- A year ago, Andrew Yang was a successful entrepreneur, living a comfortable and largely anonymous life with a loving family. Now he lives on the road because he wants to be president.
- Insider recently followed Yang as he campaigned through New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary next month.
- New Hampshireites love being courted by presidential hopefuls every four years, and as we saw, they’re not shy about bluntly confronting candidates in public with serious concerns.
- Yang talked about how he dealt with being a lonely, bullied high school kid, why he misses the hardscrabble role players in the NBA, and why he rejects using identity politics as a campaign strategy.
- He also spoke openly about being the father of an autistic child, and what he looks forward to when he gets a rare break from the grind of the campaign trail.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A year ago, Andrew Yang was a successful entrepreneur, the author of two books, living a comfortable and largely anonymous life. He was a 44-year-old happily married father of two living in Manhattan, with most weekends and summer months spent with his family in a country home about 90 minutes north of the city.
Now he’s 45 and he lives on the road, amid the isolation that comes from shaking hundreds of hands a day, away from his loving family, because he wants to be president.
Grinding in the Granite State
Life on the campaign trail is a grind. The unmooring of daily stability. The unfamiliar beds, high-calorie meals, and lack of any privacy whatsoever. But it’s in New Hampshire, a month before the primary, that the grind becomes a maw – it swallows you whole.
You’re ping-pinging around the icy roads of the Granite State, where in January the sun rarely pierces the low, gray blanket of sky.
You’re squeezing in media interviews and slogging through mid-day debate prep cram sessions on the slim chance you’ll reach the required polling threshold and make it back to the nationally televised stage.
You’re giving the same speech at up to six events a day to voters who take pride in being courted every four years by presidential candidates.
But Yang’s not complaining, because he won’t even entertain the idea of what he’d do in the event he does not win the Democratic nomination, and later, the presidency.
Over a hearty two-plate diner breakfast that included a stack of pancakes covered in what looked like the innards of an apple pie and cream, Yang told me, “After I’m president I’m going to get on a bit of an [exercise] regimen.” He’d be a morning workout guy, because he doesn’t like to shower twice a day. “That seems excessive,” he says.
“Random Man” gets a gang
In June 2019, Washington Post magazine profiled Yang under the headline, “Random Man Runs for President.”
Tough, but fair. Then, as now, Yang had almost no chance of becoming the nominee.
Yes, we’re in a post-Trump world where nothing should ever be ruled out, but Yang is not Trump – who was a nationally known figure for three decades. Still, Yang could make some noise. In a lot of ways, he already has.
The New York Times has called him “the internet’s favorite candidate,” and thanks in part to his rabid meme-creating online supporters – the Yang Gang – he has been able to go from complete anonymity to polling higher and for longer than several nationally-visible Democratic rivals.
According to Insider’s data, he’s been able to lock down more new supporters than any other 2020 contender outside of the four frontrunners (former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg). He’s appeared in all six of the first debates and was the only candidate of color on stage in December, which he called an “honor and a disappointment.” His campaign raised $16.5 million in the last quarter of 2019, putting him fifth among all Democratic candidates, behind Warren’s $21.2 million and ahead of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s $11.5 million.
That massive haul was thanks to small donors, 98% of whom gave $200 or less, with an average donation of $30, according to the campaign. Yang jokes that his fans are “as cheap as Bernie’s” – a reference to the democratic socialist senator whose front-running campaign is also built on small donations.
But thanks to them, Yang’s war chest might allow him to stay in the primary race until the last vote is cast.
Yang knows New Hampshire
About as northeast geographically as a state can get, New Hampshire isn’t “flyover country,” but that doesn’t mean a lot of its residents don’t feel similarly abused and ignored by the coastal elites.
What makes them unlike most small, largely rural states is that they have a voice. As Yang regularly reminds attendees at his town halls here, their per capita vote in the primary counts for far more than New York or California. They have power and they know it.
New Hampshireites make it a point to check out the candidates that come to their towns, and they’re not shy about putting candidates on the spot if they run into them in public.
After an early morning town hall in Hudson, while Yang tended to his trucker-sized breakfast, a diner waitress refilled my coffee then without so much as a “Pardon me, Mr. Yang,” demanded to know from the presidential hopeful, “What’s he going to do for me?”
“I have to come up with $35,000 for my kid’s lung transplant. Isn’t that pathetic?” she asked. Yang responded with his sympathies for what he called our “broken” health care system.
Shortly after, a man who appeared to be in his 60s walked up to our table and asked Yang how he’s liking New Hampshire.
“It’s great to be back, I went to high school here,” Yang replied, referring to his time at Phillips Exeter Academy – a highly selective boarding school which has been called the best private school in America. “It was a great place to learn, but it was a hard place. I was the awkward Asian kid.”
The man noted that he spent time in Asia, Vietnam specifically. “Good for you, thank you for your service,” Yang offered.
“Well I don’t know if it’s good for me, I came back with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the man replied. “I haven’t heard you say one word about the military. I like some of the stuff that Tulsi Gabbard’s bringing up, because ever since World War Two we’ve become the world’s policeman. We’ve got troops in over 150 countries and I don’t know if you think that’s a good idea.”
Yang stood up and calmly noted that he is aligned with Rep. Gabbard (another 2020 candidate) in ending “the forever wars” – the foreign conflicts that have stretched over decades with no exit strategies in sight – and that he has a slew of proposals to provide better care for veterans.
But the man was only getting started, laying into both Presidents Obama and Trump for what he said were broken promises to end US involvement in foreign wars in “shithole” nations, before seguing into a heartbreaking story about his 31-year-old nephew dying by suicide after suffering through untreated PTSD from his own combat service.
Yang thoughtfully listened, offered his sympathies, and reiterated his support for ending the forever wars.
Making it through his high school years and rejecting identity politics
Yang’s not shy about mentioning that he didn’t enjoy his high school years. But it’s nothing personal against New Hampshire. He was bullied in his early teenage years in suburban New York, before he transferred to Phillips Exeter.
“Growing up in my town, I was one of the only Asian kids and I’d skipped a grade, so I was very scrawny and felt small and out of place,” Yang recalls. “And I did get called ‘chink’ and ‘gook’ a fair amount. So I wound up getting into fights that I would lose typically.”
When he transferred to boarding school, it wasn’t as rough, but still lonely.
“Showing up in 11th grade wasn’t easy because most people in the school had been there already and it was fairly well-established in terms of social circles,” he says. “I would go to the music center and just play piano for an hour or two. There was a local arcade in town that I would go to play video games. There was a comic book store I went to every week. Those were the teenage things I would do that were kind of escape hatches.”
Despite being a victim of racially-motivated bullying and feeling out of place because he was the rare Asian kid, Yang the candidate has made it a point to eschew what’s become a prominent feature of Democratic Party progressivism: identity politics.
“I’m very proud of my own heritage. And I think that Americans being proud of who they are is great and getting different types of experiences into the public arena is tremendously positive,” Yang says. “But I think that identity politics as it’s used in many contexts serves to highlight differences and separate Americans from each other and does so in a way that’s not very productive.”
He adds: “I believe the biggest problems that concern Americans concern the vast majority of us. Things like an economic system that’s leaving more and more people behind. Climate change. A broken healthcare system and an underperforming educational system with record high levels of student loan debt. Some of these problems affect certain groups more than others, but there are many things that bring us together much more than serve to separate us from each other. And on a national level, I think that identity politics is a very counterproductive way to go because most people are drawn to messages that talk about how we can work together, rather than saying that people who have certain experiences or don’t have certain experiences aren’t allowed to relate to each other.”
It’s 2020 and the geeks shall inherit the Earth
The awkward, bullied Asian kid now can say that Rivers Cuomo – the Weezer frontman and rock and roll avatar for all 90s-raised Dungeons and Dragons-playing geeks – is endorsing his presidential campaign and performing at one of his Iowa rallies.
As a fellow Weezer fan, I had to know: “The Blue Album” or “Pinkerton”?
“The Blue Album,” Yang replied after considering the question for a moment (Weezer fans can love both of the band’s first two classic albums, but no one can say they don’t have a preference).
He’s also received endorsements from superstar comic Dave Chappelle and “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn. But in Donald Glover – the “Star Wars” actor, “Atlanta” creator, and Childish Gambino rapper who brilliantly straddles “cool” and “geek” culture like no one in the business – Yang’s not only earned an endorsement but found his campaign’s creative consultant.
When a progressive voter at a town hall in Manchester revealed himself to be a professional wrestler, Yang replied, “that’s so cool!” He then asked if the man would ask his question in character.
Without missing a beat, the man channeled the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage and thunderously growled, “We’re intrigued by the concept of universal basic income, but some of us are concerned it could lead to cuts in social services!” (Yang assured the gentleman that under his presidency, he would not support cuts to the social safety net.)
Yang, like me, is a frustrated fan of the hapless New York Knicks. Although in his case, he’s actually abandoned his fandom.
“I feel the same way about the Knicks that most Americans do about various institutions. We’ve seen bad leadership and lack of accountability.”
He’s also not as enthusiastically into the NBA itself as he used to be, now that the league is obsessively driven by analytics and has become all about three-point shooting to the detriment of hard-nosed defense and lane-driving dunks.
“They’re making a high enough percentage [of three-pointers] where the math is working now. But in another era they would have said that’s a bad shot,” Yang says.
He also lamented the loss of a certain kind of role player which barely exists in the league anymore: “I remember the Anthony Bonner types. He had no skills except that he played hard. Now you can’t have a ‘play hard’ guy who just comes in off the bench and is the energy guy.”
I’m struck by these sentiments coming from a candidate whose answer to MAGA hats is MATH hats (an acronym for Make America Think Harder). Yang’s no technophobe; some of his hardcore fans even wear shirts that say, “The Robots are Coming.”
But maybe there isn’t a disconnect here. Perhaps it’s apt for a candidate whose main policy is giving every adult American $1,000 a month as a way of preparing for, but not resisting, the near-future when automation makes a lot of working class jobs obsolete.
Technology is putting an end to a lot of hardscrabble careers, much as technology (and math) have made the “play hard” NBA role player a memory for fans like Yang and me.
One day home
When Yang gets his one day a week off the campaign, he’s unsurprisingly in decompression mode.
“It can be mindless entertainment where you just watch something really dumb. It can be mindless chores or tasks around the house,” Yang says of how he unwinds. “I might try and watch half an episode of ‘The Witcher’ because apparently it’s the number one show on streaming. And I genuinely generally like science fiction and fantasy stuff.”
But, Yang adds, “I was a huge ‘Game of Thrones’ fan, and I can already say that ‘The Witcher’ is no ‘Game of Thrones.'”
More than anything, Yang says the hardest part of life on the trail is being away from his two sons. The older of them, Christopher, is autistic.
“We found this adaptive sports foundation that teaches kids with special needs how to ski,” Yang says, before expressing his admiration for the volunteer instructors helping his son. “Imagine being an adaptive ski instructor. You’re dealing with people who are really challenged. Like our son is very uncoordinated. Various body control issues.”
“Those people are saints,” Yang says.
Evelyn Yang, Andrew’s wife, recently began making appearances on the campaign trail for her husband’s campaign. At a town hall in Concord, she spoke of parenting a special needs child.
“I’m working the hardest, most intense job of my life, and I used to work at 5:30 AM shift in high school. Now every day is a 5:30 AM shift and a 1pm shift and an 8pm shift and maybe a 3am shift just for fun,” Evelyn says. “But Andrew recognizes the importance of the work that caregivers do and he wants parents in our society to have a choice.”
She adds that like Andrew, she once had a high-stakes career in the private sector, but now her job is “CEO of Team Christopher.”
Evelyn told me that when Andrew takes his brief respites from the trail, the Yang kids can expect one thing.
“They know whenever dad’s around they get ice cream. It doesn’t matter what time of year, it could be freezing cold. It’s time for ice cream,” she says.
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