Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 March 2024



What Trump’s TikTok Flip-Flop Tells America

A photo illustration of Donald Trump. He and his reflection are seen on either side of a cracked, horizontal mirror.
Credit... Illustration by Rachel Stern for The New York Times; photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

When the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last Wednesday to pass a bill that would require TikTok to divest its Chinese ownership or face an American ban, it provided a glimmer of hope in a dreary political time. This is exactly what a nation should do when it’s getting serious about the national security threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.

It makes no strategic sense for America to permit one of its chief foreign adversaries to exercise control over an app that both vacuums up the personal information of its more than 150 million American users and gives that adversary the opportunity to shape and mold the information those users receive.

Indeed, in one of the more astonishing public relations blunders in modern memory, TikTok made its critics’ case for them when it urged users to contact Congress to save the app. The resulting flood of angry calls demonstrated exactly how TikTok can trigger a public response and gave the lie to the idea that the app did not have clear (and essentially instantaneous) political influence.

Moreover, the vote demonstrated that it’s still possible to forge something approaching a foreign policy consensus on at least some issues. When a threat becomes big enough — and obvious enough — the American government can still act.

Or can it? The bill is now slowing down in the Senate, and there is real doubt whether it will pass. The app, after all, is phenomenally popular, and Congress is not often in the business of restricting popular things.

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But there’s another reason to question the bill’s prospects. And it not only threatens this particular piece of legislation, but also is yet another indication of the high stakes of the 2024 election: Donald Trump has abruptly flip-flopped from supporting the TikTok ban to opposing it — and that flip-flop is more important than most people realize.

First, Trump’s flip-flop demonstrates once again the futility of ascribing any kind of coherent ideology to the former president. Before Trump’s change of heart, one could argue that being “tough on China” was one of the fixed stars of his MAGA policy constellation. Yes, Trump was prone to say nice things about China’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping. But he also began a trade war with China, and he even drafted his own 2020 executive order to ban TikTok, a clumsy effort that failed in court.

Second, the flip-flop indicates that Trump’s positions may well be for sale, even when they threaten national security. What changed between Trump’s 2020 executive order against TikTok and his 2024 support for TikTok? After all, as the platform has grown in popularity, it’s only become more dangerous to American interests. Yet Trump’s change of heart came shortly after he “repaired” his relationship with a Republican megadonor named Jeff Yass, whose firm has a multibillion-dollar stake in TikTok and who has donated millions to Republicans who oppose the ban. This comes at a time when Trump is facing hundreds of millions of dollars in legal judgments, a financial vulnerability that, as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes smartly argued, makes him perhaps prone to sell his political positions for cash.

Finally, Trump’s reversal reveals that his real enemy is always the domestic enemy. As The Dispatch’s Nick Catoggio wrote last Thursday: “Populist-nationalism is about asserting tribal preeminence over other domestic tribes. And so it prioritizes fighting the enemy within.” In this context, the “enemy within” is Mark Zuckerberg and the “deep state.”

And indeed that is Trump’s explanation for the flip-flop. Last week he posted, in all caps, on Truth Social, “TIKTOK IS LESS OF A DANGER TO THE USA THAN META (FACEBOOK!), WHICH IS A TRUE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.” For Trump, everything is always a zero-sum analysis. Banning TikTok would strengthen Meta, in Trump’s mind, and he would rather side with China than with Zuckerberg.

Of course, many of Trump’s most reliable allies followed his lead to conjure up all of MAGA’s most despised domestic demons. The Federalist’s Sean Davis, for example, posted on X that “Deep State toadies are taking advantage of anti-China sentiment to transfer TikTok’s surveillance apparatus from China’s evil surveillance state to the U.S. government’s evil surveillance state.” Donald Trump Jr. placed blamed for the effort to ban TikTok on both of MAGA’s great enemies, the “Establishment” and “Big Tech.”

Catoggio correctly observed, “It speaks volumes” that “Trump felt safe politically allying himself with China on a pressing issue in an election year so long as he framed his position in terms of greater antipathy to one of the right’s domestic enemies, Big Tech.”

On this specific issue, there is still hope. Unlike when Trump came out against Republican Senator James Lankford’s border bill, the G.O.P. did not immediately adopt Trump’s position en masse. An overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for the bill, and it remains to be seen whether G.O.P. senators will once again wilt under Trump’s gaze. But my alarm about Trump is much less about this one bill than about what his position says about his potential presidency.

Last week, I wrote a column urging Reagan conservatives and Haley Republicans to vote for Joe Biden. The withering reaction from some on the right demonstrated the extent to which many Republicans still possess the mistaken belief that Trump possesses conservative convictions. How many times does he have to demonstrate that his personal grievances and perceived self-interest will always override ideology or policy?

My core argument wasn’t that Biden was conservative, but rather that Trump was sprinting so fast and so far from Reagan conservatism that it was no longer clear that another Trump presidency would be a better fit for Reagan conservatives than a second Biden term. Given MAGA’s outright hostility to traditional conservatives, any members of that cohort who vote for Trump are essentially voting for their own extinction.

Trump’s TikTok flip-flop demonstrates the point with extraordinary precision. Biden has said he’d sign the TikTok bill. Trump now opposes it. On yet another confrontation between American national security and an authoritarian foreign adversary, Biden sides with American interests and Trump aligns with our foe.

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