We asked Chapo Trap House about their relationship to the Midwest.
Against Logic, Facts, and Reason
A month before the November midterm elections, the podcast Chapo Trap House embarked on a live tour of the Midwest to promote their new book The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason. I spoke to four members of the podcast before their performance at the Columbus Athenaeum in Columbus, Ohio.
Unfortunately for my few friends, and likely for most Mask readers, I’ve always been eclectically multi-tendency in my political perspectives. I’m as interested in the mechanics of electoral politics as in the processes of revolutionary politics. I’m especially interested in the interplay of the two. I identify as a revolutionary communist because I consider cells like the Weather Underground and the RAF the most sensible reaction to Western society. But I also vote for Democrats and I do think voting matters – I have healthcare right now because of the ACA and I wouldn’t otherwise. I hope for the success of the DSA in electoral politics and local organizing, for antifa to defeat fascists in the streets, for anarchists to organize self-sustaining projects outside of capitalism, for communards to establish utopian communities that serve as a model for a new society to come. I also pull for my friend Genevieve’s desire for every dead pet to be resurrected along the lines of the undead workers in Russian Cosmismist thought – you get the picture.
Chapo Trap House’s rise to prominence since the 2016 election has made them a target for scrutiny from all parties in the broad left, as is correct. Some of that criticism is deserved, some of it is overblown, but nearly all of it bristles at what the critic thinks Chapo is and how they’re not what the critic wants them to be. But what Chapo is has always been an open question for me.
Chapo has received a lot of national media coverage and most of these media accounts of Chapo only exist because they are based in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, and because some members of Chapo have familial and professional connections to the publishing industry. At the same time, these accounts of Chapo – almost always produced by New York media outlets – also use their Brooklyn base as a reason to disregard their political perspective.
This is the game of access capital always plays with the left: your perspective will not be recognized without access to capital, and yet, if you do have access to capital, your left perspective will be disqualified because of it. Bernie Sanders has a vacation home. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a jacket and coat. Che Guevara was a doctor; Bernardine Dohrn had a J.D. from Chicago – whatever it is, access to capital is used as a pretext to undermine the message and actions of whomever comes to prominence in left movements.
It’s essential to pay attention to how the class system reproduces itself within left movements and an immense, but not enough addressed, aspect of the class system in the US is geographic. But in making their current location the focus of criticism toward Chapo Trap House, instead of where the lived experience of all of the podcasters comes from, is a double erasure of the political existence of people whose lives happen outside of New York City.
I started listening to Chapo while going to graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana, where friends of my friends were friends with Amber A’Lee Frost. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, an hour and fifteen minutes north of Cincinnati, where Matt Christman was living until a year ago. I’ve lived, too, in Chicago, where Felix Biederman was raised. I’ve been told my whole life that the region in which I lived, the greater Midwest, was an unenlightened pit of conservatism, even as I’ve been unabashedly left as long as I’ve had political opinions, and so, too, have my friends and the majority of the voters in the towns and cities in which I’ve lived. I’ve been told this by media elites who, largely, haven’t been to the places I’ve called home. Like those in Chapo, too, my peers have been forced to the coasts to take jobs in their fields, only to be ridiculed as Midwesterners there, or worse, to be accepted and written about as if they were New Yorkers or Angelenos, and not at all who they are.
So on the occasion of their Midwestern tour, I thought I’d ask Chapo Trap House about place and its relationship to politics:
I’m an art historian. One of the stories I have to relate over and over again is about how the Columbia University philosophy professor Arthur Danto walked into a gallery in 1964, saw Andy Warhol's Brillo Box, and out of this hyper-New York encounter, he coined and defined the phrase, “the artworld.” I was teaching Danto’s article once and I realized that both of these people, Danto and Warhol, whose interaction came to define what art is considered to be, weren’t “New Yorkers” at all, and at that point in 1964 they had lived the majority of their lives and been educated in the industrial Midwest. Warhola was from a working-class immigrant family in Pittsburgh–
Amber A'Lee Frost: Andrew Warhola.
Warhola, exactly, and Danto was from Detroit. It’s taught as a New York moment, but it’s ineluctably about transplanted Midwestern perspectives. Does the media caricature of Chapo Trap House as “revolution, Brooklyn hipster style,” bury the lede in the same way? Is what’s actually interesting about your political perspectives that over half of you have spent the majority of your lives in the Midwest?
Will Menaker: I’ll field this one! [Menaker was raised in Manhattan.]
Amber A'Lee Frost: Me, Matt, and Felix [Biederman] are deeply Midwestern. Felix is so Midwestern he's not even Jewish anymore. There’s a consistent Midwestern vibe to us in that we have a seething rage, we believe in very practical things, we have a low tolerance for bullshit, we have substance abuse problems – we’re very Midwestern.
Matt Christman: Yes, I think so. The idea that the Midwest is any more real than anywhere else is bullshit, but, everyone thinks it is, so they imagine there’s this patina of downhome realism on everything you say. It’s helpful rhetorically.
Matt was still living in Cincinnati when I first heard the podcast and that was a real selling point for me. I liked being able to finally hear from someone who wasn’t in New York.
MC: And then I told all those people, “See you later losers, I'm going to New York!”
But even that gets to the bigger story about the Midwest’s diasporic relationship with New York: so many people are forced to go to New York, they finally find a platform, and then they’re branded as being quintessential New York people.
MC: Oh, it’s true.
AF: If there hadn't been a 2008 housing crisis that resulted in high youth unemployment, I wouldn’t be in New York, I’d have a real job. I'd be in the Midwest with a real job.
MC: There was a woman I became acquainted with once I lived in New York. When I close my eyes and imagine a Brooklyn person, a Brooklynite female, I imagine this woman. She has crinkly hair, very severe features. She rides a bike everywhere with a basket on it. She only gives her nephews and nieces wooden 19th century toys, she’s just a very—
AF: Intense person.
MC: She has an intense East Coast vibe of cold sophistication. She’s from fucking Ohio. And she just decided that didn’t fit with her self-perception, so she went to New York. That might be what the Midwest thing is, everyone here is just their own blob of what they are, but when they do go East or West, they become more self-conscious about crafting a persona.
AF: I've said that I'm not allowed back into Indiana and that's why we skipped it on this tour. Honestly, I did stick out a lot. There are some things about myself that are very Midwestern. Contrary to popular opinion, I do have a compulsive, apologetic, nice streak. Like, I do bump into tables and apologize to furniture, whatever, but I wasn’t good at the whole repression of feelings thing. Matt clearly isn’t good at that. There is always that bubbling rage. Fargo is the ultimate Midwestern character study because of the seething rage underneath a genuine desire to be nice. But honestly, it's really nice to live in New York where you’re allowed to complain about things and hate things openly. You can stop hating where you're from and start really hating yourself.
WM: Whether it is Matt, Amber, or Felix, one thing is clear, they all take advantage of me because of my natural Upper West Side cosmopolitan openness, niceness – my genuine nature.
AF: Will just fell off the fucking turnip truck.
WM: And they’re like, “Here comes a ripe pigeon ready to be plucked.”
And it’s not just that some of you are from the Midwest, it’s also that the podcast Street Fight Radio, which is based in Columbus, was Chapo’s original inspiration, right?
WM: Seriously, Brett [Payne] and Bryan [Quinby] were my entryway into all this stuff. I would not be sitting here right now if it were not for Brett and Bryan. They really created the template for what we do. I was familiar with podcasts, but they were the first independently produced podcast that I ever listened to that was funny and who just seemed like guys who would be my friends and now they are. It was the first thing that clicked where it was like, “Oh, I could do this.” And then they invited me on and I just started doing it. If they hadn't invited me on that first time, I don’t think I ever would have done it.
Ohio's Democratic senator Sherrod Brown has consistently polled 10 to 15 points higher than Democrat Richard Cordray who is running for Governor. Brown is ostensibly one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate, while Cordray ran as a moderate against the progressive populist Dennis Kucinich. Yet we keep hearing from conventional media that you can’t run left in the Midwest, that progressivism is the unique property of places like New York, even though most of my life NYC has had a Republican mayor. When will this reflexive framing about how to win as a Democrat in the Midwest change?
[Brown ended up beating his Republican opponent by six percentage points while Cordray lost to his opponent by four. This means 1 in 6 people who voted for Brown, didn’t vote for Cordray. —ed]
WM: Everyone thinks New York is this liberal place, but if you look at our gubernatorial primary that just happened, Andrew Cuomo won New York City. It was Cynthia Nixon who won the upstate counties that everyone would assume would be the reactionary part of the state. It's just the opposite. It's where the money is that's going to go for someone like Cuomo and that’s Manhattan and Brooklyn.
AF: Even Matt [Christman] and I have been genuinely surprised because we’ve taken for granted the reactionary tendencies of certain areas but then it’s like, “Oh yeah, we’ve internalized a lot of the coastal stereotypes about where we come from.” I do think the media is incredibly ossified, they don't know what they're talking about. Looking overseas, the Corbyn campaign’s big thing was that they were like, “Look, there is no unwinnable seat. We’re not going to think about people that way anymore.” And they won all these areas that Labour had just been taking for granted, “like that's going to be Tory, that's going to be Tory.” Actually, if you talk to people frankly, and if you give them, especially working-class people, a legitimate political program, nothing is set in stone.
WM: Also, as far as the media goes, the people who they turn to as experts on Democratic politics are from the consulting and think tank class of the Democratic party who are always going to tell you the same thing, which is, “Look, look, we don't care about ideology, we just want to run the most electable candidate, which happens to be the more centrist or moderate Democrat.” But they’re saying this as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Should a very electable populist, or progressive, or even left-wing candidate emerge, it's not like these people would be lining up to support them, they would be doing just the opposite, they'd be trying as hard as possible to undermine them and to tell you that they can’t possibly win, over and over again.
AF: And in an attempt to avoid conflict, they crowdsource and focus group the idea of what a candidate should be and what they end up with is homogenized mush of one-size fits none politician who literally no one likes.
OK, a final request: please drag Columbus.
MC: Columbus is just one of those no there-there cities. It just exists. It doesn't have a civic culture. It seems like somebody just decided to start building a suburb up instead of out. It's like any of those places where they have two big cities on either end of the state and they decide neither one of them can have the unbalanced power of being the capital so they just make some shit in the middle and make that the capital. All of those cities kind of have a similar vibe and Columbus is the exemplar of that.
Virgil Texas: My objection is there are too many cities with C-names in Ohio. You need to get rid of one or two. I recommend Columbus become “Bolumbus.”
MC: They should change the name anyway due to the racist association with the blood-thirsty monster Christopher Columbus.
WM: My Yelp-style review of Columbus is: it's bright, clean, and most of the people seem friendly. I wish I could roast it harder. Felix did say that if you try to walk anywhere in this city people look at you like they think you're a hobo–
AF: I said that.
WM: OK, Amber, I'm sorry. I'm stealing valor from Amber. Silencing women.
AF: Stealing my incredibly trite observation about pedestrians in the Midwest. Columbus is one of the nicer places in the Midwest. You can still get good Thai food here.