Discussed in this essay:
The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason, by Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker, and Virgil Texas. Touchstone. 320 pages. $25.
In 1954, the Viet Minh surrounded the French at their outpost at Dien Bien Phu. Teams of men and women dragged large artillery through the mud and up the mountains, aided only by pieces of rope. The Vietnamese troops dug tunnels through the earth with small tools, or even their hands. If a rope snapped or a tunnel collapsed, it cost people their lives. This is revolution. As Malcolm X said, “You don’t have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.”
Chapo Trap House is a podcast, or Internet radio show, which was founded in 2016 and has grown in popularity as the world continues to collapse into horrors. The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason won’t be of much use to anyone running a revolution. This is my central grievance. There isn’t a lot about going to the people, learning from them, concentrating their experiences into a revolutionary outlook, and then formulating a communist leadership. I’ve read a fair number of revolutionary guides, from Liu Shaoqi’s How to Be a Good Communist to Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. They tend to be heavy on comportment of liberation units living among the people, or the optimal size of a foco struggle organization. This seems to be the first one to include mention of the Clinton family.
The Chapo Guide follows the same “80/20 rule” as my diet: 80 percent candy and 20 percent meat. That’s more meat than I expected. The book is a mapping exercise of contemporary American politics: like the pictographic Hobo Code, the book is like a series of chalk symbols warning the reader against the lanyard-wearing technocrats, the MAGA C.H.U.D.s, the birdbrained pundits, and the other characters who recur within the Chapo universe. Hopefully, this menagerie will be exposed to a wider audience than the “extremely online” podcast fiends who currently subscribe to their outlook. The decision to pitch this book beyond the core audience of the Chapo Trap House podcast is the strongest decision the five boys writing it made. (Amber A’Lee Frost, another co-host of the podcast, is not credited as a writer on this project, making it an all-male affair.)
Much of the book is devoted to succinct judgments on recent political history. The era-defining tragedy of the invasion of Iraq is attributed to boosters “who just didn’t care because the thought of war excited them so much. This included pretty much all the media, government, and cultural elites of this country, and it remains the gold standard for how we should judge them.” Obama is perfectly summarized as “Febreze-ing our national conscience,” a reflection of his soaring progressive rhetoric masking a lackluster neoliberal policy record. The authors don’t shy away from the tangible aspects of our planetary hell, describing an apocalypse wrought by climate change: “Puerto Rico annihilated by a hurricane. It’s villages in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal tortured by lethal flooding. The apocalypse is already here; you just don’t live there yet.” Other parts of the book are more straightforward comedy. The “CTH World Fact Book” is a “quick reference guide” to “global hot spots,” and cites the population of Israel as “8.5 million if you count the Arabs, but let’s not.” Although political books tend to have a short shelf life, especially in the age of Twitter, The Chapo Guide mostly avoids this problem by focusing on history and archetypes.
My favorite parts of the book are the “Taxonomies” of different characters you find online. This is aided by some wonderful illustrations by Eli Valley. His style has a wild Seventies feel. The descriptions of people like “Epic-Rant Dads” and “Wine Moms” are just plain fun. They also populate a world that helps people who could become more politically aware name what they are up against. Politics can be bewildering, with a lot of strange people blasting confusing and misleading claims. Categorizing and cataloging some of these freaks into archetypes is a great help to someone trying to navigate the scene. There are chapters on liberals, conservatives, the media, literature, video games, etc. Though much of this will be familiar to people who have read writers like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, the Chapo fellows put their own unique spin on it. Here the candy/meat ratio comes in handy for people who would never think to crack open Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (or who bought it and only got to page thirty) but are up for a few jokes. Funny vignettes describe the prevailing, conventional neoliberal wisdom and then reply with a sensible take. This sort of counter-history is helpful for staking out an American left perspective.
In Chapter Five, on Culture, the authors refer to their perspective as “half-assed Marx.” That’s not a bad thing; it’s probably how a new democratic culture will get built. Left-wing populism depends on approximations and simplifications to help people organize and direct their anger toward useful goals. In recent years, there has been a small flourishing of left-wing political magazines and organizations and the conflicts and debate they have generated have been greater than the sum of its parts. The podcast has been a lightning rod for controversy, something partly encouraged by the hosts—many of them enjoy ridiculing politicians and the blue-checkmarked commentariat on Twitter, and the punches often land. The “critique” of Chapo is structural: the show grosses over a million clams a year without the punitive oversight of a corporate production team. This makes the hosts difficult to fire if they anger someone important. But to keep all of this in perspective—the actor who plays Sheldon gets paid a similar amount of money for exclaiming “Bazinga!” per single episode of The Big Bang Theory. Even when they loom as a target, Chapo and Jacobin have helped people orient themselves within a political milieu.
The catch is that a new democratic culture is not going to be built just by out-performing the garbage that the mainstream and far-right produces. It is difficult to go head-to-head with billions in advertising and media monopolies—or the perceived First Amendment issue of being banned from a website. You can’t compete when most public and private institutions are committed to salvaging our ever-worsening capitalist system. There is no simple accretion toward a socialist majority. You’ve got to place your hopes in the wild insubordination of average people to overthrow the whole thing. The epilogue of the Chapo Guide nods in this direction.
If the Chapo book is “for” anyone, it’s for a guy named Greg. He’s twenty-five years old. He’s a fan of a bunch of podcasts, and Chapo is one of his favorites. He voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He probably pre-ordered the book in the hopes of “trolling” the New York Times bestseller list. Greg will enjoy the book. He will sit there with bovine eyes and a slight smile as he notices all the best Chapo tropes.
Let’s imagine Mike. Mike is a thirty-five year-old who has probably never heard a full episode of Chapo Trap House. If Mike listens to podcasts, it’s probably something like Joe Rogan. He watches Michael Moore documentaries, and sometimes crazier things like Alex Jones to laugh. Mike is not up to date on Internet memes. He doesn’t have a job in journalism or comedy or politics. There are millions of Mikes in the USA. There aren’t many Gregs. Let’s forget Greg.
Now let’s imagine Peter. Peter is a fifteen-year-old kid who likes memes. He could tell you the names of different online communities. He’s not overly committed to one. Peter posts on Reddit here and there but isn’t obsessed with it. Peter is a prime target for alt-right junk. A great deal effort gets directed toward scooping up Peters and reinforcing the worst of their impulses. But Peter sees the obvious bankruptcy of modern liberalism, and doesn’t see much there that interests him. Much of the far-left just seems weird to him; it’s outside his experience. There are way more Peters than Gregs, too.
If the Chapo book wins a wider audience, it’ll be because Mike and Peter read the book. In truth, I think the Mikes and Peters would find more in the book than the Gregs. A guide is more useful to someone who is new to a culture than to those who’ve been there for a while. But The Chapo Guide is more than that—it has a bit of the magic of a Seventies MAD or National Lampoon, or one of The Onion books, the sort of thing I would have enjoyed flipping through for hours as a kid. It’s also reminiscent of those wonderful indexes you could find in the public library, like Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. All of this skews the gender distribution of likely readers a bit—more Mikes than Janes.
The Chapo Guide rightly decided to pitch beyond the home turf and aim for a broader audience, though this carries some risks. Bigger media companies love the authenticity that a show like Chapo brings, but aim to pulverize the content into harmless fun for profit. Liberal comedy mainstays like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live have little traction with younger people seeking credible alternatives. There are growing pressures to integrate new protest movements into this liberal core by absorbing some of the confrontation without the radical program. The weird are turning pro, and that’s exciting, but it’s also a bit scary. It’s one thing to identify the enemy; it’s quite another to take them on.