The 2016 election was a milestone moment for Charlotte, a 23-year-old in Connecticut, and her boyfriend — it was their first time casting a vote. The duo were president and VP of a debate club in college, and all the spirited conversations about politics over the years had left them with a point of clarity. The Democratic nominees of 2016 focused way too much on “identity politics,” Charlotte says. “We hated their pandering,” she adds.
When November 8th rolled around, the couple ticked off the name “Donald Trump” on their presidential ballots. They weren’t in love with his entire platform, and sighed at his immature antics. But they felt optimism that he would, despite all the nasty rhetoric, do a good job of fixing the economy and cutting corruption from D.C.
“L-O-fucking-L did we fuck up,” she tells me now.
By the new year, they were both burned out on the Trump train — and politics in general. At least until a few months ago, when Charlotte’s boyfriend stumbled across a news item about Democratic underdog candidate Andrew Yang. “My S.O. saw something about Yang, Googled him, found the Joe Rogan podcast and gave it a listen. Then he got me on board,” she says.
There’s a jokey term Yang superfans, a.k.a. the “Yang Gang,” like to toss around online: “Yangpilled,” a riff on the Matrix meme of “redpilling,” implying the moment of clarity when one realizes that Yang is the one true presidential candidate. Even though Yang announced his campaign a year ago, it’s clear that he’s gained major momentum since his appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience (which has more than 3.3 million subscribers) on February 12th. Rogan’s ideas attract listeners from both ends of the political spectrum, and the exponential flurry of internet searches in 2019 shows how quickly attention ramped up.
In many ways, Yang’s agenda is what you’d expect from a leftist presidential candidate in 2019. He backs Medicare-for-All and a sweeping plan to invest in renewable energy and tax carbon emissions to counter climate change. Reducing mass incarceration is high on the list, too, as is college loan debt forgiveness. And the centerpiece of his campaign is a concept that sounds too aggressive to believe: the “Freedom Dividend,” a plan to distribute $1,000 to every citizen, every month, tax free.
It’s the very old concept of universal basic income, rebranded for the 21st century, but it’s symbolic of Yang’s broader approach to solving social problems — an approach that has attracted a motley crew of acolytes, including former Trump fans, fueled by social media and hungry for a different outsider candidate. “I couldn’t support him any more than I do. We donated, ordered swag and tell everyone we know to give him a look,” Charlotte says. “I even made a Twitter for the first time to join in the conversation there.”
Others have journeyed to Yang from more explicitly far-right roots, inspired by the endless wave of meme shitposts that pulses around Yang today. One redditor who goes by “MegaraFanClub” was blunt in his assessment: “I was alt-right and a big Trump fan, but once I started seeing the Yang memes, I realized we needed his platform more than we need Trump’s. Ultimately, Trump has failed young voters; he didn’t really get a wall done and instead gave $38 billion to Israel,” he says.
Some Yang fans aren’t even eligible voters, but they’ve jumped into the gang to help carry the conversation further. Take D.G., a Nigerian who tells me he never gave the campaign much notice last year, even despite seeing media coverage. The turning point, instead, was his time on the messaging app Discord. “Earlier this month 4chan memes dropped in Discord reminded me about Yang and got me excited about him. I’d previously become more interested in politics, so I started paying attention to the campaign, and was Yangpilled hard,” he says. The meme that caught his eye? A surrealist tableau of busty anime girls, all in hot-pink Yang2020 hats, cooing over the candidate.
Not every supporter showed up for the memes, but across the internet, they’ve become a critical communicator of his policy goals. Many focus on the Freedom Dividend; the most indicative meme of the moment, however, may be a simple four-panel graphic of a red-faced Trump supporter (designed as the “I Know the Feel, Bro” meme), crying literal blood from his enraged eyes. In each successive panel, you see the bright red Make America Great Again hat starting to fade into a cheery Yang2020 cap. His face is shifting, too — by the fourth and final frame, all that red rage has mellowed into a Mona Lisa smile, next to a crisp $1,000 bill.
Political experts couldn’t stop speculating in 2016 whether Sen. Bernie Sanders’ outsider identity and aggressive economic ideas, plus a tidal wave of Feel the Bern meme culture, might have won him support from fed-up Republicans in a general election. Just three years later, we’re faced with the evolution of that debate as Antifa leftists and alt-right incels, plus everyone in between, band together in a hilarious, weird and potentially toxic coalition to boost Yang to the mainstream.
Data-driven outlet FiveThirtyEight says he’s an extremely long shot, only averaging a 15 percent favorable rating in early national polls, putting him alongside candidates like Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii. Survey his supporters, though, and you’ll find that they’re not discouraged by the poll experts. Instead, they look to Trump as a case study of how a cocktail of frustrated voters and internet shitposts can lead to genuine wins.
“With this Yang Gang phenomenon, you already see that he was able to reach the minimum donor count to qualify for the first Democratic primary debates. Whether or not that was directly tied to the memes, it’s hard to discount an impact,” says Don Caldwell, the managing editor of internet tome KnowYourMeme who has extensively researched the Yang trend. “At least in this stage of the game, the memes might be getting him a lot further than he would have otherwise.”
Yang is a boyish 44-year-old Taiwanese-American, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, which already makes him stand out among the Democrats (he’s the first Asian candidate in the last 50 years, in fact). He made his name as an entrepreneur, notably selling a startup for prep testing to educational giant Kaplan in 2009. He then founded Venture for America, a nonprofit that funnels high-achieving college kids into jobs at cutting-edge startups, rather than established finance or business firms. As with Sanders in 2016, Yang was inspired to run for office because of his concerns about economic inequality.
His thesis, repeated over and over in a slew of interviews, is that the intertwined rise of automated technology and corporate wealth will inevitably undermine how average Americans live. But while Democratic candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden might have similar talking points, nobody’s got the memes that Yang does. Not even Sanders, a true founding father of dank political meme culture.
Most political memes riff on a central idea or maybe mild forms of ironic swagger without straying too far off message, but Yang’s agenda has brought together a stew of young people on the abstract edge of meme-dom. It’s a reason why so many Yang memes come off like such weird shitposts. A new favorite that Caldwell’s seen going around is that of “Potato Trump,” a low-res image of the president’s face, turned into 2-D mush for the lulz. There’s one of Alita (yeah, the Battle Angel) in Yang Gang pink, a nod to the trend of male nerds who shunned Captain Marvel. There are swooning anime girls in Yang2020 hats. There’s the badly edited image of Yang leaning out of a car, pistol in hand, with the caption, “Get in pussy, we’re gonna play video games and Jeff Bezos is gonna pay for it.” There’s some racist material from time to time, too — e.g., Yang as a Chinese emperor surrounded by dollar signs, or a Fu Manchu mustache hanging off his face as he dabs on a crying Trump.
“A lot of the memes, it’s hard to tell how earnest they are, but it’s the nihilist view where ‘Oh, the world is going to hell, at least we’ll get a thousand bucks out of it.’ And it’s in line with the embrace of nihilism that you often see in a community like 4chan,” Caldwell says.
Mostly, though, the Yang Gang is proving a very simple point: That free money talks, and loudly. It’s the biggest theme in the memes, anchored by the three magic words “Secure the Bag.” It might as well be Yang’s official campaign slogan on the internet (instead of the actual slogan, “Humanity First”). It also reminds me of the words “Build the wall” and “lock her up,” two easy-to-remember Trump ideas that ended up both inspiring memes and becoming meme phrases.
The significance of this hasn’t escaped the Yang Gang, and you can find members discussing the merits of memes and the dangers when so many very different creators take the pen for their interpretation of Yang’s ideals. As one Reddit user, a self-proclaimed former Trump voter who “helped meme him to the White House,” declares on a sort of rulebook for the Yang Gang ethos: “Memes are almost everything. Ideas that are true, obvious once named, and are simply communicated are going to win. Memes are a huge part of the culture, almost the only real folk art we have at this point. You won’t be able to control this, you will have difficulty even directing it. Get used to the chaos, and learn to shit post.”
Yang has acknowledged that he’s attracted a unique fanbase so far, but while he’s met and talked with a number of favored celebs on the right (including Tucker Carlson), Yang is adamant that he’s a progressive candidate. The conservative fans I spoke with countered that, despite his leftist stance on a number of issues, they consider him solution-oriented and less interested in insulting Trump or complaining about issues like racism and sexism. “Yang has enough awesome left-wing positions that I’m voting to secure the bag,” says MegaraFanClub, the former alt-right Trump fan. “Plus I’m still a NEET [“Not in Education, Employment or Training”] struggling to get employment, so he would be directly saving my life if he gets elected.”
There’s a theory floated by some online critics of Yang that claim he’s consciously led efforts to pay meme makers and astroturf channels like the notorious troll forums 4chan and 8chan. There’s evidence to suggest Russia did just that in the 2016 election, but that doesn’t ring so true to Caldwell, the meme expert. The content is so modern and sophisticated in its surrealism that he has a hard time imagining a hired squad of meme freelancers behind them, he says. As one Yang Gang fan (and budding meme-maker) on Reddit, Marquise, tells me, “This feels like the political meme equivalent of the Eric Andre Show. I can’t tell whether it’s smart, or dumb as fuck, at all times. But either way, they make me pay attention. They make me want to talk about them, to share him, to think about politics.”
Maybe it’s just that “secure the bag” is really that elegant of an idea to spread with memes. It’s hard for even cynical fans to claim culture-war bias in the decision to give every American a thousand bucks. The irony is that universal basic income, an idea that’s been supported by the likes of Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr., isn’t particularly loved by Americans, as a 2017 Gallup poll found that 52 percent of people actually oppose it. Even within Democrat respondents, only about 65 percent supported it.
And what is it like to observe the rise of this underdog Yang Gang from the outside? I ask my friend Rachel Bracker, a millennial who is involved in local politics in L.A. and is the unpaid volunteer creator of a meme page for fellow Dem underdog Pete Buttigieg. The group has almost no attention compared to the Yang Gang for now, but Bracker posts memes every single day, paying attention to the demographics of the people who engage (“Boomers don’t do shitposts, they need clearer information,” she notes) and gearing up for droves of new followers after the first Dem debate. What’s unique about Yang, she says, is he will ultimately have to manage the racist, misogynistic, sometimes anti-Semetic edges of the Yang Gang without knowing whether these memes are earnestly for him or simply so ugly because they’re posting to spite him.
“Because there are so many levels of abstraction in our understanding of memes, people with completely different world views are able to see the same meme and get totally different points out of them,” she tells me. “You see this with Flat Earth guys, where there are some people who post memes and literally think the world is fucking flat, and others who are there to enjoy this stuff as complete and utter shitposting. It co-exists, and I don’t know what that means in the endgame. It’s something you have to work with.”
The research around the power of meme culture is limited, but a report released in February noted that memes can be especially effective within the context of politics because they’re created and shared by amateurs. “It is by no means unusual to see these users create and share contents with focus on ordinary individuals, creating a kind of involuntary humor. Politically, this sort of humor is achieved by displacing the context of a professional politician, exposing him to the ridiculous,” the authors wrote. This rapid spread of an idea has its benefits, but the study also notes that it can put a politician into a corner, with less opportunity for nuanced discourse — a shitpost, in other words, can make the whole conversation dumber.
I can’t quite figure out Yang’s long-term strategy here, and not everyone is optimistic. Charlotte, for instance, finds the memes amusing enough but wonders whether they’ll water down what she considers a sophisticated agenda. Unfortunately, there’s no stopping a meme train when it leaves the station, and even though I find the alt-right people in the YangGang to be problematic, I still end up scrolling through all kinds of memes, effectively turning a blind eye to the, er, “edgier” ones. As such, a few friends have told me that they’re not ready to “go public” with their fandom because they’re unsure of the connotations. “He’s ahead of his time,” one says. “And in private, I’m going to revel in these silly and horrible memes. I just can’t publicly comment on that.”
I’m not sure whether becoming a full-fledged member of the Yang Gang means having to compromise on your political bedfellows. Indeed, the person who penned the Yang Gang “rules” I mentioned earlier insists we must tolerate people we would rather punch. “Honestly, right now I’m mostly just pissed off about Trump and Yang is the only guy who is meme-y and fun and talking like a real populist,” the redditor, hilariously named u/ImHereForTheYangBang, declares on his thread. “I guess I can just see him leading a coalition of very different groups and giving us an opportunity to come together about some of the big problems we are facing.”
Given Yang’s low odds, maybe the conversation should be more about how memes normalize ideas considered to be fringe just years ago. As FiveThirtyEight concludes: “Just as Sen. Bernie Sanders did with policy proposals like ‘Medicare for All’ and free college in 2016, Yang could accomplish something even by losing: He may yet succeed at bringing the universal basic income into the Democratic mainstream.”
My favorite part of this, though, may be the fact that another living, breathing meme has thrown his support behind Yang: Nic Cage. The meta of all this threatens to consume itself whole, but for now, I can’t look away.