As the first FRONTPAGE of the Biden-era, we thought it would be appropriate to sit down with political commentator and top Twitch-streamer Hasan Piker for a state of the union.
“Ultimately, I would say capitalism is ruining every part of our lives... while making it seem like things are better because you have nice, shiny things. It’s cool to have nice, shiny things,” says Hasan Piker, in typically blunt fashion. Alternately known across the internet as HasanAbi, Hasanthehun, and (much to his chagrin) Woke Bae, we are engaging in what the political commentator, gamer, and talking head extraordinaire does almost every single day: breaking down how outrageously fucked up the United States is.
“There’s so much choice, we have so many products to consume,” he laments. “But when it comes to the material conditions that we’re subjugated to as the American working class, people are not doing all right. We don’t have any sort of social safety net, like public healthcare. We have no unions. We have no collective bargaining. We have no community, and hardly any way for people to engage in political action. America has, very effectively, dismantled its labor power.”
Like many of his fellow Americans these days, Piker is feeling this lack of a safety net rather acutely. This time a year ago, he took an enormous leap of faith and left his position at The Young Turks, a progressive news organization co-founded by his uncle. He joined as an intern in 2013, and he exited as an award-winning creator of multiple web series with an audience in the hundreds of thousands. An avid user of Twitch since 2018, he decided to hedge his bets and go solo on the streaming platform. It was a risky career move, but what scared him the most about it? “Healthcare. Literally, just losing my healthcare.”
Fortunately, his gamble ended up paying off. Big time. As the country barreled through 2020 with one political disaster after another, Piker was given ample material to work with (and a quarantined viewership with a lot more time on their hands). In September, his analysis of the first presidential debate was seen by 125,000 viewers, the highest debate-related coverage on Twitch. The following month, he held a virtual voting initiative with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (wherein the trio streamed themselves playing the game Among Us), which garnered over 400,000 views. The week of the presidential election, he uploaded 80 hours of streams, and his work propelled him to become the top streamer on the platform. His channel now has over a million followers.
Along with his extensive gaming livestreams (the night before our first interview, he logged 13 hours playing Cyberpunk: 2077), I perhaps naively wondered whether he ever gets tired of so much intense screen time. “No, I love this shit,” he guffaws. “I was built for this, dude.”
One could attribute the acerbity of Piker’s critique of US policy to his outsider’s perspective. He is “functionally an immigrant,” born to an American mother and a Turkish father in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and raised in Turkey, where his family relocated while he was still a toddler. In previous interviews, Piker reflects on his time there as a total “outcast,” rebelling against the repressive culture he faced in school and in society at large. (Witnessing the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey’s shift toward authoritarianism firsthand would have profound effects on his conscious, telling Cosmopolitan in 2018: “I was too young to speak up and I saw others who had the opportunity fail to do so… It was not a mistake I wanted to repeat.”)
Dreams of returning to America were realized when Piker enrolled at the University of Miami. “I wanted to party my first year, and I did,” he grins. “I got a 2.9 [GPA].” Upon the intervention of his parents, he transferred to Rutgers and got his act together, graduating with honors with a degree in political science and communications. His fateful time with The Young Turks began during his final year at school, and upon graduating he was hired for a position in their sales department.
Piker does not consider himself to have been particularly outgoing as a child, but as a teenager he longed to be more noticeable. With his new job, he was suddenly awash in new opportunities for exposure. “Listen, I’ll do anything. I’ll appear on whatever shows you want me to. I just want to be in front of the camera,” he recalls pleading to his employers. Spending his time off the clock mastering his craft, Piker devoted his energies toward making himself as available as possible for potential screen time, always ready to step in if an on-camera host failed to make it to work.
It was not, however, an immediate success story. “I was dog shit,” rues Piker. “I was not doing well when I first started, I was a nervous mess. I mean, really horrible. Couldn’t string three sentences together, couldn’t read a teleprompter. I’m super critical of myself, I’m a deeply insecure person when it comes to areas I haven’t built confidence in. So I was very afraid, but I kept going. I guess I’m a narcissist.”
Fast forward a few years and Piker has already become something of a celebrity. Thanks to his series The Breakdown, a viral sensation on Facebook, he was infamously ordained by Buzzfeed as Woke Bae. It led to a serious uptick in his notoriety. “This is one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had,” Piker begins. “One time, I went into a Buffalo Exchange and someone was talking on the phone to their friend. They didn’t see me, but they were talking about me and one of my videos they had watched. That was just.... an insane moment for me.”
His ascendance in the public eye has been a boon for his family. “I think they get it,” he smiles, referring to his parents’ proud reception of a recent New York Times piece. “But the funniest thing is… I have a cousin in Turkey. We grew up together, he even lived with us in Ankara for a bit. He watches me every day. He watches it on his own, entirely of his own volition, and I think he is telling the rest of the family in Turkey what I’m up to and explaining it to them. So, they definitely get it.”
In many ways, Piker is the perfect nemesis to counter the extremely online far right: a young, swole, charismatic child of immigrants who is devoted to workplace organization and equal rights, and who wields a sizable influence over young Americans. He is equipped to beat trolls at their own game.
In 2019, comments about 9/11 and the US military in one of his videos led to a public vivisection on Fox News, but Piker lapped it up. “I’m a sick freak myself, so I am fascinated with conservative media,” he says. “I watch it all the time. I consume it more than people’s racist dads.”
He admits some of his comments in question went too far (attacking Rep. Dan Crenshaw in a moment of “inflamed passion”), but he is able to cut through the senseless noise of the right-wing media complex and recognize it for what it is: manufactured outrage, and nothing more. “It’s silly,” he says. “It's pretty obvious to recognize what I'm saying... There’s actually nothing really controversial about it. I will not back down from that.”
Pundits love to paint Piker as the enfant terrible of outrage/cancel culture, but his 2019 Crenshaw saga is a flashpoint in how he is (miraculously) able to counter his inane critics on the right with cold, hard facts. Repeated attempts to slander him as being anti-military were laughable: “It’s something I should love,” he quips. “The Pentagon is the biggest jobs provider on the planet! It’s the single largest entity that hires people, surpassing only Wal-Mart and the Chinese military. So I am anti-war but absolutely not anti-military. Why aren’t we using them as a positive force for good back home? Why can’t we train them to build roads or rebuild infrastructure instead of using weapons and killing people? It’s a crazy pipe dream, I know, but I wish America’s largest jobs program was doing good rather than the evil which is going on.”
But conservative media is not alone in taking issue with some of Piker’s work; the same comments that landed him on Fox News led to being banned from Twitch for a week, and he relates a recent spat with YouTube, who took down one of his videos titled “QAnon Is Crazy.” “Apparently I was ‘cyber-bullying QAnon supporters,’” he sighs. “I pressured them on Twitter [to replace the video] and they immediately apologized for it. Still, it's like, that is absolutely a part of the machine when free speech is inhibited. There's always restrictions on free speech. No one is truly a full-blown free speech absolutist. A lot of these platforms have a liberal point of view, and when they start taking action on inhibiting the actual radicalization happening on their platforms, they end up clapping the left, too. They take this attitude of ‘you got to hit the far right, well, you also have to hit the far left.’”
“It’s Thanos-style politics,” he fumes. “But these two sides are not equal. One does not have any fucking material power whatsoever. The left does nothing; the right actually does engage.”
Engagement is the core of Piker’s goal: normalizing the notion that the Republican Party is acting against the interests of the American people and against democratic principles, and persuading enough people to get directly involved in politics to do something about it. “I'm stubborn as shit,” he says of his drive. “I'm a very stubborn person, and I'm a very proud person, and I believe this is the right thing to do. The more people I'm able to convince, the better. If I can get people to run for local office or down-ballot races, maybe some primaries, maybe beat out a Republican and take their seat, it'd be great. This is what we have to do: entry-ism.”
Contrary to this author’s opinion, Piker insists he has no future in politics himself: “You need to be a brand in order to win in America, and I am not a brand,” he says. “Or rather, I am not a brand-friendly brand. Sometimes I get very riled up. Sometimes I get very emotional, and maybe I don't choose my words carefully. My background is wide open to be exploited.”
But don’t get it twisted — Hasan Piker is no champion of the Democratic Party, either. The level of lasting change required to address the problems occupying him are not being addressed by any political party. Where, then, does he find hope?
“My community… it’s wonderful. I see them as a base of support for myself as much as they feel the same about me. When my dog passed away during the pandemic, I was very lonely. I wasn't around anyone, I couldn't see anyone. I couldn't see any of my friends, couldn't see my family. So I started streaming 13 hours of the day and kept myself occupied. My community kept me going. It's like having a conversation with 30,000 people for support.”
As a cursory glance through some of his fan art will show you, Piker has more than a few devoted fans, along with some who may be too devoted. “There are times when it gets frustrating,” he says. “People often just become too familiar, I guess, or think that they can have a say in what you do in your life. Sometimes it comes from a place of empathy, understanding, kindness, wanting to help me — and other times, it's like they just want unfettered access to piss me off. Like, no dude, I'm not your content pig. This is my fucking life. I'm a human being, I'm not a robot. I know I operate like a robot, so you have gotten too comfortable with this idea that I can speak about politics for fucking five to six hours, and then do a 10-hour broadcast every single day. Sometimes I want to play some video games, okay? Chill.”
The robot comparison is apt. When we speak, he is parked in the same chair he broadcasts from every day, spouting complex, analytical data with the same passion he displays on camera. I, for one, sleep better at night knowing we have a political machine spending over half his waking hours crusading against the onslaught of far right terror in my homeland. And as of this writing, there are at least 1,040,000 others who would agree.