Pictured Top Row: Virgil Texas, Matt Christman, Will Menaker. Bottom Row: Brendan James, Felix Biederman
In March of 2016, New York’s Will Menaker signed into Google Hangouts with his friends Felix Biederman and Matt Christman to record an irreverent 90-minute conversation covering national politics. The trio, united by their mutual loves of leftist politics and making jokes on Twitter, released the conversation via YouTube. It was the first episode of an ongoing podcast, Chapo Trap House.
Two and a half years later, Chapo Trap House is one of the most popular podcasts on the planet. Menaker’s crew of witty rabble-rousers has expanded to include Virgil Texas and Amber A’Lee Frost. Theirs was the first podcast to earn over $100,000 per month on the membership platform Patreon. Chapo Trap House has been covered in outlets such as Paste, The New Yorker and Business Insider. Now, Menaker and co. are about to release their first book, “The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason,” an abridged and often hilarious history of class struggle in America. It also serves as a primer into the group’s infuriating-to-some sense of humor.
Chapo Trap House, much like “The Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — to choose two loose comparisons in the realm of television — uses humor to critique conservative forces in politics worldwide. Unlike those programs, or more policy-oriented political podcasts like Pod Save America, Chapo dishes out similar lambasting punishment to establishment Democrats with similar relish. Menaker and crew don’t have the cynical, screw-everyone centrism of something like “South Park,” either. They crouch their critiques in class-conscious, anti-capitalist leftism and sweeten it with references to anime, video games, hip-hop and, of course, lots and lots of cannabis.
Chapo rose to prominence during the 2016 election, during which time the podcast roasted Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a matter of due course. This political stance drew fire from neoliberal journalists in The New Republic and Business Insider, as well as other pundits skeptical of anything related to Marxism, and especially those who blame leftists’ disaffection and unwillingness to tow the Democratic party line for Clinton’s 2016 defeat.
Chapo has weathered these and other critiques: that the crew discounts racial politics and feminism, that they’re too much in the thrall of Bernie Sanders and not enough in favor of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Amber A’Lee Frost is the only female host in Chapo, and did not contribute to “The Chapo Guide to Revolution” due to scheduling conflicts. Right-wing critics have even claimed that Menaker is a third-generation Russian (technically Ukrainian) plant. Chapo devoted an entire episode to debunking this subject while interviewing Menaker’s father, Daniel, a former editor-in-chief at Random House and fiction editor at The New Yorker (“The Chapo Guide to Revolution” will be published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)
Even so, Chapo’s rise has coincided with a growing interest in leftist politics in the United States. In the same time frame that the podcast has acquired its fanbase, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned, and socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Joseph Crowley. Earlier this week, Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote at The Washington Post that the progressive insurgency is only just beginning. If that’s the case, history may look on Menaker and Chapo Trap House as neoliberalism’s vicious and hilarious canary in the digital coalmine.
Menaker spoke with DOPE at length about the success of Chapo Trap House, his analysis of liberalism’s failings in “The Chapo Guide to Revolution,” and his best hope for the future of the United States.
DOPE Magazine: Why did you guys decide to write a book?
Menaker: We had a literary agent approach us with the idea of doing a book. That’s the genesis for it, but we learned why we were writing it through the process of writing it. Now that it’s done, and I’ve read it a million times, and seeing the finished copy in my hand, I think the book was really an opportunity to create a prequel to the podcast, basically.
You can listen to the show, and [if] you haven’t listened to every episode, it can be a little intimidating just to drop. There’s a lot of references to pick up on. You find stuff out, like where we stand politically. In writing [the book], we basically created something that is a narration of both our senses of humor and our comedic style, but also a kind of history of all the events and personalities and histories that have led up to the current present moment. Right up until just after the 2016 election.