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The Apotheosis of Chapo Trap House

Podcasters bitch and moan in the Palace of Fine Arts on the eve of Bernie Sanders’ Super Tuesday revolution

by
Armin Rosen
March 02, 2020

The most highly motivated and perhaps most talked about fringe constituency that Bernie Sanders’ electoral resurgence has forced us to care about are the listeners of Chapo Trap House, an undeniably hilarious podcast whose final pre-Super Tuesday live show took place at the auditorium of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on Saturday night. It was the last of four events the Chapos had held in California that week, a raucous and paranoid spectacle on the eve of a would-be political revolution.

The fivesome were in the state to help boost the Sanders campaign, with which they have no formal affiliation. Chapo has nearly 37,000 Patreon subscribers and authored a bestselling book about socialism. Their fans are a numerically tiny percentage of Sanders supporters, who tend to admire the Vermont senator for his perceived sincerity and disarmingly human, non politician-like sensitivity to the suffering American society inflicts on those left out of the social and economic elite. The overwhelming majority of Sanders voters have no idea what Chapo Trap House is, and came to their candidate through other, perhaps healthier means—the podcast is drafting off of the senator’s success, rather than the other way around. Its real world impact is both hard to gauge and impossible to ignore, as per the New York Times. A semicritical profile of the podcasters was published in their hometown paper on the morning of the San Francisco show, which drew young people in Bernie sweaters, Bernie hats, Bernie hat-and-sweater combos, and Democratic Socialists of America varsity jackets, many of them sporting beards of various sizes and angles.

However entertaining it is, a Chapo live show is a weird recreational activity. Nearly a thousand people surrendered large sums of money, $128 over SeatGeek in my case, to spend their Saturday evening hearing what amounted to an extended political rant, some of it fairly unhinged. The implied eagerness of the audience to have its sense of alienation and embitterment stroked and stimulated is by far the most disturbing thing about the podcast. The jokes and the ideological orientation and overall sorta ethos are familiar enough to anyone who throws away their productive hours on Twitter; the darkness comes from the notion that paying to be angry about politics can be a hip and fulfilling night out.

A Chapo live show is plotless; there’s no forward momentum other than the silent back-and-forth of the hosts and the audience reflecting each other’s building resentment. A film or concert or even a good comedy routine feeds off a latent possibility of approaching wisdom, an imminent aesthetic bliss through which the hard truths of existence can be both explicated and somehow endured. In contrast, a Chapo attendee isn’t there to be challenged intellectually or to hear any bold new ideas or achieve the sublime heights of insight. A Chapo fan is instead witnessing the live reading of some buried inner script that the Chapos themselves have helped write over the course of several hundred podcast episodes. The show creates the experience of a shared psychic dark side, something that great art once provided as a pit stop on the way to higher wonders, but which now describes a jarringly wide segment of political life—or, really, just life—in the Trump era.

It’s pointless and stupid to nitpick and highlight the cringier parts of the evening; these are clever young men and women and we should applaud their better work. Will Menaker, the most bearded and self-serious of the lot: “If you die from coronavirus it means you’re a pussy.” That’s pretty funny! Matt Christman, an almost-lovable human Big Bird, at the tail end of a discussion of Michael Bloomberg whose exact details I’ll leave readers to imagine for themselves: “Bloomberg has never given pleasure to another human being in his life.” Probably a true statement in every sense. Felix Biederman, the designated jokester of the gang, on San Francisco: “It’s like you gave Janice Soprano $500 billion to design a perfect society.” No, I thought at first, that misreads poor Janice, although the more I think about this one the truer it rings.

There was well-baked conspiracy theorizing throughout the evening. Amber A’Lee Frost wondered if Bloomberg was secretly funding the pro-Warren Persist PAC, a possibility that cuts against all logic and has absolutely no proof to support it. Liz Franczak of the podcast True Anon earnestly noted Jeffrey Epstein fixer Ghislaine Maxwell’s supposed connection to two senior Middle East officials in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, thus proving something that the night’s special guest either couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate out loud. “There’s a lot to go on on Leslie Wexner,” said her podcast co-host Brace Belden encouragingly, referring to the Victoria’s Secret founder and Epstein confidante. “Ugh, I’m trying not to be anti-Semitic about it.” Then, a shout from the audience: “Do it!”

It would be unfair to single out the Chapos and their cohort for Jew-baiting. They are everyone-baiters, fully liberated from normie standards of decency, and that includes toward the journalist who had just interviewed them and enshrined the fact of their cultural importance in the world’s most important media outlet. Nellie Bowles, the author of that New York Times piece, was referred to as a “water heiress” more than once. “Her parents own half the water in the biggest and most drought-stricken state in the country,” Menaker said of Bowles, whose family does not in fact own half the water in California but does still run a mid-sized alfalfa farm—though it’s unclear how either would be relevant to the story she wrote. After all, as the son of a prominent figure in Manhattan publishing, Menaker’s life was proof that one could arrive at dirt-bag socialism despite or maybe even because of a super-privileged upbringing.

Look, it’s 2020. We shouldn’t be too triggered by errant theorizing and distrust of the media, lest we squander our last remaining grains of sanity months before the election even happens. No: The really bizarre part of the night, which is less bizarre if you stop and think about what the Chapos were doing in California in the first place—i.e., whipping up votes for Bernie Sanders—was the obligatory 15 minutes of hate aimed at presidential back-runner Elizabeth Warren near the show’s midpoint. “We’re going to talk about lying loser Elizabeth Warren,” Menaker promised. There she was on the screen behind them, decked out in Joker makeup.

“They think the president is a mentat!” moaned Christman, dropping a reference to the Dune books that speaks to the genuine, nerdish intimacy that fans of the podcast seem to share. In the best and most strangely touching such moment of the night, someone from the audience corrected Menaker when he recalled the Jackass gag where Chris Pontius inserted a toy race car up his rectum and then had an unsuspecting doctor X-ray his ass. Wrong—it was the late Ryan Dunn. “The president doesn’t write legislation,” agreed podcast regular Virgil Texas. “You have losers to do that!”

The darkness comes from the notion that paying to be angry about politics can be a hip and fulfilling night out.

Only losers sweat the hard stuff; part of the humor and the existential sadness of the Chapo crowd’s version of “socialism” is the assertion that the pesky details of life are someone else’s problem. There was an odd five-minute stretch where everyone attacked the Warren-founded Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, on the idea it was inherently stupid or evil to help people who banks had cheated, since such assistance was allegedly aimed at reifying the greater edifice of capitalism. “To quote our martyred soldier Ben Mora,” said Menaker, referring to a Sanders staffer fired for his anonymous social media attacks on Warren, “it’s because she’s a dumb Okie who remembers her family getting fleeced by a Bible salesman.”

Joe Biden, who had just trounced Sanders in that day’s South Carolina primary and surpassed the Vermont socialist in the cumulative national popular vote came in for no such gleeful cruelty. To give this disparity the most generous possible interpretation, the Chapos believe that Warren supporters are the most gettable voters for Bernie and that they aren’t persuadable unless their candidate drops out. The Chapos, who are essentially self-appointed Bernie surrogates, believe that scorched-earth disparagement is the surest route to their enemy’s submission. Plus, vitriol is funner and more exciting than persuasion, which is probably also for pussies.

Chapo-style politics recognizes no sincerity or moral commitment on anyone else’s part. If Bernie loses, it will not be his fault—just as it will not be Joe Biden or anyone else’s accomplishment to have made an affirmative or compelling case for themselves that convinced people to show up and vote. The fix is already in. “The Democratic Party is currently in a tailor shop getting fitted for a bespoke suicide vest,” thundered Menaker. “They’re gonna rat-fuck him,” him being Bernie.

Chapos are alleged to be threatening and unpleasant people who carry on about not voting for Trump’s Democratic opponent unless it’s Bernie, Menaker acknowledged in the show’s final minutes. Well, tough shit: “This is a Mexican standoff. They’re holding a gun to my head too,” he said, proceeding to liken the state of the race and his imagined Bernie/Chapo-Democratic establishment-Warren/Biden/Bloomberg death struggle to the ending of Reservoir Dogs. “This is the first time we have the size and power to make the same offer to them that they’ve been making to us our entire lives.” Act the way we demand, you accursed Democrats, or prepare to suffer, mightily.

But suffer what? Why the hell should “they,” whoever “they” are, care about some podcasters from Brooklyn who like to pretend that they’re characters from Reservoir Dogs? Are their fans really not gonna vote if the primary doesn’t go their way? There are plenty of reasons for Menaker’s “they” to think long and hard on these important questions, what with the emergence of political grievance as a mainstream date-night activity.

On the way out of the theater, I saw a young woman wearing a glittery red necklace shaped like a guillotine. I briefly wondered whether the whole night was like the necklace: an emotionally satisfying signifier of anger, a mirror to a core discontent rather than something to be taken literally. Or maybe the necklace, like the previous two-and-a-half hours, was a sign of a legitimate anger finding an outlet at the highest levels of the political system. The semi-ironic guillotine enthusiasts now have direction and a goal in mind.

In California, America’s largest state, a squalid and burning microcosm of everything great and terrible about this country in 2020, Bernie and his diverse cast of approbators stand an excellent chance of running up the score on Tuesday. The Chapos and their fans are one small, dubiously important constituency on the side that’s winning—but it’s their side that’s winning.

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Read Tablet’s 2020 Presidential Election coverage here.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.