Is Chapo Trap House a Gateway to Fascism?

The role Chapo plays in a complex media ecosystem.

With unparalleled passion and vigor, Bernie Sanders made a name for himself on the American national stage by pioneering an effective style of populist leftist politics–liberal Democrats have grown so accustomed to satisfying the conventional etiquette of politics, that they could not conceive of a candidate who’s unyielding in their fight to make good on their professed ideals. Sanders supporters emulated that behavior, and it was immediately taken by liberal intelligentsia to signify a cozying up to Trumpist ideology–some even went as far as to theorize that the hammers and sickles served only as concealment for Swastikas beneath.

A way this has manifested to great effect is an ongoing controversy over whether the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House is serving as an initiation phase to fascist ideals by way of devaluing the appeal to the politics of civility and compromise that the liberal left championed for so long. The New York Times’ Nellie Bowles voiced one such concern, but even weirder is the clandestine trade that has come to form on social media where a litany of center-to-left liberal commentators meticulously analyzed segments of the podcast in the faint hope of producing evidence of the ever-so-elusive leftist-to-fascist pipeline.

This is no anomaly to emergent political movements–BreadTube pioneered the art of commentary on right-wing absurdities in the early push to forge a niche of its own, and now that the far-left has firmly solidified its place as internet culture royalty, the liberal left is struggling to maintain relevance. The #Resistance movement briefly reigned supreme following Trump’s election, but it now retains little of its erstwhile glory as its ranks stand fractured on the possibility of a stand-off between two sex offenders come November, when a better alternative was possible.

What Chapo has proven works, is an appeal to the left from a perspective that was long-neglected by liberals, one that the right-wing has until very recently held an uncontested monopoly over. The left’s content creation apparatus understood the need to tussle with the right-wing on what they claimed sole ownership of — that of brash, cutthroat political analysis — and in the process, woo those who could’ve been otherwise swayed Ben Shapiro’s or Dave Rubin’s way, to instead engage with a brand of politics that is far less perilous to the pursuit of equality and justice, a goal that leftists — both liberal and otherwise — share.

For liberal pundits, their dwindling influence constitutes an existential threat–if the norms of political discourse are starting to be regarded as detrimental to the left’s success, then they’ll soon be shunned for an alternative. The slew of leftist podcasts — of whom Chapo is King — leftist Twitch and BreadTube are slowly starting to prove this theory’s saliency, and it has become harder-than-ever to justify the existence of conventional liberal politics now that it’s looking like the younger generation — those in prime electoral shape in a few years’ time — is fed up with the continued empty promise of incrementalist change.

Beyond that, Chapo’s popularity is partly to owe for its pure entertainment value. Its closest analogue on the center-left — Pod Save America — is just as receptive to casual humor in the aim of building parasocial bonds between them and their audience. Like PSA, Chapo harnesses the popularity of its hosts to form a cult-like following, and to the extent that they revere them, their behavior is far from unique in the age of the online fandom.

The conflation of standard-fare audience loyalty with Trumpism isn’t the full extent of it all however–it only plays second fiddle to a false notion propagated by center-to-left circles that they have a healthier relationship with electoral politics, such as party loyalty trumps ideology. Research courtesy of Harvard seems to indicate this is a false dichotomy, putting back into focus the far-left’s emphasis on long-term viability over the short-term gains that liberals are much more partial to.

What’s all-the-more puzzling is how liberal media keeps faltering, while the far-left is expected to operate without flaw. Its main staples consisting of podcasts, the far-left media machine is ostensibly freed of the “neutral journalist” vantage point that its liberal counterpart keeps touting as the superior approach–in the midst of a global pandemic, it isn’t uncommon to read liberal media produce and see two opposing perspectives painted as equally factual, when it has never been more their responsibility to filter out the noise. For all its faults, Chapo has a clear editorial vision, evading it the pain of pretending other — often erroneous — perspectives are in dire need of platforming.

Chapo is the product of a generation that has been alienated by the media’s advertised priorities, addressing its most glaring failures by both charting a path of financial viability for a small but culturally-influential media operation, at the same time giving a voice to the voiceless who’ve long been excluded for their rejection of transactional politics. It isn’t then surprising that the symbolic clash between Chapo Trap House — self-made and audience-supported — and Pod Save America — built on the back of the hosts’ work history with Barack Obama — imparts upon itself more meaning than most are willing to admit. The former is a rebuke of what has been, while the latter is a continuation of it.

In an era of polarized politics, the coexistence of both ends of the spectrum is the main mechanism through which rhetoric is forged–without Chapo, a path for a movement left of the Democratic mainstream would’ve been hard to walk; and similarly, the liberal left’s intellectual anchors serve as a useful weathercock for where their audience currently stands. Chapo’s existence is contingent upon a strong presence of audience–were the appetite not there, it’s impossible to tell if the show would’ve been as popular.

It’s folly to equate Chapo’s cultural reach with the artificial popularity of Koch-brothers-funded right-wing talk media–even more so deserving of reconsideration, is the notion that they’re driving their fans to the polar opposite side of the political spectrum. Horseshoe theory is sure a compelling visual, but it is simply the case that it’s much harder for individual listeners to find themselves in the midst of fascist literature after listening to one episode of Chapo, rather than just consuming fascist-adjacent content in the first place. It makes instinctual sense, but unsurprisingly, some have a vested interest in continuing to believe the opposite.