It was a rock-star entrance in Rochester, N.H.
There were whoops and cheers. There were handshakes and high-fives – the kind U.S. President Donald Trump will receive from Republicans when he moves down the aisle of the House of Representatives chamber in the Capitol for his State of the Union Address in Washington on Feb. 4, the day after the Iowa precinct caucuses.
But this was in a city of fewer than 32,000 an hour north of Boston and an hour south of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a spot so inhospitable to colonial settlers that few dared plant roots in the area until 1729 – and a place that didn’t have much of an economy until the British discovered that the trees in Whitehall Swamp made for fine masts for the king’s ships.
The object of this acclaim and adoration was a political candidate who was an asterisk in the polls just months ago, an unknown in politics until recently, and, suddenly, a real presence – if not yet a real force – in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Andrew Yang is the most unlikely presidential candidate since Ned Coll, a community activist who in a Democratic debate 48 years ago only miles from here brandished a toy rat and described it as a symbol of the “real crisis” in America, the housing calamity of the urban poor.
Mr. Yang has no such audio-visual aids, simply a lapel pin that reads MATH (“Make America Think Harder”) and a math wizard’s mastery of figures. If MATH is the political dictionary’s antonym for MAGA (“Make America Great Again”), then Mr. Yang is the political dictionary’s antonym for Mr. Trump.
“I am the ideal candidate for this job – an Asian man who likes math,” he said at a raucous rally here. No one missed the comparison with the 45th president.
Indeed, Mr. Trump’s election formed the basis for Mr. Yang’s opening remarks in the back banquet room of an old Georgian-style New England hostelry.
What, he asked the crowd – mostly young, some bearded, all intense and pretty much all-in for the former businessman who has developed a cult following – was your reaction to the election of Mr. Trump?
The answers: Tears. Nausea. Screaming. Contacting a “help” hotline.
Mr. Yang characterized the Trump triumph as the country deciding to “take a bet on a narcissist TV star as our president.” Then he really turned up the heat on the President.
The crowd loved it. Many voters around the country are moved by him, helping him to raise US$16.5-million in the past three months, catapulting him into the top tier of fundraisers even as he remains the sort of niche candidate that The New York Times characterized as “the Internet’s favourite candidate.”
Indeed, the Yang candidacy is both viral and full of vitality. His appearance in Rochester was a combination of a rally and an economic lecture, ranging from deploring Amazon’s effect on the economy to arguing that conventional economic indicators understate the crisis of ordinary families in the United States to raising fears of the implications of automation. “The rubber will hit the road,” he said, “when the first robot trucks hit the highways.”
Some already have hit the highways, and that only reinforces Mr. Yang when he hits the hustings here in the state that on Feb. 11 will hold the first primary of the 2020 presidential election.
Citing American revolutionary theorist Thomas Paine, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and conservative economic thinker Milton Friedman, he speaks of giving every American a monthly US$1,000 grant − the funds would come from making high-tech companies pay more taxes or, in some cases, some taxes at all – to create what he calls “the trickle-up economy.”
The idea may seem to ensure Mr. Yang is regarded on the progressive fringe of the Democratic Party. But shortly after his inauguration in 1969, Republican President Richard Nixon supported a similar initiative, the Family Assistance Program. “In many respects, the Yang proposal has its roots in the Nixon plan,” John Roy Price, who was a young domestic-policy adviser in the Nixon administration and one of the architects of the initiative, said in an interview, “and Nixon wouldn’t find the Yang plan unusual, even though he successfully campaigned against another proposal like this from George McGovern," his rival in the 1972 election. The Nixon plan passed the House of Representatives in 1970 and then again in 1971, but died in the Senate finance committee.
But Mr. Yang’s platform isn’t confined to math. He combines it with philosophy in an effort to build a fresh campaign chemistry. He is the only candidate to speak repeatedly about the mental health of the country and “stress,” a word he employs repeatedly. And, like others in the 2020 race, he brandishes values as a campaign message, although with a distinctly Yang twang. “The things we claim to value are declining or being wiped away. We’ve been brainwashed to think our economic values and human values are the same thing, and they are not, New Hampshire."
In four weeks, New Hampshire gets to express its own values and decide whether Mr. Yang’s ideas have value. If the verdict is that they do, he goes on. If they don’t, his campaign may well be finished.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.