The Pied Pipers of the Dirtbag Left Want to Lead Everyone to Bernie Sanders

IOWA CITY — The people in the crowd were angry, and “Chapo Trap House” wanted them to stay that way. The five hosts of the popular socialist podcast wanted everyone to know they had all been lied to. About everything.

The media they consumed was fake news aimed to distract them from the only war worth fighting: the class war. Politesse, civility, even pleasure — those were tools of the neoliberal oppressor. The right answer is rage.

“That joy,” the Chapo co-host Will Menaker said to the crowd gathered in Iowa City on the eve of the Iowa caucus. “That’s good but it’s not as good a motivator when you’re really going to war as spite.”

“Let the hate feed you,” the co-host Amber A’Lee Frost added as the audience roared.

And it does. Especially toward other Democrats.

Supporters of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are “gelatinous 100-year-olds.”

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg is “a bloodless asexual.”

“The gayest thing about him is he descends from an ethnic group that’s like a little toy dog,” Ms. A’Lee Frost said.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren’s name came up, the crowd made the sound of a snake hissing. She had accused Senator Bernie Sanders of saying that a woman could not beat President Trump, and so she is a snake.

“Yes, my sssssoldiers,” Mr. Menaker said.

Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s run appalls them. “Beat him so badly that this midget gremlin won’t even have a shot even with a trillion dollars,” Mr. Menaker said.

“Kill him,” someone shouted from the audience. These were jokes, of course. Everyone was laughing.

As Mr. Sanders rises in the polls and claims strong showings in early states, a new set of media stars is on the rise, too. Leading the pack are the hosts of “Chapo Trap House,” the Pied Pipers of the candidate’s online movement.

In their rowdy, vulgar weekly podcast, they are stoking the fires of a political insurgency led by their 78-year-old idol. The man stands for the movement, the movement is the man.

“Our boy Bernie” they call him.

The fivesome of “Chapo Trap House” are not the only bards of the new American left — there is “Red Scare” and another whose name cannot be printed — but they have led the way for a movement that together generates millions of dollars a year. They are on their way to becoming the socialist’s answer to right-wing shock jock radio. Their primary targets, in evidence at that show in Iowa, are not the Republican Party or even Mr. Trump but rather centrist liberals, whom they see as the major obstacle to a workers’ revolution.

In blurring occasionally violent humor, jovial community meetups and radical politics, they are the Tea Party reborn for progressives, and for their fans the appeal is in a bawdy offensive balance to cautious mainstream liberal politics.

They are known collectively as the Dirtbag Left, a shorthand they embrace that winkingly dispenses with any notion of liberal purity or inclusion, a defense mechanism that doubles as a nickname.

Most of the podcast fans would never say out loud what they are listening to onstage or through their AirPods on the commute. It’s offensive, even as a joke.

So why do so many progressives want to hear it?

“Chapo Trap House,” which started in 2016, typically runs between 60 and 90 minutes. Two episodes are released every week, one for free and one for the nearly 38,000 people who pay $5 a month through the crowdfunding site Patreon. It leads to a financial windfall for the self-professed socialists who are harnessing this rage: $168,800 a month from those subscribers alone.

The main draw of the show is their banter, the hosts distilling the news of the week and checking in on their favorite and least favorite characters. But they have had major guests, including Mr. Sanders himself.

“These people on top are so powerful that the only way we bring them down, the only way we make the kinds of transformation this country absolutely requires is when millions of people are prepared to stand up and fight back,” Mr. Sanders said during his interview.

And the Sanders campaign maintains a close relationship with the podcast. His senior adviser, David Sirota, and his national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, have also been on the podcast. At the Iowa show, a Sanders volunteer stood at the door with fliers and pins to hand out and an email list to gather names.

Their followers — on the night in Iowa City more than 700 strong — come to hear them rage for three hours against the student debt, the high rent, the dead-end creative class jobs, and the feeling of hopelessness fighting against a liberal political establishment that seems polite when they are angry.

They were promised a better life, a more dignified life, and they are done waiting for it.

And for fans, it brings a sense of strength and community during a political era that has only felt like defeat.

“It’s really easy to feel alone in America. It’s the loneliest place in the loneliest time,” the co-host Felix Biederman said, speaking of the early days of their work. “But eventually people started to gather around all these posts into the void.”

The podcast has also morphed into a touring political rally: In addition to the Iowa show, the Chapo crew went to New Hampshire and Nevada, and they have a handful of dates in California leading up to Super Tuesday, filling large venues.

The topic is inequality, raging against the rich.

Progressives who are more concerned with racial equality or gender parity have had to figure out how to either go against the Dirtbag movement or resign themselves to this singular focus, which occasionally runs roughshod over all the rest.

“I’m a news junkie, and it’s good to supplement that with joking especially in America where everyone has to be so careful about what they say,” said Steven Sutro, a 32-year-old lawyer, who attended a comedy show last summer that featured a popular Dirtbag Left podcast host.

Julius Krein, the conservative founder of the new publication American Affairs, has noticed the new allies.

“There is a lot of interesting convergence on some of the anti-woke thinking and many things that, perhaps surprisingly, we agree on, for different reasons,” he said. One of the Chapo hosts contributed a piece to his magazine.

“It’s fairly easy to have fun, pretty exciting dialogue between right-wing anti-neoliberals and left-wing anti-neoliberals.”

But what some call an exciting dialogue can feel exclusionary to others.

“‘Chapo Trap House,’ the entire Dirtbag Left, have tapped that male privilege of intimidating people into assuming you’re cool,” said Amanda Marcotte, a liberal feminist writer for Salon. “It reminds me of when we pretended that ‘Jackass’ was funny back in the day, just so dudes wouldn’t bully you about not liking it.” (Ms. Marcotte has been vocal in her criticism of “Chapo Trap House” and is the subject of mocking attention from the Dirtbag universe.)

As it grows in influence, the Dirtbag Left movement is now running into several challenges.

The movement’s identity is based on being in the wilderness. What happens if its leaders become the establishment? That seems increasingly possible as Mr. Sanders holds on to front-runner status in the 2020 campaign. They want what Mr. Sanders wants: universal health care, canceled student loans, free college, and an overhaul of the tax system. They want to cut the national prison population by half and to install a ban on fracking. And for them anything less than this is nothing at all.

These Sanders supporters eschew the idea of party unity as a scam: “I won’t vote for anyone but Bernie in the general, can’t say what the hundreds of thousands of people who listen to my show will do, but I’m only speaking for myself,” Mr. Menaker wrote on Twitter a day after the Iowa caucuses.

An additional challenge is that as the free-floating anger they stoke finds community, it is escalating and souring into sometimes violent and ugly rhetoric — the kind of rhetoric that other Democratic contenders have fashioned into a major critique of Mr. Sanders.

On Monday, the Sanders campaign fired a campaign organizer, Ben Mora, after his private Twitter feed was revealed to include derogatory comments about 2020 candidates. The Chapo hosts publicly supported Mr. Mora, praising his organizing work and saying, “I hope the campaign doesn’t cave to these whiners and losers.”

For the hosts and their fans, those sort of tweets and the podcast language are all jokes. The audience understands the difference, they argue, and anyway the real problem with the Democrats is that they’re overly sensitive. A bunch of self-serious P.M.C.s (members of the professional-managerial class).

Over the summer, the “Chapo Trap House” message board, which has nearly 153,000 members who chat about the news and memes of the day, was censured by Reddit, which hosts it. The page now has limited reach and is in a sort of digital purgatory, where it remains.

“The reason for the quarantine is that we have observed repeated rule-breaking behavior in your community, especially in the form of encouragement of violence,” Reddit administrators wrote to the group. Comments considered in violation included jokes around historically violent left-wing populist revolutions, like who goes to the guillotine first.

While Hitler jokes are well understood as vile, there is less consensus on what to do when Stalin is the punchline.

“If you want to kick off ironic Nazis, what do you do with the ironic Maoists and ironic Stalinists?” said Andrew Marantz, author of “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.”

After receiving their punishment, Chapo moderators wrote to Reddit frustrated: “Are all references to gulags to be considered violent content?”

The Chapo show in Iowa City was sold out. A few young men wandered down the line asking if anyone had spare tickets.

“We do everything our parents say, and it doesn’t work,” said Brayson Cope, 18, a college student from Altoona and a Sanders volunteer.

His reason for listening to “Chapo” is simple, he said.

“They’re angry. I like it because they’re angry.”

A man in a Vets for Bernie shirt listed some of the words that he learned from listening to “Chapo”: Marxist materialist, the superstructure, neoliberal. That last one is the top insult in this group — neoliberal shill, is how it would be phrased. And, according to fans of the podcast and movement, there are a lot of neoliberal shills out there.

For many left-wing groups, the Chapo podcast and its Reddit community are now setting the weekly conversation agenda.

“It’s a touchstone,” said Brendan McGillicuddy, 39, who teaches in the cultural studies department at the University of Minnesota. “At my workplace, everyone listens to it, even if you don’t like it.”

As the show began, the five hosts sat in a half circle, dressed casually.

“I hear you live in your parents’ houses,” Mr. Biederman said.

They dove into a discussion of the caucuses, and polling, and whether the media is fair to Mr. Sanders (they think not).

“Should everything go according to plan on Monday, you will have the opportunity to drive a stake through the heart of every single one of the most insufferable cowards in the world,” Mr. Menaker said.

“I’ve been keeping a list,” Ms. A’Lee Frost said. “Have you been keeping a list?”

There was a case of White Claw, an alcoholic seltzer water, onstage.

When Hillary Clinton’s name came up, the reaction was nearly indistinguishable from a Trump rally.

“Lock her up,” the co-host Matt Christman said to the crowd.

The crowd began to chant: Lock her up. Lock her up.

“She never really cracked the glass ceiling,” Mr. Biederman said. “She more like fell down the glass staircase.”

During the three-hour show, there is little vision laid out for what they want, beyond a Sanders presidency. There is a vision for what they want destroyed and how good it will feel to do that. The idea of actually taking power is terrifying, and they say so.

“What’s scary is the idea that this could end,” Mr. Biederman said. “What’s scary is we’re not just tossing catharsis into the void, that this is something real. We are there.”

When “Chapo Trap House” tried to put on an event in Brooklyn over the summer, the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in the middle of a now-trendy neighborhood, flooded and was mixed with a downpour to make a knee-deep, fast-moving, debris-filled river.

Fans held on to one another as they marched through it to get to a live taping. Inside the venue, they sat in folding chairs as water rose at their feet. When the bathrooms began flooding, the manager decided the night was canceled, and fans begrudgingly slushed their way out.

The Chapo co-host Virgil Texas (he lives and works under that pseudonym) went to a nearby bar for a beer.

“It’s a common experience to be someone with a crappy job who does not have an outlet for your set of beliefs and you feel insane because you’re surrounded by liberals or Evangelicals or whatever stultifying milieu,” he said. “And one day you find a piece of media with some folks who are articulating what you always believed: You’re not crazy, you’re right, this is exactly how the world works, and you’re getting screwed.”

He said he knew that the anger the podcast was building could be dangerous, but he said the anger — and the fear of violence it brings — was good.

His girlfriend at the time, who worked in the media, joined at the bar. He ordered popcorn and a coconut cocktail called the painkiller, and sat hunched over, gesticulating rapidly in the tight space between his face and his lap.

Educating a generation and saddling them with debt and then not giving them jobs where they have the wage that they presume they should receive based on the amount of time they spent on education,” Virgil said. “That’s a pretty good way to turn them into radicals.”

He is a good example of his own target audience: He graduated with $100,000 of debt from Cornell and after college took freelance gigs from Craigslist, hoping to write.

While the Chapo hosts rail against the media establishment, they are also deeply entwined with it and largely beloved by it. (Mr. Menaker, for example, grew up on the Upper West Side, the son of a New York Times editor and a New Yorker editor.)

Their goal is to cut off the right wing of the Democratic Party. The center-left and the center-right are in cahoots, friendly and living near each other in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and —

“Westchester,” his girlfriend interjected softly. (She is from there; she wants to stay anonymous; the Chapo fans scare her.)

“No no, I wasn’t going to say Westchester, darling,” he assured her.

He does not want to live in a capitalist society at all.

“I think it’s a moral stain to live in this society,” he said. “And every day I think, God I’d rather just leave.”

But he’s not sure where he would move.

For now, he has decided to go on the road.

Outside the Iowa City show, Adam Angstead, 46, had stepped out of the theater for a cigarette. He works for the Iowa City school district as a substitute teacher five days a week, but he said his employment offers no benefits. On the weekends he works at a diner. Twice a week he sells his blood plasma for extra cash.

It’s still not enough. He was trying to pay down his $40,000 in student loans for a while, but it hardly made a dent, and recently he has gotten a deferment. For him, the primary feels like a life-or-death battle.

“Being in a room with a bunch of people who think the same thing or close made me think we might not all literally die,” he said. “Bernie’s the only one.”

Toward the end of the show, the crowd by then frenzied and a little drunk, periodically broke out in chants of Mr. Sanders’s slogan: Not Me. Us.

And finally, with the Chapo hosts leading, they stood and sang “Solidarity Forever,” the old trade union anthem.

People put their arms around each other and swayed as they screamed.

In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old.

Continue reading at New York Times