Andrew Yang is running a long-shot, internet-heavy campaign for president based around his proposal that the US government should provide a basic income for every American. At Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s convention in Manhattan on Wednesday, he found a different way of getting attention.
A crowd of reporters were huddled around a door waiting impatiently to pepper a newsmaker with questions. “Who’s that?” Yang said from behind the crowd. “Whoooooooo-dat?” “I wanna see. That’s a lot of people.” Someone said they were waiting for Julián Castro, who is also running for the Democratic nomination. Yang, who did not see Castro or anyone else, pushed his way to the front of the throng, and took about 10 minutes of questions about the Mueller investigation, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and reparations. A young woman staffing him named Katie had only started on the campaign last week and had no idea what to do.
Later, Yang said his reaction was instinctual. He really was looking for one of his opponents. “I belatedly realized they were actually waiting for someone like me to come out of that door. And I was, like, oh, I went out of the other door. I should give them what they want. Plus, I’m here. And one of my goals is to try and get my message out to as many Americans as possible. So if there’s like, a battalion of camera people and it’s appropriate for me to get in front of it then I should definitely do that. And if I didn’t do that I’d be losing an opportunity.”
Someone observed that it was a very Sharptonian thing to do.
“Oh, good,” Yang mused. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Yang said his toughest challenge as a candidate is combating skepticism that his signature policy is possible. But after a speech in front of a packed convention crowd, Yang said he thought his message resonated.
“The message that I wanted to get is that I’m a real person trying to solve real problems that disproportionately affect those who have less,” Yang said in an interview with BuzzFeed News after his speech. “It’s just that right now we’re so beaten down and brainwashed to think we have to slave away in service to the economy, that we can’t fathom an economy that is actually meant to work for us. And that’s not what I felt in that room. They were, like, ‘Wow, this can happen.’”
It took a second for him to connect. In his speech, when he uttered the first sentence about what the plan actually was, people started groaning. He may have sensed it. He then name-dropped Michael Tubbs, the young, black mayor of Stockton, California, who is a major proponent of the universal basic income idea and is implementing a monthly universal basic income of $500. Tubbs, Yang said, gave him some useful words. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘Andrew, you can say things that I cannot and get away with it.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Thank you, but you can say things that I cannot and get away with it the same way. They’re just different things. But we need to team up in the biggest way — the country needs your moral leadership and authority more than ever right now. And if you bring the moral leadership, I will bring the math. I will be the guy who beats Donald Trump in 2020 and we will take this case all the way to White House and win. Because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.’”
The crowd liked that. Yang, an entrepreneur and former tech executive, rebranded his main policy idea as a “freedom dividend.” He recently met the threshold of drawing 65,000 campaign donors, allowing him to appear in the first Democratic primary debates. Yang said that the proliferation of artificial intelligence is making the future untenable for workers, but the capacity of a single-issue presidential campaign based on that idea is unclear. Americans are generally split on the idea: A Gallup poll released last year found that 48% of Americans polled said they support it, and 52% said they oppose it. Democrats overwhelmingly support the idea, while less than a third of Republicans said they would. And at 52%, Americans ages 18–35 were found to be more likely to support the idea, as opposed to 38% for older Americans.
Yang has sparked a major following online, most prominently of young men who back the basic income idea, some of whom previously supported Donald Trump. He’s become a meme on dark corners of 4chan and has drawn support from people like white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
He’s now set to embark on a 50-day tour, and recently appeared on The Breakfast Club, in an interview with 1 million views. One of his interviews with the media personality Joe Rogan has been viewed on YouTube 2.6 million times. TMZ was waiting for him outside of the convention hotel.