“You don’t look like the fucking internet to me!” Andrew Yang yelled out to the crowd that had gathered in the iceless skating rink on the banks of the Des Moines River.
Standing in front of him on a frigid Friday afternoon in November was an ideologically diverse and somewhat contradictory block of voters, members of the self-described “Yang Gang,” the catch-all title used to describe the small but dedicated group of people who have rallied around the 2020 presidential candidate and his plan to give every American adult $1,000 a month. Many had traveled from around the country to attend the day’s event, which featured a performance by Rivers Cuomo. It was framed as Yang’s coming-out party as a serious presidential candidate, despite being dubbed “Yangapalooza.”
Yang’s observation was supposed to serve as something of a rebuke to his critics, who have doubted the veracity and staying power of a campaign whose relationships with its supporters was forged mainly on the internet. The idea, it would seem, is that people are not people until they get off their laptops and go stand outside and listen to Cuomo make his way through covers of ‘80s hits and “Say It Ain’t So.”
But for Yang to downplay the power of his internet campaign would be to ignore what has made it so unique. Even though any rational political observer will tell you Yang has a minuscule chance of winning it all next November, the former non-profit entrepreneur has blasted past any reasonable expectations of him. Yang has raised over $15 million since his campaign began—approximately two-thirds of which have come from small donations--and will find himself on stage once more at this month’s Democratic debate.
Three months before the Iowa caucuses, Yang remains. The same can’t be said of one-time presidential maybe-“frontrunner” Beto O’Rourke, who, on the day of Yangapalooza, abruptly ended his campaign because he was running low on cash. That same day, the New York Times also published a poll of Iowa voters that found Yang polling at the same percentage as Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker. He even polled ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden with voters under 45 years of age.
What’s made Yang’s campaign so notable is how it’s been built almost entirely through digital media, where Yang has developed a rabid fanbase through 10-hour-long Reddit AMAs and podcast appearances that include The Ben Shapiro Show, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Rubin Report, and Making Sense with Sam Harris. Among the “Yang Gangers” is Asif, an immigrant and psychiatrist who had driven to Yangapalooza from St. Louis. Asif discovered Yang by accident after watching Joe Rogan interview Elon Musk on YouTube. The next video selected by the algorithm was Yang, and Asif was hooked by what he described as Yang’s appeal through logic.
He’s not alone, either. The Yang Gang uniform involves a navy blue cap emblazoned with the word MATH, a double entendre that promotes the campaign’s data-driven approach while also working as an acronym (“Make America Think Harder”). Yang supporters claim that their support for his policies is based primarily in his analytic logos, particularly the tentpole policy of instituting a universal basic income payment of $1,000 a month that would be guaranteed to all U.S. citizens. If ever instituted, the policy that would cost $2.8 trillion a year and be paid for through revenue streams including a value-added tax, financial transactions tax, and carbon fee, the campaign says.
Yang’s willingness to talk a kind of outsider media that other Democratic candidates avoid has won him supporters from seemingly unlikely places. That Friday, Alex Waite, a retail salesman with a libertarian background who voted for Ted Cruz in the 2020 election, told the crowd he had become a devoted Yang supporter after hearing him on The Ben Shapiro Show. Yang convinced Waite that universal basic income, or “Freedom Dividend” as Yang has branded it, would be a critical step in combating automation.
“I read a stat the other day that 50 percent of bachelor-educated graduates are moving in with their parents,” Waite told the crowd. “This is the thing that we’re facing here as Americans and I’m feeling this every single day. That’s why I became a Yang Gang-er early on.”
It’s easy to try and dismiss his supporters as internet loners and zealous libertarians, but the true ideological makeup of the Yang Gang is somewhat harder to pin down. Before Yang took the stage, Kyle Christensen, an Iowan with long black hair cut short on either side and dressed entirely in black, performed several songs with a heavily-distorted guitar while backed by dubstep-inflected industrial music. In June, Yang announced that Christensen would be a recipient of a $1,000-per-month payment, a self-funded trial demonstration of the universal basic income concept that Yang has built a presidential campaign around. He plans to have 10 individuals in this pilot program by the end of November.
Prior to the gift, Christensen had stopped working as a music producer to care for his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, selling off his large collection of musical equipment to help fund her care. With the proto-UBI payment, he helped pay for living and care expenses for him and his mother. He was also able to return to his love of music when he purchased the piercingly white guitar he played at Yangapalooza, which was modeled after Prince’s own instrument.
“Alright Yang Gang,” he said before the performance. “Let’s create a country where our kids can go to school safe, where everyone can go to a doctor without feeling like they’re going to go bankrupt, and where we can all get a little universal basic income, maybe help cushion our bills, start a little business, pursue, or, in my case, rebuild a dream.”
Christensen, who also mentioned the importance of abortion access elsewhere in his speech, and Waite come from different ends of the traditional ideological spectrum. That they ended up supporting the same candidate is representative of a larger phenomena among the broader Yang Gang. One of Yang’s slogans is “Not left, not right, but forward.” Unlike other candidates, his campaign is built upon aggressively bipartisan messaging, attracting a broad and, at times, dissonant group of supporters.
Yangapalooza featured a diverse crowd of supporters for Iowa, a state of just over 3 million people with a 90 percent white population. Many of the people in attendance were Asian, as is Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in Schenectady, New York.
But Yang supporters of all races also told VICE that part of the reason they were attracted to Yang was specifically because he eschewed “identity politics.” To many of them, part of the professed appeal of his candidacy is that his policies are grounded in data and other supposedly completely empirical forces. The clear downside of that tact is a lack of serious consideration for the tangible effects of systemic racism at a time when the broader Democratic Party has started to grapple with racial issues in a more serious way.
Yang himself has faced criticism for some of his opinions on issues of race during the campaign. In September, he forgave Shane Gillis, who was fired from Saturday Night Live for referring to Yang with a racist slur, among other things. In the same thread where he reached out to McGillis, he tweeted: “It’s also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.”
That sentiment was on display again Friday, although not by Yang. Los Angeles comedian Nick Nguyen joked on stage at Yangapalooza that rappers are able to use an anti-Asian slur with apparent impunity, which Nguyen saw as an example of how casual and accepted anti-Asian racism is in America. When a reporter asked Yang after the rally if he agreed with the comedian, Yang walked away from him. "If you had a good question, I would have gone for it,” he said.
Yang’s approach to racial issues has prompted criticism from Asian-American journalists and thoughtful examinations from writers like Jay Caspian Kang, who, in an essay for the New York Times, characterized Yang’s approach to race as one that “acknowledges racial difference but asks us—self-deprecatingly, a little humiliatingly—to get over it.”
Yang supporters, for their part, seem eager to.
“He's the only one who looks at problems logically rather than talk about partisan issues that get everybody riled up," Zach Darpinian, a white Yangapalooza attendee from Manhattan, Kansas, who held a sign featuring an anime cartoon woman alongside the Yang campaign logo said. "Identity politics, talking about abortion, talking about gun control — we need to talk about things that actually improve people's lives."
Plenty of women were among the crowd with Darpinian at Yangapalooza. Like him, they were there to support Yang because they felt that his rhetoric around UBI effectively addresses needs beyond gender and race. Yang supports access to abortion, but you wouldn’t know it from his stump speeches or podcast appearances. Few women actually appeared onstage at Yangapalooza. Those that did included Yang's wife, Evelyn, the campaign staffer running the event, a member of the group Veterans for Yang, and New York singer Vickie Natale, who sang a Yang-inspired song.
Yang slogans like “Humanity First” appropriately hint at the kind of all-encompassing and non-differentiating tone Yang tries to strike, not quite inclusive but totalizing. Mark Samuelson, a 36-year-old barback from St. Paul, Minnesota, arrived at Yangapalooza with a sign that read, “We create poverty by not recognizing life’s value as intrinsic.” To him, a “Freedom Dividend” would acknowledge the dignity that should be afforded to all.
“A few years ago, I lost a job due to chronic pain from an old injury and I was nearly homeless,” he told me. “I didn't know what I could do for my future. Something like UBI would've meant the world to me in terms of my mental health."
Yang’s podcast-ready pitch on the promise of UBI and the impending doom of automation has earned him a small contingent of the Extremely Online population. He won’t win next year, but the legacy of his loss might be that he shoved those issues into the broader conversation happening within the Democratic Party.
Later that evening, Yang spoke third at the Iowa Democrat’s Liberty and Justice Celebration, where, in 2007, Obama made a leap in the polls that many of the 2020 candidates hoped to recreate. His rivals talked about the need to address gun control, global warming, and systemic racism. Not Yang, who instead gave his signature UBI pitch and labeled automation the true issue that led to Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
At an after party held at a downtown Des Moines cafe, Yang told his ecstatic supporters that a journalist had told him off the record that his speech was the best of the night before leaving his supporters to dance and drink. Soon, someone had turned up the music and led the crowd in an altered Wu-Tang Gang sing-a-long.
“Yang Gang ain’t nothin’ to fuck with,” they yelled in unison.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story suggested Yang supports a wealth tax to fund the “Freedom Dividend” and failed to mention on-stage appearances by Evelyn Yang and Vickie Natale.
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