Billy Eichner Hits the Street With a New Goal: "Flipping the Senate"

Billy with Nancy Pelosi - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Swing Left

The comedian kicked off a role with the national grassroots political organization Swing Left by hosting a talk show-style event with Nancy Pelosi and speaking with The Hollywood Reporter: “Everyone is exhausted.”

Call it Billy on the Street — the battleground-state version. In an effort to re-create the “blue wave” that swept through the 2018 midterm elections, comedian and activist Billy Eichner has joined Swing Left as a senior adviser. In his new role Eichner will help organize volunteers and contact voters in key battleground states during the lead-up to the 2020 election. He’ll also help craft Swing Left’s creative initiatives with a range of “activation” efforts.

Eichner spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his new role, his travel itinerary over the next 12 months and his thoughts on the current state of the Democratic primary. 

You're already pretty active in politics. Why did you take this step?

My relationship with Swing Left started in 2018 during the midterms when I was already working with Funny or Die. On election day I was flooded with messages on Instagram and Twitter from young people — and some older — who sent me photos of them going to vote for the first time and it made me feel good. I was just really gratified and happy that I found a way to participate and be proactive instead of just sending angry tweets, which I’m wont to do. Swing Left has an incredible infrastructure and I canvassed with them in New Jersey and had so much fun. They made it so easy and I was impressed how they were running their organization, which was fairly young at the time — and still is. But they already had such a keen understanding of not only what needed to happen, but how to get young people involved in a way that is exciting and easy and optimistic.  After the election I reached out to tell them how impressed and gratified I was and how I’d like to find a way to work together. And they came up with this idea and I was thrilled. 

How concerned are you that a level of complacency has set in on the left since the midterms? 

It’s a valid question. People are exhausted. They’re still exhausted from 2016, and when you add in the endless social media activity about every awful thing the Trump administration has done, it becomes very discouraging. So yes, it’s a concern of mine. But that’s what inspires me to lean in even more. To not only volunteer but to come on to Swing Left in an official capacity. When I sense discouragement, laziness or apathy, that’s a message to me that I need to use my platform even more, to remind people that we all have every excuse in the world to be exhausted but we can’t let that happen. 

It seems that Fox News and the right has been effective in turning at least some celebrity activism from an asset into a liability. Do you agree, and if so, how can you reverse that? 

I will never for a moment feel threatened by anything said on Fox. The more they taunt me and try to shut me up, the more I will double down on the work we’re doing because that tells me that what we’re doing is effective. That means they’re scared. For me I have never once come at this from a celebrity’s perspective; I come at this as a concerned citizen who happens to be part of a marginalized group myself — a loud and proud member of the LGBTQ community. But because of the success in the entertainment industry I have a platform on social media and television, and for me it would feel irresponsible at this moment in our history not to use that platform for good. 

Where do you see yourself canvassing? Which of the battleground states specifically do you think you could be effective in? 

My focus is going to be on flipping the Senate. The vast majority of media attention is focused on the presidential election. But no matter who the Democratic candidate ends up being — even if they win — they’ll still be dealing with a Mitch McConnell or a Republican-controlled Senate and I don’t know how they can possibly get anything done.  I worry there isn’t as much attention focused on that. So that’s where my focus is going to be and one of the reasons I chose to work with Swing Left is that I trust their expertise and I’m going to let them dictate where I go. I’ll go wherever they need me to go and I’ll let them decide what I need to do on the ground, whether that’s hosting an event or a fundraiser or an activation on social media. I’m at their disposal. 

What were your thoughts on Katie Hill’s resignation?

I was very happy when she won and, like many people, feel terrible about the situation. I do think there is absolutely a double standard in Washington and the world in general for what women and men are allowed to do. We have a sitting president who has how many sexual misconduct accusations against him? Nineteen? And It seems there are no consequences for him. I stand by the decision she made but there’s absolutely a double standard and there always has been.

Who are you backing in the presidential primary?

If the primary was today I don’t know who I would vote for. I’m watching very closely. On the one hand we’re fortunate to have a number of promising, solid candidates to choose from. But on the other hand, we need whoever that person is to have the ability to beat Trump in the swing states. You want to follow the polls. But at the same time, we’ve seen [polls] get it wrong before. There’s still a lot of time and who knows what’s going to happen.

In terms of campaigning, I think Elizabeth Warren has run a masterful one so far. But I admire Bernie’s conviction and consistency over the years. And I’m incredibly inspired and moved by how far Pete Buttigieg has come in such a short period of time. If you’d told me a year ago that an openly gay man could run for President and be polling first in Iowa in some polls, I simply would not have believed you. I don’t know if I’ll vote for him, if I’m totally honest. But just from the LGBTQ perspective I’m very moved and encouraged by that.