‘We’re going to end up in a very bad place’: Chapo Trap House on hope, podcasting, and prestige TV

A chat with the podcast hosts turned bestselling authors

John Podhoretz, Meghan McArdle, Bari Weiss: three names which mean nothing to the average Australian, but instantly remind fans of the hilarious socialist podcast Chapo Trap House.

“We joke with ourselves about our international fans,” says Will Menaker, a host of the show, “who are laughing about John Podhoretz, even though they may not have any fucking clue what him or Commentary magazine is, they just like him as a funny character, like all the people that we make fun of.”

“I’m a little amazed at the reception we get in places like Ireland or Australia.”

Menaker, alongside fellow hosts Matt Christman and Virgil Texas, spoke to Honi about the success of their podcast and the release of their first book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason.

The vein of Chapo’s political takes are familiar. The instant, ‘still processing’ commentary on US politics and pop culture is reminiscent of something Australians were exposed to through late night shows The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. Their educational tone is like other introductions to left-wing politics, such as Helen Razer’s Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young. But the satire of Chapo is much heavier and ironic, with Christman describing The Daily Show as “smug above-it-all snark” in a 2016 interview in Paste Magazine. It’s true— their “dirtbag” humour is more akin to that of The Chaser’s War on Everything, and they mockingly describe their book as “a manifesto that renders all previous attempts at political satire obsolete”.

Capitalism, and the politics it spawns, is not working for anyone under thirty who is not a sociopath. It’s not supposed to.

Original hosts Menaker and Christman, as well as Felix Biederman, are now joined by Texas and Amber A’Lee Frost. Each episode is hosted by three or four of these regular hosts, with frequent special guests.

The show has been an outstanding success. Born from a guest episode of fellow podcast Street Fight Radio, Chapo has been accumulating a cult following since March 2016. The show releases a free, hour-long episode each week, as well as a premium weekly episode. The premium episodes, hosted on Patreon, currently have 23,700 patrons and earn Chapo US$105,792 or almost AUD$150,000 per month. They are the most popular podcast on the site, and this is beside tours of the US and the newly released book, which debuted at #6 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best sellers list.

“I don’t think we’ve ever asked people to subscribe to the show, or we’ve never done advertising for the program,” Texas says. “Frankly, I don’t know why people do it, I think there’s something wrong with them, but I congratulate them on what I consider a correct decision .”

Menaker puts the show’s success down to chemistry and chance. “I just think it’s a combination of the chemistry between the five of us…and just being in the right place at the right time when we started the show.”

It’s true—the group’s timing could not have been better. The show started in 2016, “right around the time that the Democratic Primary was heating up,” Menaker tells me, and “this split between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was becoming more and more pronounced.”

It’s a real chicken-and-egg scenario. The rise of popular democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn sparked a surge in demand for a left-wing media that reflected the reality of their politics. But, as the Chapo Guide explains, democratic socialism has gained traction because late stage capitalism has created problems that it cannot solve:

“Capitalism, and the politics it spawns, is not working for anyone under thirty who is not a sociopath. It’s not supposed to.”

“For how long is this situation tenable? You don’t have to be the main character in the first third of a YA novel to realize we’re going to end up in a very bad place.”

“What we’re seeing is an increasing rejection of capitalist norms,” Texas elaborates. “In the past you would just get fucked everyday by various things: from your utility company, to the government, to your boss, and you wouldn’t really have a schema that fit all these data points in, but I think now, more and more people do.”

The group has advice for young people looking to change the status quo. “Attempt to build your own structures and your own power bases” says Texas, citing the recent victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, both members of the Democratic Socialists of America, who won Democratic primaries in New York City.

Chapo already have plans for further US tours and an inaugural European tour, as well as a potential sequel. “This [book] was really the day-to-day stuff that you deal with every day,” says Christman. “I would like to take a step back and get at more structural stuff, and also just the other things that we kind of missed”.

Menaker would like to look more into the history of the Left. “It’s pretty hard to understand politics in any kind without understanding a history…without understanding the basic framework of why the events and people that have… led us to our current situation.”

Despite the title, the group are uncertain on the actual feasibility of revolution.

“[The title] was sort of a joke on our part because, we’re well aware of the idea that a podcast, or a podcast that can barely get it’s shit together to sell merchandise when we go on tour, is going to start a revolution,” Menaker admits. “But it’s hard to imagine any change to our economic or political order absent a revolution.” Texas suggests that the sequel could be “a guide to counter-revolution”.

I still just fuck with the former PM who bit into a raw onion. I love his skeletal face.

Like a lot of podcasts, Chapo use pop culture to connect with their audience, which gives the show a personal feel. “People are always asking us, ‘How do we create socialism in America?’ or ‘How do we start a revolution?’ And I’m just like, I don’t know—we talk about what’s on TV, what shows you’re into, what stuff you’re watching these days.”

Turning to Australian politics, the group has diverse views. “If people want to know what party we support, it’s the Bob Katter Father’s Rights Party or whatever it’s called”, says Texas, while Christman pledges his support to the Motor Enthusiast Party.

“I still just fuck with the former PM who bit into a raw onion…Love that guy, I love his skeletal face, I like that he wore those Oakleys and had that rictus smile, and the onion biting—yeah, I like that guy,” says Menaker.

They recently devoted an episode to reviewing new a Sons of Anarchy spin-off TV show, Mayans M.C., and Menaker jokes, “I’m going to try to smuggle Mayans M.C. into Australia and then get sent to that island that’s all refugees and detainees”.

Christman is more ambitious. “I’m going to go to Australia and found the Bring Mayans M.C. to Australia Party”.