Guerilla Media’s Evolution Beyond Social Rules
Things have changed since the last election cycle. A lot of things.
For one, the way people become informed and entertained has converged.
The podcast has become maybe more influential than broadcast television, particularly as far as the youngest generation of voters is concerned. Podcasts have gone from a niche nerd hobby, to a crucial component of corporate consumer-facing communication, to a ubiquitous form of entertainment (who doesn’t have a podcast these days?) And when a medium is introduced where a bunch of people sit around and talk about their opinions for 90 minutes, it can only go so long until politics get involved.
At this point, there are tons of political podcasts from major groups, covering all points of view. Michael Isikoff, former investigative reporter involved in uncovering war crimes in Iraq, leads Yahoo!’s Skullduggery podcast. NPR’s The Daily is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world. Fox has a series of podcasts. Just about every MSNBC contributor has their own podcast. But these major figures’ podcasts haven’t become the political podcast. They aren’t breaking through to kids, because they reinforce political views held more by their parents, by Gen Xers. They speak the cultured language of professional communications, not the coarse language of the generations who grew up in recessions, watching South Park, and observing wars. They don’t connect with the youth because they don’t share anything with the youth.
Enter: the “Dirtbag Left”
The “Dirtbag Left.” Quite a name, especially one self-appointed. (The term was coined on the Chapo Trap House podcast by host Amber Frost.) These are the ones who managed to actually forge a relationship with the young people of America. They don’t have the political and professional pedigree of say, Rachel Maddow, but they have far more subscribers. The reason for this is the inverse of what was mentioned above. They don’t speak the cold, dry language of professional communications, they speak with populist vulgarity, the language of the impassioned youth. And boy, does it work. Chapo Trap House, who are not the only members of this podcast genre though undoubtedly the most important, are the largest account on Patreon.com, a subscription website utilized by many podcasts to monetize for premium content. As of today, Chapo Trap House has over 37,000 monthly subscribers, totaling the group more than 2 million dollars annually. They’re not little. But while the podcast is undoubtedly and inarguably a political podcast, the podcast demonstrates the convergence with entertainment flawlessly.
The podcast is built as a platform for the handful of radicalized leftists to share their thoughts and convince an incredible number of young people to organize politically. Their stances are pro-union, anti-fascist, and anti-liberal. But the podcast relies heavily on humor. Unlike, say, NPR’s The Daily, the podcast is not a vehicle for routine political updates. It is built for content. The subscribers of the podcast, though present for the political ideology, stay for the humor. Some of the most popular episodes aired are based around commentary over films, without a mention of their support of Sanders.
But. No discussion around Chapo Trap House can avoid for too long the tone of their discussions.
No politician, Republican or Democrat, is immune to being viciously torn apart by the hosts of the podcast. The wide field at the beginning of the Democratic primary is evidence of this. Pete Buttigieg is decried as a “bloodless asexual” and a rat, Elizabeth Warren a snake, Joe Biden as a senile creep. Amy Klobuchar was the target of ironic praise for the allegations of her aggression towards staffers (and her rivalry with Buttigieg.) Each one, in a different way, was mercilessly mocked and attacked, and the legions of supporters participate in droves. The culmination of this is a group of Twitter power-users leading targeted harassment towards their perceived political enemies – and the hosts will not deny this. In fact they often, with varying amounts of irony, claim that “harassment works” or other similar forms. They are unapologetic and ruthless, and will unleash swarms of likeminded followers on whoever is the target of the moment.
Of course, the central-liberal base of the Democratic Party has not welcomed this. They are decried loudly and often, including a New York Times hit piece in early 2020. But what must be remembered (and the reason why they’re included in a series about entertainment and politics converging) is that these followers are not simply folks at home who agree. They are devoted listeners. They have the same intensity of fandom as Harry Potter fans, or Yankees fans, or Howard Stern listeners. This is their key entertainment, not simply a host on CNN that they agree with. They will not be dissuaded from their leaders, for they are not only their ideological figureheads, but also their most intimate entertainers.
Besides. They’re not that easy to beat.
Remember the podcast I mentioned earlier, hosted by Michael Isikoff? He had them on. Matt Christman and Virgil Texas (pseudonym) went on his show. In their words, they were extremely hungover. This occurred shortly after General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by US Forces, and Isikoff set them up to be either compromising or un-patriotic. But he forgot – they don’t care. The Chapo hosts thoroughly dismantled the veteran journalist because they were unafraid to say things that no political reporter in the Beltway would ever say – things like “Iran should have a ton of nukes.” Everything comes back to the populist entertainment angle. Like Stern or Mike Francesca, the Chapo hosts don’t have to speak in a careful, professional manner – there’s no entertainment in that. So hungover, eating a banana, it didn’t matter. They were fully prepared in a way that professional communicators can’t be. They didn’t need to choose their words carefully, and it should be said, the two Chapo hosts were armed with extensive knowledge of current political information as well as political history.
This is what makes the figureheads of the “Dirtbag Left” so dangerous to traditional political discourse – they are just as informed and intelligent as the traditional media outlet spokespeople, but their supporters don’t need them to be on their best behavior. They don’t want them to. They want to be entertained. They have no requirements to be nice, to be polite, to be technical. Their only requirement is that they don’t back down. The entertainment aspect of the podcast ensures that they have subscribers who don’t want to miss the premium episodes. The subscribers ensure that they don’t need to be careful to not mess up their next job. They don’t need a next job. They will continue to run the “Dirtbag Left.”
It should be said – while Chapo Trap House is undoubtedly the podcast that best demonstrates this new existence of unfettered political entertainment, they are not the only members of the so-called “Dirtbag Left.” TrueAnon is another major player and affiliated podcast, in which Liz Franczak and Brace Belden (who amassed some level of fame when he volunteered in the Syrian Civil War for the Kurdish forces) address major conspiracies like the Jeffery Epstein case, using Franczak’s expansive political knowledge and Belden’s extremely vulgar sense of humor, particularly ironically towards female politicians. There are numerous smaller podcasts within the scene as well. But Chapo Trap House – the irony-poisoned, aggressively humored, uber-successful vehicle for leftist ideology – most clearly shows us how the positioning of politics as crowdfunded entertainment completely removes the requirements of polite discourse. It removes all social rules entirely. There is no dilution of meaning, there is no obscuring of intent, there is no requirement of civility. One can only imagine that as broadcast television and radio continue to decline, there will be more subsets of political ideologies represented in this way. But for now, the “Dirtbag Left” stands alone.