As the Democratic presidential primary gets underway, more than a dozen candidates have either declared, or are publicly considering running. Some of them, such as Washington Governor Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, have very little national name recognition at this point.
That also describes Andrew Yang, a lawyer and tech executive. But Yang, to the surprise of everyone, including the candidate, found himself this month benefiting from a surge of interest in online communities. Memes featuring Yang and his policies have multiplied, and the ranks of the Extremely Online have rapidly declared themselves part of the #YangGang. Some speculate his meme appeal could give Yang the kind of invisible-to-the-mainstream momentum that ultimately propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
— YangGangForever (@YangGangForever) March 18, 2019
The surge of interest has included big-time crossover with the crypto community. Prominent crypto figures who either have either expressed interest in Yang or fully jumped on board include venture capitalist Nic Carter (“I’d quit my job to join the Yang administration”), CoinCenter communications Director Neeraj Agrawal, and Messari CEO Ryan Selkis. A broader wave of crypto-Yang chatter has built up behind them—someone even appears to have created a “Yangbucks” crypto token.
But why? Yang has said he’s “positive on blockchain,” accepts donations in bitcoin, and was tweeting about crypto way back in 2013. That’s great, but his appeal to the crypto community rests on much broader foundations.
Let’s start the countdown.
5. He’s a Tech Bro
— AmericanSaikyo (@AmericanSaikyo) March 20, 2019
Yang, 44, has no previous experience in public office, but he is an experienced entrepreneur. Born to Taiwanese immigrant parents and based in New York, Yang studied political science and economics before going to law school. He launched his own (failed) internet startup, then worked for a health care startup, then grew a test-preparation company that was acquired by Kaplan. He then founded a kind of meta-incubator called Venture for America, a nonprofit which trains young people to launch and build startups.
Yang’s background in tech and entrepreneurship clearly informs his technocratic and idiosyncratic policy approach, particularly his focus on the consequences of automation. Though he’s running as a Democrat, Yang approvingly cites arch-conservative economist Milton Friedman. One of his most resonant campaign symbols is a hat that simply reads “MATH,” and sold out in less than 30 minutes when it was put on sale in his campaign store.
If there’s anything cryptocurrency fans respect, it’s math and technology. And yes, if you’ve noticed that MATH looks a little bit like MAGA, you’re on to something. We’re getting there.
4. He Has Weird Positions And He Fights For Them
andrew yang is going to become president by promising to make fortnite real
— Neeraj K. Agrawal (@NeerajKA) March 7, 2019
Yang doesn’t fit neatly into any box on the political spectrum. Instead, his positions seem to be organized around identifying and addressing specific problems. Some of the problems and solutions he’s focused on are . . . pretty weird.
Most notoriously, Yang recently came out against routine male circumcision. His platform also includes plans for revitalizing abandoned shopping malls, paying college athletes, giving everyone free marriage counseling, and setting up a complaint hotline to report robocalls.
These aren’t topics that frequently rise to the level of presidential politics, but they’re exactly the sort of finicky and contrarian stuff that appeals to the tech-oriented mind. And Yang has shown a willingness to barrel through convention and old habits when looking for solutions. Witness him here eagerly licking the third rail of American currency policy:
We may have to get rid of the penny.
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYang) March 16, 2019
The penny, as any money geek should know, costs more to make than it’s worth, costing the U.S. government millions of dollars a year. Getting rid of it would probably be much more expensive, since it would mean overhauling pricing at every brick-and-mortar retailer in the country. But Yang is willing to go there—not because it’s easy, but because (he thinks) it’s right.
3. He Bridges Political Divides (For Better or For Worse)
Yang’s technocratic policy positions and unconventional ideological touchstones appear to have generated interest from a truly eclectic mix of people, from progressive Democrats to more than a few Libertarians, who have long clustered more in the Republican camp. The politics of cryptocurrency span a similar range, from the feel-good techno-collectivism of Ethereum to hardcore anarcho-capitalist bitcoiners.
Yang’s coalition has threatened to get a little too eclectic, though, as some white nationalists and fascists of the so-called “alt-right” have latched on to the #YangGang. There’s debate about whether this is motivated by a real shift in thinking, or merely a petulant repudiation of what the alt-right increasingly sees as a failed Trump presidency. The leftist site It’s Going Down summed up the weirdness nicely: “These nihilistic irony bros have embraced a Democratic candidate as a double fuck-you to their old comrades and to the libs.” In the words of one Daily Stormer poster, “if America is doomed and can’t be saved, I’m perfectly willing to support an Asian business man who wants to give me $1,000 a month in free money.”
A huge number of Yang memes have emerged from this bizarre nexus, including many invoking alt-right avatars including the NPC and Pepe the frog, but replacing MAGA hats with hot pink Yang 2020 caps.
1. Spread our message as far as it can possibly go. Reply to tweets, post on Facebook, tell your friends irl, etc.
2. Make memes to support the cause.
3. Donate if you can (think of it as an investment.)
4. Attend live events when we are at that point. pic.twitter.com/wel9enLACa
— YANG 2020 💰 (@OrganicDissent) March 18, 2019
— AmericanSaikyo (@AmericanSaikyo) March 17, 2019
— Abzu Flow (@AbzuFlow) March 18, 2019
— Bag Acquisition Service (@Mrgetthebag1) March 19, 2019
Intentionally or not, Yang has made himself visible to this crowd. He saw a huge jump in visibility after appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which has often been criticized for featuring unsavory guests including Milo Yiannopoulos, Sargon of Akkad, and Tim Pool. Yang also appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, which has become so notorious for anti-immigrant rhetoric and race-baiting that the show has lost dozens of high-profile advertisers.
Those appearances don’t seem calculated, though—Yang has stated his policy is to accept all media invites (though we’re still waiting on ours—Hi guys!). Those MATH hats seem like pretty pointed repudiations of Trump-style emotional nativism. Most importantly, Yang has now condemned the alt-right with considerable passion in a statement to The Verge:
“I denounce and disavow hatred, bigotry, racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right in all its many forms. Full stop . . . For anyone with this agenda, we do not want your support. We do not want your votes. You are not welcome in this campaign. As one of the first Asian-American candidates for President in our history and the son of immigrants, I see racism and white nationalism as a threat to the core ideals of what it means to be an American.”
2. Free Cash for Bitcoin (a.k.a. Universal Basic Income)
Yang’s tech background and solution-oriented approach converge in his signature policy proposal: He wants to give every American $1,000 a month, which he calls the “The Freedom Dividend.” He’s the most visible presidential candidate yet to float such a proposal, more commonly known as universal basic income. Yang and many others say a UBI is an important way to reduce the impact of a coming wave of automation that will decimate jobs like trucking, potentially causing major social unrest.
That has let to an entire subgenre of dystopia-flavored Yang memes.
— michael leach (@michael07687931) March 18, 2019
Crypto Twitter, though, has taken the idea and given it a unique spin: that $1,000 a month for every American could be used to Buy More Bitcoin. Crypto also seems to be having a direct impact on the Yang movement here: One of the emerging catchphrases of #YangGang is “Secure the Bag,” as in, the bag of money Yang wants to give you in UBI. The phrase originated in hip hop, but “bag” is also crypto slang for a (usually speculative) crypto investment.
— çøįñ ålçhėmįšt® Δ 👁🗨🕳🐦™️ (@C0inAlchemist) March 19, 2019
UBI is another Yang plank that breaks down old political divides. Though “free money from the government” has an obvious appeal to the neo-socialist left of Bernie Sanders, Yang frequently points out that it was once endorsed by conservative economists, and the concept is still sometimes pitched on conservative grounds. The hapless dead-enders of the alt-right, meanwhile, are happy to clamor for free money out of pure self-interest.
1. A Meme Candidate for Meme Money
I'm posting about yang so much because I'm fascinated by how quickly an internet meme mob formed behind him. I’ve only seen that once before
— Neeraj K. Agrawal (@NeerajKA) March 11, 2019
The deepest connection between Yang and crypto has less to do with specific politics than the evolution of the sociopolitical metagame we all now share. Bitcoin has been referred to half-jokingly as “meme money,” but there’s a lot of truth to that idea—the growth of crypto is nearly synonymous with the growth of the idea of crypto.
Yang is riding a similar wave, as social media hype suddenly outruns anything the candidate or traditional media could have engineered. Of course, the risk of memeing your way to the top is that the crowd is hard to control (see: Bitcoin Cash), and Yang is already having to corral his followers while reaching out to new ones.
Even in a presidential race, it seems, the role of a central authority (the candidate) is waning. Some would call that anarchy. Others would call it democracy.