A Note on Vulgar Populism
Some people don’t get Chapo Trap House. Some people don’t quite understand how people can, ‘meet on Twitter’ as the presenters of the podcast did, or how a left-wing show could spend more time mocking the Democratic party than crusading against the far-right. Most of all, some people don’t understand why many thousands of people — often younger, and hardly uneducated — would choose to listen to some guys from Twitter instead of, say, whatever plastic person resides amongst other studio lit plastic on mainstream news channels. This is perhaps a harsh use of language, but it is chosen for a purpose. Allow me to explain.
Vulgar populism is not so much a set of political beliefs, but rather — to borrow a phrase from philosopher Olly Thorn — a style of politics. And it is a style which is, by and large, a reaction to the homogeneous style of legacy media. Take, for instance, legacy media’s general obsession with electability. It is in many ways a vapid talking point — all electable candidates for any position have electability in the sense that they can be elected.
Of course, you may rebut that electability does not mean can a candidate technically be elected, but what are the chances of them being elected. If that is the case, however, then I would argue that is a wholly different question from the vague question of electability. For instance, consider the case of Jess Phillips, who bid to become leader of the Labour party in the UK largely boiled down to her believing herself electable — something which is surely what all candidates believe when they enter the race! Electability is not about probabilities — it’s a whole lot shallower than that.
When we boil electability down, it is usually just a set of criteria, largely of physical features, which when assembled on a human look uncannily like the sort of people that host and commentate on legacy media platforms. Thus, likening these people to plastic is not just a dig. It is, in a much less succinct way, a means of expressing the sentiment Noam Chomsky voiced in a now infamous interview the UK journalist Andrew Marr. When Marr challenged Chomsky, claiming Chomsky believed he and others only had their roles in the media because they were willing to take orders as part of a grand conspiracy, Chomsky famously replied, “I’m not saying that you are self-censoring. I’m sure that you believe everything that you are saying. What I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
The question of electability, and that of plastic, are kind of one in the same. It is not a coincidence that the commentators who reside in the news studio, under those intense lights, reading from a script complete with its own poetic rhythm seem to create within their performance a reality that simultaneously justifies their existence. But it is not a conspiracy. In the same way, it is not a conspiracy that ideas such as electability, and all the conclusions these ideas reveal, seem to ultimately validate the existence of the very people debating those ideas. I think this is something we should have more sympathy: imagine the grave darkness a philosopher would find themselves in if their philosophy ultimately determined the philosophy wrong, or worse, unnecessary.
Vulgar populism is a response to all of this. It is not vulgar in the sense of being disgusting, but it is vulgar in the sense of it not being acceptable within the circles occupied by those who consider themselves acceptable (and, as we have seen, simultaneously create the criteria for acceptability). In this sense, vulgar populism is quite punk, to borrow Mark Fisher’s general use of the word to mean acting without authority by another. And to some, furthermore, vulgar populism may be disgusting and even murderous insofar as it undermines the authority which it is itself acting without. If this is a hard concept, let’s consider another example.
As I write, the campaign to become the Democratic nominee for President is currently underway. One of the leading narratives in this campaign is that of the Bernie Bro — a person, implicitly male, who harasses people on Twitter as a means of voicing their support for Bernie Sanders (I consider myself to have quite a pro-Sanders Twitter feed, and can’t attest to have ever seeing anything that wasn’t pretty tame at worst). The concept of the Bernie Bro is meant to reaffirm the various implicit values of those talking about them. For legacy media, the best way to participate in politics is to be polite and civil — like them — and the best place to find polite and civil voices is not a platform like Twitter, and — conveniently — on a legacy media platform. The narrative constructs the reality that justifies the narrative.
For the vulgar populist, this is nonsense, even if we accept a few starting assumptions. Let’s accept that Bernie Bros exist, and they are harassing people. A vulgar populist might argue that these people are justified in their outrage and anger because their opponents don’t want to provide everyone with access to healthcare. Most people would see this as a pretty good reason to be pushing back against one’s opponents. Furthermore, even if Bernie Bros are going about things in the wrong way, a vulgar populist might argue that the energy and enthusiasm, even if directed undesirably, is a good thing. For a politician, isn’t it a really positive thing to have such an engaged and passionate supporter base?
In the case of the Bernie Bros, the vulgar populist engages with a populist sentiment — but what do people actually think? — by rejecting the a priori standards of acceptability and being, in a way, vulgar. In doing so, a powerful counter-rationale emerges which undermines legacy opinion. For the vulgar populist things cease to be bad just because they are called bad, which can be problematic for those providing the label. This brings me onto Chapo Trap House: the left-wing, Bernie Sanders supporting podcast which spawned from people who became friends on Twitter.
Chapo is wildly successful — at the time of writing, they are the most-funded content creators on Patreon. This success has led to clashes and conversations with those more closely related to legacy media, people whom generally don’t seem to get Chapo.
In a recent episode, for instance, the team discussed being invited onto the podcast of a major US journalist. Initially suspecting an ambush, the Chapo commentators were ultimately disappointed that all the questions they faced were typical legacy-media talking points, which, they note, they’ve now had years to think about and establish responses for. On the question of electability, for instance, the Chapo team argued that Sanders was actually the most electable, because his base was the least likely to turn out if another candidate became the nominee. Whether you agree with them or not, they were essentially pointing out the contradiction within the legacy media platitudes of ‘vote blue no matter who’ and ‘choose whoever is best suited to beat Donald Trump.’
In doing so, they were acting vulgar; a very typical argument on legacy media is, “Bernie or bust will lead to Donald Trump” but Chapo Trap House pointed out that even if that statement is true, that doesn’t mean people will care. This is very much a revelation a self-anointing legacy media could not arrive at, because to do so, one would have to believe that a candidate who is acceptable by their standards is somehow worse than a candidate (Donald Trump) who is not acceptable by their standards.
The style of vulgar populism, as demonstrated by Chapo Trap House, is something of a materialist one. Vulgar populism ignores platitudes or unsubstantiated requirements and focuses — in a material sense — on what people actually think and how people actually feel. Insofar as a strategy emerges from vulgar populism, it is one built around responding to the people who actually matter, rather than adopting a meta-gaming strategy to appeal to a legacy media.
Though puritanical might also be a term that pops up. It’s easy for a vulgar populist to dismiss a candidate’s flaws provided that candidate beliefs in various things which are deemed red lines — in this sense, everything else is optional in vulgar populism. The consequences of this puritanical streak can be quite bad. On the right, the rhetoric of a candidate like Donald Trump enables many of his absolutely disagreeable tendencies and policies to be swept aside; for his base, many things just don’t matter. On the left, too many red lines can lead to puritanical purges of those who really should be allies. It would be unfair to associate a term like “cancel culture” only with the left, but equally, there are places where it is applicable.
However, in defence of vulgar populism from the right and the left, I don’t think puritanical behaviour is something that a lack of vulgarity can eradicate. Isn’t a set of criteria surrounding a superfluous concept like electability not itself just a puritanical standard adopted by the legacy media? Is not the legacy media’s tendency to dismiss anything not sufficiently supported by themselves or outriding organisations not itself a puritanical standard? Puritanism is an interesting aspect of vulgar populism, but it is also, too easily, a hypocritical attack.