Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, and Will Menaker of the podcast “Chapo Trap House,” which emerged during the election as a popular progressive critic of Democrats.
Illustration by Rebecca Clarke
Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker befriended each other on Twitter several years ago. They had common interests—international politics, making fun of journalists—and a shared comic sensibility that borders on nihilism but stops just short of it. Christman, stout and Midwestern, had been unemployed for years, moving around the country with his wife, an academic librarian. Biederman was a freelance writer and mixed-martial-arts hobbyist in New York City. Menaker was an assistant editor at Liveright, an imprint of W. W. Norton. (His father, Daniel Menaker, is a former executive editor-in-chief of Random House, and was also a fiction editor at The New Yorker for twenty years.) He is slight and bearded, the unofficial dad of the trio.
In February, they appeared together on “Street Fight Radio,” an “anarcho-comedy show,” to mock the Michael Bay war movie “13 Hours” for its bathetic moral kitsch. (Christman: “If you watch these screaming, turbaned jihadis machine-gun the American flag while it’s on the end of the flagpole, and you’re weeping, then you’re a fucking rube, and I want to sell you a reverse mortgage.”) Then they decided to branch out on their own. They taped a ninety-minute freeform conversation using Google Hangout and broadcast it, unedited, over YouTube. A tossed-off joke from that recording, which combined the name of a famous Mexican drug lord and the slang term for a crack kitchen, gave them a title for the new project, a gleefully eccentric podcast dedicated to vulgar leftist commentary on politics and media: “Chapo Trap House.”
From the beginning, the “Chapo” guys lambasted Republicans as well as Democrats, but it was their critique of liberal thinking, and the assumed Hillary Clinton ascendancy, that generated energy and attention. After the journalist Brendan James appeared on their third episode to discuss a profile he’d written about Sean Hannity, he came on board as their producer. In the first episode, Menaker said that the “Bernie and Hillary divide is a profound and deeply instructive one—I can’t see it going away.” And as Bernie Sanders’s prospects dwindled during the primary, “Chapo” assured people who were frustrated by the Democratic Party that they weren’t alone. Their audience numbers climbed.
In June, the same month that Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Christman created a page for the podcast on the crowd-funding platform Patreon, offering exclusive episodes for a five-dollar monthly contribution. “Chapo” now receives nearly twenty-two thousand dollars a month, and, by their own estimates, has forty thousand listeners. They sell out live shows; a page on the popular Web site TV Tropes tracks their inside jokes about phrenology and anti-Irish racism, among other subjects. (Their most diehard fans call themselves Grey Wolves, after the fringe nationalist group in Turkey—another tossed-off joke that stuck.) Menaker quit his publishing job in July. That same month, Paste magazine labelled “Chapo Trap House” the “vulgar, brilliant demigods of the new progressive left.”
A more precise label might be the Dirtbag Left, a term coined by the writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who is Biederman’s roommate, and who, this week, officially joined the “Chapo” roster. In an essay for Current Affairs, Frost argued that while vulgarity isn’t “inherently subversive,” it can help tarnish the unearned prestige of the powerful—something that many Democrats, as well as Republicans, hunger to do. We can either “reclaim vulgarity from the Trumps of the world,” she wrote, or “find ourselves handicapped by civility.”
“Chapo Trap House” has embraced this mission. “If you sleep on a mattress on the floor and fuck in a sleeping bag, then you just might be the dirtbag left!” Menaker told Paste. “If you’re the only dude at a function not wearing a pocket square in a linen blazer and adulting like a boss, then you’re in the dirtbag left!” People who belong to the Dirtbag Left, Christman said, aren’t afraid “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.”
The “Chapo” guys loathe the unctuous sanctimony that can descend on liberal politics—a tone they associate with Clinton and certain corners of the mainstream media. According to “Chapo,” liberals humiliated themselves when they urged Trump protesters in Chicago to behave. Liberals were fools for piously donating to the fire-bombed North Carolina G.O.P. office in October, putting their desire to project civility over the ongoing reality of voter suppression in the state. On the podcast and on Twitter, they have made the case, over and over, that the way the Democratic Party leans on celebrity and pop culture is misguided and embarrassing.
“Chapo Trap House” refuses to provide the kind of “Daily Show”-style catharsis that dissipates frustration en masse. “It was useful at the time,” Menaker told me, referring to the style of right-ridiculing political comedy that was defined by Jon Stewart. “But the Obama years really revealed the limits of that type of humor.” Smarm, not evil, was the new target.
Their argument is inextricable from the way in which they make it. But when an ethos of vulgarity is enthusiastically practiced by a group of white men, this will sometimes translate as chauvinism. Particular strains of “Chapo” invective can be hard to take—people are “pussies,” or they’re “retarded.” Botanical gardens are “gay,” Hillary Clinton is “a freak.” The caricature of the “Bernie bro”—an aggressively disaffected white guy who hates Clinton ostensibly because of her neoliberal incrementalism but deep down because of her gender—occasionally seems to apply. The very name of the podcast—as well as its theme song, a vaporwave remix of Gucci Mane—suggests a dismissive attitude toward identity politics. They are, after all, three white guys.
“Four_ _white guys,” James, the producer, said.
“Politifact rates this claim as ‘mostly true,’ ” Menaker added.
“It depends on how you classify the Scots-Irish,” Christman said. Then he became serious. Representation in the media is a real issue, he said, but one that mostly applies to large institutions like the Times or CNN, where barriers to entry preserve gender and racial hierarchies. By contrast, Christman said, “we are literally just dudes who just do this.” In any case, on the Monday following the election, “Chapo Trap House” announced that Frost and another frequent guest, the comedian Virgil Texas, would officially join as co-hosts. (After meeting Texas, I had assumed that he had some Asian heritage. When I texted him to ask if I could describe him as Asian-American, he explained that he didn’t “self-ID” as such, but that he “wouldn’t be offended” if I did.)
At the Genius office, as people set up chairs on the floor below us, Menaker described the generic Chapo fan as a “failson”—which Biederman, who is twenty-six, defined as the guy that “goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.” As for the women fans—who make up maybe twenty to thirty per cent of the audience, they guessed—“they all seem to be success-daughters,” Menaker said. “They’re astrophysicists or novelists, extremely on-point and competent people.”
Christman saw a political lesson in the show’s fan base. “The twenty-first century is basically defined by nonessential human beings, who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers,” he said. “That manifests itself differently in different classes and geographic areas. For white, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty—they become failsons.” The “Chapo Trap House” guys are sincerely concerned with American inequality; at the same time, their most instinctive sympathies seem to fall with people whose worst-case scenario is a feeling of purposelessness. “Some of them turn into Nazis,” Christman continued. “Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.”
The guys have gotten e-mails, they told me, from listeners who have started organizing, and who told them that they had started to think of their lives politically for the first time. You wouldn’t necessarily expect jokes about Antonin Scalia getting horseradish in his neck folds to spur people toward activism. But Biederman compared “Chapo” ’s style to the recessed cardboard filter on Parliament cigarettes, which, according to an apocryphal story, were designed so that soldiers could bite down on something during battle. “Irony is what allows you to keep your bearings when you’re looking at the horrors of the world,” he said.
As their big Election Night show approached, the “Chapo” guys told me about their plans. They want to set up a Web site, publish essays, bring in more history and international coverage, and produce sketches and short films. The Hillary Clinton Administration would set them up as the dedicated opposition. “The show would suck under a Trump Presidency,” Menaker noted. “We’d end up getting into that John Oliver thing. The emperor has no clothes, ladies and gentlemen! Trump outrage of the week!”
“Every episode would end with an open letter,” Biederman said. “It would be like—listen, you orange ignoramus, how dare you call Seth Meyers a kike on Twitter.”
“A few weeks ago, Virgil was trying to convince me that Trump would win,” Christman said. “I was like, we would be so fucked.”
On Saturday morning, I biked to James’s apartment, in Clinton Hill, where the guys were taping their first post-election podcast. James set up his laptop on a coffee table and dialled Christman in from Cincinnati. The room was cozy, with liquor bottles decorating one corner and audio cables coiled on a beat-up Persian rug. Texas buzzed the door, walked in, and sat down between Menaker and Biederman on the couch. “We ate shit,” Menaker said. “And the fact that we’re not alone doesn’t make it less acute.”
“It makes me feel worse,” Biederman said. “I’m lumped in with these idiots. We’re exactly as stupid as them.”
The live show on Election Night had been planned around a sequence of states going blue. The loose theme was “Dr. Strangelove,” and Biederman, in character as General Jack D. Ripper, was going to end the evening by committing suicide in the bathroom after Clinton’s victory was announced. Instead, as Trump took Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Michigan, the Chapo guys improvised, and the air in the room curdled. “Look, it’s Bernie’s fault,” Biederman said at one point. “Second of all, if voters are too immature to vote for someone that collapses and vomits all the time, the joke’s on them.”
In James’s apartment, they talked about the bad tweets and smarmy posts that they’d seen about President-elect Trump. The mood was perky. Not for the first time that week, I was jealous of their freedom from the paralyzing personal investment that I felt in the election.
“We have a duty to our fans to keep up the show, to provide some sense of community or solace,” Menaker said. “Strategically and politically, I think we must declare eternal, holy war on the Democratic Party, because they’re the ones that let this happen.”
“Yeah,” Biederman said. “The Democratic leadership has to be purged. Our mission statement, for the time being, is to paint these targets.”
I asked them if they blamed the Party exclusively. Didn’t it make sense to attribute some of the fault with the people who chose Trump despite his racism and sexism? They scoffed.
“Even if you do blame the electorate, where do you go from there?” Biederman asked. “Do we shame these people into liking us?” This debate, pitting the economic concerns of the white working class against a focus on minority and women’s rights, as though it were a zero-sum game, will go surely on for years. We weren’t going to resolve it that morning.
James pressed record, and Biederman launched into an impression of Hillary Clinton in the cheesy rhetorical pattern the “Chapo” guys call “Democrat voice.” “I may not be David Carradine, but I fucking choked,” he said. “I may not be Johnny Knoxville, but I ate shit on live TV. I may not be Dale Earnhardt”—he paused—“but I smashed into the fucking wall because I couldn’t turn left.”
And then they were off, discussing Clinton’s loss. Clinton was too focussed on rich suburbs; she didn’t visit Wisconsin; she brought Jay Z to Ohio like a chump. She gave her base no reason to vote for her apart from the fact that she wasn’t Trump. The barrier between entertainment and politics is now nonexistent, they argued, and people voted against the political class. Clinton—“the Supreme Lady Clinton, the nice girl who just doesn’t know why minorities won’t give her votes that she’s entitled to”—wasn’t capable of getting the Obama coalition. People simply did not come out.
But minorities, I thought, did vote for Clinton. The “Chapo” guys elided the role that bigotry played in the election. “Be on the lookout for everybody who’s trying to play it off like this was inevitable, saying that America is this irredeemably racist,” Menaker said. “I’m sorry, but that’s as ignorant as the most baying moron that voted for Trump.”
James snuck into the center of the room to adjust the mic levels on his laptop, stepping around piles of books and an electric guitar. Biederman ranted about Clinton’s behavior at the Javits Center. “This entitled fucking slob,” he said. “This fucking asshole brought all her donors to have a big party about how great they were. She’s never been a fucking leader, ever, in her life. She just has these fans who are psychologically weak, tormented, élite freaks.”
This was their mission now—to rail on Clinton, the liberals who had supported her, the Party that hadn’t demanded enough of her, the media that cheered her on. They say their primary goal is to entertain, but their ethos—radically anti-élite, anti-capitalist, redistributive—may have been validated by the results of the election. I wondered if “Chapo” could eventually attract some of the liberals they hate, if they would continue to target, exclusively, the disaffected. The affected deserve better than what they’ve been given, too.
“We are in a new era,” Texas said, at the close of the show, addressing his comrades. “Politics is now an endless thing in our lives. It will transform our culture top to bottom. One thing that everyone should keep in mind is that fascism seeks to destroy nuance and irony. For the next four years, people are going to need you guys to know that they’re not alone.”
“Well, that’s the plan,” Menaker said.