If you were asked to describe Chapo Trap House by someone who knew nothing about it, you could be forgiven for replying simply that this is a group of young men for whom nothing is sacred.
Here’s a fuller description: Chapo Trap House is a podcast hosted by Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, and Will Menaker. It focuses on current events, typically political events. It is notable for its hostile discussions of elite pundits: Ross Douthat is a favorite target, as is David Brooks. The podcast is discursive and meandering and dense with allusions to pop culture and to things that go viral on Twitter.
It is highly irreverent, and highly ironic. The hosts have been dubbed “Irony Bros,” and that's probably a good enough description. Unlike older, more classical forms of irony, the irony of these Irony Bros is omni-directional, a universal solvent. The Chapo guys are as just as willing to attack the Clintons for their neoliberalism, or the audience of Hamilton for enjoying a self-flattering, whiggish retelling of history, as they are to attack mainstream conservative pundits. They are just as likely to envision in detail the violent deaths of pundits on the left as they are to envision in detail the violent deaths of pundits on the right—all of which is OK, because it’s ironic. And because anyone who espouses any political or economic theory that has even a hint of neoliberalism is a hypocritical hack who deserves nothing but scorn. Like Holden Caulfield, the Chapo guys believe everyone is a phony. Unlike Holden Caulfield, they are sometimes witty. No one escapes their destructive gaze.
And this is just what makes them confusingly alluring to some. They have a cult following, including among a group of leftist Catholics who call themselves illiberal Catholics, or tradinistas.
These tradinistas coalesce around a strong critique of free-market capitalism and a full-throated defense of the Church’s social teachings. Many of them believe that Marxism can be squared with Christianity, though some are closer to Distributism. All agree that American society is unjust, and their critique extends to what they see as its systemic racism. Tradinistas can be found both in real life and online, but their presence is strongest on Twitter.
The tradinistas were particularly drawn in by one early episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast. The episode includes a lengthy critique of a National Review article in which Kevin Williamson argues, among other things, that poor white people are poor because they are unwilling to abandon their communities and go where the jobs are. The hosts mock Williamson for his argument and conclude that National Review is in an explanatory tailspin because it is unable to explain the rise of Trump.
Tradinistas hate National Review for what they perceive as its racism (blame black people for their lack of initiative, rather than acknowledge systemic racism) and its defense of free-market capitalism. The Kevin Williamson episode hit on many of the themes the tradinistas dislike in the mainstream right wing. So it was that after this episode, the Chapo Trap House podcast garnered positive buzz among many tradinistas.
It makes sense that tradinistas would be attracted to this critique. Chapo Trap House seems to occupy a relatively new place, which can be deceiving to Christians who are looking for a critique of liberalism—and not finding it in their churches. Many young Christians are rightly dissatisfied with what they see as a failure of both political parties to pursue just policies. It's a sort of “pox on both their houses” outlook, which is certainly warranted. The tradinistas go further, though, and expand on the critique of liberalism offered by writers such as Michael Hanby, Patrick Deneen, and Chad Pecknold. These writers argue that the fundamental principles upon which this country was built are suspect and subject to inevitable decline. Many of the tradinistas are accelerationists who believe that to achieve justice we must “heighten the contradictions” of Americanism in order to bring about the destruction of this unjust society. What will happen after the collapse is not quite spelled out.
So when it comes to Irony Bros like the Chapo Trap House crew, some Christians see the fact that they attack both sides equally as a sign that maybe they're doing something right. Maybe they could be an ally in the fight against liberalism.
But the Irony Bros will never be allies of Christianity. One writer who saw this all along was Matthew Walther, associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. Walther tweeted the following on August 31: “Can we ban this ‘Chapo Trap-House’ thing? It clearly destroys minds, to say nothing of faith and morals.” The Chapo crew and their loyal fans unleashed a Twitter stream of anti-Catholic invective that cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was disgusting and completely unoriginal. Many of the tradinistas expressed displeasure with the anti-Catholicism, but some maintained the Chapo crew were still an important ally in the fight against liberalism. The controversy died down after a while and was largely forgotten.
On September 25, the Chapo crew released a podcast episode in which they put a blown-up picture of Walther on the wall and proceeded to mock Walther and other Catholics. At this point many Catholics decided to have what became a fairly public debate on Twitter. I argued, along with others, that the Chapo crew was indefensible. I must say, it was a short argument, illustrated by disgusting and filthy replies from the Chapo people. The tradinistas, or most of them, were finally able to see. It should be noted that none of us directly confronted Chapo Trap House. The Chapo crew were obviously searching Twitter for mentions of their name. I’ve never received replies and mentions as disgusting as I received that night. Some of the replies were graphically pornographic.
There are two lessons to take from this. First, there can be no common cause between Christians and Irony Bros. Indeed, the idea that Irony Bros have any cause other than omni-directional destruction is stunningly ignorant. The illiberal Christian movement, a disparate and nascent group to which I am at least tenuously attached, can feel starved for allies in the institutional Church, and for that reason it may go looking in places it has no business being. This is a mistake.
Second, if the tradinista cause is to be more than an internet hobby, it has to be taken out to the suburban parishes. It may be hard to talk to the suburban dad at the local mega-parish who has never heard of Alasdair MacIntyre (let alone that maybe communism isn't godless materialism) about liberalism. But it's necessary if one believes in this cause. If the purveyors of illiberalism aren't willing to do this, then they are simply engaging in an incestuous internet form of the worst conceptions of the Benedict Option.
My suggestion is we take what lessons we can from this incident—and then, of course, never speak of the Chapo guys again.
Marc Mason has written for Front Porch Republic and The University Bookman.