Book Review: “The Chapo Guide to Revolution” — Laughing at Catastrophe
Too many cultural critics look at our past through a fuzzy filter of sentiment. Chapo Trap House tackles America’s past and present idiocies head-on in a refreshingly honest way.
The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason by Chapo Trap House, Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker, and Virgil Texas. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $25.
By Erik Nikander
Arts Fuse podcast interview with Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House.
It’s nearly impossible to follow along with the lurching saga of American politics without succumbing to despair. We have an oafish reality TV host as president, the war in Afghanistan is fast approaching its second decade, and our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing the environment to the verge of collapse. The Chapo Guide to Revolution: A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason, based on the cult hit Chapo Trap House podcast, pierces through political buffoonery of all stripes with a blast of sardonic wit. But it does more than just poke fun at our current dangerous situation. The book’s brand of sharp satire is supported by an intelligent and rigorous analysis of American history. Too many cultural critics look at our past through a fuzzy filter of sentiment. Chapo Trap House tackles America’s past and present idiocies head-on in a refreshingly honest way.
First off, for those whose brains haven’t yet been boggled by the internet, this book was not penned posthumously by a Mexican drug lord. The Chapo Guide to Revolution was written by four current hosts (Will Menaker, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman, and Virgil Texas) and one former producer (Brendan James) of the podcast Chapo Trap House, which since 2016 has chronicled current events in American politics from a leftist perspective. The podcast scorns conservatives’ efforts to transfer wealth upwards from average Americans as well as establishment liberals’ impotent efforts to stop them. Some critics deride the program for its ironic tone and reliance on in-jokes, but others (including me) find the show’s irreverence bracing and hilarious, its political analysis fresh and shrewd.
So, how does a podcast centered on discussing current events and picking apart stupid op-ed essays translate into a long-form book? Quite well, in fact. The book, split into six large chapters with a few brief interludes, starts off by providing a broad overview of world history and America’s place in it. The narrative then tries to delineate the sordid histories of American liberals and conservatives. Then come chapters that focus on Media, Culture, and Work, exploring how earlier political movements have shaped modern life.
The result is a witty, iconoclastic study of the United States that upholds one of the podcast’s most appealing polemical qualities: unlike many liberal #resistance commentators, who view the election Donald Trump as an aberration, an unfortunate black mark on an otherwise noble country’s permanent record, the Chapos see him and his administration as a natural consequence of what had come before. As they admit in the book, they may not have predicted Hillary Clinton’s crushing 2016 defeat, but, in retrospect, the upset seems almost inevitable.
Of course, fans of Chapo Trap House will find much to like in The Chapo Guide to Revolution. What about the uninitiated? Well, a book like this demands a certain level of tolerance for vulgarity and alike. Those turned off by masturbation jokes or by passages praising the stunning perfection of the albino twins from the second Matrix film are unlikely to stick with this volume for long. But those willing to embrace the humorously strange are almost certain to enjoy themselves.
The book’s comedic style is finely honed, rapid-fire, and relentless. Bizarre jokes explode out of nowhere at the end of sentences, drawing absurd connections between the cultural fringes of outré comedy and the political mainstream. Mixing the Richard Nixon “Checkers” story with the minor controversy raised by Lena Dunham when she defended the act of returning her dog to the shelter shouldn’t be funny — but somehow it strikes the perfect note of absurdity. If one is willing to go with the flow, there’s hilarious stuff here.
Even if the book’s lowbrow comic sensibility isn’t quite your speed, there are plenty of smart jabs at modern American culture. Among the most hilarious parts of Chapo Guide are the “Taxonomies” sections, profiles of some of the most distinctive types of political characters the twenty-first century has burped forth. Accompanied by stunningly grotesque illustrations by cartoonist Eli Valley, these archetypes include liberals such as the “Epic-Rant Dad” and “Corporate Feminist,” and conservatives such as the “YouTube Logic Guy” and “Actual Vampire.” These passages are take-downs of depressingly common strains of political thought, sharp illustrations of the failures of liberalism and conservatism alike.
A minor drawback; the book, entertaining though it is, doesn’t quite live up to its eye-catching title. The Chapo Guide to Revolution comes off as more of a guide of what to revolt against; it’s hard not to wish, given the spectre of economic and environmental collapse that hangs over any in-depth discussion of current events, that the authors had offered a way to move forward, examples of a system that would be more just and equitable. Perhaps there is no funny answer to what might be a tragic dilemma, no viable substitute for the often thankless work of grassroots political organizing. Still, as beneficial as it is to understand (and laugh at) the failures of the past, it is unfortunate that Chapo Trap House didn’t spend more time looking to the future.
The Chapo Guide to Revolution‘s sense of equal opportunity ridicule might be a hard sell for many. Even liberals who despise Donald Trump as much as the Chapos do might well find their lack of reverence for icons like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Aaron Sorkin, and the late John McCain to be an insurmountable obstacle. But, beneath the veneer of snark and irony, the book presents a sincere examination of American history and culture from a valuable, and often disregarded, left-wing perspective. Much like the podcast that spawned it, the book makes the cruel idiocy of the Trump Era a bit easier to tolerate — if this Ship of State is going down, we may as well have some laughs in the meantime.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.