Andrew Yang has been getting a lot of calls lately.
His inquirers — donors, supporters, journalists — usually want to talk to him about robots and free money and something he calls “human-centered capitalism.” But first, they all ask some version of the same thing: “So, who is Andrew Yang?”
And it’s a fair question. Because most people don’t know the answer.
But this week, Yang, an entrepreneur and veteran of the tech industry, became the latest — and, perhaps, least likely — Democratic presidential candidate to meet the requirements necessary to appear in the party’s first debate in June.
It’s quite the coup for an insurgent, little-known 44-year-old running in his first-ever campaign, and it may reveal as much about our current political juncture as it does about Yang himself. The 2016 election blindsided the establishment and blew up its ideas about who can run for office — and it also may have paved the way for another neophyte to wind up on a crowded debate stage, next to a half dozen senators and a former vice president.
Yang announced Monday that he surpassed 65,000 donors, the Democratic National Committee’s threshold for participants in the first two debates. A party official said the DNC won’t announce the slate of debaters until at least two weeks before the event.
The milestone capped an improbable month-long run. In that time, donations to his campaign flowed in from around the country, his rallies got more crowded and his Twitter following more than tripled, from 40,000 to more than 130,000 in 30 days, propelled by a rabid online fan base known as the Yang Gang.
He says it all started on the “Joe Rogan Experience.”
Yang appeared on Rogan’s podcast, which has more than 4 million subscribers on YouTube alone, in February to talk about his trademark policy proposal, “The Freedom Dividend,” his poll-tested name for universal basic income. After that, he said, his campaign took off.
“It seems like a lot of people started paying attention all at once,” Yang said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Yang is having a bit of moment, at least relative to expectations. Last year, the New York Times put his odds at “longer-than-long-shot.” That’s probably still a fair assessment, but Yang’s name is beginning to show up in Google searches and prediction markets, volatile and early metrics that nonetheless demonstrate an uptick in interest.
A Monmouth University poll in February put his support among Democratic voters at 1 percent, still a long way from the front of the pack but the same as Eric Holder and Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Yang exulted in a tweet.
He thinks, as all politicians must, that the more people hear from him, the more they’ll support him. On Rogan’s show, Yang, who founded Venture for America, held court for nearly two hours, discussing the threat automation poses to working Americans. He explained that, as president, he would institute a value-added tax on tech companies to pay all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 $1,000 per month, a dramatic expansion of the social safety net that would guarantee tens of millions of Americans a $12,000 annual income.
Yang, who lives in New York City and was born upstate, probably could’ve kept talking for several more hours. The policies page on his website details a head-spinning number of proposals, from starting a $1 billion fund that would support local journalism to equipping every police officer in America with a body camera and forcing colleges to pay NCAA athletes. Yang also told The Post that he plans to come out in support of ranked-choice voting, something, he said, that would have probably derailed President Trump’s candidacy.
One of his campaign tag lines, “Humanity First,” sounds a bit dystopian, and maybe too dramatic. But, he maintained, it’s appropriately grave.
"The fact you even have to state that shows you how distorted our values have become,” Yang said.
His ideas are wide-ranging. In the interview, Yang declined an invitation to place himself on the political spectrum, saying instead that he sees himself as “a problem solver.”
“I will take solutions from anywhere,” he said. “It’s not left or right, it’s forward.”
Yet, much of his platform would be at home on the wish lists of die-hard liberals — a fact that makes his sudden support among the alt-right even stranger. An article on The Verge documented Yang’s meme-fueled rise to ironic hero status among the 4chan set of the fringe right wing and the all-out white supremacists, as both groups have projected their views onto an obscure candidate.
“White nationalist supporters have been able to pick and choose statements from Yang to support the idea that he’s uniquely concerned with halting the decline of the white race,” wrote Russell Brandom in that piece.
Some of their data points: Richard Spencer said “everyone should take this man and his ideas seriously.” Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has devoted multiple posts to him. WikiLeaks promoted his campaign, and dubbed him winner of the “2020 meme war.” He tweeted about the opioid epidemic and the rising death rate for white Americans, writing “We need to do much more.” And he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where Carlson, incredulous, told Yang, “I sit with my jaw open. I agree with you so strongly” about the danger of increased automation.
His campaign has even seemed to court the seedier corners of the Internet, a move designed to appeal to a number of mostly male, mostly white voters who may have once supported Trump. In an interview with Vox, Yang said, minus the white nationalism and the bigotry, “I find the whole thing hysterical ... Imagine seeing your face on dragons and whatnot.”
However, Yang is also risking associating himself with the radical and seamy parts of those communities.
And he may have already gotten too close. BuzzFeed News reported that dueling users on 4chan and Discord doxed Yang’s deputy chief of staff, posting her personal information online and forcing the campaign to step up its security.
Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, vigorously denounced that slice of his supporters.
“If anyone spends five seconds looking at me, the campaign, my beliefs, what we stand for, they’d find themselves mystified by the fact I’m getting support from people who have beliefs that are in absolute opposition to mine,” Yang said.
In a statement to The Verge, Yang said, “For anyone with this agenda, we do not want your support. We do not want your votes. You are not welcome in this campaign.”
But part of Yang’s relative success can be attributed to his unconventional media strategy. He has done interviews with conservative and libertarian commentators like Carlson and Rogan, but he has also appeared on “The Breakfast Club,” a hip-hop talk show and burgeoning Democratic kingmaker, and the popular YouTube show “Fung Bros.,” which has nearly 2 million subscribers. He talked to Sam Harris and Ezra Klein on their respective podcasts.
Yang is a businessman outsider pushing an economic message that appeals to middle America, towns left in the rusty wake of disappeared factory jobs. But no, he said, he’s not the Democratic Donald Trump.
But he did say Trump’s election illustrated something fundamental about voters, a hunger for a more responsive government, that Yang is also trying to tap into.
“My plan is to contribute to solving these problems that threaten to tear our country apart,” he said. “I’m the opposite of Donald Trump in many ways.”
On the “Fung Bros.,” while sipping an almond milk tea with boba, he put a finer point on that: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian guy who likes numbers.”