You’ve probably seen a clip of Cenk Uygur, founder and host of the progressive online news network the Young Turks. Whatever clip you watched, he was probably shouting.
Rarely soft-spoken or caging for clarifications, Uygur is a perennially viral figure in the online drama of right versus left; a passionate progressive advocate who GOES OFF on CORRUPT ELITES and so forth, as such videos are titled, or a hyper-emotive epitome of the “triggered-lib,” who MELTS DOWN to the tune of hundreds of thousands of views for the online right.
In the clips and tweets, Trump is a fascist, his supporters are racists, Israel is genocidal, “Establishment” Republicans are corrupt and establishment Democrats are no better. In his new book, Justice is Coming, Uygur is often much the same, writing that “there are no moderate Republicans” and that “the average Republican voter is just as hateful as Trump. That’s why the party picked him in the first place.” In these, he sees politics in high contrast — everything black, white and bold.
And now, he’s running for president.
To many in the Beltway, this is not worth any attention. Whereas Dean Phillips, Cornel West, RFK Jr. and the unselected potential candidate of No Labels are potential “spoiler” campaigns, CenkForAmerica is seen as a no-hoper vanity bid, born of influencer egoism, only worth mentioning to say it shouldn’t be spoken about. Bids of this kind are not uncommon — Joe Exotic is running in 2024, for example — and when Uygur tweeted that he was running, the responses were generally mocking, and the Community Note said it was unconstitutional.
In some ways, this take isn’t unwise; to call Uygur’s campaign a long-shot is to be generous. But the story isn’t so simple — and there’s a slim chance he changes American politics in the process.
I’ve spoken to Cenk several times — twice prior to his run, and a November call about the campaign — and over Zoom, he’s the same man you see in the clips: passionate, populist and not inclined to viewing his opponents charitably. But away from the culture wars, he shows himself to have far more interesting, practical thoughts than most on the more terminally online left, and a more astute approach to politics. Uygur contains multitudes and complex contradictions; both populist advocate and internet entrepreneur; a Republican lawyer turned leftist barnburner; a champion of the young who often dismisses their stupid, impractical views; an agitator in a dumb, loud political scene that he’s fed up with.
For those of think-tanks and cocktail clubs, he’s easy to dismiss; but he often sees what they miss.
He nearly got into a fight with Alex Jones at the 2016 Republication National Convention, shouting “Get the fuck off my stage!” as recording phones encircled them. But just a week later, Uygur appeared on ABC, and while every other panelist argued over whether Clinton would win by a landslide or just a healthy margin, Uygur said “I’ve got Trump at 279 and Hillary at 259.” Host George Stephanopoulos said “TRUMP?!” The panel erupted in wows and laughter. Because Hillary was always going to win. Right?
Though he was concerned in 2016, he’s even more cynical about 2024, and it’s this that drives his presidential run.
“The number one priority for our campaign — by a lot — is knocking Joe Biden out,” he tells me. “Joe Biden is going to lose and I’m not going to sit on the deck of the Titanic and merrily go along with a plan to lose — to run into the iceberg — when all of our lives, democracy and the country’s at stake.”
Despite the claims of egoism, Uygur tells me he didn’t want to do this and spent months calling for Democratic governors, publicly and privately, to jump in the race, along with reaching out to his choice candidate, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart (whose team wouldn’t take a meeting). But, overtime, as nobody would run, he felt obligated. “I couldn’t stomach no one doing anything about this egomaniac who was just going to hand the country over to Trump.” (selfishjoebiden.com redirects to his campaign website.)
Oddly, behind closed-doors (and increasingly in front of them), Democrats don’t really disagree with his take on Biden. Biden’s poll numbers continue to tumble, young people continue to show they don’t want ailing an eighty-one-year-old in charge of the nuclear arsenal, and though David Ignatius’s September column “President Biden should not run again in 2024” sent shockwaves around the White House, he was just underlining what was already written on the wall. But, despite screaming that Trump is a fascist threat to democracy, most Democrats have been unwilling to do anything to stop Biden.
“The case we’re making [to Biden] is an obvious one: if you retire now, you retire a hero,” Uygur says.
“They put statues of you up all over the country, you beat Donald Trump, you saved democracy, you were a good steward of the economy, and then bowed out graciously, and so the country owes you a debt and we’re all grateful. If you do not drop out and you lose, as all of the polling indicates — you were eighty-one years old, 77 percent of the country thought that you might not even be able to finish a second term, you were behind in almost all the swing states, you were fifteen points lower than when you barely beat Trump, but you were such an egomaniac that you thought, no, I have to be a two-term president, it’s all about me, me, me — well, then history will judge you viciously, and it should. You will have been one of the most selfish villains in American history.”
His hope is that his campaign will force Biden out and younger, more viable candidates in; but if they don’t, and “cannot gather up the courage to challenge Biden, then I’ll beat Biden.” In face of overwhelming public doubt, he tells me Trump was a long shot too and by campaigning directly to the voters, through online interviews and podcasts, that he can pull off a similar turnaround. And it’s not just his strategy that feels somewhat Trumpian.
Namely, his politics are a blend of radical optimism and pessimism; that America has a corrupt, rotten, soiled political system that could be great if good people got in power; and it’s not hard for them to do so. It’s a familiar tone at this point in American politics, but (with the exception of Bernie Sanders) it comes more often from the populist right than the left, and his view is that, though progressives are unpopular, their core economic policies aren’t. As he told me months ago on my podcast Arguably, “What I’m worried about is that the left-wing Twitter is convincing people of the same thing Fox News is trying to convince people of; that being a progressive means being super radical and having completely unpopular positions. Why are you helping them?”
He has called out the left’s counter-productive obsession with the trans issue (notably to his radical Champagne-socialist streamer nephew, Hasan Piker), that “the Squad” are politically useless, that Defund the Police is “a terrible slogan” and that “from the river to the sea” is “dumb,” “counterproductive” and “incredibly hurtful to our Jewish brothers and sisters.” As he tweeted, “Do not chant something that majority thinks is call for genocide. Not complicated.”
At the same time, his campaign is built on five core policies: paid family leave, fighting government corruption (by ending gerrymandering and banning individual stock purchases by Congress people), a public option for healthcare, drug price negotiation by Medicare and a $15 minimum wage. He cites opinion polls that show these should be highly popular across the political spectrum, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a J.D. Vance-esque populist winning on that platform.
Even so, any upstart campaign against Biden — bar a health incident — is a steep uphill battle. And Uygur has an added handicap in this race: he was born in Turkey.
He moved to America at eight years old and is a naturalized citizen, and it’s clearly constitutional for him to run for president— the Federal Election Commission explicitly says that a naturalized citizen “is not prohibited by the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act) from becoming a ‘candidate.’” However, courts haven’t weighed in on whether he could actually be sworn-in as president. Along with bumping off Biden, his campaign is an effort to change that.
As civics students know, the few requirements to become president are laid out under Clause 5, Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
That seems clear; however, the Fourteenth Amendment edited the Constitution to provide “equal protection of the laws” to “all persons born or naturalized in the America.” In Uygur’s view, there’s no reason to think presidential eligibility gets a carve out here, and so the “Natural Born Citizen Clause” no longer applies.
There have been naturalized citizens who have tried to run for president before and make an issue of this — notably, Abdul K. Hassan in 2011 — but their courtroom failures haven’t necessarily been on the legitimacy of their argument. As Uygur notes, many courts shot down Hassan for a lack of standing, not Article 2 grounds, as he was challenging his exclusion from the primaries after their completion and was running a campaign with no major profile, and so real chance of taking on Obama. His website was made on the free website builder Wix and his campaign YouTube channel lacks a profile picture, and only garnered 130 subscribers.
By contrast, by the end of November, Uygur’s campaign had raised more than $250,000, and officials confirmed to the campaign that he has been included in the Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas and Vermont Democratic primaries, which are held on March 5, 2024. Though he was removed from the Nevada and Arkansas primary, he sees this as the perfect vehicle to bring this to the Supreme Court — and win in a “slam-dunk” victory. Compared to the “amateurish” previous efforts, he says, “We’ve got a great legal team — including Bernie Sanders’s presidential lawyer in 2016 and 2020 — and we are very confident that this will come out with a different result.”
But every legal scholar I reached out to — notably those who strongly oppose the naturalized citizen exemption — disagreed.
“I think the Natural Born Citizen Clause is utterly indefensible, resting on little more than rank xenophobia,” Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University told me via email. “The original rationale for it (that a European royal might get elected president and then try to bring the US under the control of his family) was dubious back in 1787, and utterly archaic today. Modern defenses are just as bad, or worse.”
Somin coauthored a USA Today op-ed with Professor Randall Kennedy supporting an amendment to remove it and is no stranger to facially bold legal theories — being one of the key legal minds behind the argument that “Donald Trump is disqualified under Section 3 [of the Fourteenth Amendment] because of his attempt to use force and fraud to overturn the results of 2020 election” — but does not share Uygur’s optimism.
“I see no plausible argument by which the courts would be likely to set the clause aside, in the absence of a constitutional amendment. Certainly none that the current Supreme Court is likely to accept. I am not aware of a legal scholar who claims otherwise, though perhaps there is some article somewhere I have missed. At the very least, the odds against such an outcome are great, and Cenk Uygur is pretty obviously wrong to think it’s a ‘slam-dunk.’”
Professor Noah Feldman (author of the 2018 Bloomberg piece “The American President Doesn’t Have to Be Born American,”) concurred; as did Somin’s co-author, Professor Kennedy: “I very much dislike this provision of the US Constitution. It ought to be removed by amendment. I see no plausible argument for it being invalidated by the Supreme Court.”
It’s also worth noting that Uygur’s addition to the Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas and Vermont primaries isn’t necessarily call for celebration either. As legal commentator Ken White put it on his Serious Trouble podcast, “There’s a difference between getting on the ballot because no one cares, and no one bothers to keep you off, and being on the ballot after due consideration, so I don’t know if anyone particularly cares about him being on the ballot.”
Despite his efforts, Uygur’s campaign will likely fail, Biden will probably remain the nominee, and I just hope Uygur is wrong about Trump’s chances of victory. But who knows. His critics have been badly wrong before, and America’s political system is no stranger to victorious improbabilities.
Even if he doesn’t win, his campaign could push the Democratic Party’s Overton Windows toward pro-worker economic policies, and if his supporters continue to fund his legal efforts, he may just change the rights of millions of Americans.
Speaking on the Young Turks with his co-host Ana Kasparian, he said about the view of naturalized citizens: “What we hear every time is ‘Ha-ha, you’re a second-class citizen. You’re not really American. You can’t be our leader — you can go die for the country, and there are like seventy Medal of Honor winners who are naturalized citizens — but sorry, you can die for us, but you can’t lead us, as you’re a second-class citizen.’”
Maybe his presidential campaign can play a part in changing that so. As he ends his book — given a long enough timespan, “Progressives always win,” as “the only constant is change.” Just probably not the 2024 Democratic primary.