The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason BY Chapo Trap House, Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker, Virgil Texas. Touchstone. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.
The cover of The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason

In October 2004, the comedian Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s debate show Crossfire and confronted hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson with the charge that their program was “hurting America” and that Carlson was “a dick.” Two years later, at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner Roast, Stewart’s longtime partner in comedy, Stephen Colbert, delivered a blistering roast of President Bush to his face. (“I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares.”) At the time, each of these episodes were hailed as sensations, iconic episodes of comedy speaking truth to power. Yet today their impact seems more dubious. Yes, Crossfire was cancelled a year after Stewart’s appearance. But now Tucker Carlson is a fixture on Fox, explicitly railing against “diversity” for an audience that includes the president himself. Bush is well on the road to rehabilitation, lovingly celebrated as an artist and praised for giving Michelle Obama a cough drop at John McCain’s funeral.

The bestselling Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason is a work of political satire for the Trump era. The authors, a squad of five leftist comedians, launched their savagely funny podcast Chapo Trap House at the height of the 2016 Democratic primaries and now broadcast two shows weekly, one for the general public, the other for paid subscribers, the latter of whom number some 24,000 on Patreon. The show is pitched at twenty to thirtysomethings navigating neoliberal precarity, institutional breakdown, and political dysfunction. Billed as a “fully ironic ideology for no-good, entitled, downwardly mobile, politically hopeless millennials” the Manifesto, their first book, is aimed at those who are disillusioned by the American conservative and liberal establishments alike—people who find themselves “just another plastic bag adrift in the ocean with no power, no future, and not even a symbolic say in politics.”

The Chapo brand involves a distinctive kind of high-low fusion, marrying jokes about gaming and jerking off with references to Leo Strauss and Richard Hofstadter. But their humor, rather than iconoclasm for its own sake, is underwritten by a substantial political program. The Chapos are unapologetic about their support for the Democratic Socialists of America, single-payer universal healthcare, and student debt relief. And rather than being simply flip and nihilistic, features of the book, in particular its attention to climate change, carry a kind of raw, plangent earnestness. The result is a clear inheritor of a venerable tradition of American satire, reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and Dorothy Parker, and something distinctively new—and very funny.

Written in a collective voice, the book is structured around perennial Chapo themes: foreign policy, domestic partisan politics, media and cultural criticism, and the world of work, with particular attention to tech and Silicon Valley. It begins by sketching out the post-World War II history of the United States. In the Chapos’ telling, this is not the story the American political establishment likes to tell itself—one of the triumph of interconnected global markets—but a seamy narrative of imperial force projection and plunder that reached its logical, even inevitable fulfillment in the post-9/11 forever war that defined the political landscape as their generation came of age. “The War on Terror,” they write, “is the bathtub our empire lies in, surveying a sunset over a wheat field in the Cialis commercial that is our twenty-first-century international statecraft.”

For the Chapos, as for many of their millennial peers, the Bush administration’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan made the venality and brutality of the American imperial project undeniable. But it was the election of Barack Obama, in 2008, that confirmed how little power mainstream politics had to alter this reality. Although he represented “the living refutation of swaggering idiot cowboys like Bush and snarling, sneering blood drinkers like Cheney,” during his presidency Obama was unable to effect substantive change: “Despite Obama’s gloss as a liberal beacon of hope,” they observe,

this was the moment the War on Terror stopped being an emotional spectacle in American life and became a new baseline for reality. It joined the background static of our society, with the imprimatur of both parties and therefore all acceptable points of view. It became something that simply is, existing perfectly outside the realm of politics and ideology.

This assessment—grim but undeniably true—imparts the core of the Chapos’ message: Surface-level partisan political differences are fig leaves for a ruinous, fundamentally unsustainable petrocapitalist empire.

Part of the Chapos’ appeal for disaffected members of their generation is the scorn they pour generously upon Democrats and Republicans alike. A recurring theme of their show is the liberal establishment’s singular inadequacy at confronting modern conservatism. The Chapo Guide underscores this point with a potted history of the Democratic party. Since the New Deal and Great Society, they write, the Democrats have been defined by their efforts to ameliorate, with ever-increasing difficulty, the vicissitudes of free market capitalism without changing the fundamental structures of wealth inequality, racial exclusion, and American militarism. In other words, the quintessential Democratic political move is to preemptively cede ground to the Right while technocratically tinkering around the edges of an ever-more-immiserating status quo.

For the Chapos, no figure exemplifies this stance more than Bill Clinton. It was Clinton, the triangulator-in-chief, they write, who followed “Reagan’s assault on workers, poor people, and minorities” by “pick[ing] up Ronnie’s gun and put the dying New Deal out of its misery.” Appealing to a nonexistent middle ground, Clinton and the Democrats pledged their commitment to bipartisanship and shilled for American exceptionalist jingoism while delivering policies that punished the Democratic base and yielded no actual political gains from Republicans—in other words, a perfect ‘Third Way’ compromise “that splits the difference between what the people you represent want and what the people who despise you want.” And what did Clinton get in return for pushing “liberals’ dedication to compromise to the breaking point” and “testing their basic values by forcing them to back a man of obvious moral turpitude”? He was “rewarded with a once-in-a-generation loss of Congress and his own impeachment and prosecution by a half dozen men actively receiving under-the-desk blow jobs from their mistresses during the Senate trial itself.”

If the Democratic mantra is “We’re Only Kind of Evil,” Republicans proudly own the slogan “We’re Openly, 100 Percent Evil.” “The right wing in America,” the Chapos write, “is like Dracula: a grotesque avatar of inherited wealth who is unkillable, casts no reflection in mirrors, and lives off the blood of peasants.” They offer blistering take-downs of a suite of conservative intellectual icons, from G.K. Chesterton to Ayn Rand to Murray Rothbard, and their contemporary typological incarnations (“YouTube Logic Guy,” “Oligarch Monopoly Man,” “Liberty Babe,” “Daughter Defender,” and more, each accompanied by sumptuous black-and-white portraits by cartoonist Eli Valley). The “Bow-Tie Dipshit,” for example “represents the upper crust of the conservative movement,” a “right-wing anti-intellectual intellectual”: “Loathed by his peers from college and beyond for reminding teachers that they’ve forgotten to assign homework and for reporting his roommate to the FBI for having sex, a robust hatred of academia nevertheless courses through every molecule of the Bow-Tie Dipshit’s body. That body can currently be found enjoying lifetime tenure at Stanford’s Hoover Institution or George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.”

As this example suggests, mixed in with the insults is a remarkably lucid, fact-based account of the history, political economy, and outsize influence of right-wing think tanks. That this history is something many readers will only get from a comedy book (rather, than, say, hearing hammered home constantly in Democrat stump speeches) goes a long way towards to proving the Chapos’ point about the brokenness and frivolity of American political discourse. Unlike Stewart and Colbert, who primarily traded in lightly parodic stereotypes based on a conviction that American elites and institutions are Better Than This, the Chapos offer a blunt rejoinder: This Is Who They Are.

In the Chapos’ telling, since Trump’s election, both the conservative establishment and its liberal twin have reached a point of terminal self-parody. “No one has divorced him- or herself from reality more swiftly than the post–2016 election American liberal,” write the Chapos. ‘The levelheaded purveyors of reason, facts, and data have all become the inmates of the Magic Mountain. The Trump presidency invalidates their entire worldview.” The widening gap between the vulgar reality of managing a rapacious capitalist empire and their high-minded narratives of American exceptionalism and progress has thrown the Democratic establishment into a nervous breakdown. Republicans, meanwhile, are in a state of full-on psychosis. “Conservative religion holds that the representatives of that sadism, its prophets, are the tough, stoic heirs to America’s rugged frontier tradition,” the Chapos write. “But the collection of penguin-shaped dunces in Under Armour polos and khaki shorts grazing through America’s exurbs tends to spoil this myth. These war-dads and bow-tie perverts are unable to reconcile their actual lives with the values of primitive domination and masculine authority they hold so dear.” The tandem operation of self-sabotaging, bloodless liberalism and nakedly bloodthirsty conservatism has combined to promise a future of “more nationalism, more terrorism, more weapons, more wars, more fracturing of the creaky global order in which the real enemies of humanity will never be identified so long as there’s an inexhaustible supply of people who don’t look like you to scapegoat, and more walls put up by rich countries to keep out those folks lining up just to get down.”

A striking feature of the American public reception of left-leaning political satire is the requirement that any social critique be accompanied by a robust, actionable, and exhaustive alternative program that is at once inspirational and practicable “in the real world.” Jon Stewart’s book America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction was a parody of a middle school social studies textbook, Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You!) a Bill O’Reilly-style hype-book, and the most concretely political either got was a strange, tepidly bipartisan enterprise dubbed “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010. These were exercises, ultimately, in lampooning the ever-more grotesque landscape of American politics while simultaneously affirming hope in the nation’s basic goodness—a double bind that, in retrospect, gave their interventions a feeling of almost histrionic nostalgia for a Better America that never existed in the first place.

In contrast to Stewart and Colbert’s bids to come off as at once court jesters and pragmatic, conscientious adults in the room, The Chapo Guide adopts the form of a mock revolutionary manifesto—a move likely to trigger the ire of some leftists, who don’t appreciate the implicit satire of their own ideals. (As Baudelaire once observed of the radicals of his own era, revolutionaries imagined no laughter in their longed-for socialist utopia.) But perhaps this is a way of saying that nothing will ever please or entertain everyone, particularly when what’s at stake are leftist politics. Embracing the manifesto form in its full absurdity, the Chapos call for a world “where the burdens and alienations of modern life are lightened, allowing us to watch movies in the morning, read books in the afternoon, and critique TV after supper,” where the bank accounts of “tech lizards, the reactionary billionaires, or the Democratic paypigs” are redistributed, and where “‘work’ becomes something you squeeze in between posting, gaming, and having a nice, big wank.”

Behind this vision—Marx by way of Rabelais with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson—lurks something more vulnerable and earnest. It’s hard to imagine any other comedy book that anticipates a coming era of “100,000-plus-death-toll climate event[s] caused by decades of thrashing the planet for profit” or that frankly states that “Lefties are again at the tip of the spear against a desperate capitalist system that’s readying a blood-soaked, militarized response to climate and economic catastrophes.” Against this future, and against even the limits of comedy as a form, the Chapos call for “a good-humored, thick-skinned, and maybe even optimistic struggle against the world outside.” “More and more people,” they write, “are going to realize that there is no reforming a system built on exploitation and nonstop, infinite economic growth. . . . Socialism will emerge as the only genuine alternative to the savage, hopeless, gangster system of capitalism—an alternative that offers an actual future, one in which there are enough resources to take care of everybody and to take on humanity’s challenges with a dab of dignity.” Looking back on the past two decades of American political comedy, it’s easy to be cynical, to see us as a people who laugh and mock, and then go on with business as usual. Maybe that’s who we are, and always will be. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not.

Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.