host clearly doesn’t understand at all and it’s painful. While the politics are good and the history lessons, when these people actually get to the point, are useful, there is an effort to be simultaneously the most radical individual in the room while also being the most divisive and toxic as a cover for doing nothing at all.

All this comes as politicians do nothing for entirely different reasons namely that their goals are entirely incompatible with this stage of capitalism and they can’t say it. The media personalities mirror the politicians in that their job is to distract us and fire us up only to resign to a sense that nothing at all can really be done.

This dynamic isn’t entertaining even though it is addicting. Like most subcultures born of technology we are brought into a fantasy world where we learn the characters, take a side to cheer on, become totally oblivious to the world outside, and attempt to become king of the world within. We are not laughing along the way. We are just on the treadmill. We are told that this is the way out of capitalism when it is just a door back in.

Most of the so-called alternative commentary takes itself very seriously and when they tell a joke it doesn’t land. Some of this is because of the fear of being sued and censored for something one says. This is a huge problem but it is a class problem and it’s not often talked about that way. Usually, people talk about this as if it has something to do with some class-neutral version of actual law rather than the discretion of large corporations.

The internet is not free space. Even private messages are viewed by all and people posturing online may or may not be sincere but can and will be punished. Therefore such statements online are either naive or disingenuous. Even more effective than punishment is to reward someone for their reactionary sentiments and since this is how they are making a living and reproducing value people bite and their actual message, such that it is, is lost, especially to themselves.

I am not mentioning names here because this is a structural problem. I am praising Chapo because they seemed to get in on the ground floor of a whole discourse that exploded and is replacing mainstream media in a lot of ways, although most of the actually successful alternatives are at least as right-wing as the mainstream they are replacing.

Kendrick Lamar’s latest album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has the same logic as Chapo: I am not your savior. I claim Kendrick’s latest album is just as relevant as his masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly because he is providing commentary on how people read into him. Like Bob Dylan before him, Lamar absolutely rejects the idea that his creation of an entertainment product is liberating.

Only legitimately talented people we admire can get away with this giant middle finger to their audience. Most are so desperate for an audience that they trail what the market rewards which is increasingly less innovative content.

Wake up. We are caught in a nostalgic loop in a culture of decline. Many new ideas in film now are just knock-offs of past creations. Same goes for music. Same goes for political commentary. The dynamic of innovation is dying.

Part of the desire for nostalgia is because life used to be materially better. But even more so is the consolidation of capital. Entertainment is ultimately owned by only a few competing companies and they will only invest in what is profitable and what is profitable is the lowest common denominator.

There is nothing new anymore because there is no incentive to invest. Our governments, even Brandon’s, has been reduced to providing slush funds to corporations to stimulate the economy, often not making anything productive, let alone new.

Ultimately even the best cultural content is simply commentary upon itself and its own futility. As we have more and more options we relate to each other less and less even though these options are all the same in production and not in experience. We want to stand out but we too are defined by our reproduction of surplus value and while we all have different forms of alienating experience we cannot relate to each other despite being the same in essence besauae we have layered our own real experience in so much abstraction we cannot define who we are or who anyone else is.

We see our neighbors and they seem off, they seem like a stranger. We seem to be doing the same activity but this activity isn’t enough and we attempt to explain it and we find that we are divided. We cannot figure out how because systems have become more complex and elusive just as they have become more concentrated and uniform.

The ways in which we must reproduce the system is increasingly specialized and we become more and more deskilled. We understand less about how the world works while we get far more explanations for it. The truth is out in the open but there are so many truths and these truths are so similar we all think we have our own truth and we become intolerant towards any other. We become more sure of ourselves because we are less certain.

Violence is dressed up as kindness or necessary or systematic and we become less like animals who fight or bond for survival and more like machines who start and stop on their own yet have no control or self-conscious. We own almost nothing and almost all of the ways the machine keeps going is to get us to pay for what we do not own.

Have I gone off the point? Maybe so. But I want to use this leftist space as a way to explain what is actually going on in the world rather than the other way around. And no I’m not close to what is actually going on and I’m speaking very broadly but that’s because I really don’t know. Yes, there are some statistics that tell us more of the story but I don’t really understand them and this is mostly a feeling.

We can’t go back. But back is the only way we are trying to go. There is a tension between this reboot of capitalist relations from above and this inability to deliver anything back into the system. Getting ourselves out of the final crisis always seems possible but also always disappointing as power is recouped into the same hands and the next crisis is worse but also less democratic in its reforms.

Chapo sees some bullshit, calls it out, we laugh, and it functions as actually existing enjoyment. Most of all we listen to Chapo because these guys like each other and they engage in a collaborative project. As human beings, we long for this on a very deep level far more than we do for leftist ideology.

While leftism is necessary so is basic social functioning. Once we get our social skills together maybe we could start to convince other people about Marxism. Until then the online left acts as a fringe subculture that eats itself faster than the censorship regime ever could.

Chapo Trap House’s main three characters are Will Menaker, Matt Christman, and Felix Biederman. They all play different roles and all seem to appreciate and enjoy each other. Will is the main host, providing us with the most normal voice that stimulates the conversation until he pulls the chair out from under us with something savage to wake us up from our passive enjoyment. Felix provides comic relief and Will the passionate realism. There is something cohesive here in a way that all three roles are strengthened by the other two.

They dunk on liberals and conservatives, hipsters and Trumpists. There seems to be no point except for the enjoyment itself. Naturally, such an experience cannot be replicated and we see an entropic experience where the original object of enjoyment can only be moved away from and the remaining bits that break off only latch onto what was originally being cast off and made fun of. I am marking a podcast as the beginning of some universe and thus I am too missing the point precisely because I think I’ve landed on it.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at