If any single element characterized the 2016 election, it was dissatisfaction with the status quo. On the right, this manifested as the Republican voter base rejecting the lineup of walking planks who made up the candidate pool in favor of Donald Trump—a media-savvy clown with zero political experience—simply as a statement against an establishment that could not back a more suitable candidate if their lives depended on it. On the left, however, the would-be coup against the Democratic leadership led by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders failed, thanks in no small part to the machinations of the DNC to back the candidate with the most name recognition, regardless of her appeal to the majority of the voter base. Last month, that voter base spoke in a way that shocked everyone: They voted against Hillary Clinton. Even though every single poll, every single media outlet, predicted a sweeping Clinton victory, the sheer hatred the American people have against the political class defeated rational thought. Revolution won.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the dissatisfied left, but that camel has been buckling under their weight for some time now. For evidence, look no further than the sudden popularity of the political comedy podcast Chapo Trap House. Ever since Clinton was chosen as the presumptive Democratic nominee, the show’s fanbase has grown rapidly thanks to the potshots against liberal thought taken by Chapo’s three hosts: Will “Irony Daddy” Menaker, Matt “Volceldemort” Christman and Felix “Big Fuck” Biederman. I made those nicknames up, but they’re official now.
The show has been frequently been categorized as “vulgar” “scatological” and “somehow even more offensive than the DigCast” by the media, including here on Paste. More importantly, the bitter and nihilistic humor presented by the Chapo boys tapped into a growing resentment towards modern American liberalism among the left. Chapo’s sudden rise has only boosted the power of the “ironic left”, a primarily Twitter-based community of bitter and sarcastic leftists that includes both seasoned political columnists and guys with usernames like @CrapInMyJorts among their most popular members.
However, the liberal community has not taken kindly to their new challengers. Some dismiss them as “trolls” who just want to get a rise out of people, while others go further and refer to them as bullies. The term “alt-left” has been used as a description, painting the ironic left as the counterpart to the conservative alt-right movement. I can think of no better summary of modern liberalism than the implication that tweeting jokes about Mitt Romney pissing on his wife puts you on equal footing with people who act like Neo-Nazis for attention.
This came to a head a few weeks ago following the publishing of a Chapo Trap House profile in The New Yorker by Jia Tolentino and subsequent article in New York Magazine by Rebecca Traister. In the article, Traister lambasts both Chapo and the ironic left, essentially characterizing them as resentful losers who are simply looking for targets on which to unleash their white male vitriol. This provoked a reaction of applause among many liberals, as well as resentful sighing among the ironic left, but the article paints a picture of Chapo and their fans that is, quite frankly, entirely inaccurate.
Calling themselves “The Dirtbag Left,” Tolentino’s subjects say that their political mission is to take aim at the Democratic Party and “offend the sensibilities of the ‘leftist’ language police,” a set of goals that makes them not entirely distinguishable from many on the right. The story was funny and punishing, itself a New Yorker cartoon, bringing to vivid life some of the worst suspicions anyone has ever harbored about the young, well-heeled Hillary-haters who proclaim themselves the true left.
For context, here is the full quote from the New Yorker profile that Traister cites:
People who belong to the Dirtbag Left, Christman said, aren’t afraid “to offend the sensibilities of ‘leftist’ language police whose only goal is sabotaging social solidarity in order to maintain their brands as arbiters of good taste and acceptable speech.”
The full quote makes it clear that the ironic left’s goal as characterized by Christman is not to offend simply for the sake of attention like the so-called “conservative firebrands” such as James O’Keefe or Milo Yiannopoulos that Traister seems to be comparing them to, but to offend a very specific group of people for a clear purpose. The ironic left see liberal media as desperate to maintain their positions as the top of the leftist food chain, and wish to knock it off that perch for the benefit of everyone. It may seem like a minor quibble, but it’s an important distinction to make.
In perhaps the piece’s most startling example of self-reflexive commentary, Biederman said of Clinton’s Election Night celebration turned funeral at the Javits Center: “This entitled fucking slob … This fucking asshole brought all her donors to have a big party about how great they were. She’s never been a fucking leader, ever, in her life. She just has these fans who are psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks.”
The peanut-butter gobblers are keen to unleash their righteous rightness, their furious convictions, on the Javits Center crowd — the wealthy donors, sure, but also Mothers of the Movement, the reproductive rights and women’s leaders, the thousands of supporters who had canvassed and phone-banked and gotten out the vote and driven souls to the polls. It could almost be Trump supporters talking, but it’s coming from the people who — though they don’t believe it — may agree with the “elite freaks” about many policy prescriptions and political goals.
Again, for context, here is Biederman’s full quote, taken from episode 58 of Chapo Trap House:
The way that it happened at the fucking Javits Center, where this entitled fucking slob, who could not even – she offered minority voters nothing but to define herself by who she was not – she couldn’t even face them, she couldn’t even—and those people there, those people that were crying, they weren’t even workers, they were donors. This fucking asshole brought all her donors to have a big party about how great they were and how they showed what kind of country they were, and she couldn’t even fucking face them, and not just that, not just that she couldn’t face them, she brought out John Podesta, this fucking cum-eating freak, to lie to them, to fucking lie to them while she stood in the back because she’s never been a fucking leader ever in her life. She is just somebody who has fans who are psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks.
The full quote makes it very, VERY clear that Biederman is not referring to the salt-of-the-earth workers and feminists that Traister alleges he is. He is referring solely to the elite donors that backed the Clinton campaign, in the process unwittingly causing the election to turn out the way it did. The argument could be made that Biederman is still insulting those people by referring to them as “psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks” – more on that later.
Like Sanders, the Chapo guys acknowledge that better representation of women and people of color in the media sphere in which they work is crucial, but seem to exempt themselves from any personal responsibility. “We are literally just dudes who just do this,” Matt Christman told Tolentino, without seeming to have considered that the passive state of being just dudes who just do this — have a podcast, exult in their slackerdom and sloth, and say terrible things about people without fear of repercussion, of arrest, of violence — is predicated on their identities, as economically comfortable white men.
Conveniently, Traister only briefly mentions the fact that one of Chapo’s co-hosts is a woman once—and never mentions that one of the male hosts is a person of color—before going on this tirade. However, entering into more subjective territory for a bit, I would argue that the ironic left has done more for minorities than most liberals ever have (which, granted, isn’t much). Modern liberalism is based on a very superficial kind of civil rights, the kind that manifests itself as twitter hashtags, Facebook memes and dudes putting “feminist ally” in their Twitter bios with the conscious or subconscious hope that doing so will get them laid. These people are some of the primary targets of Chapo’s mockery, and as evidenced by Biederman’s previous rant, the ironic left is extremely dissatisfied with the way Democrats treat minorities as prize dogs to be trotted around for political purpose. So, yes, Christman’s statement that “We are literally just dudes who do this” is technically incorrect, but not for the reasons Traister believes.
The world has never lacked for young, spoiled white people (perhaps mostly men), who grumble ungratefully at their parents (perhaps mostly moms), who’ve done the work of putting food on a Thanksgiving table, and instead return to their onanistic gaming aeries with loaves of bread (no roses) and an absolute assuredness that they know better than everyone else and that one of the great injustices of the world is the ban on them saying whatever vulgar thing they’d like to.
If history tells us anything, it is that some of these guys will grow into lovely human beings; some will successfully apply pressure to the Democrats that will force them to the left, for which I and other Hillary-supporting entitled fucking slobs will be deeply grateful; others will eventually find a more natural fit for their energies and animus in the Republican Party. In a way, I am grateful to them. They remind us, as Barack Obama did this month, that the sun still comes up every morning.
Okay, let me switch gears here: I completely understand if you are personally turned away by the behavior of the ironic left. I myself do not view them as the infallible geniuses that many do. Their liberal use of slurs and offensive humor can occasionally cross the line, and like many insular internet communities, they can come across as slightly masturbatory and sensitive to criticism. I have no doubt that the people Traister describes exist among the ironic left, either. Look in the mentions of any prominent ironic lefter and you’ll see dozens of wannabe Chapos, desperate to out-irony the objects of their vaguely sexual affection. So if you don’t personally agree with the way they present themselves, sure. Nobody besides idiots is demanding that everyone conform to one sense of humor.
However, it is also important to remind ourselves that we know essentially nothing of these people. We know nothing about how they conduct themselves among friends, family and coworkers. There is no reason to make assumptions, as Traister does here, on the personal lives of the ironic left based on their online presence. That’s not to say that people should not be held accountable for their actions online—obviously, they should. But when the worst of those actions is making jokes you don’t understand about the dude from Metal Gear Solid eating a condom, calling them spoiled, ungrateful losers based on that is the very height of hubris.
But what’s not funny about all this is that we are in a moment of national crisis, in which the developmental stage of the Dirtbag Left might be mistaken for a flash of political wisdom, when prioritization of the (yes, systemic) approaches to reducing racial, gender, and class inequality is most likely to be walked back in the name of distancing the party from the women and people of color who lost the election.
And that would be the greatest shame of this shameful election cycle. Because the objects of the vitriol from the left, dirtbag and otherwise, are the hardworking heart of the Democratic Party, now the resistance: the grandmothers who left their houses every morning to get out the vote; the people who took buses and carloads of volunteers to knock on doors and ring buzzers and make endless phone calls; the Black Lives Matter activists who protest the killing of their children and targeting of their communities; the women and men who provide reproductive-health access, even as the government works to roll back that access; the abortion rights and gay rights and criminal justice reform advocates who didn’t write off Hillary Clinton, but instead asked her to be better.
This is, by far, the most insulting portion of Traister’s article. Anyone who has listened to Chapo Trap House knows that accusing them of mocking activists and grandmothers is utterly ridiculous, and listing them as the poor victims of the ironic left’s vicious bullying is downright manipulative. Painting a picture of social activists such as Black Lives Matter being Hillary’s staunchest supporters is also incorrect, as BLM has been vocal in their criticism of the Clinton campaign, which has in turn responded with condescension and dismissal. It’s evident that Traister, as well as a majority of liberals, can only avoid criticism by conflating themselves with social movements, and using the suffering of others as an excuse to avoid self-examination is disgusting.
This is a perfect time to bring up Biederman’s “psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks” statement from earlier. When Biederman made this statement, he was not referring to activists looking for social change, as these people are not fans of Hillary Clinton and never were. Biederman was referring to the kind of people who unironically use the term “Bernie Bro”, the kind of people who singlehandedly ruined a certain (honestly pretty good) musical about revisionist American history by the sole virtue of liking it, the kind of people who take all their political opinions from the videogame industry because that’s all they’re capable of following, the kind of people who donated to the NC GOP, an organization only slightly above the KKK in terms of position on social issues, out of a desire to satisfy their self-righteous need to be seen as the “better person”, the kind of people who could not lift anything heavier than a cell phone if their life depended on it and constantly lambast people in places they’ve never been to that have an average income six times lower than the massive urban hubs they live, the kind of people who look at Variety endorsing Clinton and think “well, that settles it, she’s won”, the kind of people who retweet inane drivel from celebrities like “You’re fucking nuts if you think this racist country would elect a Jewish socialist” and “America can un-fuck anything. We’ll unfuck this.” without a hint of irony. These are the “psychologically weak, tormented, elite freaks” that Biederman is referring to, they are Hillary Clinton’s base, and above all else, they are the reason Hillary Clinton lost.
Disagree with the ironic left’s conduct or sense of humor as much as you’d like—nobody will rightfully fault anyone for that. But to disagree with their message after the results of the 2016 election is nothing short of delusional. Personally, in an age where comedians, celebrities, hack pundits—and, for some Godforsaken reason, Arthur Chu—are considered to be the height of liberal political discourse, I would much rather listen to people who actually know what they are talking about.
The bottom line is this: The ironic left are not infallible. They are not gorgeous beefmen with bodies chiseled from the wood of Christ. They are very bitter, angry and smart people. And right now, we need all the smart people we can get.