Chapo Trap House, Between Hope and Nihilism

Matt Christman

Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman on pulling angry young men away from the alt right, consumption choices as politics, the grotesqueries of American life, and his commitment to “optimism of the will and all that shit.”

Chap Trap House's Matt Christman on election night 2016. YouTube

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Chapo Trap House is a leftist podcast whose hosts swear sometimes. These characteristics have been enough to make many centrist liberals deeply angry and their show extremely popular.

The co-hosts have a new book out, The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Facts, Logic, and Reason. Incredibly, it’s on the New York Times bestseller list.

On the occasion of the book’s release, Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht recently spoke with Chapo co-host and Chapo Guide co-author Matt Christman.

Micah Uetricht

Describe the Chapo project as you see it. What are you trying to accomplish and what aren’t you trying to accomplish?

Matt Christman

It started off without any real goal. It was not a project ideologically, so much as a thing that we thought would be fun. Felix, Will, and I knew each other from the internet. We had fun on there. We felt stifled in our creative endeavors elsewhere. After we did an episode of the podcast Street Fight talking about the movie 13 Hours, we felt like we had fun, some good jokes. And we also felt like we were expressing a point of view that was coherent, and maybe one that people hadn’t heard before.

At that nascent stage, we had a sense that we were articulating an entire critique of the present system as it exists — a critique that was, at that point, going unarticulated. And it came through talking about a Michael Bay movie about Benghazi. This billion-dollar endeavor meant to turn this colonial adventure in Libya into a primordial tale of heroism and betrayal. Even the liberal critiques of the movie assumed a lot of the same priors that the filmmakers did.

It was fun to be able to just vent a sense of an opposition to that, and an alternative to it. That’s why the show took off is the way it did — because of the ideological space in media, especially comedic media, at that time was incredibly narrow. This produced a very impoverished media environment, even just at a consumer level.

To the degree that there was a coherent project, it was just a desire to voice our opposition to that. And it became popular because lots of people have that same desire.

Micah Uetricht

So, to say that you have a strong responsibility for people’s political actions would give too much ground to this idea that we should look to someone like a podcaster for our politics.

Matt Christman

Yeah, but getting a political point of view isn’t a matter of consumption. It’s a matter of lived experience, and then processing that lived experience through interaction with other people’s takes. That could be reading Jacobin or In These Times or listening to the show — any of those things will be part of generating a political consciousness.

But you don’t become a political actor until you take that mindset, that set of values or ideology, and express it in the world.

Micah Uetricht

You guys often skewer the Bush-era Daily Show and that kind of cathartic liberal comedy. But do you worry about becoming a leftist version of that, where people turn to you to blow off steam but not much else? Obviously, you’re telling people that they need to turn off the podcast at some point and do something. But the potential for listeners to not move beyond the catharsis they get from the show is there.

Matt Christman

Yeah, it’s a concern. But I hope the fact that it is to the left of the Daily Show is a prophylactic against that. At the end of the day, the Daily Show said to viewers, “You’re not crazy for thinking that these guys are a bunch of Loony Tune goofballs,” but it’s fundamentally positive. The institutions they were skewering were redeemable: the presidency is fine if it’s not in the hands of a person like George Bush or Donald Trump. The Justice Department is fine if Jeff Sessions isn’t in charge of it. The military is fine if it’s directed by moral leaders like Barack Obama.

If that’s the case, then what you really have to do is wait for the next election. Our show never accepts those premises — that these are redeemable institutions. So any catharsis is tinged with a mounting sense of horror and realization that action has to be taken. They can’t be siloed off into consumption or the sterile act of voting every two years.

Micah Uetricht

You all get called “irony bros” a lot. Given the aesthetics and the style of the show, where everything is getting skewered all the time, and you in particular are often screaming, I think a lot of people associate the show with a kind of nihilism. But that seems to me like a pretty profound misreading of what you are trying to do.

Matt Christman

I honestly don’t understand that critique, because the whole project comes from genuine feelings of anger and frustration and moral horror at what we see around us. The irony that people are caught pointing to — it’s literally just humor. I feel like a lot of critics specifically on the Left are just personally incapable of processing comedy.

I’ve seen some of the criticisms of the show for saying that we are racist. Now, obviously the cover of “it’s a joke” can be used by people who just want to express reactionary views. But people take what is pretty clearly a joke whose punchline is a horror, the punchline is that something here is unjust, and argue that because the joke contains articulation of a retrograde view, it is an endorsement of it. For me, that’s somebody who doesn’t know what comedy is.

I think the nihilist criticism is more likely to come from a more like center-left person who thinks, “If you’re saying that the Democratic Party is hopeless, if you’re saying that these elections are largely a sham, you’re basically saying that there is no hope.”

If you believe that the limits of America’s political possibilities are electoral politics — specifically, conventional Democratic electoral politics where the pool of voters is fixed and the only thing for the Democratic Party to do is to hire an army of snake oil salesmen to narrowly cast small fragments of suburban, white, middle-class people to win narrow electoral majorities that they’ll hold for a few years until they get overthrown by rampaging reactionaries and thus leads to continued immiseration and environmental apocalypse — that is the real nihilistic view. That is a view that offers no hope, no possibility for any sort of change, or even salvation of the goddamn species.

Micah Uetricht

That is an anti-nihilistic expression, but on the show, everyone, maybe you in particular, seem pulled between two poles. On the one hand, you buy into this basic socialist belief that the working class has the power and the self-interest to transform the world into a more just and egalitarian place. But on the other, you have taken a good hard look at the American people as they currently exist, and you don’t really like what you see: virulent racism, sexism, blood lust; a profoundly uninteresting and boorish group of people.

You seem like you’re sent into a kind of existential despair about this fact pretty often. Is that accurate?

Matt Christman

Absolutely. I guess that’s where the show’s forward momentum comes from — these two, the matter and antimatter, clanging off each other. Because I do see the wondrous possibilities for solidarity and for people rising up above petty senses of grievance or bias or prejudice. There’s the sheer number of people who are totally unserved by capitalism, and who could be brought together on those terms.

But then you see the people who are totally caught up in a spectacle of mindless cruelty and breathtaking entitlements, a sort of “let me speak to your manager,” petty tyranny. It’s hard to fight against that, because every current of culture pushes you in that direction. It tells you that the degree to which you can find expression in life is not through meaningful work, it’s not through building a better society, it’s through bossing other people around who, for whatever moment of the day, you find yourself in a superior position to. That’s cause for despair.

But in terms of squaring it … I guess you just gotta fall back on all those old cliches: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, and all that shit.

Micah Uetricht

In the book, you all write, “Given the state of the pro-war, pro-Wall Street and pro-markets Democratic Party, which is as right wing as any political party should be allowed to be in the 21st century, the task of bringing socialism back has fallen to goofies like us.”

It occurred to me that you all are the unique products of the miseries of contemporary America. If it weren’t for the dismal state of the country, and if we did have a party that was willing to fight for just a smidge of social democracy, and occasionally spoke out against American imperialism, then the show would not be what it is. If you guys were in, like, a Western European welfare state, the hard edges of Chapo would be blunted.

Matt Christman

I think the show would still have a coherent political expression, because social democracy is coming apart at the seams over there. But in terms of getting an audience, you’re right. We’re drawing our audience from this pool of people who kind of don’t exist in these softer, market economies of Europe, because Europeans don’t throw their young people to the wolves the way we do. Those are the people who grasped onto the show early on and became the core of the audience. It’d be hard to imagine us getting this sort of traction in the absence of that.

Micah Uetricht

On that point, I’ve been reading a lot about the alt-right recently. In the descriptions of its rank-and-file members, I was struck at how similar a lot of them sound to the “failsons” that you all describe yourselves and your listeners as. They’re young men with pretty bleak life prospects, extremely angry, extremely online, and they’re looking for someone who can speak to that anger.

Do you think you have pulled people back from the abyss, whether from joining the alt-right or anything else?

Matt Christman

I think so. From conversations with listeners, I’m aware that dynamic happens. Of course, for some people, that’s proof that we’re essentially identical to the alt-right, because we appeal to the same demographic.

Micah Uetricht

That’s like people saying that Bernie is the mirror image of Trump.

Matt Christman

Right, yeah. You’re basically dealing with people who are without a sense of a future, period. Even if they could get a job, they’re acutely aware of the systemic breakdown happening all around us. And I think that our show’s value, above all, is to articulate an explanation for why that is — that doesn’t involve scapegoating the most vulnerable people in a society and instead points at the most culpable, which is the capitalist class.

It’s kind of astounding that we have to do that, because the case to me seems pretty obvious. I’ve engaged with some of these alt-right arguments that try to explain these things, people like Jordan Peterson. And it really does just devolve into mysticism and Voodoo and conspiracy theory.

Whereas, you could spell out the destiny of this generation in a handful of fucking graphs about declining union participation, declining labor share of income, rising costs for tuition and health care and housing. It’s right there! It doesn’t require a magical cabal of cultural Marxist professors to make it happen, or George Soros sneaking Al Qaeda guys in shipping containers across the Rio Grande. It’s happening right in front of our faces.

The foundational moments politically for the younger millennials is a massive economic collapse caused by fecklessness, greed, and criminality by the Wall Street financial class, that was then rewarded with a full recapitalization from public coffers, and the complete failure to offer any relief to the regular people who are most harmed and least to blame for what happened.

We have the truth on our side, which is helpful. But I think we also have a willingness to make it entertaining. Which is the coin of a realm in America, really. It’s just a collection of spectacles, and people picking which collection of media that they can fashion into an identity.

By being able to articulate a critique of capitalism, while also being humorous, while also being entertaining — it 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. We do a show that is irreverent and humorous without being cruel like that, without finding scapegoats.

Micah Uetricht

You bring up the Iraq War a lot in the book and on the podcast. Right after Trump’s election, Garry Wills wrote a piece in the New York Review of Books that argues that bitter disillusionment with the entire political system, that produced the burn-it-all-down mentality that produced Trump’s election, came in large part from what he called the “burrowing and undermining infection of the Iraq war.”

I sent that piece to my dad after the election, and he was not buying it. A lot of people don’t think of the Iraq War that way — certainly not as a kind of generation-defining moment in the same way as, say, Vietnam. But you all seem to treat it that way. Is that accurate?

Matt Christman

Yeah, I think it speaks to the moment we are living in. The professionalization of the military since Vietnam and the technological advancements of imperial management that reduce the need for mass participation in war means that war is different today. But in terms of its impact on the world, and in terms of the bloodshed that it is unleashed and will continue to unleash, Iraq is absolutely on par with Vietnam.

But it’s been siloed off by history. The effects of it in America are limited to a relatively small number of volunteer soldiers who fought in it. So, it loses that kind of cultural centrality that the Vietnam War had.

But I think Iraq will continue to undermine, on all sides of the political spectrum, support for institutions: the press, the Congress, the presidency, the intelligence community. That’s really understated. Wills is right that there is this insidious creep that is expressed in the big stuff, like mobilization for new wars. But also, in smaller moments.

Like when Trump condemned Jeb Bush during the 2016 debates by saying his brother created this disaster in Iraq. Everyone was like, “Well, that’s the end of Trump.” Obviously, the Republican Party loves the war on Iraq. Turns out, no, they really don’t at this point.

A lot of that is opportunistic. You don’t wanna be associated with a huge disaster. But I remember reading about how Trump and before him, Ron Paul, were popular with a lot of veterans, because those veterans felt that the candidates’ isolationism spoke to their bitterness at being misused in the war. You also see it with people accepting the narrative of the deep state against Trump. The idea is like, “Yeah, why would you trust the CIA? They talked us into Iraq.”

It really does seem like the only people who haven’t learned that lesson are the liberals who insist on resurrecting the legitimacy of these institutions at every moment, saying, “Of course the intelligence community is virtuous. Of course the press is a bastion of truth seeking.”

And so that’s another reason that Democrats steadily lose these debates, lose these races, lose the ears of those who should be their voters — because they have not learned the lesson that these institutions were fatally compromised during that war.

You might not think about it all the time. It might not be expressed to the culture all around you. But you know what happened. And when the media or the intelligence community is brought up as this bastion of virtue, it’s hard not to have the thought, just for a second, of, “Oh yeah. They did that thing where they killed a million people for no reason and destroyed an entire country.”

Micah Uetricht

It sounds like what you’re getting at is that, in the same way that we all learned through Bernie’s campaign that there was a mass audience for a domestic social-democratic politics that we had been assured didn’t exist in the United States, there may be a similar mass constituency ready for some form of anti-imperialist politics.

Matt Christman

I think that’s true. It’s trickier there. That is going be the real challenge in mending together a coherent leftist political project. And we’re stuck doing something like what Bernie did in the 2016 campaign, trying to use magic bullets to get over having to talk about these issues. Like when he kept flogging the King of Jordan as the solution to ISIS.

Micah Uetricht

“King Abdullah of Jordan.” Bernie loved talking about him.

Matt Christman

He loved the King of Jordan. That shows that there’s significant work to be done there. Because if the Left is gonna save the planet, it has to be international. It has to involve international solidarity. It has to advance the idea that the working class in all countries can be brought together on a broadly similar project, and that that project has to involve dismantling the American empire.

It can’t just be shaving a $100 billion off the Pentagon’s budgets. It has to go deeper than that. It has to be a full-scale reorientation of America’s foreign policy. That is gonna require a lot of input from the working class from around the world.

But I do think that yes, the possibility is there. That’s what our show talks about. These things might not work. These plans might not succeed. I have no idea. It’d be foolish to try to predict anything. But to borrow a phrase from Margaret Thatcher, “There is no alternative.”