Why Trump Changed His Mind on TikTok

Estimated read time 5 min read

You’re never going to believe this, but: Donald Trump is … wildly inconsistent.

Crazy, right?

Also, turns out, there is gambling at Rick’s.

What caused Trump to change his mind? Some reasonable people are putting two and two together, and noting that Trump recently met with the billionaire investor Jeff Yass, who is both an investor in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, and a big Republican backer, in part via the Club for Growth lobbying group.

Yass and the Club for Growth have fought with Trump in the past, but that’s all over now, Trump said last week. He announced that Yass was “fantastic” and Trump and the Club for Growth were “back in love — we’re deeply in love.”

But that’s a cynical argument, right? Surely Trump could change his mind for reasons other than money?

Here’s a more hopeful way of framing it, via Republican Sen. Rand Paul: In 2020, Paul said, Trump was deeply concerned about the way a giant Chinese consumer app might abuse Americans’ privacy.

By trying to ban TikTok back then, Paul said, Trump ended up pushing the company to reform itself instead via Project Texas — which TikTok billed as “an unprecedented initiative dedicated to making every American on TikTok feel safe, with confidence that their data is secure and the platform is free from outside influence.”

Boom. Problem solved.

I’m going to offer a different argument, which I’m going with until someone proves me wrong: Back in 2020, Trump didn’t care about TikTok, at all. It was on his radar for a minute, and when he realized that talking about banning it would generate a lot of attention, he made more noises about banning it. Then eventually, his administration wrote an executive order, and … never really followed through with anything.

As I wrote back then: “Trump’s approach to TikTok, as well as WeChat, a Chinese-based messaging app he has also tried to ban, has been wildly erratic, even by Trump standards. At various times, Trump has announced that he would ban the app; or that he would force TikTok to sell itself to a US company; or that any deal would force TikTok to give a portion of the sales proceeds to the US; or that TikTok was going to contribute $5 billion to a fund ‘so we can educate people as to the real history of our country.'”

So sure, you can act aghast that Trump’s words and actions in 2024 don’t sync up with things he said and did four years ago. But it’s way easier to understand if you acknowledge that he maybe didn’t care about the things he said and did four years ago.

While we are here, let’s be even-handed, and note that Trump is not the only politician who has inconsistent and contradictory approaches to TikTok.

For instance, there’s President Joe Biden, who says he supports legislation that would force ByteDance to sell its US TikTok operations or face a ban.

That’s the same Joe Biden who is using TikTok in his 2024 presidential campaign.

Yes, Biden opened up his own TikTok account this year. But more crucial are his campaign’s efforts to court creators on TikTok and other platforms, hoping they will amplify Biden’s messaging for them. Which is why Biden’s White House was pre-briefing influencers about his State of the Union address this week.

Still here? Great. Because I also wanted to note that TikTok’s most recent anti-ban campaign, which kicked off Thursday when the app told its users to call Congress and complain, is now being described, in some corners, as counterproductive.

For instance: “TikTok Stunt Motivates Lawmakers to Take On the App,” says The Wall Street Journal, adding:

“TikTok’s campaign quickly overwhelmed the phone lines of some congressional offices, which were bombarded with hang-ups and questions. It also illustrated how TikTok could mobilize an army of people and gather data to push user behavior, which some lawmakers say is the exact reason they don’t want the company to have ties back to China.”

I wondered what TikTok thought about that argument, so I asked a PR rep, and got this statement in response: “If true, it is an interesting political calculation for a Member of Congress to hear from thousands of constituents imploring them to oppose a bill, get frustrated, and then vote yes to spite them.” Good zing!

So that’s a lot of TikTok Ban news to consume over a short period. But I’m still sticking with the argument I made Thursday:

It’s easy to vote for a TikTok ban if you don’t really think it’s going to result in a TikTok ban. But it’s a lot harder to actually ban TikTok for real — particularly during a very close presidential campaign, where the risk of blowback from angry users is a real thing. I don’t think this is going to happen.