Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but Andrew Yang is … surging? It sounds crazy, and who knows how long it lasts? But for now he is one of 10 candidates who have qualified through sufficiently robust polling and fundraising for this fall’s third and fourth debates. The exhausting cluster of Oval Office aspirants, at least for these purposes, has been whittled to this: the aforementioned top four, two more senators, a mayor, a former member of Congress and … this guy. Yang is a 44-year-old entrepreneur from New York and a father of two young sons who’s never run for any office of any kind before this, and whose campaign is fueled by a deeply dystopian view of the near future (trucker riots, anybody?), a pillar of a platform that can come off as a gimmick (a thousand bucks a month for every American adult!), and a zeitgeisty swirl of podcasts, GIFs, tweets and memes. Last week, as a successful governor from a major state dropped out and the bottom half of the bloated field continued to flounder, Yang passed the 200,000 mark for unique donors—outpacing an array of name-known pols. He’s gotten contributions, on average $24 a pop, from 88 percent of the ZIP codes in the country, and he’s on track, he says, to raise twice as much money this quarter as he did last quarter. Just the other day, he made his Sunday news show debut.
It’s a phenomenon hard to figure—until you get up close and take in some strange political alchemy. At the heart of Yang’s appeal is a paradox. In delivering his alarming, existentially unsettling message of automation and artificial intelligence wreaking havoc on America’s economic, emotional and social well-being, he … cracks jokes. He laughs easily, and those around him, and who come to see him, end up laughing a lot, too. It’s not that Yang’s doing stump-speech stand-up. It’s more a certain nonchalant whimsy that leavens what he says and does. Sometimes his jokes fall flat. He can be awkward, but he also pointedly doesn’t appear to care. It’s weird, and it’s hard to describe, but I suspect that if Yang ever said something cringeworthy, as Jeb Bush did that time in 2016—“Please clap”—the audience probably would respond with mirth, not pity. Critics ding his ambit of proposals as fanciful or zany (getting rid of the penny, empowering MMA fighters, lowering the voting age to 16) and question the viability of his “Freedom Dividend,” considering its sky-high price tag (“exciting but not realistic,” Hillary Clinton decided when she considered the general notion in the 2016 cycle). And his campaign coffers are chock-full of small-number contributors and even $1 donors. Still, at this angry, fractious time, and in this primary that’s already an edgy, anxious slog, Yang and his campaign somehow radiate an ambient joviality. Of his party’s presidential contestants, he’s the cheerful doomsayer.