“Deez Nuts wasn’t real,” Montellaro concluded. “But Mike Gravel is.”
Of course, today’s definition of “real” is more expansive than ever. In the days after Montellaro broke the news, Gravel made zero public appearances, beyond his usual personal errands. Meanwhile, on Twitter, @MikeGravel was prolific, issuing up to a dozen tweets a day, sometimes while Gravel himself was sleeping. The D.N.C. deadline for donations was June 12, just 85 days away. Williams and Oks, now known online as the Gravel Teens, set out to persuade at least 65,000 people to donate a single dollar or more.
[Read about the Democrats importing grass-roots activism in their 2020 campaigns.]
Their plan was to trade the standard Democratic playbook for the equally peculiar norms of far-left Twitter. They angled for donors with tweets like, “The neoliberal dream is someone who is smooth and cool and looks dignified in all the official photos and also crushes Arabs’ skulls on the weekend,” or, “Pete Buttigieg is what you get when Patrick Bateman decides to pursue politics instead of banking.” Where most politicians were likely to sense danger, the Teens saw only retweets and likes. When one detractor suggested that people donate to him instead of to Mike Gravel, the Teens sent him $20 of their own money via PayPal. (He was freaked out, but onlookers loved it.) When another skeptic joked, “I’m going to get Mike Gravel to post ‘Trans Rights uwu,’ ” @MikeGravel replied, “Trans Rights uwu.” The extent to which the octogenarian appreciated “uwu” — an emoticon signifying superprecious joy — was unclear. In any case, it received more than 3,500 likes.
Through this kind of haphazard interaction, @MikeGravel began to find fans. Beyond the comic incongruity of an old man’s tweeting like a teenager, fans seemed to revel in the overarching strangeness of a candidate’s commenting directly on an issue, or a candidate’s replying to any tweet at all. Followers named themselves #GravelGang or #Gravelanche — a portmanteau that relies on mispronouncing the candidate’s name, which rhymes with lapel, not gavel. (Gravel himself prefers #Gravelistas.) Out of this new constituency, Williams and Oks assembled a volunteer campaign staff. Some of these staff members, who now number 80, work from their day jobs, sending out campaign missives on the clock with a free version of the email service MailChimp.
Gravel’s platform, the most detailed of any Democratic candidate’s, includes a vast slate of issues that poll well with young voters: immigration reform, student-debt forgiveness, a Green New Deal, military-spending cuts, a policy of nonaggression abroad. Oks and Williams call Gravel a few times a week to approve any additions to the slate. Because Gravel isn’t really trying to be president, he can also afford to openly support reparations, the decriminalization of sex work and the end of “Israeli apartheid” — policies considered urgent on the far left but largely ignored or rejected by the Democratic Party. His website, MikeGravel.org, hosts discrete pages for 47 issues. Pete Buttigieg, by contrast, introduced his own website with zero. (Buttigieg has since added his own issues page.) On Instagram, the Mike Gravel page taunted, “Good morning @pete.buttigieg did you finish your policy page yet it’s due today you can copy mine dude just hurry.”
Broadly speaking, the Mike Gravel campaign is part of the same Democratic Socialist moment that elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and nearly nominated Bernie Sanders in 2016. If Gravel seemed like a sideshow in 2008, then today — post-recession, post-Occupy, post-Trump — his campaign represents the most absurd form of a legitimate movement on the left that feels little obligation to the Democratic Party. Among this young, emergent class of leftists, change is enacted through local organizing efforts, and discourse tends to play out on Twitter, where news, and the organizations that produce it, are subject to daily systemic critique. The rise of leftist discourse on Twitter has helped to hone a new political humor that undergirds the @MikeGravel campaign. The target of this humor is not President Trump but rather what the far left sees as a defeatist and servile center-left that values compromise over belief and denigrates the social reforms beloved by the very same voters it seeks.