‘If Andrew Yang Can Unite a YouTube Comment Section, He Can Unite the Nation’
On the ground at a Yang Gang initiation — and Weezer concert — in Iowa
I may be the only person at Yangapalooza today who does NOT believe that Andrew Yang will be the next president of the United States. I’m at the Brenton Skating Rink in Des Moines, Iowa, on a rainy and frigid November day that makes you pay dearly if you forget to step out wearing a hat and gloves. Sucks to be me then, because all I’ve got is a hat. My hands are already flatlining. Yang volunteers are handing out free hand warmers — the kind you stuff into your ski boots — and I go right for them before I bother to interview anyone. I activate the SHIT out of that charcoal. You’re not supposed to touch these hand warmers with bare skin, but I have no interest in abiding by that directive. Getting third-degree burns at an Andrew Yang rally sounds like heaven to me right now.
Everyone else at this rally was wise enough to bundle up. And even if they haven’t, they’ll remain forever toasty thanks to the considerable amount of energy they’re collectively producing from their love of one Andrew Yang. Yang is currently lodged firmly in the single-digit second tier of the 2020 Democratic polls, but he believes those numbers are merely the starting point of his ascent. His fans — and I’m gonna call them fans, because that’s a more accurate way to describe them than mere supporters — also believe this. It’s my job to talk to them and watch them in action and figure out if that belief in Yang is justified and if it’ll pay off—to see if one of the apparent also-rans in this race is more than he seems.
One Yang supporter here thinks Weezer is just one guy, which is probably an argument that Weezer die-hards debate intensely but is, nevertheless, technically inaccurate.
Weezer is playing at this rally today, but most everyone is here more for politics than rock and roll. One Yang supporter here thinks Weezer is just one guy, which is probably an argument that Weezer die-hards debate intensely but is, nevertheless, technically inaccurate. I can find only one person who is here today just for Weezer. That person is a dude named Steve, and he seems genuinely amused that I would want to interview him.
“I have no opinion of Andrew Yang,” he tells me.
Okay then. What Weezer songs do you want to hear today?
“I want to hear ‘Hash Pipe,’ dude.”
Weezer will NOT end up playing “Hash Pipe.” So Steve’s day won’t turn out quite the way he hoped. Ah, but everyone ELSE here is going to leave satisfied, frostbite or no. There’s no ice covering the rink today, but the pooling rain and the dead cold air are conspiring to perhaps give it a new surface anyway. Meanwhile, two stand-up comics, John Nguyen and Nick Guerra, take the stage in succession to help butter up the crowd and perhaps distract them from the onset of trench foot. Yang has asked them to NOT crack jokes about the rest of the field, and they abide by that edict. Instead, Nguyen tells the crowd, “I don’t hate certain races, just certain people, like Eddie Murphy.” He is actually not joking when he says this. I think we’re all ready to get to the Weezer part of this shindig, amirite?
Alas, we’ve still got a musical guest, a slam poet, and a motivational speaker named JD to endure before we get to the full emo payoff. The emcee of the rally introduces JD as “a great friend…”
“…of the campaign!”
Oh. While all that goes on, I have to do my homework. I have to get initiated into the Yang Gang. Are you ready to meet some of these folks? Let’s do that right now.
We’ll start with the chicken.
There’s a woman at the rally wearing a chicken suit and a shirt that says “I CROSS FOR YANG.” The Charity Chicken drove here all the way from Dayton, Ohio, presumably without the chicken head on. She is not the most far-flung of the Yang Gang members to come here today. Not by a long shot.
What charity do you run, Charity Chicken?
“I don’t run a charity, but I support a lot of charities in Dayton. I’m dressed like a chicken because it’s just a fun way to support charities. It makes people happy, and I like to make people happy.”
So you’re not necessarily a Yang-exclusive chicken?
“No, but I do support Andrew Yang, and I do it through my Twitter account.”
That last little bit is key, because Yang has gotten tagged with being the unofficial candidate of the internet. His onstage surrogate declares that this is the “tech campaign,” even though Yang’s professional résumé includes way more time working as an attorney and test-prep company CEO than doing easy time in Silicon Valley.
Regardless of accuracy, the tech label works for Yang. Saying you’re “tech” is a cheap way of telling voters your ideas are new. It also lets them know that nightmare boyfriend Elon Musk endorsed you, and that you are the mandatory self-appointed “entrepreneur” in the field—at least until Mike Bloomberg tosses his hat in the ring a couple weeks after the Iowa rally. Being the tech candidate means telling everyone, with a straight face, that you want us all to be shareholders in this society. Andrew Yang is more than willing to do that.
This isn’t exactly a novel strategy, but I’m still surprised at how many of the fans here today, nearly all of them, in fact, got their first taste of Yang not from Facebook but from less anodyne corners of the web, be it a podcast (Joe Rogan’s in particular) or straight-up from YouTube. Take Travis, for example, who got into Yang thanks to the fucking YouTube COMMENTS section:
“I try to stay out of YouTube comment sections. But I was just curious. And what I found there was like… Oh shit, there are a lot of conservatives that are saying things like ‘This is the only Democrat that I would consider voting for.’ If Yang can unite a YouTube comment section, he can unite the nation.”
If that last sentiment sounds dystopian to you, well, I hate to tell you that any aspiring politician in 2019 America better know HOW to navigate that dystopia. Andrew Yang does. If you don’t care to read on, you should at least know that he’s legitimate. This isn’t a vanity campaign. This isn’t a clandestine audition for the pundit chair. He has supported charter schools in the past and has kept relatively mum about that on the campaign trail, portending a possible Campbell Brown–style heel turn somewhere down the line. But such ulterior motives are nowhere in evidence right now. Yang very much wants to be president, and he’s got a plan to do it that’s both modern in design and relatively straightforward.
He also has hats. I think we’re all a little wary now of candidates proffering cheap hats, but Yang is undeterred. His people are handing out MATH hats to everyone in the crowd. If you don’t know that MATH is Yang’s acronym for Make America Think Harder, the hat could come off as a bold fashion choice. Some Virgil Abloh shit. I take a hat and immediately regret it because A) I need a free hand, B) I’m already wearing another, much warmer hat, and C) I’m a fucking journalist, man! I can’t be wearing campaign swag! I have to get rid of the hat without looking like I’m rudely trashing it, so I set it back down on a volunteer table and smoothly walk away. The perfect crime. I am now unburdened by a surfeit of hats. Also, none of the MATH hats, not even the few pot leaf–themed ones scattered among the crowd, are as cool as THIS guy’s hat anyway:
Professional ethics also prevent me from joining in any of the chants listed in the campaign flyer I’ve been handed. (Sample: “Do the math! Secure the bag!”) None of the Yang Gang members present are under similar restrictions, and so the chants and the MATH hats multiply. But Yang has more than cheap trinkets at his disposal. He also has the promise of cold hard cash in the form of universal basic income: $1,000 a month to every American, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Because this is a campaign, Yang has rebranded UBI as a “freedom dividend,” which his fans have been more than happy to adopt. Some of them are holding up giant $1,000 bills with Yang’s face on them, which can read REALLY wrong if you’re not familiar with the proposal inspiring them. But everyone here gets it and likes it. That goes for the one or two legitimately undecided voters I find. It appears they actually do exist.
Take Graham, for instance. Graham flew here all the way from California. He voted for Jill Stein in 2016 but now considers himself a Trump supporter for Yang, which I assume represents the smallest possible percentage of the American electorate. Graham is wearing a Trump costume that was left over from Halloween. He tells me that if 2020 comes down to Trump vs. Yang, he won’t make his decision until the night before the election. “I want to be fair about it,” he says. From a distance — say, reading about it on the internet — Graham’s dilemma would strike me as insane. But goddamn if he doesn’t make a certain bit of sense in staking out his position, especially making UBI sound like a cure-all for everything that’s fucked up right now. I’ll cede the rink to Graham to explain Yang’s position on it:
“We, America, are the richest, most powerful country in the history of planet Earth. So therefore, why does our universal basic income or why does our guaranteed minimum income start at zero, just like the rest of the world? I don’t think that’s right. I think it should start at a number higher than zero. I think that it would behoove conservatives and Trump supporters to recognize that Andrew Yang is really on to something here.”
Graham then veers off a little bit into Fantasyland, telling me, “Even if Trump wins, Yang is going to make Trump the best possible president because Trump is going to have to up his game in order to compete with Andrew Yang.” I don’t believe Trump would EVER, in a million billion years, feel like he has to compete with anyone but his own fabulousness. But Graham believes it. As far as even tepid Trump supporters go, he still comes off as more sane than most. And his stances appear to be genuine, not unlike the actual people I knew who were undecided between Bernie and Trump during the 2016 primary season. You can find nonbinary voters like this. What’s more, rather than bloviate about their importance as potential swing votes, you can instead glean from them the appeal and broad sticking power of certain policy proposals. UBI, for instance. Graham’s traveling companion, Elaine, does volunteer work for Yang back in her home state and, like Graham, believes that all it takes for Andrew Yang to become a major Democratic candidate is for people like me to pay more goddamn attention to him and to UBI.
“The freedom dividend is literally going to help everyone, regardless of party status, partisanship, whatever, regardless of economic status. So we can get up to the poverty level for every citizen. I know that some of the front-runners, like Biden and Warren and Sanders, they’re in, like, the double digits [in polls] already, right? So it’s not that Yang supporters don’t understand that reality, but for us, we’re going to go as hard as we can for him.”
“Because he’s changing the overall conversation. Because a lot of us are powerless unless we vote, or canvas, or speak during the primaries. Trump has been an opportunity for voters to see how broken our system is. [He] ended up stretching the limits of presidential power that we didn’t know could be done.”
If you view it that way, it’s suddenly not so ridiculous to believe that there are Yang/Trump people out there on the ground. Yang is alarmingly like Trump in that he’s never held public office and wants to bring a businessman’s logic to government: The latter usually leading to policies that benefit businessmen and no one else. But Yang also has workable ideas and doesn’t appear to be a raging dickhead. So he’s got that going for him.
By now I’m ready to hear from the man himself. I’m ready to see if all this excitement is justified.
But first… Weezer.
It’s not ALL of Weezer here today. Front man Rivers Cuomo, who has conquered the formidable job of songwriting with a little math of his own, appears on stage in a suitably Rivers Cuomo–esque knit sweater. He’s joined by bassist Scott Shriner, along with a friend of the band behind the kit instead of regular drummer Patrick Wilson, who may still be held in Miss Piggy’s captivity. Guitarist Brian Bell also stayed home, as did Cuomo’s own electric guitar. For this rally, Cuomo is pulling a reverse Dylan and playing the hits on a small acoustic guitar—so small it almost qualifies as a toy. Bell has fingerless gloves on, but Cuomo, like me, is going au naturel with his hands. This will not deter him from melting your face off with his Melissa & Doug guitar. He lets out a wry falsetto “Yang Gang in the house!” battle cry for the crowd to cheer, and then the band is off and shredding.
Again, no “Hash Pipe.” To my personal disappointment, no “Burndt Jamb” either. Cuomo also avoids, likely unwittingly, some of his early songs that revolved around his horniness for Asian women. But in a tidy eight-song set that runs well under an hour, he and Weezer still manage to fire off pretty much everything else you’d want to hear: “Buddy Holly,” “The Sweater Song,” “Island in the Sun,” the “Africa” cover, etc. Mid-set, Cuomo says, “Only one place left to go from here, and that’s ‘No Scrubs.’” And then they play “No Scrubs.”
While they do, I huddle in a nearby alcove next to the men’s room to make sure I haven’t yet contracted pneumonia. Momentarily sheltered, I sip vital tea and yap with a dude named Christo (not the artist!), who flew here from Charlotte. “Flights were really cheap out here for some reason,” he tells me. “$139 round-trip. I was like, ‘Okay, I have to do it.’ I think I have a good career. I have a good salary. But I am not happy. If I have a freedom dividend, I can pick my own path and I have that stability knowing that I can do it.”
Yes, he swore. Yang wears profanity well. That’s my kind of asshole right there.
Onstage, Rivers Cuomo doesn’t stump for Yang. He doesn’t pause between mildly heavy, rock-in-deliberate-quotation-marks covers of ’80s pop classics to extol the virtues of UBI. He doesn’t need to, because during the last song, “Say It Ain’t So,” Yang himself appears on stage — with a scarf but sans necktie, the latter being a signature element of his casual Friday campaigning style — to raucous cheers of approval. Yang does a little bit of air guitar and then busts out a confident Jesus pose as Weezer closes out their set. Now it’s time for the headliner to bust out his own greatest hits. Yang’s opening number is a solid one:
“You don’t look like the fucking internet to me!”
Yes, he swore. Yang wears profanity well. That’s my kind of asshole right there. He’s extremely comfortable up on the stump. So much of politics is convincing people that you’re not a politician, and Yang is extremely good at that. The New York Post said, “Yang knows how to break through by speaking like a regular person.” And they’re right! He does know how to do that, and it’s nice! It’s also fucking weird that you can stand out among leaders by doing that! One lady at the rink says to me, “He’s just a PERSON!” Another man, John, tells me, “He seems sincere, like he really meant the message that he’s saying to the people.” These are golden banalities for a candidate to possess. Not everyone in this crowded field has them. Few, actually.
Please note that Yang is actually a bit off in his assessment of the crowd. It’s not an analog bunch. After all, it does have Steve. It’s also a relatively young and diverse crowd featuring hundreds of out-of-staters, along with an encouragingly large number of black and Asian American Yang fans. (This is 90% white Iowa, after all.) I went to another campaign rally in Iowa back in 2015. A Trump rally. It was littered with angry pickup-truck owners and old folks who looked like they lived to hear the burp of a Rubbermaid container. It was whiter than the walls of an Apple store.
You could make some TikToks with this crowd. One dude is wearing a jacket with the Tesla logo on it, because why wouldn’t he?
By contrast, Yangapalooza is filled with people who very much LOOK like they’ve enjoyed a Joe Rogan podcast. A number of them self-identify as dreaded “libertarians.” They absolutely vape. They dole out the requisite WOOS and HELL YEAHS when a Yang surrogate onstage advocates legalizing drugs. They are of gang-appropriate age. You could make some TikToks with this crowd. One dude is wearing a jacket with the Tesla logo on it, because why wouldn’t he? This crowd looks quite a bit like the internet, if you ask me. But that’s not gonna stop Yang, the tech candidate, from engaging in some grunt-work retail politics.
“I’m proud to introduce a very special guest,” he tells everyone. “I think some of you have been waiting to meet her for quite some time.”
Can you guess who it is? I think you can.
“Let’s give a warm Yang Gang welcome to my wife, Evelyn Yang. Happy birthday, dear Evelyn!”
This is Evelyn Yang’s first appearance on the campaign stage. Quick, someone keep Rivers Cuomo away from her! Yes, internet: Andrew Yang is, indeed, a Wife Guy. “Evelyn is the secret weapon,” he says. “I definitely married up.”
There is much rejoicing. Evelyn declares her love for the Yang Gang and then hands the mic back to her husband so he can get down to business, tossing out plant-based meat for his people. Evelyn is the secret weapon, yes, but she’s also a MOM. He’s not a career politician like all those other bureaucrats. He’s gonna win the election, but he needs your help. He’s gonna go to D.C. and unclog the pipes that are stuffed with money. (Remember: We’re talking pipes here, not swampland… whole other metaphor.)
One fan tells me that, at another rally he attended, Yang personally helped him search for his lost phone.
This is not a new speech from Yang. One fan tells me he’s heard variations of the speech a thousand times, but it never gets old to him. When your fans don’t get tired of the stump speech, that’s no small accomplishment. As Trump proved during his shockingly indefatigable campaign back in 2016, the purpose of a rally speech isn’t to convince you of a candidate’s worthiness. It’s to fire up your supporters so they then go out and do the convincing for you. And not just by cold-calling and knocking on unsuspecting doors, where the attempts at conversion are transparent, but in casual conversation with friends, family, and any other friendly Iowa stranger ready to make small talk. That’s the secret sauce of any movement: people campaigning even when they’re not really campaigning, willing to live their devotion to something/someone and not just sell it.
As Elaine said, a lot of us are powerless unless we vote, but often voting isn’t enough. Voting, more often than not, is merely the final, formal step in a much more intensive and years-long battle of attrition. Yang is keenly aware of this and lays it all out in detail for the crowd. He makes the situation sound inspiring. In reality, it’s a horrifying summation of how the fate of American democracy got randomly portioned out to a handful of random Denny’s customers in the Midwest. But that’s the cost of doing business when you run for president right now. You have to accept these awful constraints and then get your fans to do likewise. You have to find a way to make the unpalatable sound palatable.
“Iowa is a magical place,” he tells the crowd. “Iowa is one of the only places in the country where democracy still works the way it was intended. It’s true.”
(It is not true.)
“Every Iowan has superpowers. It’s wild. It’s not even that many Iowans. I’m a math guy. I love talking in this way. Don’t worry about it. There’s not a test on this shit.”
(Indeed, we would not end up being tested.)
“The new record for Iowan turnout in 2020 would be about 250,000, so you’re talking about 7% to 8% of the population is going to vote. If we get 40, 45, 50,000 Iowans, we can rewrite the rules of the 21st-century economy to work for us for a change! We can make history just like that. That’s why each Iowan, like these two guys right here, are worth their weight in gold.”
(I live in Maryland. My vote deserves to be worth its weight in something, god dammit.)
“They have friends, they have family, they have neighbors, they have people that’ll be like, ‘Hey, who are you going to support?’ And it’ll be like, ‘Yo, I just went to this sick Yang Gang rally with Weezer.’ That’s how the message spreads. These two go to 12, to 50, to 250… to our 50,000-plus. And that’s how we shock the world come February.”
This is all a technical gamble, a crude game of electoral blackjack. Yang knows the math. It’s right there on the hat. He knows the probabilities at work here. Getting donations from the likes of Nicolas Cage (yes, really) and Jack Dorsey may help make the odds more favorable, but they’re extremely long odds nonetheless. But in describing to the crowd how he’ll catch on, Yang is explaining how he (they) will get the best odds while MAKING that gamble, and here in this moment, in Iowa, it FEELS legit, and that’s its own major accomplishment for a campaign banking on an upswing. THIS is how you build a campaign. It’s not you sitting with old rednecks at a fucking diner for CNN to film. (At one point during Yangapalooza, the crowd breaks into a CNN chant that is jarring because it’s FRIENDLY toward CNN.)
The crowd is absolutely on board with the plan. They are more than Yang’s fans. They are him now. In order to become president, you not only have to win over an unfairly powerful bloc of fickle Iowans, but you have to imbue your base with the same resolute belief that YOU also have. Andrew Yang has both the policy hooks (at one point he tells the crowd that you should be allowed to serve in Congress only for a maximum of 12 years, an idea that gets me EXTREMELY interested) and the force of personality to make his belief contagious. It also doesn’t hurt that he wants to legalize online poker: the kind of niche bro issue that can get a Joe Rogan listener sprinting to register.
A pair of Yang Gangbangers I meet after the speech, Nico and Fue, drove up here from St. Louis and are both ready to spread Yang’s digital gospel. Emphatically so.
“I liked the fact that I got to see him live. I haven’t done that before. I almost cried, man.”
“Yeah, me too. I never thought that I would actually see him in the flesh.”
“Just seeing him in the flesh was wild.”
“I was like, oh my god!”
If Yang doesn’t win the nomination, I’ll go ahead and predict that his casual demeanor — which really does make him distinctive from the rest of the field — will become a normal trait among future politicians who need to be as at ease in a podcast studio as they are on the stump. He may even get UBI to catch on with the front-runners. That could prove tricky given that, as it stands right now, Joe Biden predictably hates it and Bernie Sanders favors his universal job guarantee instead. They both may be off base, because UBI is an idea that has solid economics behind it. After all, my man Graham is dead right when he says that the richest country in the world should probably have more to offer its own citizens than just nothing.
And UBI is one of those seemingly radical progressive notions (OMG HOW WILL WE PAY FOR IT?!) that’s pitchable to red staters because it’s tangible money. Hard to square the idea that giving you money straight up will somehow cost you money. One Yang fan, a Nebraska student named Brent, echoes Christo from Charlotte when he says, “The freedom dividend would give [people] economic free agency to be able to go find opportunity where it exists and build a better future for themselves and their families.” A group of vets for Yang at the rally tell me that UBI will give every American the same leg up that THEY received when they got combat pay and extra benefits after being discharged. One of them, Dawn, says that the second she heard Yang say, “Everybody can do something,” on a Freakonomics podcast, she was in. She felt like she mattered. UBI is a clear-cut way of putting your money where your mouth is and proving that every American matters.
But to me, UBI, counterintuitively, is a strangely indirect solution to widespread issues facing poor and jobless Americans. It’s the reason Elizabeth Warren rejects it in favor of increased Social Security payments. Yang’s idea reminds me, in some ways, of the bonus tax rebate check that George W. Bush cut to all Americans during his second term in office. Everyone got a little free money, and Republicans acted like that solved everything when it did the precise opposite. Yang’s free $1,000 a month is nice, but it’s not THAT much money. It’s not necessarily life changing. It’s a Band-Aid. A nice one, but a Band-Aid nonetheless. It would likely get eaten up by your annual health care tab alone. To Yang’s credit, he also supports “Medicare for All” (including, according to his website, free “holistic” health care, which sounds very Marianne Williamson–ish but really just includes free mental health and preventive care). As a voter, I’d rather he prioritize the latter. But then that wouldn’t give him a unique selling hook in the field now, would it?
It’s time for the Yang Gang to meet their hero. On a small hill overlooking the boulevard, they line up in orderly fashion to get a selfie with Yang. The candidate awaits them while standing on a small wooden platform, with volunteers holding up campaign signs in the background of every photo so that no branding opportunity goes unmissed. After each selfie, fans are then directed to proceed to the sidewalk to line up for the march to the Wells Fargo arena on the other side of the river for even greater festivities that will run through the night. They’re processed like items in an assembly line. A TRUCKERS FOR YANG moving billboard, driven by a person and NOT a robot, rolls by and kicks up cheers with every honk. Volunteers with YANG signs twirl them around on the sidewalk like they’re directing you to a nearby mattress sale. Drones hover above to get a hearty view of the crowd, which numbers under 1,000 but is still probably larger than the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
Yang, à la Warren, makes a point of greeting everyone in the selfie line, no matter how long it takes. One fan tells me that, at another rally he attended, Yang personally helped him search for his lost phone. Up on the hill, Yang has a minimum of security around him as he does his glad-handing. A nearby supporter is filming a deliberately over-the-top rant about how great Yang is, designed to go viral on YouTube (it does not). Once he’s gotten to every voter and charity chicken and casual Weezer fan, Yang ducks into an Escalade and heads to the arena ahead of his flock. He’s just like you and me, right up until he gets to leave.
They’re all ready to let it ride into the next debate and every campaign obstacle after that. They all believe their momentum has the most momentum.
I walk down the slope and catch up with the Yang fans as they get the green light to commence their advance on the arena. They’re ready. They came from coast to coast, putting all of their money — figuratively, if not literally so — on the same calculated gamble that Yang is placing on himself, hoping to narrow the odds as the stakes keep getting higher and the campaign gauntlet grows more punishing. All of these Yang fans are ready for that fight.
But here in Des Moines, they are not alone.
In the distance, I see a million yard signs for Beto O’Rourke sticking up out of the grass opposite the arena. Beto quit the race mere hours ago, so all those cool signs now appear as rows of headstones for a stillborn candidacy. One rival down, but so many more to go. I walk closer to the arena, and thousands more signs, from every other Democratic candidate, are standing outside, like it’s the biggest and most confused neighborhood lawn in the state.
Across the street, I see a rally for Amy Klobuchar wrapping up, roughly the same size as Yang’s. West of the arena, Bernie is holding his own rally, which could easily dwarf the other two combined. Yang is not the only candidate here today. They’re ALL here, and they all brought their own respective teams with them to congregate and debate at the Liberty and Justice Dinner. They’ve each staked their respective claims to parcels of the city to prepare themselves, and their supporters, for that dinner. The Yang rally was loud and proud on its own terms, but now it’s about to be swallowed whole.
We keep walking, and the Klobuchar fans mix with Yang fans, who mix with the Bernie Bros, who mix with the Kamala Harris people, who mix with the Warren people, who mix with surrogates for the Mayor Petes and the Cory Bookers and the Julian Castros, all drawn to their respective movements and all quivering with positive energy after basking in the presence of each other in their early bundlings. They’re all ready to let it ride into the next debate and every campaign obstacle after that. They all believe their momentum has the most momentum.
But as they blend together, it gets harder and harder to tell who’s who. All these voices — voices of distilled hope, voices of unbridled political enthusiasm, voices ready to bring America tidings of future progress — quickly merge into a single, vague murmur, until you can’t hear much of anything at all.