In some ways Andrew Yang’s presidential candidacy is quite ordinary. He supports LGBTQ rights, criminal-justice reform, and combating climate change. His credentials are standard Successful Tech Guy stuff, not significantly different from those of other politicians who come from the business world.
But it does not take much scratching beneath the surface to find the undeniable weirdness permeating the approach of Yang and his enthusiastic “Yang Gang.” If Marcel Duchamp staged a Dadaist presidential campaign in modern American politics, this is pretty much what it would look like. Lots of candidates have an infrastructure plan; Yang has a uniformed “Legion of Builders and Destroyers” who he claims will have sovereign authority to overrule state and local governments. All candidates talk about education; Yang proposes a nationwide program of moving high-school students around to expose them to different parts of the country. And no one, save Yang, proposes a Department of Attention Economy to monitor youth use of electronic devices. He also feels strongly about circumcision, a topic rarely part of presidential campaigns.
Is he serious? It’s impossible to tell. And in that sense Yang is the culminating candidate of 20 years of evolution of Internet culture. Internet phenomena—memes, shitposting, copypasta—are often based on being unable to tell who is serious and who is kidding. For people under 30, especially for young men, who have gone online for their entire adolescence and adulthood, the distinction between those two can be almost nonexistent.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Yang Gang is (thus far) limited to parts of the Internet favored by young males—Reddit, 4chan, gaming forums, and so on. But Yang is now qualified to participate in Democratic debates, so the Internet and political reality are about to have another crossover event. Americans already went through this cycle in 2016, watching Trump’s campaign evolve from a publicity-seeking joke to… a publicity-seeking joke that won a very real election.
Nothing suggests that Yang harbors anything like the deeply regressive worldview enthusiastically embraced by Trump and many young men fluent in memes. Many of Yang’s policy proposals are appealing and progressive. And he is, of course, very much a long shot to win anything in the Democratic primaries. Yet his ability to gain attention highlights the growing blending of performative silliness and real-world politics. Historically, those two have been a dangerous combination.
The use of absurdism in politics as cover for an ideology that would otherwise be rejected as extremist has a long and uncomfortable relationship with the far right. Nazis, the KKK, other racists, and the modern alt-right all default to “ha ha, just kidding!” as a reflex, especially when they’re revealed as the inspiration for horrific acts of violence like the Christchurch shooting. Elaine Parsons, author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction, and other scholars of the Klan have noted the role that appearing slightly ridiculous played in mainstreaming the KKK. The costumes, the jovial ceremonies, and the goofy titles like “Exalted Cyclops” all served to make the organization feel like a Moose Lodge rather than the terrorist organization it was. In Christchurch, the attacker both cited right-wing Internet personalities as inspirations and wrote a meme-laden manifesto—described as a “weaponized shitpost”—to inspire others. Everything is a great big joke, right up until it isn’t and someone dies.
It isn’t a terrible strategy for Yang to target the audience that the alt-right has so effectively captured, especially since his appeals do not serve as a thin veneer hiding violent ethnonationalism. It has gotten him more exposure than he ever would have gotten as a boring, normie candidate like Steve Bullock. (Who? Exactly.) But whether it’s Pepe the Frog soft selling fascism to teenagers in 2016 or WikiLeaks declaring Yang the potential winner of the 2020 meme war, degrading the ability to determine whether our potential presidents are being serious is a net negative. Public cynicism about the political process is high, and faith in institutions like the media is plummeting; even if his campaign ends up as a footnote, stunts like what we see from Yang further encourage citizens to see elections as a farce.
We shouldn’t have to wait until a hypothetical moment that Andrew Yang becomes president to figure out whether he is kidding about a League of Builders and Destroyers. We did that with Trump—remember “take him seriously, but not literally” and “he just said that stuff to get attention”?—and it turned out he wasn’t kidding at all. Universal basic income (UBI, a Yang centerpiece) is an idea that I and many on the left will defend to the hilt. But when a campaign’s entire shtick is irony and half of its proposals are delivered with a wink, who can tell what Yang is serious about? He’s likely kidding about the Builders and Destroyers. What if he’s kidding about UBI too? What if he’s kidding about absolutely everything? Cult of personality is cult of personality, even when the personality at the center of it seems progressive and cool.
It isn’t likely that Yang is a fascist under deep cover. However, a blend of serious policy ideas and attention-seeking lolz leaves voters at a loss to tell the two categories apart. At some point the ambiguity becomes toxic. Research demonstrates that when people cannot tell the difference between real and fake news, they simply choose whatever information flatters their worldview as the truth. Unserious campaigns have aided con men and glib reactionaries seeking positions of real power, including far-right parties in Poland, the UK, and France, as well as the 2016 Trump campaign.
As an admirer of absurdist art, writing, and humor, I find it odd to be arguing for greater sincerity in anything. The consequences of blending real political power and casual trolling are too clear, though. Brexit voters who were taking the piss (someone check my British there) created a very real mess. Trump voters who thought the reality-TV guy was just trying to trigger libs with his campaign rhetoric put incredible power in the hands of a dangerous person.
Humor is a coping mechanism we often turn to at our darkest moments, and we are seeing that unfold at the societal level now. Nihilism and a lack of confidence in electoral politics make people more willing than ever to say “Screw it all” and vote for a troll candidate as a means of lashing out. A sense of futility and powerlessness can be dangerous, because elections have real consequences. Turning the political process into a series of reaction GIFs that leave us to wonder what is real and what isn’t is dangerous too.
If Andrew Yang is serious, he should use his admittance to the Democratic debates to establish that clearly. If instead he uses his opportunity to be on the national stage to engage in the kind of performative silliness we expect from Vermin Supreme or Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan, it’s not going to be a laughing matter. Even if he’s funny, turning the process of choosing the next person to hold the nuclear codes into a big joke is not.