These values are ingrained in the center-left’s own humor, exemplified by late-night hosts’ trying to outreason Trump by fact-checking his tweets or calling him names like a lying orange Cheeto. If center-left humor says that Trump can be outwitted — despite what the overwhelming evidence suggests — then far-left humor is much more concerned with mocking the kind of political system that says you have to argue with someone like him at all. Williams describes this strain of humor as “a kind of postmodern ironic detachment, coupled with real earnestness.” Often this particular earnestness is vulgar, using bluntness as an antidote to self-regard. When I asked one #Gravelanche supporter what he thought of the candidate Kamala Harris, a former attorney general of California, he suggested that she “would be a good secret-police chief.” When I asked him what he thought of older voters, he said: “Older people are going to be dead in 10 years, so they just want their tax money and [expletive] to buy kangaroo-skin dildos.”
The left-wing humor podcast “Chapo Trap House” — formed from a klatch of leftist Twitter personalities — is so closely tied to this sensibility that its name is now used as a near-synonym. “ ‘Chapo Trap House’ is great catharsis,” Williams says. “But it doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t make me feel like anything can change.”
Williams says one of the Gravel campaign’s goals is linking catharsis to efficacy. Leftists were just as traumatized by the 2016 election as centrist Democrats were, but each group came away from the experience with different lessons. From the perspective of left-wing Twitter, Hillary Clinton was a uniquely awful candidate whose failures stemmed as much from her policies (bland centrism) as from her style. She ran her campaign on the old-fashioned myth that a politician should try to seem real, despite all the P.R. pros behind the scenes. This resulted in constant, folksy gaffes, some of which have become comedic touchstones on lefty Twitter — “Pokémon Go to the polls!”; implausible comparisons to “your abuela”; a video in which she boasted, “I’m just chillin’ in Cedar Rapids.” She came off as a cynical opportunist, and she lost.
As offensive as leftists found Trump’s policies, his style was arguably better suited to the age. Unconcerned with authenticity, he ran his campaign from an infinite present, declaring himself a really rich guy, who was also somehow a regular guy, who was also somehow a powerful guy, who was also somehow a foe to the elites. Like Twitter, his campaign was nimble and stupid — rejecting coherence in favor of noise. His frequent and flagrant transgressions of truth seemed sort of like a joke you could be in on. Williams and Oks were depressed that he won, but they had to admit that his new type of lie seemed somehow more compelling than Clinton’s endless marketing exercise.
If establishment politicians are all phony, and Twitter discourse is a compelling fantasy, then perhaps the main success of @MikeGravel is merging these two false conceits into one real one. In an online world where everything is understood to be a performance, @MikeGravel looks us squarely in the eye and admits, “Every politician is just a bunch of kids in a trench coat — so why not make them actual kids?” Instead of pretending a politician is a person, with verifiable personal beliefs, @MikeGravel reveals the kids inside the coat, enumerates them, suggests that we become one by donating a dollar. Instead of being gamed by the system, we are invited to game it ourselves.
Mike Gravel, the man, is not a pawn — he has his own reasons for agreeing to this scheme — but he is a somewhat inert rallying point. In a moment when a politician’s own history can also be his greatest liability, Gravel provides a compelling bare minimum — just 12 good years in the Senate, followed by 38 years of righteous near-obscurity. He has firm beliefs, and he hasn’t had a real chance to contradict himself since the Carter administration (literally). In some ways, this makes him a perfect receptacle for the idea of integrity — a Bernie more Bernie than Bernie could be. When this unbesmirched reputation is channeled through the online voice of his Teens, the effect is, somehow, a more honest kind of lie.
“Trump was the first postmodern politician,” Williams says. “I like to think Gravel is the second.”
I first met the Gravel Teens on April 27, 46 days before the D.N.C. deadline. By then, they had attracted 27,000 donors, mainly through a 4/20 fund-raising push that featured Pentagon Papers rolling papers. (The typical donation was $4.20.) Williams, a freshman at Columbia University, was just getting ready to begin final exams. Oks, an Oxford-bound high school senior, had taken a medical leave from school, which conveniently allowed to him to work full time on the campaign.