America’s young and disaffected have recently been bombarded with reheated rules for life, like “clean your room” and “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” But lately they’ve taken a liking to the most timeless aphorism of them all: Money talks. And if online nihilists get their way, talk in the Democratic primary will soon include proposals for a $1,000-per-month raise for every American.
That’s the proposed Freedom Dividend, a rebranded Universal Basic Income at the heart of the long-shot presidential campaign of Andrew Yang, an affable young entrepreneur and new favorite among the Reddit politics crowd. In the meme-forging bowels of the internet, red MAGA hats are falling out of fashion and hot pink 80’s vaporwave Yang hats are in. Mexico paying for the wall is tired and Jeff Bezos paying for everyone to play video games is wired. The chatter is widespread enough that it has has jumped across to the broader political discussion on Twitter.
Whether the lol nothing matters caucus is supporting Yang and his policies with tongues in cheek, a resigned shrug, or a smirk is besides the point. The fact is, this cohort is a real constituency who have shown their ability to move the needle for a candidate, particularly online. They now see Trump as a failure, in some cases not due to his policy proposals but his inability to enact them. That’s partly why something simple, measurable and tangible like giving everyone $1,000 per month seems attractive.
It’s unclear how many of his online fans think a $1,000 monthly handout will actually solve their problems, compared to those who think $1,000 is an amusingly mockable substitute for a solution to their problems. But the most consistent interpretation of the emerging online Yang movement seems to be that there’s no solution to anything, so we may as well grab some cash — or “Yangbux,” as the #YangGang sometimes calls it — while we still can.
Say what you will about the tenets of Yangbux, at least it’s an ethos. According to Yang’s diagnosis, the automation and evaporation of hundreds of thousands of Midwestern manufacturing jobs is how we really got Trump. The abundance of online Yang supporters with digital acumen yet plenty of time on their hands may speak to more dislocated workers in our near future. If millions are gazing into the abyss, the Freedom Dividend might be just the cure they need. It’s like an antidepressant administered through the economy.
The Democrats themselves may have inadvertently invited attention to lesser-known long-shots such as Yang with their new debate rules. To get on the debate stage this year, side by side with the Bernies and Bidens, candidates must sign up 65,000 individual donors — a milestone Yang recently surpassed. This requirement, entirely achievable online, may have been taken as a tantalizing challenge by the kind of people who cut their teeth on naming a UK government submarine “Boaty McBoatface” and voting to send Taylor Swift to perform at a school for the deaf.
Those kind of online pranks taught the internet’s underbelly that they can influence the real world, and gave them the confidence to use their trolling tools to support politicians who — deep down, beneath layers of ironic detachment — they genuinely like on some level. What they call "meme magic" is essentially the edgelord version of creating a vision board, and plenty of Trump’s biggest online fans believe he was memed into the presidency by the sheer force of their posting and trolling.
Many now claim to be true believers in the power of meme magic. Would they really devote their imagined awesome powers towards promoting Yang, even ironically, if they did not genuinely support his candidacy at some level?
So far, Yang has made only the slightest nods towards the most positive and good-natured memes emerging from the #YangGang. Unlike Trump’s MAGA hat, he has not yet embraced the hot pink Miami Vice style cap that has become a signifier of support online. He’s only once used the hashtag #YangBucks, and he’s more likely to post an animated Bitmoji of himself, usually featured dancing as he reaches various campaign contribution goals. Instead of fan-created images, he posts proper newspaper editorial comics.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and some of Yang’s supporters seem to have plenty of room in their beds. But is the promise of a Universal Basic Income enough to bring urban socialists into a union with the Yang Gang? While he’ll surely fail any purity tests for having appeared on Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson, Yang may be able to stick around for a while in a with a crowded primary field with a stratified coalition of traditional corporate liberals, pessimistic nihilists, and genuine leftists.
And could a troll-backed coalition carry Yang to the presidency? Stranger things have happened. And if there’s anything more sure than death or taxes, it’s that money talks.
Adam Jayne is a cognitive science researcher living in New York.