Chapo Trap House and the burden of the ‘dirtbag left’ | Feature | Chicago Reader

Chapo Trap House and the burden of the ‘dirtbag left’ 

The political comedy podcast has become a flash point in a larger fight between mainstream liberals and leftists.

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click to enlarge "It's disingenuous for [the media] to say 'This is the Chapo Trap House left,'" the podcast's cohost Felix Biederman says. "They just decide the left is symbolized by us."

"It's disingenuous for [the media] to say 'This is the Chapo Trap House left,'" the podcast's cohost Felix Biederman says. "They just decide the left is symbolized by us."

Courtesy Chapo Trap House

When Felix Biederman and a couple friends launched the political comedy podcast Chapo Trap House in March 2016, they imagined it would connect with a sliver of a niche audience. How many people would tune in to a socialist-friendly show that skewers lukewarm Clintonian liberalism and parodies inside-the-Beltway pundits? Perhaps a handful of like-minded Twitter denizens, Biederman thought.

Seventeen months later, Chapo Trap House is a bona fide cult hit that charts ahead of podcast versions of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show and Morning Joe and ranks as the top podcast on the crowdfunding platform Patreon. In recent months Chapo has landed prominent guests such as comedians David Cross and Tim Heidecker. Biederman and Chapo cohost Virgil Texas were also behind Carl Diggler, the fictional talking head who predicted the Democratic primary contests with more accuracy than FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver.

Chapo Trap House is perhaps most widely known for coining the term "dirtbag left" to describe a humorous, vulgar, anarchic, and sometimes whip-smart approach to discussing progressive politics that disregards political correctness. The podcast's middle finger to establishment politics and the mainstream media has earned the show hard-core fans, some of whom, following the lead of its cohosts, joined the Democratic Socialists of America. Chapo's approach has also made it a target for detractors across the ideological spectrum, from the National Review to the New York Times.

Earlier this month, prior to a pair of sold-out live Chapo Trap House shows at the Hideout during the weekend of the DSA National Convention, Biederman, a Hyde Park native who currently lives in Brooklyn, sat for an interview about socialism's rise, his show's newfound fame (and infamy), and Chicago's complicated political legacy.

What do you think is behind the resurgence of socialism in Chicago and elsewhere?

For people who were children during the Iraq war and came of age or were young adults during the Recession, the transformation they thought was coming never happened. It was eaten alive slowly for eight years starting in 2009 when the public [health insurance] option was given up on during the Obamacare debate. That generation looked at the possibilities—that the furthest left you could go politically was like . . . Bill Maher? They said, "We've tried playing by these rules. We've tried voting for Obama. We like him, but our lives aren't getting better. So we're going to look outside the range of ideologies you can give us."

I think a lot people deep inside have these [socialist] beliefs and just don't know it. I think the cultural image of a leftist in America is someone like Ward Churchill, this college professor who says humorless drivel like "I wish we had two 9/11s!" But slowly people are seeing that it can be an accessible viewpoint and have a lot of meaning in our everyday lives, even if they don't read theory or have never described themselves as a socialist or democratic socialist.

With Trump, for a little while we thought that it would be like the Bush years, where there would be this consolidated opposition led by moderate liberals and even some of these "beloved, respected" Republicans who end up voting with him 95 percent of the time. We made fun of the idea that it would be like V for Vendetta and everyone would rise up, but a little bit of that actually happened. People saw what imperialism and American reactionism and authoritarianism looks like without its mask. And that's what Trump is—he's like any other Republican, just dumber and more explicit.

I think people are saying, "If something like Trump can happen, maybe all these things that I believed that America couldn't do aren't impossible anymore. Fuck it! We had Democrats for all these years and we still got Trump." All of the practicality and the sacrificing of principles and policies that would have helped a lot of people and engendered a lot of loyalty to the Democratic Party were given up because we were told it had to be done and the worst thing still happened. It's very hard for people to look at that and go, "Well, I guess we still have to stick to this so-called practicality model!"

People also seem to be looking for something more substantial than the "resistance."

You can't really sustain persistent opposition just on the grounds that you're against Trump. What if Trump just got sick of this shit and quit or gets impeached, or he's old and never exercises and he dies shitting on the toilet? Then you have [Mike] Pence. If you build it all around resisting Trump and not about what you're going to give people, are you going to get them to vote a year from now?

Some have proclaimed the election of Trump as the death of humor.

We were really worried about that. I think it takes more skill to find stuff that is funny about Hillary, but if you do the work she's actually funnier than Trump. Trump is a one-note joke—he's stupid, he's influenced by everyone around him. His weird verbal tics. Trump is like watching The Three Stooges and Hillary is like watching [the BBC program] The Thick Of It—very multilayered humor. After the election we also saw so many bad Trump jokes that were a variation of "How dare you, sir!" You don't have to do a lot of work to see the evil in his policies. The night of the election, we wondered: How the fuck are we going to do this show? I think we've done pretty well—we've skyrocketed in listeners and subscribers. Our job is to try to find ways to satirize him in a way that no one else is doing, which is kind of easy because everyone is doing the same thing.

With Trump, you're not going to do what Jon Stewart did with Bush and take his mask off and show the audience that he was a lot like a guy like Trump. He could do that and be funny with it. With Trump, he's just going to go out there and send [Mick] Mulvaney out there to say, "It's good that they're going to make poor people die!" Or he'll talk about chocolate cake while calling in airstrikes. The explicit shit is already there.

You guys are catching a lot of hell from liberals for not just sticking to Trump and continuing to heckle Democrats and moderates.

They say you can't go after them during an election or during a primary to an election, you can't go after them during the clearing of a field during the primary of an election. You can't go after them immediately after an election or over a year before the next election. It's all undermining them because they're all running and fund-raising all the time and resisting Trump—whatever that means.

I just read a New York Times column criticizing Chapo's "dirtbag left." Is it weird to be a flash point in a larger fight between mainstream liberals and leftists?

It's annoying because it's disingenuous for them to say "This is the Chapo Trap House left." We're a podcast that many people on the left enjoy, but we don't have millions of listeners, we're not setting policy for any of the socialist organizations—we just do a show that people like. They just decide the left is symbolized by us. Do you think [any New York Times columnist] would write something about [herself] as "the Samantha Bee liberal"? Six-hundred thousand people watch that show and it's not enough to capture some political-cultural zeitgeist. We have less listeners than Bee has viewers.

It's a shitty thing to do to people who have been organizing long before all this and are now doing amazing work during Trump. Why the fuck should they have to answer questions about what they think about our stupid show? It's absurd. Unlike a lot of people in America, this isn't a culture war for them. This is a war over resources—which is what politics actually is.

It shows how small and insular this debate is between leftists and liberals. I can imagine most people who don't spend a lot of time on Twitter reading the New York Times or New Republic columns about you guys saying, "What are they talking about?"

Yeah, what the fuck are they talking about? A very small number of people know anything about the bizarre Twitter fights. It's miniscule. Twitter, out of all the social media sites, is the least used one. But because journalists use it, they think it's a bellwether for America. It's insane. I guess it's the same thing that the Internet has always been: You stare at this screen of moving text and images and you have the same completely blank expression on your face while going through this range of emotion—rage and mirth and excitement to rip some asshole apart. It's like you're sitting in your car in neutral and just gunning it.

In recent months, a vocal group of Democrats and liberals have labelled you and Chapo "the alt-left." How do you feel about that? [Note: This interview was conducted a few days before Trump used and popularized "alt-left" in a speech to describe protesters who demonstrated the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Absolutely moronic when you think of this very diverse group of people you've seen at the DSA convention. To say they're the same as the British pedophilia guy and the NoFap Gorilla guy is cynical and disgusting. That's what you do when you can't fight the alternative. When you know your ideas aren't as appealing, you have to call all these leftists racists without explicitly saying it. I don't care if some fucking goofball on Twitter says I'm alt-left. It doesn't mean anything. But if I was from any marginalized community and someone said, "You know, you're basically the same as anyone on the alt-right because you're not a part of the Democratic Party," I'd be pretty pissed. It's absurd and nasty.

click to enlarge A Chapo Trap House badge
  • A Chapo Trap House badge

The DSA is still a relatively small organization. Is there a danger in overrating its reach and influence?

I don't think it's a danger. This is something that was very, very marginal in this country for a very long time. Look, it's 25,000 members, and in the scope of other organizations, it's not humongous. But the fact that it's exploded so much since Trump got elected is incredible. Absolutely incredible. When people say that [DSA membership] has tripled, they're not saying, "Now that it's 25,000 people, we're going to amend the constitution so that [U.K. Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn can be president here." They're saying this is a start. What DSA has already done with the people they have is incredible, especially during recent health-care actions. This is new on the modern political landscape at least since [Eugene] Debs. The future has a lot to hold. I don't think 25,000 is anywhere close to the ceiling of this organization.

How did growing up in Chicago shape your political views?

Growing up in Hyde Park, you're surrounded by this environment of meritocratic achievement and cultural liberalism, and from the time I had conscious thought, it kind of disgusted me. It's a lot of children of U. of C. people and other upper-middle-class people talking about being on the waitlist at Brown from the time they're in seventh grade. And I really didn't like it at all. That may partly have been some of the politics my dad had.

As I got older, I got very bored in Hyde Park. The moment I figured out how the trains work I went anywhere else. Seeing a lot of Chicago and a bit more of Illinois, you could see the insane economic and racial segregation that exists in most American cities—but exists in its most explicit and most physically noticeable form in Chicago. You come from this very tony, very well-connected neighborhood, and you hear all the supposedly well-intentioned liberal thought that comes from it, and you read a book like Native Son, and you realize that it's always been like this. There's always been this group of people who say, "We're going to fix Chicago, we're going to show these people what's best for them," and they've never really done that. The problems are systemic. A lot of these people would rather appear as if they're benevolent rather than actually make people's lives better.

The University of Chicago has a mixed record as far as some of the people and philosophies that it's turned out. Milton Friedman . . .

It has produced a lot of evils in this world. You can talk about Friedman and the people connected with the School of the Americas and the "shock doctrine" capitalism developed in the Chicago school of economics. Or you can look at what the University of Chicago has done for the neighborhood of Hyde Park. Hyde Park is an interesting place. It's more racially diverse than you might think, but like many Chicago neighborhoods, it varies block by block. That's changing now; they're gentrifying it to hell. U. of C. has been tyrannical about building codes, and you see the true application of libertarian economic thought when its interests get twisted around racial terror and greed.



Were you still in Chicago during Obama's first presidential campaign?

Yes, I was. I didn't leave until 2011. I guess I didn't know a great range of political possibilities back then, but I was encouraged that he'd been to Palestine and he was against the Iraq war. I don't remember thinking like some did that he was going to change American politics.

You had no special affinity for Obama considering he was practically your neighbor?

I mean, my family had the same kind of dog as Obama did. I guess I like Obama because we both had Portuguese water dogs and the Iran deal and the fact that he pardoned Chelsea Manning after he put her in prison. So that's less than a wash.

What do you think defines Chicago politically: the legacy of centrist Democratic politicians—the Rahm and Obama types—or radicals like Saul Alinsky and Fred Hampton?

You mean Saul Alinsky, the architect of the Democratic Party? That's a big conservative talking point, that he's a protege of Obama and Hillary Clinton. And it's like, What the fuck?

In a lot of places in Chicago, the fix is in. There are a lot of factors beyond our control. It seems like Rahm Emanuel became mayor without anyone voting. The mayor and City Council constantly kowtow to building developers. Rahm and Obama are part of our political DNA, but I think Chicago's true political character is defined by its people—and that's radical in many ways.

I think about last year when Trump tried to do a rally in Chicago and thousands and thousands of young people scared the shit out of him and kept him out. I remember national liberals and centrists responded by scolding the protesters saying, "This is exactly what Trump wants!" I thought that was so condescending. These people came out and risked it all to embarrass this guy who was demonizing them in every way. He wanted to deport them and take away their fucking health care and institute austerity in every part of their lives. I thought it showed the true character of the people who live here.

Is it telling that Trump loves to talk shit about Chicago?

I think it is. Trump's vision of what crime is like in Chicago is very antiquated. His addled brain thinks about cities like they're from Death Wish or The Warriors—all gangs in leather vests and shit. Chicago is one of the major American cities where you can point to this big crime problem, but it's very localized. Louis C.K. has this joke about how white people think that when you get off the train in Harlem, you're immediately killed for being white. But it's truly a contest of resources between the poorest communities fighting over the drug trade. Trump can very cynically make his supporters think that there's this big city in the middle of the country where people will immediately be killed for being white. Also, Chicago has always been a Republican meme because we have this terrible Democratic machine that everyone seems to hate.

A book I recently read described how Chicago is the embodiment of the neoliberal city.

Oh, yes, absolutely. From very early on Chicago was a testing ground for penalizing the poorest people for existing, whether it was the awful Daley parking meter deal or the Ventra fiasco or the sales tax increase. Chicago is a great example of a place where funds are always being extracted from everyone and—just due to math—hit our poorest people the worst while we're told there's no money for anything else.

And now the Rickettses are remaking Wrigleyville in their own image.

The Rickettses are horrific people, just a family of sociopaths building a little white ethnostate in the middle of the city where it already kind of was one. Like it needed to be the Rhodesia of Chicago any more than it already is. And of course the state and the municipal government will help them.

Chapo Trap House takes aim at a lot of pundits. What Chicago media figure would you like to go after?

John Kass. He's a big fathead and almost a complete fascist. John Kass is the biggest authoritarian blowhard in a city that has plenty of them. His columns would've been psychotic garbage if they were written 40 years ago, but here they stand.

He wants to be Mike Royko, but instead he comes off as Trump playing Royko.

And Royko was antiauthoritarian! Kass has never told a joke in his life. He wants to be the exact opposite of what is he.

You once did a live show at Harvard during which you ranked the worst people to graduate from the school. Who would make your list of the worst people from Chicago?

We'd be here until tomorrow. I'd go with Richard J. Daley. Jon Burge. Hmmm. I'd kind of want to go with Michael Madigan, but . . . is Milton Friedman a Chicago answer? If so I'll go with him.   v

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