My Day in the Yang Gang

My Day in the Yang Gang

One of the most comprehensive books ever written on the psychology of choosing a political candidate, The American Voter, suggests that the political associations we form as children will influence our votes for the rest of our lives. I was raised in Louisiana in the ’80s and ’90s, and thus noted criminal Edwin Edwards, the four-time governor accused of all manner of bribery and illegal activities, was my main political touchstone throughout my formative years. He was finally sentenced to prison on racketeering charges in the early 2000s, just as I became old enough to vote. Therefore, for the rest of my life, I’ve been saddled with the idea that every politician is a lying huckster who, if elected, will do absolutely nothing outside his or her own self-interest. I do understand it is my responsibility to vote, and I do so with the full expectation that three-quarters of the appealing promises made over the course of my candidates’ campaigns were bullshit that will never see fruition.

It is currently promising season in the Democratic primaries, where the last candidates standing are trying desperately to gain whatever donors, supporters, and attention they can as the race narrows. So it wasn’t really surprising that on Wednesday the morning before the sixth Democratic debate, longshot candidate Andrew Yang announced a cryptic partnership with Donald Glover, the actor, writer, and comedian famous for his brilliant TV series Atlanta as well as whip-smart hit songs like “This Is America.” On Instagram, the pair hinted at a mysterious pop-up event, giving only a Los Angeles address and a time. And because I’ve been cynical since I watched my first presidential election in kindergarten, it was easy for me to walk a mile from my apartment in Hollywood to the expensive, trendy Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles with the preconceived idea that any followers who turned up would know Yang is a joke candidate and support him in some sort of protest over the absurdist theater that has become America’s political system, ever since Donald Trump was allowed to speak.

I arrived at the event more than two hours early, and there were already a handful of supporters standing around outside a shuttered store called Tried and True Vintage located right next door to a humane pet shop named Bark N Bitches. A morning crowd waiting for a launch is not uncommon on Fairfax, where lines for events at the Supreme store have made my Saturday stumble to hangover brunch unpleasant so many times I’ve stopped fucking with Fairfax on the weekend. Yang’s merchandise, populated with his slogan, MATH (Make America Think Harder) fits in perfectly with the hypebeast culture of Fairfax and the coasts in general, where young people who love “This Is America”’s message about our present-day dystopia will also happily wait in line all afternoon for the chance to buy Supreme’s $40 socks.

But the half-dozen or so waiting for Yang had less than 24 hours notice following the Instagram posts, and no one was sure what to expect. However, hardcore members of the Yang Gang had been waiting since dawn. Corey, a bearded twenty-something in a hooded sweatshirt had arrived at 6 a.m., looking forward to the positive energy of the group after a fight with his girlfriend. Ty and Trace, brothers who had been Yang supporters since they saw his YouTube videos and heard him on podcasts had been waiting about two hours, along with Rebecca, who had recently met Andrew Yang at an event in Long Beach in November.

“Thank you for being here,” Rebecca tells me. “Thank you for being media that’s responsible.” I’m assuming she was referring to reports that the Yang Gang is a 4Chan offshoot drawing support from the same alt-right trolls that helped turn Donald Trump from a joke candidate into a president—along with the fact that much of the so-called Yang Gang believes the media is intentionally ignoring their candidate. She sincerely admires Andrew Yang and tells me that she is here because “He gives me a lot of hope for where the country is headed.” She says he’s the first candidate to make her feel seen.

In this line, which stretched around a city block by 11 a.m., Yang is a celebrity.

“He has an autistic child,” she tells me. “And with that he sees the work that caretakers of those children do, and he sees that they’re not compensated.” She and her friend, along with the rest of the group waiting for Yang, believe in the Universal Basic Income platform Yang is running on. For Rebecca, that means people with disabilities or their caretakers will have an “economic floor,” intrinsic value in a country where healthcare and equal opportunities are thin on the ground for so many.

Yang is still polling at 3 percent, and I doubt many people outside the bubble of those following the Democratic primaries have any idea who he is or what his policies are. But in this line, which stretched around a city block by 11 a.m., he is a celebrity. From the front of the line to the back, supporter after supporter tells me that they had heard him on the Joe Rogan podcast, praising the fact that he had also appeared on Tucker Carlson. Only one 19-year-old man I speak to says he came purely for Donald Glover, and even he says that now he is considering becoming a member of the Yang Gang. They believe that he is the only candidate who can appeal to a disenfranchised middle America—a Democrat who can win back Trump supporters.

Street art outside Andrew Yang campaign pop-up event in Los Angeles, CA Photo: (Emily Alford )

“Why not Bernie?” I ask the couple dozen people I interview from the front, back, and middle of the line. As if reading from a script they tell me it’s because Bernie has promised everyone government jobs, and what they want is the freedom intrinsic in the Freedom Dividend, a plan to provide all Americans with an untaxed $1,000 a month. It affords them a future in a world where they see technology as our biggest boon and our biggest threat, simultaneously excited about funding innovation and worried that automation will soon leave many jobless.

An hour or so before the event is supposed to begin, an 18-wheeler emblazoned with the slogan “Truckers for Yang” appears. “You gotta talk to Fred,” my friends at the front of the line tell me. Fred is a trucker from Arizona who has gotten the 18-wheeler as a donation from a trucking company that likes Yang’s message. While not officially part of the campaign, it seems he somehow connected the Super PAC supporting Yang. Ironic, since Yang pledges to get rid of Super PACs. All these details come in a jumbled rush because, as I am attempted to interview Fred, he is also taking selfies with the line, greeting people he has met at other events. Before I can ask him any real questions, or for more details about the truck or the PAC, he is called away to do something else. What I think I understand is that Fred was not a Democrat before hearing Yang’s universal income pitch but is worried about his job becoming automated in the future and what that will mean for his livelihood.

Just like the criminals who shaped my view of politicians forever, these voters were children when the economy collapsed

The word automation comes up over and over as I move through the line. Everyone says that Yang is the only candidate confronting 21st-century problems. The people waiting for Yang—most of them younger than 30—are worried about what will happen as the world becomes increasingly digitized. Yang gives them hope, they tell me. He’s running on a platform of positivity.

But what I’m actually hearing are the echoes of the politics these young voters have grown up with. Just like the criminals who shaped my view of politicians forever, these voters were children when the economy collapsed out from under us; they were raised in a shadow of economic uncertainty. I keep hearing that Yang’s rise from relative obscurity to moderate success is similar to Obama’s 2008 bid, and I realize, halfway through the line, that Bush, Obama, and Trump are pretty much their only basis for comparison.

Though nearly everyone in line says they will vote Democrat no matter who wins the primary, I can’t help but be reminded of Trump’s 2016 campaigns, the small crowds that grew larger and larger, drawn by the fact that Trump was an outsider promising security in the form of a giant, impossible wall that would keep outsiders from flooding America in order to vampirize resources and jobs. In 2016, Trump supporters were sure Trump could handle the unfathomable complications of being president despite having zero experience because he was a “successful” businessman. I hear the same from Yang supporters when I ask about the issues beyond the single issue that’s brought them here. Time and time again, I’m told that Yang has “188″ policies on his website. But when I ask most supporters to elaborate on those policies, they mostly take me back to the idea of freedom dividends.

When I ask about healthcare, a college student who hopes to vote Yang in the first presidential election he’s old enough to participate in tells me, “All the candidates support Medicare for All.” However, that’s not true. In one of those 188 policies listed on his website, Yang states that he supports the “spirit of Medicare for All” but will focus on challenging lobbyists, focusing on wellbeing, and supporting technological innovations. The people I ask tell me that is basically the same thing and besides, the freedom dividend can also be used for medical bills.

When I ask about climate change, I’m again redirected to the website. Foreign policy? Look at the website. Lack of experience? How can I say he’s inexperienced when he has 188 plans on his website. Their faith in Andrew Yang is so far removed from my deep distrust of any politician telling me anything that I begin to wonder if their answers sound so similar because I am a reporter, and the Yang line has plenty to tell me about the media.

I can’t help but be reminded of Trump’s 2016 campaigns, the small crowds that grew larger and larger

When I repeat some stereotypes about the Yang Gang I got from a Google search—that they skew male, have a cultish reputation, there are rumors of members being part of the alt-right crowd—I’m told by one young, white, male Yang supporter that media outlets pay Google to bump stories to the top of search. An Asian man who is in his mid-thirties tells me that there is a concerted effort on the part of the mainstream media to ignore Yang, possibly because Yang is Asian. When I ask if it could be because his polling numbers are low, he tells me he doesn’t trust polls either.

But though I know for a fact that Jezebel doesn’t have enough money to bribe Google for SEO, again, I can understand where these people are coming from. Four years ago, the media assured us all there was no chance Donald Trump could be elected president. If they could be so universally wrong in 2016, why not now?

Around noon, I leave the line to stand directly outside the storefront with the press that’s gathered in the 15 minutes or so before the pop-up is set to open. A suited reporter films and re-films his segment intro, opening with a mention of Donald Glover rather than Andrew Yang. In between takes, he says to his cameraman, “The smell of piss on this street has been overtaken by the smell of weed.” And I remember what I came here expecting: a bunch of dudes, maybe from 4Chan, excited about the prospect of playing video games all day with a guaranteed $12k a year. What I found instead was a lot of young people, many but not all of them men, who had grown up primarily on the coasts and heard a man on a podcast offering a future that seems less scary than the past. Just after 12, Yang presses his face to the glass inside the vintage clothing store and waves. The crowd goes wild.

Two mid-twenties guys beside me have been complaining about the hashtag chosen for today’s event. They stop to cheer when they see Yang’s goofy, charming surprise at the cheers. “That’s such a Yang thing to do,” they agree, like they’ve known Andrew Yang for years.

What I found instead was a lot of young people, many but not all of them men, who heard a man on a podcast offering a future that seems less scary than the past.

He would carry that charm to the debates later in the night, telling the crowd, “I know what you’re thinking America, how am I still on the stage with them,” in his closing statement to the same cheers and laughter I heard outside the pop-up. His comment about feeling both the privilege and disappointment of being the only candidate of color left in the race made headlines, and on Friday morning, outlets like CNN had named Yang one of the unlikely winners of a Democratic debate many assumed he would never make it to. Feeling the optimism of the Yang Gang along with the morning’s headlines wondering if maybe Yang has a shot, I have no idea if I saw the beginning of a campaign just taking off, or the end of a longshot that had a good run. From the center of the crowd, it’s impossible to tell how far it reaches.

Unlicensed street art is removed outside an Andrew Yang pop-up event in Los Angeles. Photo: (Emily Alford)

I am excited when I see Rebecca, Ty, and Trace go into the pop-up. They’ve been waiting so long. When Rebecca comes out, she’s shaking. She couldn’t afford the $1,000 sweatshirts signed by Yang and Glover inside the pop-up, which I cynically see as stunty cash grab designed to lure media attention (including mine) using Glover, who hung around the back of the store in the role of Yang’s new “creative consultant.” But Rebecca sees it completely differently—she bought the merchandise she could afford, a hat and a poster for her brothers. Yang signed them. She is shaking because he remembered her by name.

We’ve been here together all day, and now we chat like friends. I tell her that I’m reluctant to support Yang because I had cancer recently and my health insurance didn’t cover the treatment. I need a candidate who supports more than the spirit of Medicare for All. She tells me she has cancer too, and we congratulate each other on continuing to be alive, a dark joke that passes for a secret handshake among those in the young sick people club.

“I have so much hope because of this man. Before we can go to the insurance aspect, we have to lower all the costs.” She tells me about Democracy Dollars, which by her understanding will be $100 every citizen gets to support a political candidate will take power from lobbyists, driving down healthcare costs.

“If Yang is president, do you feel sure you’ll stop having to worry about how you’re going to pay for treatment?” I ask her.

“There’s always that worry,” she says. “But he’s been so transparent in every other aspect of his campaign. I don’t know if it’s a false sense of security, but I tend to believe him when he says these things.”

By the time I eat lunch across the street, the Yang line is just half a block, and I don’t know if it’s because everyone’s gotten their chance to go inside and buy merch or if they’ve realized they couldn’t afford the $1,000 sweatshirts—a nod to the Freedom Dividend—and gone home. At the Supreme store one block from the Yang and Glover pop-up, however, a new line has formed and stretches to where the Yang Gang waits, full of people hoping for their turn to be invited inside.

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