Billy Eichner has never had a problem being vocal. The animated funnyman is best known for his man-on-the-street game show “Billy on the Street,” where he ambushes unsuspecting pedestrians in New York to ask hard-hitting questions like: “For a dollar, would you have sex with Paul Rudd?”
Since Donald Trump has taken office, Eichner has found a new way to channel his seemingly boundless energy. The pop culture aficionado has used his platform to get people on both sides of the aisle more involved in politics. All it took to flip a switch was a tweet from the president.
“Obviously, he’s tweeted a lot of horrible things,” Eichner told Variety. “It may have been that moment when he announced he was going to arbitrarily start kicking transgender people out of the military, which of course he can’t do. I can’t say for sure, but it was some particularly awful tweet.”
Trump’s notorious late-night social media usage inspired Eichner to team up with Funny or Die to create Glam Up the Midterms — an initiative, as Eichner puts it, “to convince voters under the age of 40 that America hasn’t gone to sh– and that they should vote in November.” He spent this summer on the road, stopping in hotly contested districts across the country to encourage participation among millennials.
Eichner, who is spending election night with Seth Meyers on a live episode of “Late Night,” caught up with Variety ahead of the midterms to discuss how to make voting seem glamorous, the importance of getting to the polls, and why he’s impressed with Taylor Swift.
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What goals did you have for Glam Up the Midterms?
It was very important to me that we did it with something that went beyond just general outrage and actually had a specific tangible goal in mind. We saw that only 12% of registered millennials had voted in the last midterm election. On the one hand, that’s a really staggeringly low and disappointing number. On the other hand, I had an honest conversation with myself. I remembered back to my days in college and in my 20s, and I had to admit I skipped some elections as well. It was a moment to acknowledge that I’m clearly not alone. Our focus was to heighten voter registration and even more importantly, voter engagement and voter conversion among millennials and even post millennials — essentially 18-40 year olds. By voter conversion I mean a lot of people are registered to vote, but they don’t actually end up voting. So it’s converting them from a registered voter to someone who is actually voting.
What’s been the biggest takeaway?
People are definitely fired up to vote. We’re already seeing in early voting, the numbers are through the roof in many places. You do feel a general wave of enthusiasm that I would imagine one does not normally feel during a midterm election. You feel the same sense of enthusiasm you feel during a presidential election. People, especially young people, are more engaged than they’ve ever been. One of my goals in Glam Up the Midterms is we that aren’t entertainers sitting back and yelling at the rest of the country to vote. It was very important to me that we raised enough funds and created enough partnerships financially, which would allow us to go to other cities beyond New York and L.A. and actually see people, meet people, and talk to them face to face. It’s very important you get outside the entertainment industry bubble we live in and actually speak to people. I’d say the big takeaway was increased enthusiasm from young people around being part of the political process.
What do you think will change if Democrats win the House on election night?
One of the biggest problems we have in terms of how things are functioning in Washington and the upper levels of our federal government is there’s no balance of power. We have Congress — the Senate and the House — both run by Republicans who are catering to Trump’s every whim. We have a president who is completely out of control and unstable and unfit for the job, which we knew. When he was first elected, all you could do was hope that maybe he would rise to the occasion at least a little bit once he got the job. We’ve all seen now for two years what I think is worse than we thought it was going to be. What I would hope is we can get Democrats in Congress so there is a balance of power. What we need desperately is a check on this president and the Republican congress that supports him every step of the way. That’s what I’m looking for. If we can take over the House, it’ll give us a really strong foothold there. It will also boost morale. I think everyone will feel a bit more stable because we have a president who is unfit for office and completely out of control.
What will it look like if that doesn’t happen?
I think things are going to get worse. And they’re already really bad. It’s not even a secret that Republicans are trying to dismantle health coverage for preexisting conditions. It’s being fought in the Department of Justice right now. They are literally lying to their constituents, blatantly lying in the final days leading up to the midterms, saying they’re going to cover preexisting conditions, and meanwhile, they’re fighting to dismantle coverage that exists under the Affordable Care Act. Say goodbye to any possibility of any gun safety reforms. I worry about more mass shootings. I worry about more rhetoric coming from not only Trump, but the fact that so few Republicans who currently control Congress are willing to speak out against his rhetoric.
He’s still going to be president, even if the Democrats flip the house. You’re never going to stop him from tweeting or saying the remarkably harmful things on a daily basis. But right now, we don’t have anyone in power in Congress who actually has a majority who can speak out against him. You have people like Jeff Flake who say one thing and then go in and support his agenda every single time, and then they try to back off of that in the press after the fact when it means nothing. I really do worry about morale for Democrats going into 2020 if we don’t flip the House. Forget morale, I worry about the state of our country. Right now, there’s a really black cloud that hangs over everything you do. Even when you’re trying to ignore what’s happening for a few hours and just go have fun with your friends or see your family, there’s just this real feeling of fear and anger that hangs in the air over everything. It’s very jarring. It feels very chaotic. The world feels very cruel. If we don’t at least flip the house, things are going to go more in that direction.
Do you think it’s important that celebrities like Taylor Swift, who typically stray away from getting political, use their platform to speak up?
I have been so impressed with Taylor these past few weeks since she first made her endorsements on Instagram. What’s even more impressive is that she’s actually kept it up. On a daily basis, she has been posting pictures of her fans going to vote early. You saw the percentages go up in terms of voter registration, especially in her home state of Tennessee as soon as she raised her voice. It’s fantastic, and I’m so glad that she did. Regardless of what happens on election night, I hope she continues to. When someone with a big social media platform gets involved in politics and people say, “Stay in your lane,” I just roll my eyes and shrug it off. I feel the reverse. I feel that anyone — especially right now when we have such awful, immoral, and unethical leadership — whether you have one follower or 100 million like Taylor Swift, everyone needs to be speaking up.
What are your thoughts on Kanye, who frequently used his platform to defend Trump?
I don’t really have anything to say about Kanye.
What do you tell people who think their vote doesn’t count?
Every vote literally does count. A lot of people were alienated after the presidential election. A lot of young people who took the time to go vote for Hillary [Clinton], and then saw she got the most votes but lost. What I’m trying to remind people is there’s no electoral college this time. These races are going to be incredibly tight.
Were you surprised that TMZ clip of you calling Trump an “evil piece of s—” got a big reaction on social media?
I was just speaking from the heart. I was happy that many people seemed to find it a cathartic moment. A lot of people were saying that I was saying what so many people said in the privacy of their homes. People felt emboldened by it. Trump is just the least compassionate man we’ve ever had in office. To a certain degree, metaphorically speaking, you have to fight fire with fire. What we have to do now is funnel all that outrage and sadness and anger, and use it as a motivating force to not only go vote ourselves, but to get our friends to vote. Sound bites are not enough, and anger on social media is not enough. If you’re worried about school shootings or protections for the LGBT community, if you want women to have rights over their bodies, if you want real equality in this world for people of color, now is the time to get to the voting booth. It’s not enough to protest and scream on social media or even TMZ.
Has anything positive come out of all this?
Well, it has certainly been a dumpster fire every step of the way. If you’re looking for a silver lining in a very dark cloud, I would say you do see young people rising up and becoming part of the political process. In terms of early registration, the youth vote is up over 500% from the last midterm. That’s all very encouraging. In a very dark period of American history that we’re living in, which I think could get worse before it gets better, you’re seeing people do work in their community and become activists. That’s a good thing, and I hope we see more of it.