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The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics

Trump insulted his way to the White House. Now, Chapo Trap House is trying to insult Democrats into moving left—a strategy that's doomed to fail.

Chapo Trap House

On a recent episode of the popular podcast Chapo Trap House, co-host Will Menaker used a memorable metaphor in addressing calls for unity on the left. “Republicans in control of politics, that’s the problem,” he began. “However, to the pragmatists out there and the people who don’t like purity in politics, yes, let’s come together. But get this through your fucking head: You must bend the knee to us. Not the other way around. You have been proven as failures, and your entire worldview has been discredited. You bend the knee to us and then let’s fucking work together to defeat these things, not with fucking means testing or market-based solutions but with a powerful social democratic message.”

Chapo’s many foes seized on the phrase “bend the knee.” Because the show has often been accused of sexism, the phrase “bend the knee” was interpreted by some listeners as a sexual remark aimed at humiliating Hillary Clinton supporters.

This gendered analysis seems unwarranted because Menaker’s remarks weren’t aimed at women as a class, but at the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; Clinton wasn’t mentioned, and the phrase may even be an allusion to a common refrain in Game of Thrones. Yet if the remark wasn’t sexist in intent, it still suggests a troubling vision of politics as a contest in domination. As New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister remarked in an email, “‘bend the knee’ gets read as a sexual reference, not because people think it is literally about sex, but because it conveys a hunger for dominance and submission, which is very quickly heard as gendered and sexual, even when the reference is not explicit.” To put it another way, the comment was an act of dominance politics, which, accusations of sexism aside, is problematic in its own right.

The concept of dominance politics was fleshed out by Josh Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo, in an analysis last year of Donald Trump’s hold over the Republican Party. “Pundits and political obsessives tend to get distracted by process and policy literalism,” he wrote. “But politics generally and especially intra-Republican political battles are really about demonstrating dominance—not policy mastery or polling leads but a series of symbols and actions that mark the dominating from the dominated.”

Dominance politics is, as Marshall noted, the default mode of the Republican Party and especially Trump. “You can’t insult your way to the presidency,” Jeb Bush told Trump on a debate stage in late 2015. The former Florida governor was dead wrong. Trump’s constant name-calling of “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Crooked Hillary” secured enough votes to win the Republican nomination and defeat Clinton. Trump did insult his way to the presidency, and the gambit worked because his abusive language jibed with the Republican base’s desire for a tough, masculine leader who unapologetically humiliates and punishes his enemies (RINOs, liberals, feminists, immigrants, foreigners, and so on). Displays of dominance are also assertions of hierarchy, and thus go hand in hand with the right-wing goal of defending privileged groups.

But what happens when dominance politics is used in the service of egalitarian politics, whether liberal or leftist, which aims to break down these hierarchies?

In this era of an alt-right president and mouthpieces like Breitbart, Chapo Trap House is the leftist media outlet that best understands the power of dominance politics and answers it in kind. If Trump insulted his way to the presidency, Chapo is insulting the Democrats to move the party leftward, using mockery and derision to push for a socialist America. There’s clearly a market for such content: The show is extremely popular, generating more than $70,000 a month in Patreon subscriptions, outdistancing the other top podcasts on Patreon by nearly three to one.

Chapo is the flagship show of the Dirtbag Left, a phrase coined by co-host Amber A’Lee Frost to describe a take-no-prisoners style of American socialism that’s ascendent in the age of Trump. While examples of the Dirtbag Left can also be found in publications like The Baffler, Current Affairs, and podcasts like The War Nerd and Street Fight Radio, Chapo remains the purest example of the species. “It’s a movement that uses many of the tactics of the online alt-right—humour, memes, Twitter trolling and open animosity—while remaining committed to progressive leftist ideology,” John Semley wrote earlier this month in Maclean’s. “A given Chapo episode sees the hosts yukking it up at the expense of hacky mainstream media op-eds (New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is a favourite target of the gang’s derision), or critiquing the limp, liberal identity politics of the recent, and much-lauded, Wonder Woman movie.”

The comparison Semley draws with the alt-right is apt. On substance, Chapo upholds the democratic-socialist politics of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, but in style it is much closer to the vituperative, insulting, shock-jock tactics used not just by Twitter users with Pepe the Frog avatars, but Trump himself. The response of mainstream liberals to these tactics on the right has been to double down on the importance of civility. “When they go low, we go high,” as Michelle Obama famously said. But the Dirtbag Left has no use for civility, and instead wants to counter the alt-right’s mudslinging in kind. Their slogan could be, “When they go low, we go into the gutter.”

Such mimicry carries risks. For the political right, dominance politics is a perfect marriage of style and content. If you believe in maintaining traditional gender norms, in celebrating two-fisted capitalism and a muscular foreign policy, then a boorish, domineering figure like Trump is the ideal leader. His verbal bullying isn’t a fault, but a virtue; rather than weakening his standing with Republicans, it’s a key tool for keeping the party in line. “Dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics,” Marshall wrote. “It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language. And yet somehow for most it is nonetheless a second language. Not Trump. It’s his native language. I still believe it’s rooted in the mix of the hyper-aggressive New York real estate world, his decades of immersion in the city’s febrile tabloid culture and just being, at the most basic level, a bully. Wherever it comes from, he seems to intuitively get that for this constituency and at this moment just demonstrating that he gets his way, always, is all that really matters.”

Can a style so naturally suited to the right really work for the left? Is dominance politics compatible with the Dirtbag Left’s putative political vision? It’s easy enough to prefer insult comedy to milquetoast liberalism, the latter being too timid to go to blows with the right, but Chapo directs its barbs rather democratically. Chapo is fighting a two-front war, one against the Republicans and another against moderate Democrats. About half the time, the Chapo crew attacks right-wingers like Mike Cernovich, Sebastian Gorka, and Alex Jones. Just as often, though, they go after Clintonites like Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, and Neera Tanden.

To redeploy the alt-right style of unruly jokes against alt-right figures like Cernovich or Jones makes a certain amount of sense. That’s a choice many of us would make. But the humor becomes very different when used against people of the same party, since the goal then is not to defeat an opposing side but dominate people who are part of your political coalition. “Bend the knee” then becomes not just a jokey phrase, but a political strategy—and a dubious one, because you can’t really build a coalition of egalitarian politics by browbeating a key segment of that coalition.

Socialism isn’t just about equality for its own sake, but also the lived experience of fraternity and sorority, of politics as the work of brothers and sisters joined together to make a better world. It’s hard to square the professed socialism of the Dirtbag Left with calls to “bend the knee.” Beyond violating leftist ideals, dominance politics seems like a tactic doomed to fail. Politics is about persuasion and coalition-building. While it’s true that Trump ascended to the presidency with simian displays of dominance, and now leads a formidable personality cult that dominates the Republican Party, this is hardly a model that the left should emulate. Derision is useful for one half of politics—defeating the opposing party—but has nothing to say to the crucial other half of forming alliances that can govern effectively for the people.

If Sanders-style democratic socialism is to become the core of the Democratic Party, its adherents will have to win over those who supported Clinton-style progressivism. There are surely few worse ways of accomplishing this than demanding that they “bend the knee,” which is more likely to breed resistance than assent. Convincing Democrats to adopt a more radical politics is challenging enough without trying to insult and humiliate them into submission.