The first time I wrote about 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, I said he “has about as much chance of becoming the Democrat nominee as this author does of becoming the UFC Heavyweight Champion.” And while Yang’s chances of facing President Donald Trump in the general election are still slim, the betting lines have the tech millionaire and political newcomer ahead of Kirsten Gillibrand and just behind Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. That’s made this author, at least, look excessively dismissive.
What happened? First, Yang appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience. Other candidates might covet appearances on The View or profiles in Vanity Fair but the kickboxer cum stand-up comedian cum actor cum UFC commentator cum cheerful DMT evangelist’s podcast rivals the reach of talk shows and dwarfs that of magazines. After Yang’s appearance, interest in his campaign picked up.
Yang had already gained admirers in the so-called Intellectual Dark Web for his focus on technological solutions for economic ills. He’d been interviewed by, and had written for, the online magazine Quillette before his Joe Rogan Experience appearance. It was the podcast, however, that brought him to the attention of “Frog Twitter.”
To steal a line from Christopher Hitchens, I risk immersing myself in a bog of embarrassment by trying to define Frog Twitter. Its inhabitants tend to be young, male, white, and nationalistic, but also less fixated on race than the alt-right and more cynical, literary, esoteric, and mischievous. They love to walk the line between satire and seriousness, to get a reaction as with other trolls, but also to deconstruct what they see as artificial forms of social meaning.
Somehow, the frogs discovered a tweet in which Yang discussed “low birth rates and white men dying from substance abuse and suicide.” It pleased them that a politician was discussing the troubles of white communities, and it tickled them that it was an Asian-American Democrat. “How come this guy is talking about our issues and Trump isn’t?” they asked among themselves.
Many of those who energetically created pro-Trump memes in 2016 have since turned on their man. He has not built the wall, he is too attached to Israel, and it was more fun to support a rebel candidate than it has been to defend a sitting president. Depressed by the thought that even their supposedly radical outsider has become, in most substantive terms, a generic Republican, they have become more explicitly anti-political.
Yang’s campaign was built on his concern that increasing automation will eliminate jobs and drive Americans out of their economic and social spheres of life. He fears that if unemployment and underemployment spread, people will
degenerate into self-destructive and antisocial behaviors. You can see that in the surge of suicides among middle-aged Americans around the country that have brought down our country’s life expectancy over the last two years—and the fact that eight Americans are dying of opiates every hour.
One of Yang’s proposals to avert these trends is a “Freedom Dividend”—or what is more commonly referred to as Universal Basic Income—of a guaranteed $1,000 a month to every American. This policy proposal is what has truly excited the phenomenon known as the “Yang Gang.” If America is destined to decline, they’ve concluded in a fit of cynical exuberance, they might as well at least get some money out of it. Some of them are a little more calculated, seeing the potential to take their thousand a month and spend more time on creative and social endeavors with less of a need to work. But most enjoy it as a funny, irreverent meme, raising a middle finger to the political establishment.
Yang’s face soon began to blossom across Twitter: new, warm, innocent, and, yes, generous. In my first article on Yang, I wrote that his campaign would suffer because he is uncharismatic. It is this lack of charisma that has made #yanggang memes so entertaining. The idea of this mild-mannered software nerd dancing with stacks of hundred dollar bills on the “Yang Yacht” is so absurd that it is genuinely funny. As other Democratic hopefuls play up their love of rap or youthful fondness for marijuana in a desperate attempt to get some cool kid credibility, casting Yang as some sort of playboy works, consciously or otherwise, as a satire on modern electoral campaigning.
The idea that online memes got Trump elected was always an exaggeration. He had name recognition with the general public and a base that was hungry for his promises. Yang has neither, and thus his chances, while not nonexistent, remain minimal. Still, few though his admirers might be, their energy and creativity have thrust him onto the national stage. His campaign has earned enough donations, seemingly overnight, for him to join seasoned candidates in the televised debates. “You have to admit,” tweeted liberal pundit Matthew Yglesias, “that ‘Yang Gang’ is fun to say and write.” Yang might not get elected, and his new fans might not end up happy even if he is, but their memes have changed the landscape of yet another election, creating a fresh platform for surreal and cynical humor.
The irony is that as much as the success of #yanggang is predicated on anti-political satire, Yang’s presence among the Democratic hopefuls might bring more political substance to the debates. Yang, who has pulled off a fairly nimble balancing act by embracing his newfound prominence while denouncing the racists among his admirers, has more interesting ideas than a Kamala Harris-esque cog in the D.C. machine or an astroturfed nonentity like Beto O’Rourke. If he can direct Democratic discourse away from facile we’re-not-Trumpism and towards more significant themes like automation and opioid deaths, that will itself be an achievement.
Donald Trump’s staff, meanwhile, should be concerned about the loss of some of their more energetic and imaginative online supporters. No, Frog Twitter did not swing the 2016 presidential election. It is not as though Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have hopped aboard the Yang Yacht. Still, the ability of young, scornful online memesters to sway media narratives, out of proportion with their numbers, had at least some effect in elevating and energizing Trump’s campaign. Now, many of the same people are contrasting the old, slow, rusted Trump Train with the sleek, shiny, welcoming Yang Yacht. Quite apart from anything else, it’s a chance to make newer, fresher jokes. Old memes get stale, and Trump, who is still barking about witch hunts, binge-watching Fox News, and getting little done, should realize that he is in danger of becoming one.
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.