Andrew Yang’s Campaign Is Not a Joke

His sometimes-goofy bid has been a surprise success. But can he make voters take the idea of Commander in Chief Yang seriously?

Brian Snyder / Reuters

BURLINGTON, Iowa—Not long ago, Andrew Yang would have considered his presidential campaign a success just for having injected a discussion of job automation into the race. He was a novelty candidate, a single-issue candidate, known as much for joking around on the debate stage and for viral videos (like the one that shows him squirting whipped cream into the mouths of two kneeling volunteers) as for his signature policy position, the “freedom dividend,” a universal basic income of $1,000 a month.

But now that Yang has outlasted a number of more conventional and better-known rivals—and achieved surprisingly robust poll numbers and fundraising totals—his campaign has started to dream about what could happen if their candidate could transcend his novelty status. So when Yang’s top staff gathered at the end of December, his campaign chief, Nick Ryan, made clear that the strategy for the final weeks before voting starts would be to “present our guy as President Yang, Commander in Chief Yang.” How do you do that when Yang is the $1,000-a-month guy—not the bilateral-summit guy or the Situation Room guy? He’s the candidate who loves to crowd-surf, whose fans meme him into Obi-Wan Kenobi robes (“He is our only hope”), who wears his thick blue-and-red campaign scarf everywhere he goes. Can he convince voters he’s commander-in-chief material while continuing to indulge in the oddball routine to which he ascribes much of his success so far?

Yang’s domestic-policy ideas clearly resonate far beyond the internet caverns where his “Yang Gang” first took root. He has already done for automation what Bernie Sanders did for health care in 2016. With his devoted online-donor base, he could hang around in the primaries until only the billionaires and the front-runners are left. And if the nomination remains tightly contested, and he has accumulated significant delegates, suddenly he looks like a potential power broker or a reasonable second-choice candidate, and … well, he and his staff have started to dream.

[Read: The pull of Andrew Yang’s pessimism]

But to fully escape his fringe status, Yang needs to make voters comfortable with the idea of him as commander in chief. So as we drove out of Des Moines early one recent seven-stop day, I told him I was going to take the idea of a President Yang seriously for a few minutes, and ask what a Yang White House would be like. He deflected a question about which Cabinet departments he’d prioritize restructuring, saying he’d pick top people to run each of them (he didn’t say who) and let them sort it out. He said he’s unhappy with the current Israeli government and would restart negotiations around a two-state solution. He said he doesn’t think Brexit was a good idea—but when I asked him what he thought about subsequent trade deals, that didn’t seem to have made it into the briefing book yet.

On Iran, Yang said he’d piece the nuclear deal back together. How would he handle Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? “I have the interest of the American people at heart,” he said. “We have spent over $6 trillion in the Middle East at a terrible cost to both our people and our national resources, and … if he wants to find a diplomatic solution, I’m someone he can work with.”

Yang told me he would repeal the AUMF powers that the past three presidents have used as a blanket justification for all military operations, and go to Congress for a war declaration if he needed one. Overall, he said, he expects that world leaders would be happy for a fresh start with a President Yang.

“I believe that foreign leaders would find me to be very balanced and restrained and judicious, and good to my commitments. Our allies would find me to be someone who actually included them in decisions before they are made, rather than after,” he said.

The Yang doctrine, as he spelled it out for me, consists of a basic three-point test for military intervention: “first, a clear, vital national interest at stake or the ability to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Second, a defined timeline for our troops to be there, so we can look them in the eye and say, ‘You will be brought home at this date.’ And No. 3 is that we have buy-in from our allies and partners.”

Yang is much more comfortable talking about domestic policy, which for him largely revolves around implementing a universal basic income. He says he’s committed to making sure Congress doesn’t gut the social safety net to pay for his freedom dividend, and he’s not worried about being out-negotiated on the Hill. How would he get it passed? Simple, Yang said. Democrats will be so overjoyed that he beat Donald Trump, they’ll all be on board. Conservatives will like it too—after all, he pointed out, deep-red Alaska, which distributes oil profits to all its citizens, is a model for the program. (Instead of oil profits, he’d be drawing on data profits—taxes on companies like Amazon and Facebook.) If anyone holds out on legislating the program, Yang said he’ll show up with a MATH cap in the district himself.

“If I was standing outside of … a resistant legislator’s [office] saying, ‘This man is standing between you and $1,000 a month for your family’—what is his argument going to be? ‘This money is going to hurt you’?” The freedom dividend “is very hard to demonize,” Yang told me. “I would love to see his phone lines and his office parking lot.”

Less than a year after he went on Joe Rogan’s podcast because no mainstream media outlet was interested in having him, Yang is now thinking about prospective running mates (he said he wants someone who has good experience dealing with Congress). His team has also been in touch with Barack Obama’s staff to schedule a get-to-know-you conversation. (Obama has already met with all the other candidates in the past two years.)

Is this new seriousness coming too late?

“Voters really like Andrew Yang; that’s clear,” says one of his newer—and most experienced—campaign consultants, Mark Longabaugh, who’s been working on his ads and rewriting his stump speeches. “Now we have to take it from ‘They like him and his economic agenda’ and close the sale with ‘He’s the candidate deserving of their precious vote.’”

The candidate himself has been resisting some of the getting-serious talk, warning his aides that he caught people’s attention in the first place because he wasn’t like “normal” presidential candidates. But he told me he’s getting the hang of it.

“It feels comfortable and natural to me. I think Americans can tell that I’m a parent and a patriot who just wants better for the country, and that I’m very serious about how we have to improve our way of life to avoid leaving a train wreck for our kids,” Yang said. “I think Americans now realize that you can be very serious in your message and vision while still also being a human … and enjoying moments on the trail.”

[Peter Beinart: Why Andrew Yang matters]

At every stop Yang makes, he first reviews notes from his campaign manager, Zach Graumann. He has never worked on a campaign before, but is always at Yang’s side, with duties that include managing the staff and combing gel through the candidate’s hair in the car. (Graumann is the one trying to pull Yang away in that whipped-cream video.)

In his speeches—which now include a PowerPoint presentation that he debuted in Ames, Iowa, on the morning of Tuesday’s Democratic debate—Yang hits his talking points as well as any practiced politician: automation, Amazon, the fourth industrial revolution, what’s going to happen when his “friends in Silicon Valley” finally pull off the self-driving truck. And he always comes back to some version of, “We’re all being told by the news that things are better than ever, but they don’t feel better than ever,” as he put it to 150 people one Saturday morning in heavily Republican Knoxville, Iowa. There’s so much money in the economy, yet so much stress and depression, so many drug overdoses and mental-health problems, and a life expectancy that is decreasing for the first time since the Spanish Flu.

Yang believes that his universal basic income signals how he would remedy this general malaise. “I would consider myself post-inspirational inspiration,” he told me as we arrived at his next event. “I just want to put money in people’s hands, instead of trying to say, ‘I’m so inspirational.’”

At the Statesmen Lanes bowling alley in Oskaloosa, a woman named Susan Mitchell stopped Yang as he was trying to land a spare with the 14-pound hot-pink ball his staff had lined up for him. (His first roll had been a straight gutter ball.) She pulled him close and pressed him on how he’d make sure his freedom dividend didn’t come out of Social Security or other existing programs. “He answered it very nicely,” she told me afterward, watching with a smile as he celebrated finally knocking some pins down. “I think we need a fun guy to be the president,” she said.

A few hours later, Yang’s wife had caught up with us and was introducing Yang at a packed coffee shop in Mount Pleasant. She is currently a stay-at-home mother to their two sons and hadn’t been a visible part of the campaign until November—though the Yang Gang recognizes her well enough to scream “Evelyn!” when they see her. She’d written a speech on the plane about how the same qualities that made her fall in love with Yang now make her absolutely sure he’s the right person to be president.

“It’s certainly not luck. And it’s more than the ideas,” Evelyn said to the gathered crowd. “You’re not just voting for the ideas but for Andrew as a person.” He’s like Liam Neeson in the Taken movies, she said, going on to quote Neeson’s famous monologue from the first film. He has a very “particular set of skills,” but “instead of talking to kidnappers, he’s talking to politicians.”

At Shaggy’s Gourmet Burgers, a little red-and-white shack on a dark road in Wapello, Yang put on an apron with MATH, BABY! written in the spot for his name, and alternated between taking questions and flipping burgers. He started with his philosophy of preparing meat well-done: “What’s my downside if I overcook it? Pretty mild. What’s my downside if I undercook it?” He waited for the crowd to respond. “Food poisoning!” they yelled.

“I feel like some kind of Santa Claus, but the only present I have is burgers,” Yang said, as he gave sacks of them to patrons. “On Burger Day, an Asian man comes around handing out burgers.” He answered policy questions as he worked, giving his thoughts on the Democratic National Committee’s debate rules. (He used to praise them when he was getting onstage, but now he complains about them and said, “This campaign has transcended the debates.”) A boy asked him to put his hands in the dab position, and he obliged right away. “I got him to do it!” the boy squealed. Yang looked at him wryly and said, “You shouldn’t take too much pride in that, because I’ll do almost anything.” Then he was back to talking about labor-participation rates, health and life expectancy, and John Maynard Keynes. He gave his review of the new Star Wars film (he had low expectations going in, which left him “pleasantly surprised”). Another boy who’d just gotten a toy shaving kit for Christmas asked him whether he shaved. “I do shave, but very, very seldom, and more to feel like a man than because of any facial hair,” he said.

Early on, Yang’s events were heavily populated with the odd and disaffected, political and social outcasts who connected with him so viscerally that they would show up at events screaming, “Yang Gang! Yang Gang! Yang Gang!” like British soccer hooligans or Pentecostals speaking in tongues. Even as his support has grown—more than 500 new people showed up to see him during that day in Iowa, and another 50 or so followed him between events—that core has remained, and they say what they’re doing goes beyond wearing T-shirts with his face on them, flaunting blue MATH hats (to contrast with red MAGA hats), or getting Yang tattoos. If Trump woke up the Proud Boys, Yang resonates with the Lost Boys—people like Phillip Friedman, 28, whom I met at a Yang Gang debate afterparty at 1 a.m. in an Atlanta bar in November. He was looking for a job as a waiter, and had first come across Yang in a Tucker Carlson interview. Having joined the Yang community, he said, he’s definitely going to stay political now. “This is about so much more than becoming president. This is about a movement to bring humanity back together,” he told me. I’ve spoken with a number of other interesting young people who said similar things.

“I’m thrilled that we’ve activated people who’ve been disengaged with politics before, and young people, and independents,” Yang told me when I mentioned this to him. “The problems are not going away. This movement’s not going away. I believe that people will find this to be an extraordinarily passionate, dedicated group of people that will be here until the problems are solved.”

At his final campaign stop of his long day in Iowa, he went behind the counter at a bar in Burlington to pour himself a beer, then did a brief dance mostly for his own amusement, boogying in place.

But on the way out of the bar, I asked Yang whether he really, truly thought he could win—and whether he buys the argument some of his campaign aides make, that the only way to beat Trump is with a candidate who is as unusual and outside the box as Yang.

“As this process goes on, I’m getting stronger and stronger,” Yang said, his face settling into an expression of seriousness. “I will be unbeatable. Trump knows it; that’s why he’s never mentioned me. He’s hoping the Democratic Party doesn’t realize it.”