The Nation - June 14, 2019
... It does not take much scratching beneath the surface to find the undeniable weirdness permeating the approach of Yang and his enthusiastic “Yang Gang.” If Marcel Duchamp staged a Dadaist presidential campaign in modern American politics, this is pretty much what it would look like. Lots of candidates have an infrastructure plan; Yang has a uniformed “Legion of Builders and Destroyers” who he claims will have sovereign authority to overrule state and local governments. All candidates talk about education; Yang proposes a nationwide program of moving high-school students around to expose them to different parts of the country. And no one, save Yang, proposes a Department of Attention Economy to monitor youth use of electronic devices. He also feels strongly about circumcision, a topic rarely part of presidential campaigns.
Is he serious? It’s impossible to tell. And in that sense Yang is the culminating candidate of 20 years of evolution of Internet culture. Internet phenomena—memes, shitposting, copypasta—are often based on being unable to tell who is serious and who is kidding. For people under 30, especially for young men, who have gone online for their entire adolescence and adulthood, the distinction between those two can be almost nonexistent.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Yang Gang is (thus far) limited to parts of the Internet favored by young males—Reddit, 4chan, gaming forums, and so on. But Yang is now qualified to participate in Democratic debates, so the Internet and political reality are about to have another crossover event. Americans already went through this cycle in 2016, watching Trump’s campaign evolve from a publicity-seeking joke to… a publicity-seeking joke that won a very real election.
Nothing suggests that Yang harbors anything like the deeply regressive worldview enthusiastically embraced by Trump and many young men fluent in memes. Many of Yang’s policy proposals are appealing and progressive. And he is, of course, very much a long shot to win anything in the Democratic primaries. Yet his ability to gain attention highlights the growing blending of performative silliness and real-world politics. Historically, those two have been a dangerous combination.
The use of absurdism in politics as cover for an ideology that would otherwise be rejected as extremist has a long and uncomfortable relationship with the far right. Nazis, the KKK, other racists, and the modern alt-right all default to “ha ha, just kidding!” as a reflex, especially when they’re revealed as the inspiration for horrific acts of violence like the Christchurch shooting. Elaine Parsons, author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction, and other scholars of the Klan have noted the role that appearing slightly ridiculous played in mainstreaming the KKK. The costumes, the jovial ceremonies, and the goofy titles like “Exalted Cyclops” all served to make the organization feel like a Moose Lodge rather than the terrorist organization it was. In Christchurch, the attacker both cited right-wing Internet personalities as inspirations and wrote a meme-laden manifesto—described as a “weaponized shitpost”—to inspire others. Everything is a great big joke, right up until it isn’t and someone dies. ...
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