Zach Montellaro, a politico reporter, reads the Federal Election Commission website like a tabloid. He not only trawls the big, dry database in which presidential candidates register to run; he also reads several smaller aftermarket ones that reformat the filings from the first. On Twitter, he follows F.E.C. bots that tweet out campaign filings as they post. On the night of March 19, he was up late when one such tweet, from @CATargetBot, crossed his feed: “NEW FEC F1 #POTUS Mike Gravel for President Exploratory Committee.”
At first, Montellaro wasn’t sure if the filing was real. He remembered Gravel from the 2008 Democratic primary. The former Alaska senator, once well known for helping disseminate the Pentagon Papers, was 77 then. His run, when it’s remembered at all, is recounted as a kind of Dada diversion that began with a silent art-house film of the candidate throwing a rock into a lake and peaked in the primary debates, with Gravel pointing fingers, castigating war hawks, roasting Joe Biden, embarrassing himself and asking future President Obama, “Barack, who do you want to nuke?”
As these escapades returned to mind, Montellaro surmised that a second Gravel run didn’t seem totally out of the question. He tweeted a comment on the senator’s age, but soon some other Twitter users observed that the contact address on the F.E.C. form belonged to a teenage boy in New York. Recalling a prank from 2016, involving a fake filing for the candidate “Deez Nuts,” Montellaro deleted his first tweet and published a correction: “It appears we’re all being trolled by a couple of high school kids.”
A few minutes later, @MikeGravel tweeted back: “Zach, you aren’t being ‘trolled.’ ”
By then it was just past midnight in Washington. Montellaro found Gravel’s phone number on an old F.E.C. filing and decided to call. Although it was late, the former senator answered and said that yes, he was running — but he was running to lose. Two 18-year-old kids from New York, David Oks and Henry Williams, had talked him into trying to qualify for the Democratic primary debate by gaming the updated D.N.C. rules, which now allowed candidates to qualify by persuading just 65,000 people to donate. Of those who crossed this threshold, only the top 20 would actually appear on the stage, which meant that Gravel would also need to edge out other low-ranked contenders like Eric Swalwell and Marianne Williamson. If the now-89-year-old could gain enough support, he said he would use his spot on the debate stage to steer the conversation further left, or at the very least to make other candidates speak frankly. It wasn’t exactly a bid for the presidency, but neither was it really a prank.
“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.
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.
[Read about the man behind Trump’s tweets.]
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.
We all sat down for brunch at Tom’s Restaurant, a neon-sign diner near Williams’s dorm best known as the exterior of Monk’s Cafe on “Seinfeld.” The Teens were born half a presidential term after the show went off the air; they told me they had seen it in syndication. We talked through the strangeness of a real restaurant being cast as the outside of an imaginary one. A waitress came to take our order.
“Could I just get chocolate-chip pancakes?” Williams asked.
“Wait,” Oks said. “They have chocolate pancakes?” The waitress nodded. “Do you have grenadine? No? Oh, darn it. Do you guys have Cherry Coke?” She frowned. “O.K. I’ll just have regular Coca-Cola and chocolate-chip pancakes.”
Oks said he was a frequent Shirley Temple drinker and denied that this was a youthful quirk affected for my journalistic entertainment. As evidence of a longstanding habit, he offered the anecdotal statistic that only 45 percent of restaurants stock grenadine. On the “Seinfeld” axis, Oks is a Kramer, if Kramer were born just before Sept. 11 and wrote papers on the moral philosopher John Rawls in his spare time. Williams is a Jerry, with the charm of an Elaine and the political intuition of a Roger Stone. At 14, he started drinking four coffees a day.
“David and I met when I was a sophomore and he was a freshman,” Williams said. That was almost four years ago, at the private Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. They first got acquainted at model United Nations, then later in debate club, where they discovered a mutual love for the 1985 Cormac McCarthy anti-western “Blood Meridian.” Soon they formed a group chat to discuss the 2016 primary. They obsessed over news in the particular way that teenagers without jobs can afford to obsess.
Williams was raised by an Australian-immigrant father and a politically active Democrat mother. (“She’s like a ‘Pod Save America’ person,” Oks qualified.) His earliest political memory dates back to 2012, when he would argue with conservative kids about Obamacare and “death panels.” Oks’s parents are Argentine-Jewish immigrants. His father dropped out of the picture. His mother, whose politics he describes as former socialist or left-wing anti-Peronist, “or whatever,” raised him on a steady drip of Howard Zinn. Oks applied to the Masters School in secret; he got to go only because he received financial aid. His four brothers made up a local public school wrestling dynasty. “He’s entirely unlike any of his brothers,” Williams explained. “We’ve got meathead wrestler, meathead wrestler, meathead wrestler and then David Oks, whose room is 85 percent books.”
During the run-up to 2016, Williams and Oks decided to get involved. Neither was old enough to vote, but Williams phone-banked for Bernie Sanders until he lost the primary. “I would have voted for Clinton,” he conceded, but he added that he wouldn’t have liked it at all. “To me, you do your protesting, you fight your fight as much as you possibly can, but when it comes down to it, Hillary Clinton doesn’t appoint Brett Kavanaugh.”
“I voted illegally,” Oks joked, ordering a second Coca-Cola, plus a refill on the first one. “I was just that passionate.”
When Trump won, the Teens felt overwhelmed by guilt that they had followed the election so closely without really doing anything. As penance, they decided that Oks should run for mayor of his hometown, Ardsley, N.Y., a hyperquaint Westchester County suburb. They collected enough signatures to get him on the ballot, and what followed was the plot of a small-town farce: The Teens put up lawn signs, so the opposition put up lawn signs; the establishment got nervous; someone challenged the validity of the signatures, which kept Oks’s name off the ballot. He ended up running as a write-in and losing.
Oks took a sip of Coke and shook his fist. “The Ardsley Democratic machine!”
This led Oks and Williams to a shared epiphany. Everyone who claimed to be running things — the think-tankers, the bloviating centrists, the Pete Buttigiegs, the “Pod Save America” people — these were just grown-up model U.N. kids, overfull with ego and hot air. Their politics boiled down to a desire to be in politics. “Everybody is just a larger child,” Williams said, finishing his chocolate-chip pancakes. “We put so much faith in people that we should put no faith in at all.” He pointed to what he calls “the Elizabeth Warren critique,” which posits that poverty, mass incarceration and the broken health care system are just functions of the system’s not working correctly. This no longer made sense. “Capitalism works perfectly, right? It serves exactly who it’s supposed to.”
And so the brainstorming effort resumed. Oks and Williams first began to consider Mike Gravel on March 11 of this year, after Gravel was mentioned on “Chapo Trap House.” They remembered Gravel from “Nixonland,” Rick Perlstein’s 896-page history of Richard Nixon’s career, in which the senator appears briefly as part of the Pentagon Papers episode. On June 29, 1971, Gravel, then 41, called an emergency two-man session of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, which dealt with federal buildings like post offices and other Richard Scarry-level concerns. To get the Pentagon Papers, which were classified, into the Congressional Record — and thereby into the public domain — he read aloud for three hours, recounting American wrongdoing in the Vietnam War until he broke down sobbing.
“Gravel was willing to torch everything,” Williams said.
Oks nodded. “He’s like, a weird combination of cunning and just totally reckless.”
Normally, such awe would not be cause to Svengali an ancient politician into running for president. But Williams and Oks are not normal people, and talking to them makes the world feel very small, as if any old putz could stick out a foot and trip up the whole political process. At various points in our conversations, I thought of their outlook as teenage naïveté, or democratic optimism, or elite white male delusion. Sometimes it seemed that it might be all three things at once. In any case, Oks sent an email to Gravel.
Three hours later, the former senator called back: “Absolutely not,” he said. “Do you know how old I am?”
Undeterred, the Teens kept calling for a week. On the night they finally persuaded him, it was raining, Williams said. They got Gravel on the phone and said something like, “Look, Mr. Gravel, you have not been in politics for a while, and we’re a lot younger than you. We were barely conscious when you were running in 2008, but what you said then, on that debate stage, you got no respect. You barely polled above 1 percent. Today, that is where the left is.”
They told him about Democratic Socialism and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the leftist energy on Twitter. They told him about podcasts and “Chapo Trap House.” By then, there was thunder and lightning outside; the Saw Mill Parkway was flooded. Oks recalled telling Gravel: “You don’t have to decide to run, but let us make an exploratory committee for you. Let us go online and start going at it, and see if people like it.”
Gravel remained skeptical — very, very skeptical — but bit by bit, they could sense that he might cave. “Eventually we wrote him a memo,” Oks said, taking a sip of his fourth and final Coke.
“He’s definitely of the memo era,” Williams said, claiming he first heard the word on “The West Wing.” “He asked us if we could fax it to him!”
After Gravel read the memo, he agreed. The Teens registered with the F.E.C., and once the filing hit the web, the bots started tweeting and the journalists came calling.
Oks placed a frenzied call to Gravel. “Can I have your Twitter account right now?”
Gravel handed over his login credentials. “Don’t tweet anything I wouldn’t say.”
On the day I went to meet Gravel last month, the campaign was roughly halfway to its goal, having attracted 30,334 online donations. The Teens had 36 days left. By then they had declared that Gravel was “running to win,” if only as a ploy for more serious coverage. They had fared well in one poll, too. Among members of the Democracy for America political action group, Gravel placed sixth, well ahead of the centrist golden children Beto O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gravel lives in Seaside, Calif., a breezy coastal town south of the Bay Area. That morning, before I went over to his house, I sat in a coffee shop, reading some chapters of his coming book, “Human Governance,” which he had sent in a Word document from his personal email. After his recitation of the Pentagon Papers, Gravel pretty much disappeared from the news, surfacing once in a failed bid for vice president, once in a successful effort to rename Mount McKinley and once in a supposed sex-for-votes scandal involving an escort, a houseboat and a parking-garage project. (“I asked about it once on a phone call,” Oks told me. “He said that he was having a one-night stand but it was unrelated to a vote.”)
In 1980, Gravel lost the Senate primary to Clark Gruening, the grandson of the incumbent he initially ousted. (Gruening went on to lose to Frank Murkowski, father of Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.) His return to civilian life was erratic, or “disillusioned,” as his daughter Lynne described it. Gravel and his wife divorced; he remarried; he learned to code; he forgot how to code. Eventually he found a new calling in direct democracy, the subject of this new book, and obliquely the subject of two previous books, identically titled “Citizen Power.”
The new book contains a comprehensive plan for adding a fourth branch to government, called the Legislature of the People, which would allow voters to pass new laws directly. Gravel has been working on this plan for 30 years and has thought through every facet of its existence, from its source of authority (James Madison’s comments in the Constitutional Convention of 1787) to its legislative procedures (too involved for a parenthetical). Gravel believes firmly in his own campaign platform — Green New Deal, single-payer health care, etc. — but he does not believe it can ever be accomplished until we develop a check on the Senate, which he views as inherently corrupt. Later that day, when I met him at his house, he worked very hard to persuade me that he was right.
“What you need to have, and what I seem to have, is unreserved faith in the people,” he said, pushing his walker toward the dining-room table. “There’s nothing else. And you can say: ‘Well, boy. That’s a stretch!’ You know what? The alternative is minority rule by the elites of society.”
Gravel is single-minded about the Legislature of the People. He sees everyone from journalists to his own children as potential converts, and he dislikes the campaign’s prevailing media narrative, which tends to ignore this pet issue in favor of his views on Sept. 11 (“inside job”) and his advanced age. He laughed when I suggested that Williams and Oks might be taking advantage of him or otherwise enacting some kind of “Weekend at Bernie’s” scenario. “There’s no question they’re using me,” he said, but he insisted that he was using them right back. “They came to me flashing Legislature of the People, because they were smart enough to recognize that that’s what floats my boat.”
The seven hours I spent with Gravel unfolded as a kind of enjoyable war, with me angling for pithy anecdotes and him redirecting my lines of inquiry back toward the subject of direct democracy. I’d estimate he won more than half the time, but he struggled to shrink his grand vision into sound bites. When I worried that this might limit its appeal, he told me to read his book chapters again. When I suggested that it might hold him back in the debate, he seemed more concerned about whether the D.N.C. would allow him to bring a chair onstage.
In the moments when I was winning the war, I learned that Gravel has led an interesting life, rife with the sort of inspired anecdotes that most politicians would package and brand. Born in Massachusetts to French Canadian immigrants, Gravel didn’t learn English until he was 7. He struggled with dyslexia, and because his teachers thought he was so dumb, they threw him a “Most Charming Person” award. This credential landed him his first job in politics: handing out pamphlets for a local politician.
After a stint in Army counterintelligence — stationed in West Germany during the Korean War — and then a couple of years at Columbia University, Gravel knew for sure that he wanted to run for office. His home state, in 1956, was overrun with Kennedys, so he scoured the map for opportunity and narrowed his options down to New Mexico and the Territory of Alaska, still three years away from statehood. He settled on Alaska because he didn’t like warm weather, and he drove there in a Ford station wagon with, among other things, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a .30-06 rifle. When he was pulled over for speeding in Washington State, the sheriff made him come to the station and told him he had to pay a $100 fine.
“I didn’t have enough money,” Gravel recalled. “So he said, ‘Well, you’ll have to stay in jail.’ ”
At that point, they both remembered the gun. The sheriff, like a policeman from a children’s cartoon, had a change of heart and sent Gravel to the nearest pawnshop to sell it. Gravel drove 60 miles, pawned the gun, drove 60 miles back and paid the sheriff his fine. When I asked him why he didn’t drive away, Gravel simply explained, “That’s not the way I am.”
To me, this seemed like a ludicrous story. Politicians speak in parables, and the squeaky-clean details of the pawnshop tale — the friendly cop, the gun that never fires — felt comically estranged from Gravel’s progressive platform. On the other hand, maybe symbolism didn’t matter. @MikeGravel had already established that Mike Gravel was not just an individual but also a kind of group project. Strangely enough, this had opened up a loophole that allowed him to talk like an actual person — and somehow it seemed as if this person mattered least. I found myself imagining a candidateless campaign — fronted by a hologram of George Washington, or “freedom,” or Apple — when suddenly my thinking was cut short by what seemed to be the world’s loudest rendition of the theme to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Gravel put the call on speaker. “Hi, David!”
Oks was calling to remind Gravel of a few interviews and to ask his opinion on some possible endorsements. “The president of Catalonia, the breakaway region of Spain, he’s interested in having a phone call and possibly doing an endorsement. Would this be something you’re up for?”
“The president of Catalonia?!” Gravel asked. “In Spain?”
“I don’t want to get myself enmeshed in the political contest within Spain. What you can do is tell him I appreciate the endorsement and I really admire Spain. It’s on my list to go visit.”
Then there were endorsements from the mayor of “Renoir,” France, and the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“What’s the community called? Renoir? Renoir is an artist.”
Oks’s mistake; the city was Grenoble.
“I’ve made a speech in Grenoble!” Gravel said. Endorsement approved. What about the U.S. Virgin Islands? It would count as a domestic endorsement, Oks said. Did Gravel want him to set up a call?
“I have no problem with calling him,” Gravel said. “Maybe we could get somebody like that interested in the Legislature of the People.”
Jamie Lauren Keiles is a writer who lives in Ridgewood, Queens, and last wrote for the magazine about the sword swallower Betty Bloomerz.
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