A great groaning and rolling-of-eyes seized the internet last week as Dave Chapelle announced he was supporting Democratic candidate Andrew Yang in the primaries. I can’t say that I was surprised. Many have heard of the Yang Gang, that motley group of Redditors and Channers, gamers, memers, vapers, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and compulsive masturbators that have formed the basis of Yang’s campaign online. But in addition to these unwashed masses, Yang has also steadily been attracting an elite, mostly male constituency I like to call “eccentric Tories,” or to coin a term, “New American Tories.” When I watched Chapelle’s latest stand-up special,which premiered in August on Netflix, as he reflected about the joys of gun-ownership and land ownership (he has a farm in Ohio) and ranted about his irritations with young people and the rise of identity politics and cancel culture, I thought to myself, “Oh, he’s kind of a Tory.”
The terms “Tories and “Toryism” are not really part of the modern American political vocabulary, so let me explain a little. The Tory faction emerged in the late 17th century in England as the defender of the monarchy and tradition against the Whig party, which advocated the interests of parliament. Tory is now the colloquial name for the Conservative parties of Canada and Great Britain, the latter of which just won a resounding victory at the polls. But the name refers as much to a disposition as an ideology or specific party. The classic image of the Tory, which holds from the 1700s to today, is that of a fat, self-satisfied landowner, generally complacent but driven to red-faced distemper by anything that would intrude on the enjoyment of his privilege and the comforts of his estate.
Tories are often eccentric and drawn to eccentric figures. The 17th century English poet William Shenstone said they belonged to “the fanciful tribe.” Look, for example, at the shaggy British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who dreamed as a boy of being “world king,” attended Eton and Oxford, and seems to have been genetically engineered to stymy political cartoonists by outstripping their best endeavors. And for all their aristocratic pretensions, Tories historically were often parvenus — “new money” as we call it in America — anxious to preserve the wealth and status that they’d recently acquired. As Marx acidly remarked, “The Tories represent the plebs of the aristocracy.”
Yang seems to uniquely attract this kind of person — the recently established and self-regarding. His supporters include Tesla founder Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, rapper and actor Donald Glover, who threw an impromptu concert for Yang in December, Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, and actor Nicholas Cage. They all in one way or another belong to a previous age, in which the pretensions of wealth and talent were given more deference. They are men accustomed to having their fanciful notions regarded with awe and respect. In the midst of or approaching middle age, they fear the loss of the world they could understand and master. The 17th century philosopher Spinoza asserted that every individual thing strives to persist in its existence, and these magnates certainly follow that universal law, resenting anything that would dilute or diminish their sense of singularity.
In America, libertarianism used to attract people with this sensibility, but the era of Trump and populism has evidently made libertarians realize that “Leave me alone” is no longer a viable political position; they have moved on to “If I give you some money, will you leave me alone?” in the form of the Freedom Dividend, Yang’s Universal Basic Income proposal. The New American Tories have adopted the classic Tory answer to social unrest — paternalism. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the great Tory leader of the late 19th century, realized that the problems facing the rapidly industrializing nation had to be dealt with, and that further impoverishment of the lower orders was likely to lead to revolution and so he became the sponsor of initiatives to somewhat relieve the plight of the poor and dampen radical agitation.
Oversimplification, often funny in the way it can simultaneously fuse wisdom and folly, becomes an unfortunate tic of the comic mind when applied to more serious pursuits.
Among the cranks and curmudgeons with the most to lose from a changing society, Yang is particularly favored by comedians. He’s received nods from Hannibal Burress (quite literally a landowner concerned about the continued collection of his rent), Norm MacDonald, Ken Jeong, Tommy Chong, and, of course, Dave Chapelle. (Some of England’s greatest satirists and wits, from Jonathan Swift to Samuel Johnson, were Tories.) If, as Clive James said, “Humor is just common sense, dancing,” then it’s in the interest of the aging humorist that common sense remain the same, lest they have to learn new dances on less-than-spritely legs. The central premises of Yang’s campaign — general social liberalism (“let people do what they want!”), a rejection of identity politics (“this political correctness stuff is out of control!”), and UBI (“just give people $1,000!”) — all can sound like a comedian’s bits. Oversimplification, often funny in the way it can simultaneously fuse wisdom and folly, becomes an unfortunate tic of the comic mind when applied to more serious pursuits.
While the British Tory might long for the days of colonial Kenya, Rhodesia, or the British Raj — a time in which an English mediocrity was fanned by natives — the New American Tory’s hopes are more modest and democratic, fitting his native country. He longs for a perpetual 1997, when the American empire was at its height, before 9/11 and the war in Iraq. This yearning is perhaps reflected in Yang’s foreign policy, which favors a return to Clinton-era multilateralism and international engagement. The New American Tory longs to fall asleep on the couch watching an old episode of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, his dreams untroubled by the importunities of cancel culture. He pines for a time when the racial and social conflicts of America didn’t seem so serious and were easily laughed off in a late-night TV monologue. In short, he hopes for a way out of politics and its constant tensions.
There are definitely worse creatures lurking in the margins of American political life than these new Tories, but perhaps fewer with so much self-regard and so little self-awareness, nourishing grievances that look outwardly so petty. Believing themselves to be independent and not part of any class or mass movement, they are unlikely to form a permanent part of a Yang coalition and will gravitate to other candidates on the traditional right and center. They are victims of the mental habits that afflict many eccentric people: undue cynicism directed at others combined with nearly inexhaustible reserves of credulity for their own often-harebrained ideas and notions. The New American Tory is materially secure but feels aggrieved by the lack of proper respect society now affords to his station. Why should he expect others to feel any other way?