Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)

When it comes to the fringe Democratic candidates of the 2020 election cycle, Andrew Yang might be one of the fringiest: the 44-year-old startup type, a former corporate lawyer and executive who founded a nonprofit to help recent college graduates also become startup types, has no experience in campaigns or government. His supporters range from anti-automation evangelists on the left to edge lord 4Chan users whose support of President Trump and a tendency toward white nationalism can apparently coexist with support for Yang’s Freedom Dividend, a proposal to give American adults $1,000 a month.

While the latter proposal is perhaps what Yang is best known for, he also believes the voting age should be lowered to 16 and supports Medicare-for-all, universal preschool, DC statehood, a pathway for citizenship for the undocumented, automatic voter registration, and marijuana legalization. He also sells hats with the word “MATH” on them because he loves math (the first batch of 500 sold out in just 25 minutes) and tweets about loving The Smiths and The Cure. He’s kind of doing his own thing.

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Yang’s campaign, for all its eccentricities, attempts to speak to the pessimism that so many millennials and Gen Z voters are experiencing with what he believes are solutions rather than platitudes. “We have to make this economy work for people as fast as possible,” Yang told Jezebel during our phone call. “If we do not, we’re all going to suffer the consequences. It’s not a left or right thing, it’s a human thing.”

Jezebel spoke with Yang about his formative goth years, universal basic income, the rise of automation, and challenging Beto O’Rourke to a skate-off (yes, really). Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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JEZEBEL: A few weeks ago you tweeted a yearbook picture of yourself as a teen rocking a trench coat. You said your favorite bands were The Smiths and The Cure. Could you be America’s first ex-goth president?

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ANDREW YANG: Yeah, I may be, that’s true. I distinctly remember coming into school in eighth grade and a friend, Dan Miller, was full goth, wearing all black. I remember seeing this and saying, “Wow, that’s quite the transformation over the summer.” So Dan had a real impact on my musical taste and we ended up going to many of these concerts together. So I daresay, if I win in 2020, I would be the first ex-goth president.

I mean, you saw the pictures, I guess it would be a matter of discernment if I qualify.

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I saw another tweet that said your first concert was Depeche Mode.

Yeah, 1990.

Some purists might disagree, but that qualifies in my book. Were you more into post-punk, English alt-rock, goth rock? What was your main thing?

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It was interesting because as the years went... there was what I thought was the canon of alternative music. To me it was The Cure, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode. And when they arrived with Joshua Tree, U2 somehow was there. REM. I liked Siouxsie and the Banshees, I liked The Sugarcubes.

New Order?

Yeah, I really like New Order and Joy Division, of course. They’re in the canon. And Erasure too. So that to me was the original arc. And then in the ‘90s it became more Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.

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More of the Seattle sound.

Yeah, the grunge Seattle crowd, which I also really liked a lot. Nine Inch Nails was around that time too. I went to the first three Lollapaloozas.

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You might be the first president who has ever been in a mosh pit or crowd surfed.

I was tempted to crowd surf at one of my last events because there were thousands of people there and the excitement was very high. What I did was sort of pretended I was going to crowd surf but then I didn’t.

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One of my staffers was like, “You should totally do it.” And I was like, “Oh, I will do it at some point” because I remember doing it as a teen. It’s probably not as good of an idea for me to do it now as it was then. Frankly, if you’re a skinny 18-year-old, throwing yourself into the crowd isn’t too bad.

I wear a suit a lot and I’ve been in various business and professional settings, but one of my friends from childhood who I went to a lot of these concerts with [recently] said to me, “You’re the most punk rock person I know.” He said because my career has been trying to make things happen that I felt strongly about. It meant a lot to me because obviously if you look at me I don’t seem very punk rock at all anymore.

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I guess you and Beto will have to have a punk or poseur competition.

I will say one thing I’d be interested in doing: Some kind of skate-off with Beto because I also skated.

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If Beto is open to it, I’m open to it.

Speaking of teen years and formative influences, what in your upbringing shaped you and your politics?

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My family was apolitical. I don’t remember my parents discussing politics or voting. They’re immigrants to this country, so that’s not unusual. As I think about it, I don’t think most of my friends growing up as teenagers talked about our politics either. When I went to prep school in New Hampshire and then college in New England, I think I developed more of an affinity for keeping up with politics. Bill Clinton’s re-election was my first voting experience. I was too young in 1992.

So why are you running for president, and why now?

Well, after Trump won, I became convinced that the main reason he won is that we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states I’ve spent a fair amount of time in. And now we’re going to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call-center jobs, truck driving jobs, and accounting jobs... financial planners, insurance agents, and lawyers. So I looked at how we could advance meaningful solutions in a necessary time frame, and there’s a very limited range of realistic options. Running for president seemed like the best approach.

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You’ve made universal basic income a central part of your platform. What would a UBI program in the Yang administration look like?

After it’s fully rolled out, the Freedom Dividend would be $1,000 stipend or payment received by every American adult every month. After you opt-in, you start receiving $1,000 in your bank account.

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What would you say to people who ask, “Okay, where is this money coming from?”

We could easily afford a $1,000 dividend for every adult, but we have to balance the economy. The biggest winners from AI and robotics and new technologies will be Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber, and right now those companies are paying minimal taxes. Amazon literally paid zero in federal taxes last year. And so if we had a value-added tax that harvested the gains from all these new technologies, it would generate hundreds of billions of new revenue. Combined with new spending, economic growth from all of this money in America’s hands, and cost saving on things like incarceration, homelessness services, and healthcare, the value gains from having a stronger, better educated, healthier, and more productive populous would be enough to pay for a $1,000 dividend.

What would you say to someone who thinks UBI is giving in to automation and corporate greed? There are critics who think UBI is a cop-out.

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I would suggest to people who think and feel that way that we have to start making meaningful choices in the way forward. If someone has a different idea that can be executed in a very reasonable time frame, then I think they should be free to propose it and advocate for it. But in my view, universal basic income would be a much more real and direct way we can improve tens of millions of Americans lives by 2021. So if you say, “Well, that doesn’t solve the big problem of automation...” You know, there might be some element of truth to that. But we have the situation we have, we have the economy we have. It’s 2019. We can’t wish for a different version of reality.

There’s a contingent on the right who are attracted to some of your policy proposals. Some wonder if your campaign is all some elaborate right-wing troll. What do you make of this? 

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You know, I can only speak for myself, but I earnestly want to improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans. Our economy is becoming increasingly punishing and inhuman. And certainly, as the son of immigrants, I don’t have any agenda that somehow increases someone’s marginalization. I just want to solve problems and lift people up. Initially, I was somewhat confused and bewildered, but now... I think most people can tell the difference between the ideas of our campaign and the different sorts of people who might be attracted to our campaign for some reason.

So you’re not really concerned about that turning people off?

I mean, truthfully, I’ve had a bit of a head-scratching on this. I went to Brown University and I’m running on a platform trying to give everyone money. And then there are some people who are looking at this and somehow trying to find some hidden agenda. It’s like, my entire policy platform is right there on the website for anyone to see. There’s nothing hidden here, I’m essentially an open book.

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I’ve got a theory about this that I’ll share. It’s that people who—and this is not a knock, this is where we are as a country—people have very very deep reasons to mistrust many institutions. If someone like me comes along, people are poking at it like, “Where’s the trick, where’s the hidden agenda?” And there really is none. The only thing I can do is just introduce myself to more people and say it’s really just as simple as it appears.

There’s no trick door.

Yeah, there’s no hidden agenda. It’s like, “Hey, let’s abolish poverty together before our economy goes from inhuman to insane,” which is the way it’s heading. Like, AI is real. I talk to people who are in the industry and they say, “Oh yeah, we’re going to use AI to get rid of a lot of workers!”

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And for whatever reason I’m the only person presenting the plain facts and the obvious solutions. And then people are looking at the solutions like, “what gives?” Well, nothing gives. I’m just talking sense and this is where it lands. So to me, it’s a little bit confusing as to why people are looking at this and are trying to find the hidden ideological underpinning because there really is none.

Obviously UBI is a huge part of your campaign. But what other policy proposals do you have that you wish were getting more attention right now?

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You know, again, my goal is to solve the problems that are making us miserable. So if I were to take the top handful of things that would make the biggest impact, number one would be universal basic income, the Freedom Dividend. Number two would be forgiving student loan debt because that’s this massive, crushing weight on the day to day lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. I’m sure there are people at Jezebel who’ve dealt with that.

Medicare-for-all would also improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans. We’re used to this crazy, messed up health care monstrosity, but we’re spending twice as much on our health care as other countries. And we’re more stressed out about navigating the bureaucracy and paying for treatment than we are about getting well. So those three would be the biggest day to day life improvements. Number four would be climate change and getting ahead of it. Number five would be campaign finance reform and getting our democracy back into the hands of the people. My path to doing that would be giving everyone 100 Democracy Dollars. They’ll be used for candidates’ campaigns to wash out all that corporate money.

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Number six—and these are all tied for number first in my mind truthfully—would be to update our economic measurements from gross domestic product to our health, our mental health, how clean our air and water are, and how our kids are doing; things that actually matter to us. Because GDP will have us running a race we can’t win, and it also ignores the work of people like my wife who is at home taking care of our kids, one of whom is autistic. So updating our economic measurements to reflect human values and goals that we can actually get excited about and create an economy that actually helps us move in that direction.

What’s your main pitch on why people should vote for you, including people who have maybe never heard of you before?

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Democrats are chiefly concerned with who can beat Donald Trump in 2020, and as I become a more familiar figure and household name, more and more Americans will realize that I am the candidate best suited to beat Donald Trump in 2020.

Finally, what Smiths song would you use as your official campaign song if Morrissey and Johnny Marr allowed it?

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It would definitely be “How Soon Is Now?”