Dirtbag Left

Chapo Trap House

The dirtbag left is a style of left-wing politics that eschews civility in order to convey a left-wing populist message using subversive vulgarity.

It is most closely associated with American left-wing media that emerged in the mid-2010s, most notably the podcast ‘Chapo Trap House.’ Despite the term’s connotations, its use is not typically considered derogatory.

The term was coined by ‘Chapo Trap House’ co-host Amber A’Lee Frost and is associated with her essay ‘The Necessity of Political Vulgarity,’ published in ‘Current Affairs’ in 2016. While the essay does not directly use the term dirtbag left, it mounts a defense of politics that utilize ‘vulgarity as a tool for fighting the powerful,’ citing libelles (political pamphlets attacking a public figure) used to slander Marie Antoinette, ‘Cohen v. California’ (a landmark case upholding the right to wear a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft” painted on it in the public corridors of a courthouse), and N.W.A’s protest song ‘Fuck tha Police,’ among others. While Frost notes that vulgarity in itself is not ‘inherently subversive,’ she argues that the left must reclaim vulgarity ‘from the Trumps of the world,’ lest it be ‘handicapped by [its] own civility.’

In her essay A’Lee Frost argues that “Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful.”

‘Chapo Trap House’ emerged in 2016 in the context of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries and subsequent presidential election. The podcast combines political analysis and punditry from a socialist perspective with elements of comedy and irony. ‘Chapo’ gained notoriety for its criticism of both the Republican and Democratic Party, particularly what the podcast claimed was the Democratic Party’s complicity with a conservative agenda.

Beyond Chapo, media outlets that have been alternately linked to or described as dirtbag left include the podcasts ‘Street Fight Radio,’ ‘TrueAnon,’ ‘Red Scare,’ and ‘Cum Town,’ and the publications ‘The Baffler’ and ‘Current Affairs.’ These outlets are noted as presenting comedy as ‘applied to an ideological reading of the news of the day, with a particular focus on political feeling or style.’

The dirtbag left has been described as an anti-fascism, anti-conservative, anti-centrist, and anti-liberal ideology. It has been linked to a variety of political stances, including anti-political correctness; anti-inequality; a disregard for civility; opposition to the wealthy and support for redistributive economic policies; and support for both the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders. The Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis have been cited as particular radicalizing events for the dirtbag left.

Rhetorically, the dirtbag left is noted as a vulgar, ‘bawdy offensive balance to cautious mainstream liberal politics,’ with ‘a dismissive attitude towards the niceties of liberal political correctness’ that frequently direct insults and attacks through social media at specific public figures with political or economic power. ‘The Times’ cited the rise of this rhetorical style as evidence of ‘the limitations of wokeness as a political force,’ and an example of the changing nature of politics on the internet.

Despite the connotations of the term ‘dirtbag left,’ its use is not typically considered derogatory, with ‘The New York Times’ describing the term as ‘a defense mechanism that doubles as a nickname.’ Self-identification with the term is indicative of the dirtbag left’s tendency towards irony and self-deprecation, with Frost noting that the term ‘speaks to a lot of people who have been dismissed or chided by liberals for embracing vulgarity, eschewing sanctimony or piety, and refusing to be civil to the right wing,’ adding that the term ‘says something positive about what we do believe, and what we’re willing to ruthlessly fight for, regardless of established etiquette.’

Chapo co-host Will Menaker joked that ‘if you sleep on a mattress on the floor and fuck in a sleeping bag, then you just might be the dirtbag left,’ before explaining that he sees the dirtbag left as a ‘scurrilous and funny approach to left-wing politics’ that contrasts ‘utterly humorless and bloodless’ liberalism.

The dirtbag left has been widely criticized by liberal commentators, with liberal feminist writer Amanda Marcotte stating that the ideology is linked to ‘that male privilege of intimidating people into assuming you’re cool’ and comparing it to the television series ‘Jackass.’ Liberal writer Jeet Heer described the dirtbag left as a form of ‘doomed to fail’ dominance politics, arguing that ‘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.’

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