A handful of teenagers are heading up the highly unusual 2020 presidential bid of 88-year-old former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
The grassroots campaign, launched Monday, has already outpolled the well-heeled campaigns of John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand and tied with Amy Klobuchar. But that's not the most extraordinary part: Gravel announced he's not running to win; he's running to qualify for the Democratic debates.
The Democratic Party's guidelines state that presidential candidates with at least 65,000 donors qualify for the debates. That's where Gravel's teenaged organizers saw their opening: If they can get Gravel onto the debate stage, they can open a national dialogue on foreign policy and keep Democratic candidates accountable.
"My message, centered around an anti-imperialist foreign policy and fundamental political reform, is one that no other Democratic candidate is making the centerpiece of their campaign. After the first two debates, I will drop out and endorse the most progressive candidate," said Gravel's campaign announcement.
In just over a week, the campaign has racked up 20,000 donors with an average donation of $3.32 and a median donation of $1.
"Other candidates brag about 'people-funded campaigns.' We actually do it," Gravel's Twitter account proclaimed. Gravel's social media accounts are run by the students behind his campaign: 17-year-old high school senior David Oks, Columbia University freshman and Chief of Staff Henry Williams and high school senior Elijah Emery.
The teenage-run Gravel social media accounts have become famous for " shitposting " memes and #Gravelanche posts calling out other Democratic candidates' hypocrisy, with zingers like this tweet par for the course: "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."
Gravel's Instagram account featured an edited photo of Gravel with fire streaming from his eyes striking down Beto O'Rourke with the words "BEGONE centrist" emblazoned below.
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This isn't what you'd expect from an 88-year-old politician, but one of the teens behind the memes told me that the posts honor Gravel's message and sense of humor.
"If you look at clips of him from 2008, he likes to be sarcastic. He likes to attack other candidates," his 17-year-old campaign manager David Oks told The Daily Caller . "The way we see it, we're bringing that 2008 style to social media. If you want to stand out, you have to actually attack those candidates and show what is different between you."
Gravel's 2008 presidential run was most memorable for its Avante-Garde campaign video that featured a silent Gravel throwing a large rock into a pond. Oks is too young to remember that.
"When he ran for president last time, I was seven," Oks told the Caller. "I have no memory of the viral video."
In fact, Oks first heard of the Alaskan senator on an American political podcast called the Chapo Trap House.
"The number one thing" that attracted the teens to Gravel is his non-interventionist foreign policy position, Oks explained. "I think on foreign policy he has the best stance. He is someone who opposes pretty much every American invasion."
During his tenure as Senator for Alaska, Gravel had once read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record, and he was well-known before that for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Oks called Gravel's positions admirable and "incredibly heroic" and said that he believed Gravel to be "a deeply moral person" who is motivated by the desire to see the government pursue moral policies.
"He's a veteran and a lifelong opponent of war," said Oks. "He sees war as a deeply immoral thing and I think that's rare in the Democratic Party."
Oks describes Gravel as a "leftist libertarian" in the mold of Democratic leaders from the 1960s and 70s.
"He cares a lot about freedom. There is no way he is an authoritarian. In no way does he support oppression of any kind. I see him as a traditional Democrat, and the Democrats over the last few years have abandoned that. They've been conquered by Bill Clinton neoliberals. Getting Gravel to run for president is a way to reassert this traditional view into the Democratic party."
The teens feel that "Obama's foreign policy was a disaster," and candidates like Bernie Sanders simply continue those bad foreign policy ideas today.
As a solution, Oks said, "We thought the way to push the field left would be to have our own candidate in the race."
In his young life, Oks has already experienced an evolution in his political views. In eighth grade, he won an NRA Civil Defense Fund contest . At 16 years old, he ran for mayor of his hometown of Ardsley, New York, a village of 4,000 in Westchester County. He lost to his neighbor.
In March, Oks and Williams gave Gravel a phone call and asked him to run. He was hesitant at first, but the teens impressed him with their knowledge of the book he's working on about an amendment to the Constitution "Legislature of the People." Gravel agreed to run, and also starred in an updated version of his viral campaign video titled: "Rock 2.0."
The students don't want to derail the other Democratic candidates or take campaign donations from viable opponents. Instead, their goal is to use the debate stage to move the Overton Window to the left. Ultimately, the teens say they hope Gravel will be able to do for the left what Ron Paul did for the Republican party: mainstream opposition to the forever wars.
"Hopefully this is an opportunity for leftists and libertarians to work together and get a more anti-war candidate out there," said Oks.
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