He’s a fringe presidential hopeful who thinks automation is the country’s greatest threat — and the answer is to give every American human $1,000 a month
Andrew Yang can’t quite believe he’s running for president. On a chilly Wednesday night at Boston Common, he’s speaking to a crowd of more than 500, the kind of audience most outsider candidates would kill for. His staff has primed the crowd to respond, telling us to cheer “math” when he talks numbers and leading us in a three-beat cheer. “An! Drew! Yang! An! Drew! Yang!”
When Yang gets on the bandstand, he seems to find the whole thing sort of funny. “Chant! My! Name!” he yells back. “Chant! My! Name!”
Yang has been campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination all year, but audiences like this have only started to show up in the past couple weeks. The tipping point was an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February. It was a deep, analytic, two-hour interview, which is catnip for Rogan’s Reddit-centric audience. Yang’s pitch was simple: automation is destroying American jobs, and we need a president with some kind of answer. If you believe that, the robot-obsessed startup guy could be your only option.
Yang’s answer looks a lot like socialism, although he doesn’t use the word himself. The centerpiece of Yang’s campaign is a $1,000 monthly check to every person in America, paid for with a Nordic-style Value Added Tax. That’s normally called a basic income, although the Yang campaign calls it a “freedom dividend,” since focus group testing found the idea was more popular in the language of corporate ownership. Left-wing think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute and Data for Progress have been pushing a basic income for years as an alternative to the current labyrinth of federal aid programs, but Yang is the first presidential candidate to build a campaign around it.
The Boston crowd is mostly techies and earnest college kids. I catch a few whiffs of weed but nothing unreasonable given the venue. An iRobot engineer is holding up a “Humanity First” sign. (“People say immigrants are taking the jobs,” he tells me, “but really it’s me.”) Farther back, a man named Joe is selling bootleg Yang2020 hats, copies of the “vaporwave” hats used in Yang memes. According to his Etsy store, he’s made 10 sales online, with at least two more made in person at the rally.
In the eastern corner, a group of four visibly libertarian stragglers is gathered by a green, vaguely fascist Kekistan flag, one of 4chan’s many in-jokes. One holds up a Shepard Fairey-style portrait of Thomas Jefferson bearing the caption “I want YOU to end the Fed.” I present as a reasonable, sympathetic listener, and they seem genuinely surprised when I say the flag makes me nervous. When I first saw it, I thought they might be some obscure group of Irish Nazis.
“One guy got furious about that!” the larger libertarian says, not believing I could make the same mistake. “He got in my face and said, ‘This guy’s a fascist!’” He does a pantomimed finger-point, showing me how intense and unreasonable the man had been. “Come on,” he continues. “It’s a piece of cloth with some stripes.”
In the background, Yang is laying out the imminent threats to retail work, already half-crushed by the juggernaut of Amazon. “Unfortunately, the most common job in the United States is working in retail,” Yang says. He’s kicking into numbers mode, but there’s no pause and it’s hard to tell if we should be chanting “math” or not. The average retail worker makes less than $11 an hour, he tells us, and there are millions. “So when 30 percent of malls and stores close in the next four years, what is her next move going to be?”
This isn’t an applause line, and the crowd isn’t sure what to say. One man near me yells out weakly, “Die?”
Normally, a politician would be rousing here, angry, but Yang barely raises his voice. Like a good businessman, he acts like his feelings are beside the point. He’s coming back to the core pitch now, picking up momentum. “The first time you heard about me and the $1,000 a month you probably thought, ‘That sounds fantastic but it’s too far out,’” he tells the crowd, coming into the home stretch. “But then they think, ‘Wait a minute, he’s talking a lot of sense. Cars and trucks are going to drive themselves. AI is going to do a lot of the work. My mall did just close. Donald Trump is our president. I do have a supercomputer in my pocket. He is Asian.’”
There’s some laughter there, but he’s too wound up to slow down for it.
“And all this stuff starts clicking in their minds and they’re like, ‘Holy crap… He’s right… We should totally give ourselves $1,000 a month.’”
One on one, Yang’s self-deprecation makes more sense. He comes off like a fun boss, ready to make a few jokes to keep people listening, but quickly jumping back to the language of a pitch deck. When I ask him about his unusual rally style, he acknowledges it, but he has a hard time thinking of it as anything but the natural thing to do. “I have a very particular approach to things,” he says. “There are problems, and there are solutions.”
The business-minded approach makes sense: until recently, Yang was firmly on the executive track, moving from Phillips Exeter to Brown to Columbia Law, starting one company and serving as senior management in a string of others. In his 2018 book, The War on Normal People, he attributes his success to his ability to be “very good at standardized tests” — a weird brag, but a skill that ultimately put him in charge of the test preparation startup Manhattan GMAT. In 2009, the company was acquired by Kaplan, a huge windfall for anyone holding stock. He was 34.
Yang stayed on as CEO after the acquisition, but the flush of money set the stage for his next move. He had been troubled by all the young graduates going into banking or corporate law as a default, then growing disillusioned with their new careers while smaller cities withered for lack of ambitious young people. He imagined “an army of smart, enterprising graduates building businesses in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other cities that could use a boost.” In 2011, he donated $120,000 of his own money to start Venture For America (VFA), an accelerator meant to build new startups and new jobs in emerging cities outside of coastal startup hubs.
Arriving at a moment of tech-fueled optimism, VFA was a hit, earning Yang the title of “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship” from the Obama White House and a spot on the thought-leader circuit. Conferences and ideas festivals were eager to present VFA as a new hope for devastated regional economies, a way to solve social problems with the familiar tools of entrepreneurship and venture capital. That circuit came with immense opportunities, a chance to raise funds by peddling hope to the rich and powerful. At the same time, Yang was shaken by the social disintegration he saw in the cities VFA was trying to help. Detroit was still dying, and more cities were joining it each year, collapsing into drug addiction, poverty, and despair. The world of TED Talks and cocktail parties didn’t seem capable of doing anything about it — himself included. In his book, he says he was gripped by two nagging questions: “What the heck is happening to the United States?” and “Why am I becoming such a tool?”
When I ask Yang about that period, his frustration starts to show through. “Imagine being this celebrated entrepreneur,” he says, “and then feeling like your work is like a wall of sand in front of a tidal wave. And people keep asking, ‘How did you build the wall of sand?’”
“One of the things I pride myself on is a degree of intellectual honesty,” he continues. “So then if you say, ‘I honestly do not believe that I am solving the problem doing the work that I am doing,’ then you have to go to the drawing board and say, ‘How would I solve that set of problems?’”
The set of problems has hardened into a set of bleak statistics about America, which Yang summons up at a moment’s notice. The story starts with economics: The top 1 percent of earners have accrued more than half of US income growth over the past decade. Only 63 percent of Americans are actively engaged in full-time work, a number that’s stayed flat since 2014 while the nominal unemployment rate has plummeted. 62 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t be able to cover an emergency medical bill of $1,000 or more. One of Yang’s favorite statistics is that persistent financial insecurity lowers a person’s IQ by 13 points, making us more impulsive, less creative, and angrier.
That financial desperation is already destroying lives. For the first time in over a century, US life expectancy has declined for three years running, driven by a rise in opioid overdoses and suicides. A 2017 paper explored an unusual spike in the death rates of white men between 50 and 55, who had become 5 percent more likely to die from alcohol, drug use, or suicide since 2000. (Morbidity researchers classify these as “deaths of despair.”) Taken together, the numbers show us losing everything that makes us human: our intelligence, our sense of purpose, and, finally, our will to live.
Behind all of it, Yang sees automation, driven by the unstoppable will of the market. The story starts with the decline of American manufacturing, something politicians are used to talking about. But Yang thinks that decline is driven less by globalization and more by automated assembly lines, which have allowed the sector to maintain roughly the same output levels as 2007 while dropping nearly a million jobs. In a few years, self-driving freight trucks will follow, unlocking tens of billions of dollars for investors and displacing millions of truck drivers, to be followed shortly by cab drivers, clerks, service workers, and radiologists. There will be no profit motive to reintegrate them, no training program that can make their skills valuable again. Yang predicts an epidemic of depreciating human capital hitting profession after profession until society disintegrates, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of human despair.
It’s grim, with obvious echoes of Marx (who was writing about automation too). But where Marx saw a struggle between discrete classes, Yang sees a tidal wave hitting group after group in sequence. In his reading, no one is safe and we’re all in it together. “Relying on the market is going to get more and more destructive as it zeroes out more and more people,” he says, “unless we come together and build a different kind of economy as fast as possible. And the first concrete step in that direction is to give everyone $1,000 a month in cash.”
That unremitting bleakness has led some of the more rabid online fans to name Yang as the “chaos candidate,” a title previously held by Donald Trump. It’s an “accelerationist” idea, working from the premise that the present society cannot be saved. For accelerationists, the most humane course of action is to bring about collapse as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid, to prepare for the next societal order.
I explain the idea to Yang, who seems to be hearing it for the first time.
“That’s highly interesting,” he says. “Is there a view of what that end state looks like?”
I tell him it’s hazy at best.
“Because to me, the end state looks unthinkably terrible,” he says, loading up the mental cache of numbers again. “Even now, we have an epidemic not just of drug overdoses, but of anxiety, depression, and mental health problems. If you load pervasive financial insecurity and scarcity on top, you will have a population that starts dying younger, is less rational, does not know what to do.”
He is looking off to the side in concentration now, his voice still low but more forceful. “People think Donald Trump is a problem. No, Donald Trump is a symptom of this ongoing transformation,” he says. “The path from here to figuring it out is fraught with a lot of misery and suffering. And right now, our political feedback mechanism in this country is breaking down... So the accelerationism idea, it might be satisfying, but do we really want to sit around and watch our society come apart?”
A politician’s sincerity is always in doubt, and Yang is more doubtable than most. This is his first campaign, his first venture in electoral politics of any kind. Before 2017, he had no history of anti-capitalist activism. It’s easy to paint him as a vanity candidate who is indulging in fashionable socialism to build his thought-leader credentials, like a smarter, more detail-oriented Howard Schultz. But describing this collapse in person, Yang seems genuinely shaken and moved to do something — anything — to stave off the collapse. If his campaign comes off as doomed or absurd, it’s simply because he didn’t know what else to do.
“That is literally what drove me to run for president,” Yang says. “I thought to myself, realistically, my choices are to watch the society come apart or try and galvanize energy around meaningful solutions.”
When I visit the Yang campaign in March, it’s in the middle of a fundraising tear, with more than $2 million raised including high-profile donations from Jack Dorsey, Noah Centineo, and Nicolas Cage. But the campaign still does most of its work out of a small office in New York’s Garment district, sharing the floor with a math-tutoring business and at least three fashion companies. One corner of the office has become a make-shift supply closet, stacked with coat hangers, tripods, brochures, and “Yang2020” bumper stickers.
It’s the deputy campaign manager’s second week on the job and another staffer’s second day. The new bodies are sorely needed: the campaign is still unwinding from a visit to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, where Yang had spoken alongside Eric Holder, Tom Perez, and Stacey Abrams. He’d arrived with only one campaign worker, which the team realized too late had left no comms staffer to hand out business cards and make connections with potential supporters and donors at the event.
Online, the landscape seems more favorable. Yang’s CNN town hall was announced just a few days earlier, and the meme crew quickly noted it would be on the same day as the return of Game of Thrones. The campaign’s digital director Andrew Frawley saw the chatter and started thinking about how to play off it, something that would get some viral lift. What if they put Yang on the Iron Throne, with a caption, “The Robots Are Coming”? There is an Iron Throne at the HBO Shop in Bryant Park, just a few blocks west. It would be easy enough to get a Jon Snow-style fur coat to drive the point home. Campaign manager Zach Graumann nixes the coat as off brand. Does he really need a photo at all? Photoshop would be faster and more authentic, and lots of online supporters are happy to do some quick cut-and-paste work on behalf of the campaign. The final product arrives a few days later on Yang’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, presenting the town hall and GoT premiere at 8PM and 9PM, like a two-hour doubleheader.
If that seems corny, it’s nothing compared to most of the Yang memes out there. A turn through the #YangGang Twitter tag shows a crying MAGA-hat Wojak finding comfort in a vaporwave Yang hat and a $1,000 bill. Another shows a blunt-smoking Elon Musk, with ghostly overlays of Harambe (a beloved gorilla slain by zookeepers in Cincinnati) and a Bombay Sapphire bottle. “Once we secure the bag,” the caption reads, “I can quit my job and rap about Harambe.”
If you’re under the age of 25, your first awareness of Andrew Yang probably came from an image like this, dropped in a Discord channel or a Reddit thread. For reasons that seem unclear even to the campaign, Yang has become the meme candidate. Most of the memes revolve around the promise of $1,000, simple enough to be the punchline at the bottom of an image macro.
By now, people make Yang memes because they’ve seen Yang memes. Some outsiders wonder if the campaign is secretly behind the meme explosion, but Frawley tells me he has little to do with most of what’s out there. Still, they do what they can to boost the good ones. The campaign merchandise is full of meme-y in-jokes, including Bitmoji bumper stickers of Yang’s face and tote bags reading “Secure the bag,” all boosted through the campaigns official accounts.
Frawley is skeptical of Facebook, seeing it as useful mostly for reaching an older audience, and only when the campaign is willing to pay. Most importantly, it’s not where Yang’s young supporters are spending their time. “Most of our under-35 reach out is Twitter and Facebook,” he says. “It’s really Boomers and Gen-X that have embraced Facebook.”
Sometimes, the enthusiasm goes somewhere uglier. 4chan’s /pol/ board seized on Yang after the Rogan interview too, and some of the subsequent memes were shot through with anti-Semitism, showing Jewish bankers and other gleefully racist /pol/ cartoons. When I first wrote about the racist memes, Yang was quick to push back, telling me frankly, “for anyone with this agenda, we do not want your support.” But the trolls haven’t been so easy to shake. Weeks later, the campaign scrambled to cut ties with a far-right podcaster who had worked his way onto the Michigan volunteer staff. At CNN’s town hall, the moderator told Yang straight out, “White nationalists are supporting you online,” even as he tried to distance himself. The next morning, a tweet tagged as “#YangGang for #SystemCollapse” showed the candidate Photoshopped into a Nazi salute, with anti-Semitic slurs and clown-wigged Pepe frogs pasted below. Soaked with toxic irony, it was hard to tell if the tweet was attacking Yang or supporting him.
This tornado seems to have caught the campaign off-guard, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. An outsider candidate, Yang has embraced outsider media. That approach started with the Rogan appearance, but it carried over to later interviews with Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, both of whom often walk the line between earnest skepticism and neo-reactionary racism. In one campaign video, Yang uses his usual matter-of-fact tone to describe the shrinking of the white population, driven by declining birth rates and the raging opioid crisis. This logic can be a dog whistle to white nationalists, a signal that someone secretly shares their view that the white race is under attack.
When I tell Yang that, he is alarmed. “I never really set out to talk to a specific group,” he says. “This is going to have an impact on all of us.”
Sometimes, when you put an idea into the world — or, more specifically, the internet — you lose control of what it means. Yang has succeeded so far by throwing out as many new ideas as possible: not just basic income, but federal marriage counseling, campaigning by hologram, backing off on medical circumcision, implementing new nuclear launch fail-safes, seemingly anything he decides is a good idea. It’s a conscious break from the narrow, unimaginative grind of professional politics. But campaigning is about people as much as ideas, and the right idea can sometimes come with the wrong people. And then, sometimes those people Photoshop a joint into your mouth and caption it “Yang Weed…Gamers Rise Up.”
The day after the rally, Yang is back in New York, meeting with staff. We’ve arranged a photo shoot in the campaign’s new office space. It’s two floors above the main office and completely bare, rented out to accommodate the rush of incoming staffers.
Yang is tired, but he’s in a good mood. He’s been watching a documentary about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who visited the Obama White House with Yang in 2012 as a Champion of Change. A few interviewers have asked him about Holmes, and he hasn’t been sure what to say. “Some people are odd and impressive,” he says. “She just seemed odd.”
Yang has surged ahead in the polls. The most recent numbers put him at 3 percent, tied with Julián Castro and ahead of party favorites like Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. He’s eighth in a field of twenty, and Nate Silver, icon to political professionals everywhere, has gone on record saying, “We actually can’t discount the possibility that Andrew Yang will just grow and grow and take the whole thing.” The campaign likes the quote so much that they print it out at poster size and tape it to the wall.
The main elevator is out, so when we’re finished, we take the freight elevator to back down. Waiting outside, one of the other tenants, an older man with gray hair and a heavy New York accent, sees the camera equipment and asks what’s up. We say we’re taking photos of Mr. Yang.
“Who’s Mr. Yang?”
“I am,” says Yang.
This only makes the man more confused. A staffer pipes in that Yang is running for president.
“Of the United States?”
We assure him that it’s true. He knows most of the tenants, but, of course, the campaign is new, and something doesn’t seem to be clicking. He knows about the primary race, surely, but this guy in front of him just doesn’t seem like the type. There’s a pause. He seems worried he might be on some kind of hidden-camera show, roped into a gag he doesn’t yet understand.
“Are you pulling my leg?”
“We’re trying to get the word out,” Yang says, as amused as anyone. “Watch CNN on Sunday. You’ll see.”
Another pause. “For president?”