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The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics

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.”

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