Updated Mar 9, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Inside Trump's TikTok flip-flop

Photo illustration of Donald Trump embracing the TikTok logo

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Former President Trump stunned Republican China hawks this week when he appeared to argue against banning TikTok, the juggernaut video app owned by Beijing-based Bytedance and beloved by young Americans.

Why it matters: Trump spearheaded the original U.S. threat to ban TikTok over national security concerns. Four years later, President Biden and Congress have picked up the mantle — with a bipartisan bill targeting Bytedance set to hit the House floor next week.

Driving the news: "If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business. I don't want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People!" Trump posted on Truth Social Thursday.

  • Hours earlier, a key House committee voted unanimously to advance a bill — backed by Biden — that would force ByteDance to divest its ownership of TikTok within 165 days.
  • Members of Congress were bombarded with calls and threats from angry constituents this week after TikTok launched an aggressive campaign warning its users that the app was at risk of being shut down in the U.S.

Zoom in: Neither Trump nor his campaign posts on TikTok, but the shift in position is a sign that the former president recognizes the platform's massive appeal to younger voters — many of whom are disenchanted with Biden.

  • Snippets of speeches, impersonations, and other organic content involving Trump routinely rack up tens of millions of views on TikTok.
  • Prominent MAGA figures, conservative comedians and other cultural commentators with large followings are highly active on TikTok, which has become one of the top sources of news for Gen Z.
  • The Nelk Boys, for example — hosts of a podcast Trump has appeared on twice — boast a staggering 4.6 million followers on TikTok.

What they're saying: "I don't get the rush to do it in the middle of an election year when we are making tremendous progress with Gen-Z," Trump ally and GOP strategist Alex Bruesewitz told Axios.

  • "MAGA content does very well on TikTok. And Meta is suppressing MAGA content on both Facebook and Instagram," Bruesewitz said.
  • Donald Trump Jr. last year ripped the idea of a TikTok ban, raising concerns about "government overreach" and support from "the establishment in both parties" and "Big Tech."
  • Tucker Carlson also suggested there was a "hidden agenda," saying on his former Fox News show: "It's a creepy low IQ Chinese plot ... but that does not mean that people trying to ban TikTok have your interests in mind."

The intrigue: One potential factor at play is Trump's newly repaired relationship with billionaire Jeff Yass, who has a huge financial stake in Bytedance and has spent millions backing lawmakers who support TikTok.

  • Days before his TikTok reversal, Trump publicly praised Yass for inviting him to a retreat held by Club for Growth, a powerful conservative group that also opposes banning the app.
  • Yass had previously donated $4.9 million to Vivek Ramaswamy, who last year became the only Republican presidential candidate to join TikTok — an app he once called "digital fentanyl."

The big picture: Trump's position — if he sticks to it — has the potential to tear apart the GOP, which has spent years branding TikTok as Chinese spyware that's brainwashing America's youth.

  • "This is a big mistake by the Trump campaign," Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted in response to Trump's statement.
  • "I'm not a fan of Facebook, but TikTok is a qualitatively different deal. It's a backdoor for the Communist Chinese party," Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) told reporters.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, celebrated Trump's reversal as a defense of the First Amendment — a view endorsed by Elon Musk, who recently met with Trump.

What to watch: Top Trump allies are not expected to whip against the bipartisan TikTok legislation next week, a sign that MAGA world is aware it must walk a careful tightrope.

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