“Log Off”: Matt Christman on Power, Politics, and the Future of the Left

 /  May 22, 2017, 11:04 a.m.


Matt Christman is one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House, a popular leftist podcast that provides irreverent humor coupled with cutting critiques of mainstream political orthodoxies. Since debuting in March 2016, Chapo Trap House has become the most successful Patreon of all time, attracting tens of thousand of loyal listeners, national media attention, and enemies conservative and liberal alike. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Christman currently lives with his wife in Cincinnati, where he calls in to host twice-weekly episodes of Chapo Trap House with his New York-based co-hosts. The Gate’s Spencer Reed spoke with him about education, agitation, and organization in the era of Trump.

The Gate: Can you talk about how you came to leftist politics—is that something you grew up with or something you were drawn to later?

Christman: It was definitely not something I grew up with. I grew up in a fairly apolitical household. My father was sort of a quiet but thoroughgoing reactionary; my mom would never really tell me anything about politics. I spent my teen years and college years struggling to sort of create my own understanding of the world. I went through a very brief libertarian phase but it was mostly about weed and how it was supposed to be legal. It wasn’t really until after college that I solidified around a left politics, and it was really just through myself. [The environment around me,] even the college I went to, was pretty apolitical; it didn’t have a lot of activism going on.

Gate: Was the creation of your politics a result of exposure to the conditions of the country, or was there something else, like socialist or Marxist literature, involved?

Christman: It was really more just going through the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and then seeing the continuation into the Obama administration that sort of elucidated how fraudulent the choice being offered in American politics was.

Gate: Given what you might suggest is the distinction without real difference between the two parties, what do you see as a viable path forward for the left: engagement with the major parties, the formation of a new party, or something just more generally oppositional? Do any of these paths represent an opportunity for the left to both resist the status quo and offer a positive vision of its own?

Christman: I think that the Democratic Party has shown itself to be completely hostile to any kind of meaningful change or even success on its own terms. It seems pretty happy to be a losing party that keeps the people who have been running it in positions of power and influence. So I think that the left should be deeply skeptical of the Democratic Party and should not try too hard to work within it as an institution. As far as electoral stuff, I’m actually pretty agnostic on all of those questions, just because I think one fundamental fact that trips up a lot of people, frankly, is just that this moment is ripe with a lot of opportunity for the left, but it’s also an incredibly nascent stage. I honestly don’t know what forms [this opportunity] is going to take, and I think that anybody who is too confident is going further than I think they reasonably can, given what we know yet. We just don’t have enough information.

I just think that protests and elucidating an actual agenda are the foremost priorities and that hopefully mobilization will come around those poles. And at that point, if it’s successful, you could see any number of things happening, from an actual hostile takeover of the Democratic Party to a third party that basically pressures or undermines the Democrats. The Democratic Party is electorally very weak, and its status as a second party is hypothetically temporary. But again, that’s all going to depend on things that haven’t happened yet or have come close to happening.

Gate: In Episode 87 of Chapo Trap House, you talked about what you saw as a failure of the Democratic Party, in the context of the Perez-Ellison DNC race, to understand and appreciate the nature of power. Can you elaborate more generally on what you mean by “the nature of power”?

Christman: When I was talking about the DNC race in Episode 87, I was talking about how [Democrats] were fixated on the individual political beliefs of the candidates. And you see that a lot with people talking about Obama and his presidency, and saying, “Well, you can disagree with X, Y, or Z, but you can’t deny that he was a fundamentally decent man, or that he had good priorities, blah, blah, blah.” And that elides the fact that power flows from interest groups. Power in America—electoral power—comes from the marshalling of interest groups along an electoral program and then pushing it forward.

The Democratic Party is a party in that sense, of finance and intellectual property and basically certain segments of capital. And that is a fact that Democrats try to ignore by focusing on what people’s individual beliefs are. But that’s not where influence flows from when you’re actually in a position to make policy. The voting masses are not in the room when bills are being debated. Especially in America, we don’t really have parties in a traditional sense. American political parties are not mass membership parties like even the Labour parties in Europe are. They are brands, essentially, that people choose. And they might identify with them, but it’s a very lightly held thing in that [people] don’t engage with them in any kind of meaningful way beyond rendering a preference every two years. So in the interim, in all that other time, and then also during the times that policy is being made, the people in the room are the people who maintain the infrastructure for these parties, and that has nothing to do with either party’s voting base.

Gate: As you mentioned, the capacity of the powerful—and particularly the wealthy—to create inertia on behalf of the status quo is a feature of American politics. How do you think the left can effectively respond to that fact?

Christman: Well, you have to create organizations and mobilizations of actual citizens outside of these structures, that are not suborned to them and that don’t depend on the same financial infrastructure the parties do—and this includes even the kept interest groups in Washington. That also means people coming together to form alliances on the basis of, I would say, class interest, and to organize on that level new forms that are hopefully democratic in their organization, but mass-based. That’s something that we really haven’t had in America for decades now. America, starting with the New Deal, actually, passed a lot of this stuff onto these party mechanisms that are now in the hands of capital. And they have to be re-founded, and a big part of that is going to be—and this is already difficult and is only going to be more difficult with the Republicans in power—in workplaces and union organizing. But even outside of union organizations, organizing at the level of work, and at the level of people who aren’t working, coming together to make demands for things like a universal income or a job guarantee on the basis of their shared experience of being unable to find secure work or livelihoods.

Gate: One thing you said in another interview was that you thought part of the appeal of people like Trump was that they 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.” It seems like that’s a nod towards the campus left, which is something that you all talk about fairly frequently on Chapo Trap House. Can I get your take on the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury? Do you think of that as being a justifiable response to an infamous race scientist or an instance of the campus left being self-destructive?

Christman: My honest belief about all this stuff—all the campus hoo-has and things that have happened since Trump has been elected—is that any effective, meaningful leftist movement in America is going to have to spend way less time talking about what’s happening on college campuses. I mean, the sort of campus-based nature of the left was a byproduct of its weakness, basically, of their isolation and of their powerlessness. If the left is stepping back into a position to actually influence events, it’s going to have to re-center its fights to places where many more people are affected, like workplaces for example.

I mean, Charles Murray is a scumbag; I don’t mind that they yelled at him. I don’t think it was productive, I don’t think it helped anything for anyone, I don’t think anyone’s life was made better in any meaningful way by it having happened—but I don’t think it’s some sort of creeping liberal fascism either. I think that more than anything it’s something to be ignored while more important fights are fought.

Gate: In terms of more important fights, something that you have talked about on your podcast is that, for all its flaws, social media does have great organizing potential. Can you talk about the ways in which you see social media and tech more broadly as either a barrier to or a source of opportunity for left organizing?

Christman: Social media is the ultimate double-edged sword. It has a lot of potential to get people in contact with one another and spread ideas and facilitate organizing, but it also is just a black hole of clicks and Skyping and thin-slicing ideology and creating enemies to attack and conducting witch hunts. So, social media is something that I don’t think can be done away with and is necessary, but this is another instance where I think the degree to which people integrate politics into their lives—into their IRL lives—will be the degree to which the importance they place on these sort of social media clicks and content is going to reduce. That’s my hope anyway.

Gate: And do you think that comes about through what you were discussing previously, through this non-party-level social organizing?

Christman: Yeah. But like I said, we are at an incredibly feeble stage for all this stuff, and just looking at history, it seems like that’s going to be the key. What’s going to follow after that is just, I hope, getting back to getting people in groups together and talking and finding their commonalities, which is something that the internet actively obstructs. The modes of rhetoric online are conducive to breaking into groups and fighting over very narrow differences in order to maintain one’s status within the sub-group. And that of course is an issue IRL as well, and that’s a thing that’s bedeviled the left in the past in countless instances, but I feel like it’s something that’s magnified by the internet.

Gate: So more broadly, with relation to the field of tech, which is another frequent topic of Chapo, there was a conversation on the episode “Uber for Ubermenschen” about Silicon Valley where one of your guests brought up Uber and the future of automation. On that topic, you once said, “We could make it so that people had to work less, and we’re going to have to, because automation is going to destroy entire sectors of the workforce in the next ten years. Constant growth is just an insane system that no one questions.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that future looks like, what you think the effects of automation are going to be, and what we’ll have to do to deal with them?

Christman: Well I mean, there’s obviously the dystopic vision of automation, where you basically have vast, vast swaths of basically redundant populations that have no input into the economy. I’d say, barring some sort of massive ecological collapse or something like that, that even in that case, you’re going to see some sort of basic income, because to not [institute basic income] would be to invite a social collapse that would not even be in the interest of the most arch-reactionary capitalist. But it would be on the terms of Silicon Valley, basically, and it would be a meager stipend—essentially just enough to stave off revolution without giving people the freedom to thrive on their own—that would of course most likely be coupled with even more aggressive policing and incarceration. But I feel like the positive vision is one in which people are able to assert enough collective action to, at some level, either through co-opting existing political systems or by transcending them and creating something else and socializing the product of this boom in automated technology.

Gate: In the same episode about Silicon Valley, you talked about this idea, which is prevalent in that culture, that there are no real barriers, that even things like mortality are just a social construct. I was wondering if you could deconstruct the ways in which you think that view of the world is harmful given that—again, as your guest pointed out—that is sort of the driving force behind some of these truly remarkable technological achievements.

Christman: Well, the big distinction is that the Silicon Valley vision of creation and progress is wholly private. And you see that with stuff like their fascination with seasteading and space colonization, is they see a future in which they are able to benefit from the collective effort of civilization—all civilization that came before them, and also government subsidy in the meantime. I mean, Tesla wouldn’t be possible without massive government intervention. They want to take all of that labor and then privatize the resulting technological advancements for their own benefit exclusively.

Gate: That seems to me to connect to a broader point, and tension, that was highlighted in the introduction to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. He’s critical of two alternative versions of the history, one that he feels places too much emphasis on the uniqueness of Napoleon and suggests that he’s this world-historical figure who transcends social forces, and another that suggests that he’s purely a product of social forces and that there’s nothing remarkable about him at all. Much like Ron Fournier, he says that neither is exactly correct: people are products of their social environments and you cannot extricate an individual from that context, but at the same time, that individual people can matter in the development of history and in these other large systems. So I was wondering if you could discuss your view of that.

Christman: I basically agree with that. I think you can’t reduce a human to your cultural and social contexts. But at the same time, I feel like if we’re going to analyze which error is more common in contemporary America, I would say the more common error is to totally divorce people from their social and political contexts, to try to understand them as these alienated specimens who are operating entirely within their own minds. And I feel like if we’re going to talk about it, we should talk about it in a way that pushes the balance more towards social context.

Gate: It seems that there’s a danger to the wholesale adoption of either; the Great Man Theory runs the risk of creating a cult of personality or the like, but at the same time effective politics (particularly of the revolutionary or radical variety) does seem to be driven by individuals serving as standard-bearers for a new vision of the world. Particularly in the American context, which places so much emphasis on the individual, how do you combine these two paradigms to craft a movement that is politically effective without becoming dangerously dependent on a few charismatic leaders?

Christman: Well, I think that the key to checking the untrammeled power of a figurehead is in the structure of organization supporting him or her or whoever it’s going to be—it’s the degree to which there’s accountability and feedback and those sort of mechanisms. The real issue is that there’s not something that we’ve really seen in America before, because as I said, we don’t really have traditional structures in America of political organizations, we just have these brands, Democrat and Republican. Then, we have people within those brands who are stars. It’s like the NBA or something; you’ve got the NBA, which is a brand, and then teams, and then stars on those teams. And they’re all basically just repping for these hidden interests, which would basically be in this analogy the owners of the teams. If you had an organization that utilized the same media approaches and the same branding, basically, as traditional politics, but you don’t have the same supporting forces and interest groups, I think that you’d see a situation where there is accountability from below.

Like I said, we’re pretty far from anything like that—but we very well could see an emergent American left that eschews that kind of leadership. I mean, it’s hard to imagine that in current contexts, but we also exist in a context that sort of defeats leftism and insurgency by its structural nature, and so what comes next might just by definition have to be outside of that. But I’m mostly agnostic, as I said, on anything having to do with imagining what shape things are going to take at this point.

Gate: It seems like there has been some of this bottom-up organizing and social force emerging in the early days of the Trump presidency. One comparison that’s been bandied about is with the Tea Party under Obama. I was wondering if you could talk both about the ways in which that’s a good or a bad comparison, as well as the ways in which you think the Tea Party, at least before it was hijacked by all these scam PACs, is effective as a model of political organizing that is not really driven by some set of leaders but is organic in a different way?

Christman: Well, the Tea Party is an interesting beast because it was a real hybrid even from the beginning. It was definitely generated by grassroots anger at Obama and racism and all that other stuff, but it was at every level and at every point also being shaped and pushed along by capital. I mean, the thing that was sort of the starting gun for it was Rick Santelli going on Fox Business and doing a rant about moochers getting their bailouts for mortgages. It wasn’t, you know, someone standing on a street corner and calling out to his fellows. It was a top-down call to arms, and there hasn’t been that sort of moment in this version because what we have is a media that is largely sympathetic to mainstream Democrats and that has decided that the way to oppose the Trump administration is by focusing on things like Russia, tax returns, things like that.

I think the degree to which people are organizing now is a mixture of people responding to those signals. You could kind of compare that to the Tea Party, especially since it’s narrowly focused on Trump in the same way the Tea Party was narrowly focused on this weird psycho-sexual fixation on Obama and what he was doing to the White House. But I think there are other people who aren’t responding to that, who are fighting for things like healthcare, and immigrants’ rights, and against police brutality. It’s another one of these things that’s going to be made clear in the near future: whether these groups come together, and under what umbrella. Is it co-opted by the Democratic National Committee, or does it maintain independence? And I hope—I hope—that as dissatisfaction with Republican governance increases, as people watch the debate between the insufficient ACA and the absolutely abhorrent Republican replacement come to the dialectical conclusion that the only actual answer is universal healthcare, that those numbers will grow and will maintain their independence.

Gate: You identified at one point as probably the closest to a classic socialist on Chapo, so I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on how—or if—you would define or label your political ideology. Is it more Marxist-Leninist, is it Anarcho-Communist, is it Democratic Socialist? Where would you say you align?

Christman: This is another byproduct of how early I feel like we are in the process of building a left in this country: I would just go with socialist. Nothing, no adjectives around it, just socialist. And I feel like those debates about where you are on these relatively minor issues of doctrine and strategy are for the future. I feel like right now it’s about building as large a tent as possible and then having the issues of strategy and ideology debated, but you can’t have those debates at the level of small groups. I mean, even the biggest explicitly socialist organization in the US has fewer than twenty thousand members. We’d have to be talking about mass membership organization before we can really see what people want, what the times call for through the priorities of the actual people who mobilize to change things. So, in this nascent stage, I’m just going to call myself a socialist, and we can find as many people who are, if not ready to call themselves that, at least open to the ideas, and then move forward from there.

Gate: In terms of building that bigger tent, there was a recent Vox article from CPAC that was funny for a number of reasons, but one of the funniest parts was when one person said, “I really believe in what Trump and the Republicans can do with full control—when people see those changes in two or three years, they’ll change on capitalism.” That struck me as being perhaps prescient, although not quite in the way I think it was intended by the person who said it …

Christman: Exactly, like you don’t really realize what you’re asking for there.

Gate: Right. So I was wondering if you could talk about your view of that and whether you adopt a sort of accelerationist view in saying that the election of Trump will at least engender this effective new resistance, or if you think it will be a wash because all of this oppositional energy will be focused on Trump instead of into a broader political movement.

Christman: We’re seeing both currents happening simultaneously right now. We’re seeing the horribleness of the Trump administration and its naked hostility to working-class people. It is genuinely alienating and enraging people. But at the same time, people are also focusing on Trump and emphasizing the need for a big tent, and of course when I’m saying we need big-tent socialism, that’s still big-tent socialism, not big-tent plus neoliberalism, which is what was being pushed and what we got during the Bush administration. I feel like this is a different moment and I feel like the particular grotesqueness of Trump as president undermines certain nostrums about America’s political culture that Bush didn’t necessarily do in the same way, but I don’t know. We’ll see. With a lot of this stuff, I see it going either way.

As for the accelerationism question, I am not an accelerationist in terms of my belief system—I wasn’t rooting for Trump or anything like that, I certainly didn’t vote for him—but at this point, I think Will [Menaker] said it on the show, we’re all accelerationists now, in the sense that we’re basically in a situation where we’re reaching a zero hour on the environment so quickly, and we’re reaching a level of immiseration that is creating this festering nationalism and hostile ethno-cultural grievance that if this isn’t an accelerationist moment, if this does not trip some sort of social main switch, that we might not have time for anything else.

Gate: In terms of building this larger socialist tent, while it seems like there’s less resistance to the idea of socialism than there once was, particularly among younger voters, that knee-jerk opposition still exists to some extent. So what’s your opinion of compromise candidates, whether younger ones who might not identify as socialists but are at least pushing for social-democratic policies like Medicare for all, or more conservative ones like Joe Manchin, who people say is as far left as a senator can be in West Virginia?

Christman: I think that there just needs to be a full-court press. I feel like the realization needs to come that that sort of defensive mindset—that you need Joe Manchin in the Senate, even though he votes with Republicans 80 percent of the time, because he’s got a “D” behind his name—is the kind of thinking that led to the colossal catastrophes of the Obama years. There needs to be just a full-court press on every level—redefining what it means to be on the left away from this sort of shallow social conscience with pro-market economics that it’s been defined as until now.

What we have seen in the elections every time someone whose name is not Barack Obama has been on the ballot is that that particular brand of politics is poison to way too many people, and not necessarily even people who voted against it but people who don’t bother to vote at all because they don’t see a reason to. I feel like giving people a reason to vote is the number one priority, and if that alienates people in positions like Joe Manchin, that is a necessary precondition for reorienting politics.

Gate: Even if that means that, if you grant the premise that if it’s not Joe Manchin it will just be an actual Republican in that seat, that could be a barrier to getting more done?

Christman: People always want to argue like that in isolation, like, “Well, then you keep Joe Manchin,” but keeping Joe Manchin necessitates an entire orientation that defeats you everywhere else, and demoralizes voters, and fails to mobilize everywhere. And you have kept Joe Manchin, congratulations, but what did you give up to do that? And I think that’s what never gets thought of when people are obsessing at this narrow parliamentary level, obsessing about specific members of the Senate, or swing districts, or something like that, is that supporting those people in the quote-unquote “left” party requires an entire orientation to politics that keeps people from voting.

Gate: In Episode 18, “The Upset Guv’ner,” your co-host Felix Biederman recommended Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate as a book that provides information on the nature of political power in America. Do you have other suggestions for books that you believe are instructive with regard to power and what it looks like when used effectively?

Christman: Well I would definitely echo Master of the Senate, and even more than Master of the Senate, Robert Caro’s first book, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses. It drills down into the way in which power is exercised outside of the electoral system. Power always centers on elected officials, appointed officials, and the matrix of public opinion, whereas vast infrastructures of ideology and programs are created behind the scenes by people who are operating on these parallel state structures. And that book about Robert Moses and how from half a dozen unelected positions he was able to shape the face of New York over the middle of the twentieth century without anybody voting on it ever is really instructive.

Gate: One Chapo-associated podcast is What a Hell of a Way to Die, which is hosted by three leftist soldiers. Obviously the role of the military is a contentious topic on the left, so I was wondering if you could speak to the tension that exists there, and more specifically, your view on whether or not leftists should serve in the military?

Christman: I’m conflicted on that. I understand the arguments of guys like Francis on that show. I certainly understand the argument that the military is too much the preserve of poor people and that there’s an elite alienation from it. But I feel like that conversation often misses the fact that the US is at war with seven countries right now, unjustly, and that anybody joining the military is basically acceding to the fact that they will help prosecute those wars.

On these more abstract questions of the place of a military in a free society, they’re interesting and thought-provoking, but I think the actual military we have right now is far too much an instrument of just untrammeled bloodlust to be ethically engaged with.

Gate: What advice would you like to give to anybody who is young and coming up on the left or is interested in the left? And what message would you impart to those people about what effective resistance looks like, what an effective movement looks like, what to beware of, and what to look for in the process of building a socialist system?

Christman: My most basic suggestion would be to spend way more time organizing than being online. Log off, basically. I mean, that’s advice that any of us could use in our day-to-day lives. But I think especially for anyone who wants to keep their eye on the ball, who wants to maintain focus, and remember what’s important: to log off.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Spencer Reed


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