The Surprising Surge of Andrew Yang – POLITICO

The Surprising Surge of Andrew Yang – POLITICO

Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer for Politico.

BEAUFORT, S.C.—Andrew Yang was sitting here in a rented silver Suburban outside a black chamber of commerce surrounded by five members of his rapidly growing campaign staff when he saw a new Fox News poll in which he was tied for fifth in the sprawling Democratic presidential primary.

He stared at the screen of his phone and scrolled.

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“Three percent!” Yang said, in his characteristically dry, droll way. “This team. Is the team. That’s going to go … all. The. Way. To the White House!”

Yang breezily walked into the chamber building and got onto a packed elevator. To the county party chair squeezed into a corner, Yang excitedly passed along the results of the poll, listing in order the only people who were ahead of him—a former vice president (Joe Biden) and three high-profile senators (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris).

“And then me!” he exclaimed, flashing a goofy, exaggerated smile.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but Andrew Yang is … surging? It sounds crazy, and who knows how long it lasts? But for now he is one of 10 candidates who have qualified through sufficiently robust polling and fundraising for this fall’s third and fourth debates. The exhausting cluster of Oval Office aspirants, at least for these purposes, has been whittled to this: the aforementioned top four, two more senators, a mayor, a former member of Congress and … this guy. Yang is a 44-year-old entrepreneur from New York and a father of two young sons who’s never run for any office of any kind before this, and whose campaign is fueled by a deeply dystopian view of the near future (trucker riots, anybody?), a pillar of a platform that can come off as a gimmick (a thousand bucks a month for every American adult!), and a zeitgeisty swirl of podcasts, GIFs, tweets and memes. Last week, as a successful governor from a major state dropped out and the bottom half of the bloated field continued to flounder, Yang passed the 200,000 mark for unique donors—outpacing an array of name-known pols. He’s gotten contributions, on average $24 a pop, from 88 percent of the ZIP codes in the country, and he’s on track, he says, to raise twice as much money this quarter as he did last quarter.

It’s a phenomenon hard to figure—until you get up close and take in some strange political alchemy. At the heart of Yang’s appeal is a paradox. In delivering his alarming, existentially unsettling message of automation and artificial intelligence wreaking havoc on America’s economic, emotional and social well-being, he … cracks jokes. He laughs easily, and those around him, and who come to see him, end up laughing a lot, too. It’s not that Yang’s doing stump-speech stand-up. It’s more a certain nonchalant whimsy that leavens what he says and does. Sometimes his jokes fall flat. He can be awkward, but he also pointedly doesn’t appear to care. It’s weird, and it’s hard to describe, but I suspect that if Yang ever said something cringeworthy, as Jeb Bush did that time in 2016—“Please clap”—the audience probably would respond with mirth, not pity. Critics ding his ambit of proposals as fanciful or zany (getting rid of the penny, empowering MMA fighters, lowering the voting age to 16) and question the viability of his “Freedom Dividend,” considering its sky-high price tag (“exciting but not realistic,” Hillary Clinton decided when she considered the general notion in the 2016 cycle). And his campaign coffers are chock-full of small-number contributors and even $1 donors. Still, at this angry, fractious time, and in this primary that’s already an edgy, anxious slog, Yang and his campaign somehow radiate an ambient joviality. Of his party’s presidential contestants, he’s the cheerful doomsayer.

His most foolproof laugh line—“the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math”—suggests that his candidacy is premised on distinguishing himself from the president the same way as his fellow challengers. But it’s not quite that simple. He’s attracting support from an unorthodox jumble of citizens, from a host of top technologists, but from penitent Trump voters, too. He’s one of only two Democrats (along with Sanders) who ticks 10 percent or higher when Trump voters are asked which of the Democrats they might go for—a factoid Yang uses as evidence that he’ll win “easy” if he’s the nominee come November of next year. Trump, of course, is the president, and Yang (let’s not get carried away) remains a very long long shot to succeed him.

But to spend any time with Yang is to grapple with this unexpected Trump-Yang Venn diagram. While Yang talks in different, far less overtly divisive ways, identifies different scapegoats (robots, not immigrants) and offers different solutions (cash, not walls), he’s zeroed in on the same elemental problem Trump did en route to his shock of a win in ’16: A large portion of the populace is being left behind, and it’s not remotely OK. Similarly, Yang’s campaign packs an anti-Washington, convention-bucking, on-the-fly, filter-free vibe. There are four-letter hats—not MAGA, but MATH (Make America Think Harder). And his Trump train? It’s the Yang Gang. Yang is not the not Trump of the 2020 trail. “Yang is the new Trump,” a traveling Trump-voter-turned-Yang-Gang-YouTuber told me.

There are plenty of differences, too, of course. To wit: In the chamber building, after the elevator disgorged a floor up, a lobby was filled with the bouncy beats of line dancing emanating from a different room. One of his staffers joked that Yang should join in. And then … he did. Apparently unafraid of looking silly, or potentially creating an embarrassing, indelible, campaign-altering moment with the presence not just of me but also a state-based reporter from The Associated Press, Yang proceeded to team up with a handful of senior citizens for what most onlookers ultimately agreed was a quite credible, rhythm-keeping rendition of the catchy “Cupid Shuffle.”

“Down, down, do your dance, do your dance,” went the lyrics—and Yang did.

“Get it, Andrew!” the group leader called into her microphone. “Lookin’ good!”

When it was over, Yang jogged around the room to hearty cheers, grinning and giving everybody high fives.

“Thanks for letting me crash your class,” he said to the head of Family Slide Dancers.

“Thank you all!” he said to the members of her class.

By the time we got back to the Suburban, my phone was buzzing nonstop in my pocket. A tweet of the video I shot was starting to zoom around the internet.

***

“We are basically fucked,” Yang said, sitting in the Suburban, earlier in the day, not too long after we met, “unless we un-fuck ourselves, systematically and collectively.”

This blunt declaration didn’t surprise me. That’s because I’d read his most recent book. It’s one heck of a downer.

In The War on Normal People, which came out last year, Yang sketched a stark picture of “broken people” and “jobless zones” and “derelict buildings” and “widespread despair” and “hundreds of thousands of families and communities being pushed into oblivion” and “a society torn apart by ever-rising deprivation and disability” and a “best-case scenario” of “a hyper-stratified society like something out of The Hunger Games.”

“It’s possible that we may already be too defeated and opiated by the market to mount a revolution. We might just settle for making hateful comments online and watching endless YouTube videos with only the occasional flare-up of violence amid many quiet suicides,” he wrote.

“The group I worry about most is poor whites,” he added. “There will be more random mass shootings in the months ahead as middle-aged white men self-destruct and feel that life has no meaning.”

My copy of his book is littered with my disconsolate scribbles.

“Yikes.”

“… bleak …”

“… hellscape.”

Know what else, though, I penned into the margins?

“Ha!”

“When I was 13,” Yang wrote, for instance, “I had to have four teeth pulled in preparation for wearing braces. I was actually kind of excited about it because I saw my dad’s teeth and was like, ‘whatever it takes, let’s not have those.’” He said the answer for out-of-place workers was not a career as a home health care aide because “former truck drivers will not be excited to bathe grandma.”

And as we traveled around, a busy, six-stop day in this sweaty, marshy terrain—from Bluffton to Okatie to Beaufort, from town halls to meet-and-greets with local Democratic clubs to a quiet, private stop at a shelter for abused women and children—the laughter never stopped for long.

Nibbling on a belVita vanilla oat biscuit, he praised the company for marketing the product as a healthy option. “It’s, like, you’re clearly good for me,” he said, “and then it’s a fucking cookie for breakfast!”

He referred repeatedly to his $24 average donation. “My fans are cheaper than Bernie’s!”

Entering a Mexican restaurant for a town hall, he said, “The best thing about running for president is I walk into a room and people clap!” The crowd roared.

He wasn’t always this way. His parents came to America from Taiwan. His mother was a computer services administrator before becoming a pastel artist. His father grew up poor on a peanut farm and got a Ph.D. in physics at the University of California at Berkeley and worked for General Electric and IBM in New York. Yang described him as a “workaholic” and “a brusque lab geek.” Growing up in the suburbs of Westchester County, Yang as a kid was “angsty,” “brooding” and “sad,” he said. He read science fiction and fantasy and Herman Hesse and listened to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Sarah McLachlan and played piano and decent tennis and lots of Dungeons and Dragons. He was, for a time, a tad goth. He suffered racist slurs. At prep school at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, and then at college at Brown, where he majored in economics and political science, he began to come out of his shell. He started to lift weights, mostly to try to get dates, and was proud to be able to bench press 225 pounds eight to 10 times in a row.

Now, here in the Suburban, as we crossed the Broad River, I brought up “Rex and Lex.” That’s what Yang named his pecs, “Rex” for the right, “Lex” for the left, when he was lifting all those weights. I knew about this because he wrote about in his other, earlier book, Smart People Should Build Things. He “could jostle them on command,” he had written, “to make them ‘talk.’” Obviously, I wanted to hear more.

Yang obliged. Having shed his blue sport coat, he looked down at his chest, and he … channeled “Rex.”

“He’s, like, almost mute,” he said, “but he’s still like”—and here the candidate for president made his dad-bod-dormant pectoralis undulate under his checked, collared shirt and assumed a diminutive, sing-song cadence—“‘Andrew, I still have a little bit of voice left. You haven’t fed me in a long time. You used to looooove meeeeeee.’”

Zach Graumann, Yang’s 31-year-old campaign manager, looked some combination of mesmerized and mortified. “You’re such a tool,” he said.

Yang was undeterred. He was on a roll. He turned his attention to “Lex.”

“Oh man,” he lamented, “Lex is wimpier than Rex!”

Everybody inside the Suburban laughed and laughed.

***

At the town hall in Hilton Head—a standing-room-only crowd of mainly older folks wearing boat shoes and flip-flops—it was hard to miss the young guys in the pink hats.

They listened intently as Yang introduced himself. “Hello, everyone! I’m Andrew Yang, and I’m running for president! … I’m going to be honest. I’m the last person anyone thought was going to run for president, in terms of my high school, my upbringing. My parents were not like, ‘You’re gonna be president someday.’” This assertion drew laughs. After Brown and law school at Columbia and five unhappy months as a corporate attorney, he started a company (Stargiving.com) that failed, he said. He was the CEO of a company that succeeded. He launched a non-profit that did a little bit of both. Then Yang gave his political pitch, about truckers, and soon-to-be self-driving trucks, and so many other kinds of workers, and automation, and artificial intelligence, and the real reason he thinks Trump won—millions of jobs automated away in the most important Midwest swing states—and the coming “buzz saw” and “the race to the bottom” and “suicides, drug overdoses, anxiety, depression,” and how the average American life expectancy has declined for three straight years for the first time in a century, and how “D.C. is not up to it at all,” and about $1,000 a month for every adult.

“How am I doing so well?” he said. “It’s because Americans recognize the truth when they hear it.”

The guys in the pink hats were impressed.

“He nailed it,” Mike Gallagher, 29, told me after Yang finished.

“Awesome,” said Wayne Boyce, 28.

They had driven the hour or so up from Savannah, Georgia, and both of them said they had voted for Trump but would not be doing it again.

Ditto for their other friend. “He’s an asshole,” Jordan Snipes said of the president. “And he hasn’t done anything he said he was going to do.”

They were members, they all said, of the Yang Gang now.

I asked if there were others like them where they’re from.

“Most of our friends,” Snipes reported.

A few hours later, at the Mexican restaurant, I met the Yang Gang YouTuber. Russell Peterson, 43, from Union County, North Carolina, was with his wife, Elasa, who was wearing a MATH shirt, and their toddler son, Zephaniah—“country folks,” Peterson said, and “former Trump supporters.” He had a lot to say.

“We all saw a problem, and that’s why we elected Donald Trump,” he told me. “Because he was saying he was going to go in and he was going to drain the swamp. He was a larger-than-life figure, you know? We all knew that there was a problem. We just didn’t know what that problem was. But then, when you listen to Andrew Yang, you realize: Oh, yeah, it is automation—it’s not immigrants. It’s automation. We’re all losing our jobs. We’re all being phased out. I’m an ex-landscaper. I just saw yesterday they’ve got a mower that just goes and mows your yard, just like a Roomba, you know, does your house.”

And what’s he do for work now?

“This is what we do,” he said. “We follow Andrew Yang full-time.”

He doesn’t work for the campaign, but …

“This has become my passion. There is nothing more important than getting this man elected,” he said, breaking down his video equipment.

“I’m tired of politicians. I don’t want a politician. I want somebody who’s going to tell me the fuckin’ truth, tell me what’s going on, and then provide something that’s actually going to impact my life! Since I’ve been an adult, there’s not been one politician that has directly impacted my life, but I promise you that freedom dividend and putting $2,000 a month into my household would directly impact my life. I mean, game over.”

He wasn’t finished.

“People are so disillusioned,” he said. “Donald Trump? He was the WWE superstar guy. You know, he was going to take his metal chair into Washington, and he was just going to use it on everybody. We were finally going to be working like we were supposed to be working—and I’ve only seen the country get more and more divided. And then when you have Trump acting like he’s acting, I can’t support that, bro’. And then there’s a lot of people in the center who are like me who are moving over to Andrew Yang because we don’t like what we see. We don’t like what Trump has done to the country. He’s only divided us more and more. So now we actually have some solutions and a guy who’s talking about solutions—so, like, let’s get this guy in, because he makes too much damn sense!”

All day long, everywhere we went, Yang was asked about Trump. How was he going to handle him? How was he going to debate him? How was he going to beat him?

He said he “would make him seem ridiculous.” He said he “would just diminish him by dismissing his arguments and making him seem like the buffoon and joke that he is.” He said Trump was “fire”—and he said he was “ice.” He told people he was on the debate team in high school that went to the world championships in London. He said he would “use humor.”

And at the last stop of the day, here at the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, outside of which I spotted parked a red Ford F250 pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read TRUMP, the throng of a couple hundred that had gathered couldn’t fit inside. They spilled out onto the lawn off to the side. “Let’s do it!” Yang hollered. He had no microphone. “Let’s project!”

And at this last event the last question was about Trump.

“When you become the nominee,” a woman asked, “how will you stand up to that nastiness in the White House?”

“Voters around the country have said to me they cannot wait to see me debate Donald Trump,” Yang said. He was all about “logic and reason and problem-solving” while Trump was “all bluster, and Americans can tell the difference very quickly,” he said, snapping his fingers. “There’s a reason he hasn’t touched me,” Yang continued. “Because he knows I’m the wrong person to touch. His supporters are all coming my way. … I’m peeling off Trump supporters right and left.” And one more thing: “I’m better at the internet than he is!”

More laughter.

“On that note …”

A snaking line of people waited for pictures. The sun set. Through the buggy, muggy haze, a single orange orb of a streetlight glowed past clumps of spectral Spanish moss. Yang autographed MATH hats. Flashes from phones pulsed in the dark.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date of Andrew Yang’s first appearance on a Sunday news program. It was April 7.

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