I came across The Yes Men for the first time as a student. We were idealistic, attempting to change the world, and we were looking for inspiration. This is how we stumbled across the first Yes Men movie that got released in 2003. The film was about Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno and the one time they impersonated spokespeople for the WTO (World Trade Organisation).
The Yes Men have done many different projects to drive awareness, from fake newspaper front pages that announce Trump’s presidency resignation, fake websites, and collecting signatures to support global warming. What they can be described best as is eye-opening, satirical activism.
With Trump ruling America, their focus has become more international and shifted away from activism to support other groups to achieve their activist goals. During our interview, Andy says that doing projects in America is difficult right now. „We have nothing to say to the people here besides, please register to become a poll worker, please mail postcards to people to vote, please do whatever is known to work.“ With Trump, it seems there is no chance for positive change. The upcoming election will be another fork in the road. Either America faces four more years of waiting out the racism-fueled leadership of Trump or the activist groups will have new chances to steer Biden into a more progressive and positive direction.
How did we get here and where can we find glimmers of hope? Those are the questions that sparked my conversation with Andy Bichlbaum.
What´s wrong with the world?
Andy: What´s wrong with the world is pretty obvious. But one CAUSE of what´s wrong is that people on our side, progressive people loosely speaking, people with good hearts and intentions, haven´t really had the power to get exciting visions into a place to compete with the ugly, horrible visions of the other side.
In the United States, there was a fork in the road around the time of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). There was mass dissatisfaction across the political spectrum with banks and Wall Street. OWS had some great proposals that would have actually solved many problems America was facing. In a sense, the energy of OWS lived on in the Bernie Sanders campaign, though of course, he’d been saying these things for decades. And these great progressive solutions did capture many people´s imaginations, and, could have captured many more; but, the Democratic Party couldn’t stomach it.
But on the other side, Steve Bannon and others, noticed exactly what OWS saw and used the same resentment to stoke racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. It took until 2016 for the right candidate to come along and take that insanity all the way to the White House.
To cut a long story short, the cause of what is wrong with the world, at least the US world, is that Democrats aren’t able to counter Trump’s right-wing populism with a left-wing version that the world demands. Therefore, we’re stuck with hatred and racism – fascism basically – for a while, no matter who wins on November 3rd.
Why do you think hatred is stronger and so appealing to many people?
Andy: It´s not stronger.
Andy: Yes. It´s easier. It is a no-brainer to capitalize on hatred. You just say a lot of fucking stupid things about foreigners, about minorities, about Jews. The simplicity is appealing: if the problem is just some people without any power, that can be fixed quite easily by removing them in one way or another. But of course, the actual problem is a lot more complex than that.
I don´t think it´s stronger. I think that compassion and kindness are stronger. The Democratic Party could have basically said, everybody deserves a decent life, no matter who you are or what your background is, and they could have started with the least ambitious thing, like universal healthcare, and gone from there. Why not a basic income? Why not make work voluntary? There’s no economic reason why not. It´s strictly capitalism that can’t accept such things. You have to fight capitalism and propose a new vision. Or, if for some reason you´re attached to the word „capitalism,“ just call it „capitalism with a heart“, or something. But I think we can surely, between the 330 million of us here in the US, come up with a better model than capitalism, that still permits individual liberty and „entrepreneurship“ and all that.
How do the Yes Men come in there? How do you fight for a more hopeful world?
Andy: Before 2016, like many people, we believed that basically, the world was going in the right direction. We focused on long-term cultural change, justice, ecological sanity. I guess we were liberals because we somehow felt we had time. In the last four years, we’ve stopped feeling like this. And, sadly, we don´t know how to fight this thing. Fighting fascism isn’t our thing; our stuff works when everyone basically agrees that there’s a reality and it matters.
So I personally have been making election videos, and text banking, and sending postcards, and stuff like that; stuff that’s been tried and tested, and works. I don’t want to be asked what I did I do to stop fascism in the US and only be able to say… well, nothing.
I was surprised when I looked at the Doctors for Reopening project you have made. You wrote that it was obvious that people would not see that Trump is murdering people with his response to COVID19. That you wrote this was the most surprising thing? for me. Why don´t people get inside the USA get it? In Europe, we have a certain distance and we, at best, shake our heads about Trump. Why are Americans resistant to the truth you´re telling there?
Andy: What´s going on with Trump is that it is not a traditional party thing where there are pro’s and con’s, discussions, and discourse. In a sense, it is not part of the enlightenment tradition. What is going on is a different kind of politics and we can call it fascism. When you have that, people don´t listen to anything other than what they believe. What they believe becomes much more important than anything else, and they depend on it emotionally. You can´t tell people they are being killed by their leader because that’s the opposite of everything that makes sense to them, and to admit that would be to admit that they made a giant mistake, and that’s really hard. They can certainly come out of it themselves, but I don’t think there’s much you can do to make someone like that see the problem.
The best point of intervention would have been before they fell for the fascist, and that would have required a real alternative to the fascist. The second-best point of intervention is now, but it also requires a real alternative to the fascist, and Biden doesn’t look like any such thing.
I guess we all choose one consensus reality or another, that only changes over the decades. I think the difference here is that there is a leader who takes the cue from the people and what they want to see, so they think that because he sees it like them it´s reality. It becomes a cult. That´s why you can´t get in there unless you offer a better cult.
When I look at it, I see history repeating. I look back at what happened in Germany and I can see it playing out right now. I was listening to this podcast, “It Could Happen Here”. It´s by Robert Evans and it is about the possibility of a Second Civil War. He goes into Trump and says, that even if Trump is not re-elected, he won´t leave the White House. How close does this come to the reality of the situation?
Andy: Everybody here thinks that. Unless there is some overwhelming defeat, maybe. If it’s anywhere close it will be a big problem. I haven´t been able to think it through all the way but as I understand it, if it’s super-clear that Biden is President then the Secret Service will be obliged to kick Trump out of the White House. But there will probably be violence no matter what, from his followers, for whom margins of loss and so on may not make any difference.
The situation looks pretty dire, but is there anything that gives you hope? Because ultimately that´s what it´s all about, finding hope.
Andy: Yes. If Biden wins by a lot and makes it into the White House, that’s great but not enough. Movements have to fulfil the other side of the bargain. If there’s a mass movement behind Biden, demanding that he push universal healthcare, and defund the police, and establish a minimum income and so on, he´ll have to do it — just like our presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson, both of whom were centrists, like Biden, but mass movements pushed them to become great.
Is your Trickster Academy about helping people to create movements?
Andy: No. It’s difficult right now in the US. We have nothing to say to the people here besides, please register to become a poll worker, please mail postcards to people to vote, please deep canvass, please do whatever is known to work. Everywhere else in the world we try to help activists think more creatively about activism, and thus in a way we help to build movements, and we’ll do that in the US too after Biden takes office. In fact, the most important thing to do then will be to fight Biden, or, in different words, give him the power to make real change.
You work with groups from all over the world from different cultures. Is there a project that inspired you?
Andy: Before the pandemic limited our travel, we worked with two groups, and with both of them, we learned a lot. For example, in Cape Town, with the Zombie March Project, we learned so many new things. It was extending the reference frame of what we are doing and what we have done. We re-learned some lessons about the community.
What exactly did you re-learn?
Andy: Sometimes you’re really speaking – not to the media, not to the public, but to the people right around you, on your side.
Do you have a vision for the future?
Andy: Where everybody in the entire world finds work they want to do. If people could define how they wanted to contribute to the world, they would be much happier, and, incidentally, much more productive. If people could choose to spend all of their time doing whatever they want, including taking care of their parents, you wouldn´t need a whole nursing home system. It would also be cheaper. We can afford to do this; we cannot afford NOT to do this. There is probably no way to do it under capitalism, and certainly not under this particular version of capitalism, but we should be ready to move beyond this 18th-century idea, of capitalism. We need something with real values. That would be my personal utopia. It´s good to know these things, but from here to there is such a long way, and we need to take one step after the other.
I think we need the vision to work towards, and what I find so interesting is that people come back to the same core ideas of utopia: such as equality and happiness. No matter which culture they´re from, it is always the core message.
Andy: There is a lot of new science that shows that collaboration is at the root of all life on earth, much more than competition. Sea plants, for example, could never have lived on land without collaborating with fungi. The eukaryotic cells that compose all complex life are the product of a weird collaboration between two different kinds of cells. It´s so fundamental.
And humans‘ superpower among the primates is our ability to collaborate. Capitalism harnesses our urge to kill and dominate one another. If we can learn to harness our basic urge to collaborate instead, we’ll be fine.