88-year-old former Alaska senator Mike Gravel is running for president in 2020, and has by far the most scorching Twitter presence of any candidate. Current Affairs talked to Gravel’s campaign manager and chief of staff, David Oks and Henry Williams, about the serious intent behind a candidacy that may seem like a joke. The full conversation can be heard on the Current Affairs podcast.
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: Several months ago, if you had asked most people who follow politics, “Who do you think are the most and least likely candidates to dive into the race?” Mike Gravel probably wasn’t coming up that much in discussion. And I think even Mike Gravel probably did not think that he would be running in 2020 — but he is. Could you start by telling us how that came to be?
HENRY WILLIAMS: I would say we were really just trying to do a solid to the one guy on PredictIt that was betting that Gravel would enter the race, and that was the end of it. I mean, he’s about to be a millionaire by now.
DAVID OKS: My god, if we had made some random bet that Mike Gravel would enter the race, I could pay for college.
HW: Alright, well, David, give the path to how this came to be.
DO: We’re active in online leftists circles. We read Current Affairs, we read Jacobin. I believe Henry is on the r/ChapoTrapHouse Reddit.
HW: Indeed, I am.
OREN NIMNI: Ah, the political circles of our day.
DO: The modern day central European coffeehouses. We were familiar with Senator Gravel for a long time. He figures quite prominently in a great book, Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. His name was mentioned on a recent episode of Chapo Trap House, and we thought, if we could get someone into the 2020 race, to the left of Bernie Sanders, we could push the entire field left, if we just got him or her into the debates. And so we did some research into the Senator’s positions, we read his book, and we decided that he would be the perfect candidate for such a thing. We called him up—we found his contact info, and he asked us, “Do you know how old I am?” He said that he was supporting Tulsi Gabbard and that he was not inclined to run. We had to convince him very slowly over several hour-long phone calls. We drafted a strategy memo and eventually he decided if he was running not to win, just to get into the debates, and push the others to the left, and then to get a platform for his views on imperialism, and direct democracy. And he was willing. We filed an exploratory committee. Some people on Twitter noticed. They said, “This must be a prank.” We had to prove that it wasn’t a prank, so we called the Senator up, and we said, “Can we have your Twitter account?”
HW: And the rest is history, really.
NJR: Did he know he had a Twitter account?
[OKS and WILLIAMS in unison]: Yeah!
HW: We actually looked at it, because what’s interesting is that even though the two of us are what you might call “extremely online,” the 88-year-old Senator is not extremely online. The reality of it, I think, and how we convinced him, sort of bit-by-bit, that this was a viable idea was by saying, “There’s way more of a market now for what you were pushing in 2008 than there was in 2008.” I mean, something that we thought was remarkable—not only did he get a shout-out on Chapo Trap House the week before we got interested in this idea, but also there’s really more energy now on the left for a candidate like Gravel than there was in 2008, than when he was actually running and on the debate stage. I think, particularly, the push over the edge for us to think this was a good idea, was just watching his 2008 debate performance. And just thinking, “How come the modern left hasn’t heard of this guy? How did he drop off the radar?” And interestingly enough, he really was the first extremely online candidate. He was pushing the viral video strategy a decade before it was cool.
EM: Let me ask you guys a question, then. One approach that you have adopted is backing Gravel to help pull Bernie Sanders to the left on foreign policy. Another approach that occurs to me is joining the Sanders campaign and working from within to try to pull him to the left. So why have you opted for this one particular strategy of this sort of “Trojan horse” candidate, as opposed to working as an activist to pull Bernie Sanders to the left, or joining the Sanders campaign itself?
HW: I’ll maybe present something that David and I were talking about, which is that when you’re as young as we are, you’re not going to get taken seriously. And we put resumes out there towards just about every presidential campaign as they were coming around, just to see whether they would bite, whether they would be interested in a couple of teenagers. And the reality is that they’re not, unless what you want to do is knock on doors—which we’re perfectly fine to do, but that doesn’t change anything in the platform. So one, we would say, […] the traditional route is not going to get you very far in affecting real change. And maybe the other one is I don’t think this campaign is just about changing the message for Bernie. I think it’s about opening up room for Bernie, which means having a candidate who is further to the left than he is, and is willing to use language he is. I think Sanders and his staff are still worried about what happened after 2016, which is that the “Bernie Bro” stereotype became the reason a lot of centrists said that they lost in 2016. There was this myth of all these Sanders voters who didn’t vote for Hillary, even though in 2008, as many people know, Hillary Clinton’s voters were less likely to go vote for Obama in the general than Bernie’s in the 2016 general election. And I think Bernie is still so worried about coming off as someone who attacks Democrats that he won’t say a single negative word about them. So the other thing that we’re able to do, from this perspective, is really go after Democrats in the center, and make them look weaker as candidates, while also making Sanders stronger, from the outside-in.
DO: And that can be accomplished by dunking on Beto, quite frequently.
HW: I mean, he really needs some people to dunk on him. He’s got to keep his ego in check.
ON: So Eli sort of referenced Gravel as a “Trojan horse” candidate, but my question is about the fact that he’s not a very good Trojan horse. Right now, you’re pretty open about the strategy, right? He’s a Trojan horse with a sign across his chest that says, “I am a Trojan horse.” I guess my question is about how you all are thinking about the strategy of both pushing Sanders, or pushing other candidates to the left, are opening up the field for Sanders, and being transparent about that, right? One tactic would be to kind of have Gravel go in and do what you are saying, but not talk about that as the strategy. And the other thing, which you all seem to be doing, is to talk about that. And I wanted to hear about the thinking on that.
EM: Trojan horse is probably not the right phrase—Potemkin, kind-of, candidate.
DO: Yeah, a candidate who doesn’t want to win.
HW: Right, exactly.
DO: Our goal is to show that there are certain ideas, especially surrounding an opposition to American imperialism, that have huge support among the base of the left, and yet aren’t really reflected at all among politicians, even among folks like Bernie Sanders. And we thought that we have to show that this has really big support. All of the consultants and advisors that these candidates are going to hire are going to be the same folks who advised politicians to support the Iraq war and stuff like that. So in terms of getting popular support behind a candidate, one option would be to actually run Gravel as someone who is saying that, “I do want to win,” “I would like to win the Iowa Caucus,” et cetera. But then, we knew that supporters of Bernie Sanders, supporters of Tulsi Gabbard, and to a lesser extent, supporters of Elizabeth Warren are loyal enough to their candidates that they would kind of dismiss this as kind of an attempt to split the left. And we would be worried about that, if Gravel was running to win, that he would perhaps take 3 percent, or 4 percent in the Iowa Caucus could give to, I don’t know, Kamala Harris, or something.
HW: Yeah, and maybe something in addition to this is: A lot of the genesis of this idea came from two things. One, the fact that they changed the rules for the debates so that there’s this other way of getting in. There’s this back door through having 65,000 donations, which really tells you not that this person is viable to win the entire primary, but they have a devoted and loyal enough base that is politically substantial enough that they deserve to have their voice heard. By approaching it the way we are—because you have candidates like Yang, and now Buttigieg is becoming a more serious candidate, but Yang and Klobuchar—a lot of candidates pulling nothing numbers, that are really talking all the time about debates, or one or two ideas. And we would argue they’re functionally running very similar campaigns. They are not very likely to win. They’re pretending their real goal is to win, but someone like Yang is really about advancing an issue, advancing his own personal brand.
And so we feel a kind of radical honesty will appeal to people in terms of getting to the 65,000, to say “You don’t need to believe that an 88-year-old man should be president,” or even really pretend that’s what we’re doing here. A candidate like Yang might pretend that he could or would go all the way, even though it’s extremely unlikely. We’re not going to pretend to that. Instead, we’re going to hope that a message of radical honesty about what we’re doing will lead people to get on board, to say, “Well, if all they want is a $1 donation from me, for the sole purpose of getting him on the debate stage, that’s something I can get behind a lot more easily than splitting the left, and risking damaging Bernie Sanders, even if he’s my favorite candidate.”
Nathan J. Robinson: I want to break down this phrase “pulling to the left,” because I think for people who do not necessarily share our politics—normal Americans who are not well-versed in the issues that people on the left care about—the idea that Bernie Sanders needs to become more of a leftist might strike them as impossible or mad. One common idea is that Bernie Sanders is as radical as you can get in American politics. And you’re getting in here and saying, “Bernie Sanders is not radical enough.” What do you mean by that? What do you think are the things that you have either been disappointed by, or are worried could be areas of disappointment? What are areas where you think someone who is already as far as left as it gets in mainstream American politics needs to be pushed further?
DO: People who think of Bernie Sanders as the equivalent of Trotsky, I think they think that because of a broader historical illiteracy. We forget that Henry Wallace was a candidate in 1948, and Henry Wallace was pretty far to the left of Bernie Sanders. I think Bernie Sanders is a pretty conservative social democrat, if you look at politics as a continuum and you include Western Europe. In terms of particular issues that Bernie is insufficiently leftist on, one really important issue right now is Venezuela, where [there is] basically an American-backed coup attempt—no matter what you think of the current government there—and Bernie has been remarkably quiet on it. He hasn’t really called for a real non-interventionist path. And broadly, Bernie has been kind of a fair-weather friend to the real anti-war movement, especially on foreign policy. And this has been a critique of Bernie and Liz Warren for a very long time, no matter what you think of Liz Warren. They have really strong programs for economics, but in terms of foreign policy, they have not read Michael Parenti.
HW: Something interesting about this, too, is that if you look at the Sanders platform and it’s really focused on this idea of justice. And they really turn that into a transformative thing. They talk about economic justice, social justice, racial justice. But something that feels distinctly absent from that message is justice for people outside of this country. It’s a kind of global leftism that requires a knowledge both of America’s sins, and the kind of deliberate actions required to undo the American imperial state. In a lot of ways, I think Sanders is afraid of getting labelled as a candidate who just wants to tear everything down. And so he won’t, for example, characterize America as an empire. And he won’t go after the Senate, as it is, or the Electoral College, or just how fundamentally undemocratic our institutions are, because he’s afraid that he’s already going after a lot of American institutions, and if he gets labelled a candidate who is just the “burn it all down” candidate, then there’s no way he’s going to have mainstream traction. And I think it’s an understandable concern by his campaign, but it’s also a perfect example of why the Overton Window needs to shift, why it needs to be possible to say these things about America as it is.
NJR: Just scrolling through the Gravel Twitter feed, I do notice that the kind of language that you are using in these tweets does feel very different from even what Sanders and Warren are using. I mean, the first one I just saw was “American imperialism has two faces: one outward, manifesting in militarism and economic subjugation of poorer nations; the other inward, manifesting in mass incarceration and impoverished colonies within cities. The common denominator is dehumanizing poor folk for economic gain.” That does sound a little different…
HW: A well-crafted tweet.
NJR: So, until you hear it like that, you don’t realize it’s never even among mainstream left discussion, not put quite that bluntly.
DO: Right. We don’t employ any communications strategists.
HW: But this is the real thing about it: I think it’s an important way of speaking, and it’s something that Gravel represented in 2008 when he ran. And it’s something I think what’s often maligned maybe as the “Dirtbag Left” today is willing to do, which is to say, in so many ways, Democrats have this really fundamental urge to return to their institutions, to believe that, “Well, ultimately, Trump is a passing fad, and the institutions themselves are just and strong, that America, as a country, is not fundamentally bad.” And I think that’s the difference in criticisms. You look at 2016 —the very fact that you might have a candidate whose message was, “Well, America is already great” in response to right populism, I mean, it’s an absolutely insane strategy, both in terms of retail politics and in terms of just moral honesty. And that’s the kind of language that we hope gets introduced bit-by-bit into this discourse. For example, someone like Sanders doesn’t say this, but I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said, or particularly Ilhan Omar, for example, when it comes to Elliott Abrams, saying, “This man is a war criminal, this man has committed horrific acts,” and not couching it in the language of, “Well, he was doing his best, he was working for this vaunted, impossible-to-define term called ‘national security.’” That you would say, “This man is genuinely bad and evil,” and you need to be able to articulate that, to have a politics that has play to human beings and not to wonks on Twitter.
ON: You’re framing Gravel as bringing in the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist lens on American empire, and the military-industrial complex. And there’s value in single-issue candidates in that they can be good at drawing attention to a particular thing, but I’m wondering to the extent that you all also envision the campaign either trying to push Sanders or open up space in the race on other issues—obviously they’re all interlinked—but economic issues, environmental issues, other particular social issues. Or the extent to which you all have any kind of tie to his past campaign, which had some of these elements but obviously wasn’t exactly where you all are now, and had other things—I forget, what was it, the “Fair Tax” scheme, about sort of abolishing the IRS and doing a massive sales tax. I don’t know if I’m remembering that correctly. Gravel is lost in my memory [laughs].
HW: He has walked a very strange political road, I would say, as well.
DO: In terms of other issues, as we’re writing a platform, and talking to policy experts and other folks, we are trying to open up space and push Bernie to the left on economics, and social issues as well. Yesterday I was talking to my personal hero, Immortal Technique, about deporting…
ON: Wait, you actually just talk to Immortal Technique now?
HW: We’re looking to get coffee with him in the coming weeks.
ON: That’s a thing now?
DO: Immortal Technique is just the coolest guy in the world. He’s so great. When you talk to him, he says, “Call me Felipe, or call me Tech.” It was so great. So Tech was telling me, this country right now, we’re deporting veterans in pretty significant numbers, mainly just for drug offenses. If there were just a law—and no presidential candidate right now is talking about it—if there were just a law saying, “We cannot deport veterans or their families,” it would be a huge boon. Or another thing that we’re talking about right now, we had a conversation with Matt Bruenig, and he suggested we take the Alaska Permanent Fund and we make it national. He sent us a really good policy brief that he’d written about. So we are aiming to take a lot of these really, really fascinating ideas on the left, and introduce them into the 2020 discussion, which, right now, is looking like a little bit of a rehash of 2008, like public option debates.
HW: Right. And I think a broad answer to this question is, forgive me for this phrase, but I think we see the anti-imperialism critique as a bit of a “tip of the spear” in an anti-institutionalist critique, which is to say there’s a lot about the American system that is broken. And imperialism is one facet of that. But what Gravel has been agitating for for a long time has been a system of national initiatives and referenda, which we strongly support, and I think we see a need to say things like, “The Senate should not exist in its current form, and the Electoral College should not exist.” And candidates like Sanders are inching in that direction right now, but they’re not where we think they could be. And where they could be is to say, “We don’t live in a democracy, fundamentally, and all these other solutions we are looking for are path dependent on being able to win,” and the way that you can do that is by allowing people to have a much more direct say in these issues. Part of our pitch is going to be about, well, if you want federal marijuana legalization, if it could be on a national ballot, if it could be a national referendum, suddenly, it’s a completely different issue, because then the fact that it’s so popular means that there’s no one who can push back against it, and special interests don’t have the room that they have. Like, in New York, for example, marijuana legalization was on track to happen this month, or next month, and right now, it’s being stymied. It might even take another year, because of special interest lobbies that are holding the whole thing up. And I think the fact that that’s even a possibility in our system requires a critique that says, “Everything here is broken, and a lot of it needs to be undone and redone.” And so, imperialism grabs people’s eyes. “No more wars” is a good slogan. But there’s so much more, as a part of that critique, and that’s kind of what Gravel has been agitating for. And I think what took him off the political radar was that the Democrats weren’t willing to be as critical of America as he has always been willing to be.
EM: Henry, you said that Gravel has walked a strange political road. I know that the campaign has issued a statement on this, but in the past, Gravel has spoken at events that were organized by Lyndon LaRouche supporters, and he’s associated with anti-Semites, and Holocaust denialists or revisionists. And I’m wondering if you could talk about this or comment on this record.
HW: Yeah, so I guess we’ll come at this from two directions. And one of them is in relation to who we think Gravel is as a person, and what led us to get on board with this. So this was a quixotic, kind of crazy idea from the beginning, and honestly, the reason that I think I got involved—I mean, David is a crazy idea generator, and he brings these things to me, and I say, “Maybe, maybe not.” What really convinced me was speaking with the Senator, and learning a lot about him, and by the way, asking him a lot about these issues, and a lot about his history. And I think what we’ve learned from him is that the senator has always had a very fundamentally strong backbone regarding not just his principles, but what his politics are about. And so, these unsavory associations that he’s had in the past, they come from the fact that he’s been fighting, really, a losing fight, for a long time. He’s been fighting a fight where he’s just been dropped off the political radar in a lot of ways, he says. He tells a great story about Howard Dean supposedly just killing his political career at this dinner. And what he says is he was looking for anyone to champion his political cause. And so the invites to events he’s gotten were always to speak about national initiatives, national referenda, and being somebody who had been out of politics, and was really just a one-person activist, it led him to accept invitations to some of these events, to associate with people that he didn’t understand the full history of, that he didn’t consider in its entirety.
So, for example, the Jewish Worker piece about his associations, when we brought them up to him, he had forgotten about some of these people. And we really dug into it, he didn’t know about their associations. [For him it was] always about, “Well, I got a speaking invitation, this is an issue that matters to me, and nobody is willing to let me talk about this, and because they are, and I want to be on their stage, and I want to say something,” and he was so quick to articulate why he did that and what it was always about for him. There was no part of him that associated with the ideas of these people. It was really the fact that he was in the political wilderness. And David, I think, has spent a lot of time talking to the Senator. I’m digging into these because, really, we felt we couldn’t get behind him unless we felt we had a satisfactory answer to these questions, because they matter to us.
DO: When we asked the Senator about that radio host… It was very clear that not only had he read really, really extensively about the Holocaust, he was mentioning books to me he had read about the Holocaust, but he kind of like ran me through his political history, and how Jews have benefitted him throughout. As a Jew myself, it was really heartwarming [laughs].
EM: You say you’re Jewish, and I’m Jewish myself, so I imagine you wouldn’t join a campaign if you had any doubts about his—if there was any sort of lurking anti-Semitism, or Holocaust denialism.
HW: Oh yeah, we would definitely not get involved. No, he is very much a philo-Semite.
NJR: Talking about the senator himself, you had mentioned his 2008 run, which was unique, and I remember it at the time because I had had no idea who Mike Gravel was in 2008 until he set foot on a debate stage.
HW: And unleashed the beast.
NJR: And it’s true that it was quite an experience to see him open his mouth. And he was in fact very different in a noticeable way from everyone else on stage, and you mentioned watching these clips, and his ads, and maybe you would like to just mention some of the things from his history that you find kind of unique and impressive, that have made you pick him as the vessel for this.
DO: Part of it was the Pentagon Papers thing. That was, I’m shocked that he’s not in pretty much every textbook for what he did surrounding the Pentagon Papers.
HW: And actually something quite interesting about that, in talking to him, was talking about how that Supreme Court case changed the dynamic on the Nixon administration’s response, that once it was clear that they had already lost this battle on keeping it out of papers. I mean, it’s funny, because I remember watching The Post, which I thought was a bit of a mediocre movie, and it barely touches on this fact, and it’s totally focused on the case involving the Post itself, but doesn’t acknowledge that what really changed the underlying dynamic was the fact that he had really taken this brave stance. And I mean, when we were on the phone with him, he was talking about drafting the version he wrote of it with Noam Chomsky, and how he broke into tears from just the emotional exhaustion of contemplating America’s crimes on national television. I mean, that’s a pretty tremendous thing to have on your record, and your history.
DO: And then watching him in the 2008 debates, I mean, my god, I have no idea how he did not become the Bernie Sanders in 2008. Some of these things that he says — they’re so incredible, and they barely get any applause. My favorite one was, “I’m frightened by all the top-tier candidates.” And then Joe Biden kind of meekly raises his hand [laughs].
HW: He says, “Oh, and you too, Joe.”
DO: “You have a certain arrogance about you.”
HW: And the thing about that, too, is it’s a testament to how strong media narratives were in 2008, still. We think of the media as very collapsed in its ability to shape the narrative in these primaries, because of what Trump did, and because of what Sanders did. But it’s really true — they painted him as your crazy grandpa, and it worked, and I think he played into it in a few cases, in a bad way. But when you look at him say, “Vietnam War vets died in vain,” which is a fact that I bet, for you, if you poll most Americans, you’re going to get a very polarized response, but honest Americans on the left will tell you, “Of course that’s the case.” I mean, how can you cope with the revelations of the Pentagon Papers, and the revelations of Nixon preventing peace talks from going through before his re-election campaign, and everything we know now, and say, “They really did accomplish something.” I mean the great line he had on that stage was, “They died, so that we could have a McDonalds in Hanoi.” And that’s a kind of line that, as you said, he’s so, so different, and you weren’t hearing that out of the mouths of the other candidates then. It’s sort of interestingly, you can see Barack Obama completely dodge that question when it’s asked of him. And I think that’s endemic of a fundamental weakness of the party then, and now, which is an inability to look unflinchingly at America, and say what’s wrong with it. And if you can’t articulate that, how can you possibly articulate the case to people.
DO: And that’s really what we’re going for with the Twitter account. The way we see it, is we’re updating Gravel’s approach to politics for the 21st century. And we’re updating it for the era of memes.
HW: And there’s way more of a market for it now than there was then. I mean, where Gravel was in 2008 is where the left of the party is now. And I will anticipate for you, and put on the record, as a prediction, that a decade from now, that where a Gravel account is, will be where a much more mainstream segment of the party will be, in a decade — is my hope, at least. It’s my hope that in the diaspora of a 2020 Sanders campaign, and all the people who come out of that, and run for office, you’re going to see a real shift in this dialogue. And that would be, I think, the next meaningful step in transforming the American left as a political force.
ON: You both seem not just committed to the ideas, but kind of committed to Gravel as a vehicle for these ideas, and think that he has a long history and track record of being committed to anti-imperialism, and all these sort of other leftist ideals. My question then for you is not about him, but is about the other candidates: assuming that your insurgency has the desired effect, how committed do you think the other candidates will be to upholding the values, even if the Overton Window has shifted,? Because there’s something different between a candidate that supports a slightly more left stance on the military because that’s where the Twitter conversation, or that’s what the national conversation is, and someone that deeply, in their core, believes that and is going to be committed to doing that, regardless of what the next political shift is. You’re changing the winds, but how much faith do you have in politicians that shift with the winds?
DO: I think just three days ago, Gravel was telling me that the most important virtue is not intelligence, or wisdom, or anything like that. The most important virtue is courage. And Gravel has basically been the same way, in terms of his political orientation, for his entire life. And then, you look at politicians like—Kirsten Gillibrand is a perfect example of someone who—wherever things are going she immediately updates, like Windows. Now we’re on like, Kirsten Gillibrand 3.0. And that’s part of why we are kind of relentless in criticizing some of the candidates who we see as fake, artificial, as committed to leftism right now, and then when they get into the general, suddenly, they’re going to be big fans of means testing. We see Bernie as kind of similar to Gravel in that Bernie has had the same politics his entire life. I think Bernie is kind of a Vermont version of Gravel, who is a little bit younger, and caught fire.
HW: Yeah, he’s a “youth” in this dialogue. And the interesting thing is, I’ve been asked about this a couple times by reporters, which is, “Why Gravel? Why an 88-year-old man?” And fundamentally, it really is that I think young people, and young people on the left, especially, are really committed to earnestness, and to having a record that shows who you are as a person. You can look at someone like, even Hillary Clinton, who was a Goldwater Girl all the way back, and I think you can see that there’s a way in which that kind of distrust of people who kind of can change their political orientation fundamentally weakens a candidate, when they’re lying to appeal to the left. And that’s why even incredibly old candidates like Sanders and Gravel can get so much play, primarily among young people. Because to young people, they represent an earnestness, and a commitment to those values that’s transformative, and fascinating, and different from our politics in a really interesting way. I mean, I think it’s interesting that Trump is different in that he’s the absolute abolition of that concept—just no commitment to anything. So in both ways, they’re different. But beyond just that… just as the diaspora of the Bernie 2016 campaign gave us Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar—there’s a real potential for the diaspora of the 2020 campaign to lead to a lot of candidates like this, who hopefully will start young, and start somewhere, maybe, where we are, and continue on a path of earnestness their whole careers. I think there’s a big potential to unseat the kind of centrists that might change with the winds, in favor of people who come in, sort of on the back of that change, and that are buoyed by this shift in what’s popular in the party. And I would hope that would be the direction we could go, and that those could be the people that we advocate for. Even if Gillibrand were on stage saying, “The American empire must end,” I would still have some difficulties in supporting her.
DO: I wonder who the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Mike Gravel campaign will be.
NJR: A lot of the attention that you have gotten in the press for the campaign has come because of the vicious and scathing tweets that have been unleashed on the Mike Gravel Twitter account towards pretty much all of the other 2020 candidates. Recently, you had, “The Beto campaign will pierce new frontiers in meaninglessness.” You had, “The 2020 Democratic field pretends to progressivism, but don’t buy the lie. Kamala Harris kept innocent men on death row, Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War, Cory Booker invented a drug dealer friend and voted with Big Pharma.” And then you had one about Gillibrand that I can’t even remember, but I also remember being quite mean. Maybe you could say what your theory of what the importance of being bluntly mean is, and also, almost what you’re most proud of. What do you think are the most important things that you’ve pointed out about the other candidates that you feel would not have been pointed out if you hadn’t had the credibility that comes with being the Mike Gravel Twitter account?
DO: I should note that after a few notes from the Senator, we are veering in a more policy-focused direction. We are veering away from attacks on the other candidates. We do occasionally criticize them for policy failures, or when Beto makes kind of the most meaningless Tweet of all time. I thought that was like a text-generator at first. That was so awful.
NJR: It says, “We will not be defined by our fears, or the smallness of our differences, but by our ambition, creativity, resolve, service, and sacrifice by which we achieve them.”
ON: Well, he started it off, also, by saying, “Let us be clear.”
NJR: Let us be clear!
HW: “Let us be clear,” which is, of course, the Marco Rubio line that got him so much praise for being a robotic candidate in 2016.
DO: It reminds me of that old line from Jebediah Springfield, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man,” or something.
HW: What’s interesting, I think, about, “Why do this?” is it’s self-evident, in that this is the coverage that we’ve gotten, and this is the response that we’ve gotten to this style of politics, and this message. I think it’s no accident that part of the reason that we’ve gotten so big, so fast, is that the format of Twitter, and the format of this online discussion requires piercing the bubble of other candidates, and of, I think, the discourse, very precisely, and effectively — often with humor. Maybe one side of that, for example, is we live in a world of the politically absurd. Beto standing on tables, and really, the sort of most absurd thing — Corey Booker inventing a drug dealer friend, and then the media never asking him about it again. I think they represent the kinds of things that have always made young people, and always made the left so cynical about our politics, that it is without meaning, it is substance-less, and it is really a lot of bullshit. And because people feel these things, that’s why they respond to the attacks that we put out there. I think what people are looking for is a way to, in just a single sharp idea, codify what it is that makes them so frustrated, and makes them so upset about the way our dialogue is, and the way our other candidates are. I think probably the thing I’m proudest of is our Tweet about the AIPAC reversal for Kamala Harris, which is just this classic say-one-thing, do-another move. You make a big issue, and you turn it into a big P.R. stunt about not going to AIPAC, about standing with criticisms of AIPAC, and letting that be a moment of revelation in the party, and just immediately contradicting that by having a Tweet put out there about having a meeting with them in your office. And the thing that’s interesting is, you see it’s absurd, and it’s absurd, if you know the context. But you need something that just fundamentally allows you to understand it. And David’s line about that was great. He was the one who came up with this Tweet: “It’s the most Lionel Hutz move of all time.” And I think the response to that is clear in the literally thousands of Lionel Hutz GIFs that people responded to that Tweet. People want to have someone pierce through the veil of ignorance. I mean, there’s a great line, actually, from Chapo Trap House, where they say that the reason people love Bernie Sanders is that you live in this infantilized, consumerized, neoliberal world where everything babies you; where the subway ads are like “you’re a goody-good boy and you deserve a treat,” and Bernie Sanders is your no-bullshit grandpa who cuts through the bullshit and tells you the way things really are. And I think that’s what people really like, and I think they suspend disbelief on the Gravel account. They like to believe — and it’s his message, it’s our words. And they like to believe there’s an 88-year-old man who is owning them on Twitter. And honestly, they want someone like that to cut through the bullshit for them, and I think that’s why the response has been so profound.
ON: I wanted to ask about a campaign that, right now, and for good reasons, is run solely on Twitter. You were talking about the outgrowths of the 2016 Bernie campaign, for example, but part of the thing with the outgrowths of that were they were people who were part of his campaign team, and doing all of this sort of on-the-ground work. The Gravel campaign is very different, trying to do something very specific in a different way. But I want to know how you all think about this shift from trolling, or taking down other candidates, or even Tweeting about policy, to building power.
DO: Right now, the Twitter account is kind of the public face of the campaign, and we also have a very active Slack group. We are working on the platform. But I think for most of the campaign, we are going to have a physical element. We have so many volunteers. I think we have like 250 or 300 at this point. And we’re going to kind of deploy them into the real world to get people to donate. But I think for most of the campaign, kind of the public face is going to be this Twitter account, because Senator Gravel has made clear to us that he does not want to like — we’ve gotten all these speaking invitations. We just got one to go to the Netherlands. But he’s made clear that he would rather not spend his time actively campaigning.
ON: I guess, to rephrase the question, I think one of the big critiques of the online left is that life doesn’t exist online, and that you can only do so much to shift the conversation by winning Twitter battles, and that the thing that builds your next Ocasio-Cortez, or the thing that builds good community organizing, or even the thing that shifts the political conversation is reaching people that aren’t on Twitter, and kind of doing other political power-building. And I’m wondering if you all think, actually know, a bunch of this is happening on Twitter, and that’s kind of the reality of how we’re going to be able to shift this, especially with the small resources that we have, or, if you have another phase of the thing that sort of engages in — I don’t want to call this traditional forms of political organizing, because I actually don’t think the left does those forms of power-building very well. They do, mostly, money-collecting.
HW: What I would argue, is a little bit of both. This is power. It is a kind of power that is very different from what we’ve thought of and seen as the impact that other campaigns have had in the past. But to me, what power means is, fundamentally, to affect change. And so, in my mind, this is something which is a couple layers removed from that change, definitely. And it’s a bit abstracted in a way, that it’s hard for people to get behind — they don’t know what specifically about supporting Mike Gravel will give them what they want in the real world. But what I see is two things that the Gravel campaign can accomplish that will be that change: for one, because we are such a small, grassroots, unfunded idea here. What we think our strongest power here is to force other people to talk about the ideas that we’re bringing up, and ideally to get something like the Sanders campaign to take on planks of of our platform into theirs, as they move through the primary. So, the idea would be, as you say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out of a groundswell, boots-on-the-ground campaign infrastructure in the Sanders campaign. And our goal would be to piggyback on a lot of other more traditional leftist circles, by really providing a rallying cry for changing the dial for one or two issues. And that’s why we’ve constrained — I mean, our platform would be a little more expansive, but we’ve constrained our message to a few key issues, because we think it’s possible to really affect change on these. And I think a lot about the way Mark Fisher’s essay, “Exiting The Vampire Castle,” where he talks a lot about how so often the dialogue on the online left, and on the left in general, is one of tearing each other down and condemning each other. It’s one of endless purity testing. And it’s a lack of really compelling and human messages — the kind of messages that people will be inspired by and take forward that aren’t just rhetoric, that aren’t empty bullshit. It’s not about the politics of hope, or red states and blue states. It’s about something real that can unite people on the left.
And, so, what we think the clearest path from the Gravel campaign to power is allowing other leftists to get behind this change in the way we talk about these issues; to take the things that we’re saying; to take our messages, our slogans, and carry it forth into the general election, and particularly, to segue everything we do in terms of the dialogue of the early stage of the primary, into what, hopefully, a nominee Sanders would be saying in the general election, what would be on his platform. And in particular, that this segment of the left that’s so quick to get behind someone who is doing Twitter owns. Certainly, people do it because they like the entertainment value. They’re interested to see something this weird out there. But I also believe that these people are likely to make that next step: to donate to him, to get him on the debate stage, and to take that next step, to when, eventually we endorse a candidate, likely Bernie Sanders, to get behind him, to basically move the organization, and the comms people, and everything else we’re building up on our campaign over to supporting a augmented version of, like, a Sanders campaign, which has done all of that more traditional work, but now, which carries with it a message that has been, in a lot of ways, workshopped and tested online, and which hopefully, ideally, our dream would be to be writing tweets for other people as well. To be putting the same message out there in a form that even more people will see, and that potentially has even more play. One thing about the anti-war movement that’s interesting, and that the senator has brought up to us many times is that people hate war. War never polls well, except for the first couple of months it’s going on. And ending war, just conceptually, is the kind of thing that people can and will get behind, and at this point are unwilling to, or don’t, because there’s no one saying it, and there’s no one saying it in a way that’s been proven to be viable. And really the goal of this campaign, more than anything else, is proving that there’s a market for this message.
DO: To steal a line from Mark Fisher, who, of course, said that we live in a world of capitalist realism. We also live in a world of imperialist realism, where we don’t really see an end to these wars that go on forever. And we think, “Okay, in five years, I guess we’ll be invading Iran.” And then onto Yemen.
HW: With people on the center-left—and I think this is true as a very true principle—is people on the center-left might never be starting wars, but they’re never going to be ending them. Every Republican president, ever, is going to start some new foreign intervention, some new foreign entanglement, and every center-left Democrat is going to be telling them, “Really, war is not a good thing, but it’s unrealistic to say we could end it.” And of course, they might say it’s “politically unviable” to say that these wars are bad. And we want to prove it is politically viable. Not only is it politically viable, but this is where the party is going. And I would like people to look back on the Gravel campaign, years from now, as a foreshock of a more fundamental shift in the way these issues are talked about on the left, and in the Democratic Party.
DO: The dream is that we return to the period from kind of the 1890s to the 1920s, when the anti-war movement dreamt so big… The very idea of not having a war again — no matter how lofty or unrealistic, it’s such a beautiful idea that we no longer consider it. It’s something that, just as an ideal, the left really should get behind once more. And hopefully by doing sick Twitter burns, we help that in a small way.
ON: Do y’all think of yourselves as campaign managers, and chiefs of staff? Or do you think of yourselves as running a Twitter account? How do you conceptualize your own role in this?
HW: Well, there’s a very perfect analogy to this, which is that David ran for Mayor two years ago, in his town of Ardsley, New York.
DO: That was a disaster.
HW: [Laughs] and that was another one of these quixotic endeavors. I was his chief of staff, that was my title. That was what we called ourselves. And we knocked on doors, and we handed out fliers, and made yard signs, and everything else. But I think what it was always about for us was the need to do something, and the need to feel like people respond to what we’re doing. Because we know these people are out there. I mean, David and I, I’m not going to say that our brains have been poisoned by online, but we certainly know what is going on in these circles, and I think what this has really shown us is it’s not about running a campaign in the traditional sense, or even the idea of being a campaign manager. It’s about being people who are voicing what’s already in the heads of people on the left, what they’re already thinking, and what’s already out there. And I would really hope, synthesizing a lot of the ideas of this 88-year-old senator into a form that, go figure, people happen to love on Twitter.
DO: People in Ardsley, they do not treat me like they should a campaign manager. It’s really disappointing. When I go to the bagel shop, people give me no respect. They don’t let me cut lines. It’s a disaster all around.
ON: This is the real goal of the campaign: respect at the bagel shop.
HW: I don’t think David and I would want to pretend to be political savants, or that we really know that much about organizing, or are political consultants, or anything like that. I think what we would say is, what we have is just sort of training in these ideas, and just spending a lot of time reading and thinking about them. We now have a campaign staff, which features a lot of very smart academics, a lot of comms people, people who have been in journalism, in web development. Basically, in short, way more qualified than us, in every sense of the word. And we’re managing them. We’re managing the staff. But we’re very deferential to the people who have gotten on board with this, because we don’t pretend to know anything more than just how to get this — how to say things people respond to. I think it’s the only skill we really have here. And so, our hope is to use that, and have a lot of people who are a lot more knowledgeable about their particular fields than us, turn it into something more than just that. To weaponize this ability to become something that is transformative.
DO: These people who are just significantly smarter than us.
NJR: One of the things I’ve appreciated that you’ve been using the Twitter for is the consistent advocacy of Chelsea Manning, who of course, is still imprisoned. And I think that’s the sort of thing where if you’re not hounding people about it, everybody is going to forget it, even though it’s a massive injustice. But it’s happening to one person, so even for people on the left can fall off the radar. I just want to finish with a lighthearted question, which is: What is Mike Gravel actually like? What have your conversations with him been like? What is the experience?
DO: It is my favorite part of the day, every day. He’s so cool. He’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, in my entire life. I love the guy so much. Honestly, I’ve got to say, and this is not me shilling as campaign manager, but it is such an honor. And he’s just like, such a cool guy. I remember I was, and Henry is usually on these calls, so he knows that he’s just the kindest man that you will ever meet in your entire life.
NJR: Give me a sense of what a Mike Gravel phone call is like.
HW: I mean, you’ll just throw out any political name of the last 30 years, and Democrat of the last 30 years, and he has got a hot take. I mean, the hot takes flow from him like water. And I think David might have just said Francis Fukuyama, and we got, boy did we get a message about Francis Fukuyama.
DO: Oh yeah, he had a really good take on Francis Fukuyama, where he said — I mentioned like, Elliott Abrams, and he was like, “That sick son of a bitch.”
HW: We mentioned Howard Dean, and he tells this great story about Howard, about him being allowed to speak at some fundraising dinner, and him kind of going after a bit of the Dean platform, and then as he gets off stage and shakes hands with Dean, Dean sort of whispers in his ear, and he knows his political career is over. And all this stuff, which I think represents that… I mean, he’s so witty. He’s so spry. He’s way more tuned-in than I expected of him. And I think what he’s really got is the heart for it. The fact that he’s even agreed to this, in his age, the fact that he was living a quiet life, and hopefully still will be—we’re not trying to burden him too much. But the fact that he’s just game for this, that he hears some teenagers on the phone with him, and the second he does, he’s like, “I like what you’re saying, I’m on board with you, I’m excited that young people care about what I did years and years ago. And more so than that. He wants to help people who like him and like his message, however possible. He’s said to us so many times: “I want you, I want your young friends, I want any young person on board with the campaign. I want this to be about you, and about them, and launch something beyond just me, because I’m getting on in years, I am not going to be president.” I think he’s accepted that. But that’s not what it’s about for him. It’s about doing whatever good he still can. And I think that’s why he agreed to this, in the first place. The man has just got a heart of gold.
DO: Our greatest fear is that he goes to the debates, and that his message is so popular that…
HW: He becomes the frontrunner! Then what are we going to do?
DO: He becomes the frontrunner and he really does not want to be the President of The United States. Like William Jennings Bryan, back in 1896, that the popular demand is so great, that they just foist him into power, they just make him the nominee. And we have President Gravel. I mean, we would have to manage a national campaign. It would really, I would have to take a gap year, I don’t know [laughs].
EM It reflects well on Gravel that he doesn’t want to be president. There’s something seriously suspect about anyone who does, in fact.
NJR: That’s the only person you should want.
HW: That was his exact line for us. He said, “Anyone who wants to be president actually should not be.”
ON: That was the thing that terrified me about him, from 2008, was like, ohh, does he actually want to be president? Now that he’s running again, I was like, “Someone that’s been in the Senate and also wants to be president? I don’t think I trust that person.”
DO: Yeah, anyone who actually thinks that they can rule over 330 million some people must have something wrong with them. It’s really just a weird megalomania. I don’t know, I think, candidates like Bernie — I do like Liz Warren, I must admit. But when you see these careerist candidates like Kamala Harris, or Pete Buttigieg, who I just despise on a deep, deep level. God, we have all these like, random McKinley alums, who are going to be ruling over us for the next few decades. It’s going to be hell.
HW: You know what bothers me more than that? It’s not just the candidates themselves, but the attachés of all of that. You’ve got the Obama Boys, right, who are cooking up a storm with their perhaps slightly-more-listened-to podcast. The problem with them is of course that they just think that they’re so good. They just think that they’re so good, that their message is so good, that people just love them so much. Honestly, that kind of smugness. David and I are very self-deprecating, by nature, and I think our hope is for a politics that is not as much about these people, so much. Gravel is a rallying point, in the same way that Sanders is. But I think part of the fact that Gravel is not running to win, and the fact that it’s an effort, not just of him, but of a sort of eclectic combination of people who have gotten behind him, speaks to what I would like to see more of in our politics, which is that when we stop giving so much of a crap about the Betos of the world, and that we take a page out of Bernie’s book, whose slogan this time around is “Not me, us.” That’s a much more compelling idea to me than all of these terrible, egotistical candidates. The fact that, what was it? I actually saw the article in Current Affairs — the “How To Write A Political Puff Piece” — that Vanity Fair piece about Beto was like, “Beto’s Choice: ‘I just want to be in it. Man I just got to be in it. That’s what I was born to do.’” I mean, anyone who says that is a psychopath.
DO: Occasionally, we talk about the really awesome things that the Senator has done throughout his career. But we never talk about these random personal details that these candidates seem to think qualify them for the Oval Office. The Senator speaks French, but you don’t see us saying like, “His knowledge of foreign language makes him qualified.”
HW: I have to say, I saw a great article about how Pete Buttigieg speaks Spanish along with probably a hundred other languages, and yet on his site, there’s not a Spanish translation. Ours does, by the way.
ON: That was well done, that right there. “Now, Pete. Now our campaign, of course…”
NJR: [Laughs]. So the site is MikeGravel.org, yes?
DO: I hope people get the joke there.
HW: They’ll get it when they see the video.
ON: A remake of the rock video.
HW: I can’t tease anything, I can’t tease anything.
DO: No comment, there.
NJR: Oh my god. If you talked 88-year-old Mike Gravel into throwing another rock into a lake… [Laughs].
DO: He sent us the contact info for the original rock guy. It’s going to be the greatest thing of all time.
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