Why Trump Flipped on TikTok

5 minute read

As Congress moves ahead with legislation that could ban TikTok, the popular platform has found an unlikely ally in Washington: Donald Trump.

Over the last week, Trump has railed against a bill that would remove TikTok from U.S. app stores unless its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, sells its stake. To many, the move came out of left field. As President, Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok unless it was acquired by an American company, alleging the Chinese government was using the video-sharing service to surveil millions of Americans. The order never went into effect after it was challenged in federal court.

But now Trump sees some utility in helping to keep TikTok around, especially after President Joe Biden said he would sign the bill into law. “Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok that love it,” he told CNBC. “There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.”

The former President’s flip-flop has sparked allegations that he’s doing the bidding of a powerful donor with a stake in ByteDance. But part of his calculus, multiple sources familiar with Trump’s thinking tell TIME, is the opportunity to make gains with younger voters by protecting their beloved platform.  

“He realizes that a lot of people would be upset if it were banned,” says a Trump operative working on the re-election effort. “Now Trump and Biden are on opposite sides of an issue where younger voters are clearly in favor of not banning TikTok.” 

Trump has other reasons for the reversal. He struck a rapprochement this month with the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which opposes the bill. Earlier this year, the organization admitted defeat in an expensive effort to keep Trump from winning the GOP nomination. “We’re back in love,” Trump recently told a gathering of its donors, according to Politico. The group opposes the bill, mirroring the position of one of its benefactors, billionaire Jeff Yass, whose investment company owns 15% of ByteDance. To boost the effort, Club for Growth hired longtime Trump loyalist Kellyanne Conway to advocate for TikTok on Capitol Hill. 

At the same time, Trump fears the legislation would strengthen one of his nemeses: Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The former President resents the social media company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, for donating $400 million in 2020 to help state and local governments run their elections amid a pandemic by  facilitating mail voting, the system Trump baselessly maligns as rife with fraud. 

Trump and his allies also accuse the company of suppressing conservative content and news stories damaging to Democrats. “Zuckerberg’s censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story helped the Democrats dramatically in 2020,” says Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump ally and GOP consultant. 

After a House committee voted 50-0 last week for the bill that could lead to a TikTok ban in the U.S., lobbyists and TikTok users bombarded lawmakers in a bid to thwart the measure. Biden’s support and Trump’s opposition have created surprising fault lines on the Hill. The full House chamber is expected to pass the legislation on Wednesday, but it faces an uphill climb in the Senate.

Read more: What to Know About the Bill That Could Get TikTok Banned in the U.S.

Biden’s 2020 victory was powered by the youth vote, according to an analysis by Tufts University researchers that found young voters favored Biden over Trump by a 25-point margin. But recent polls show that gap to be shrinking. An Axios-Generation Lab survey of voters under 35 last month found Biden leading by just four percentage points. 

It’s not clear whether that trend will last. Young progressives have rebelled against Biden for supporting Israel’s war against Hamas, contributing to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. But Democratic operatives are betting that most young voters will flock to Biden come November, fearing what a second Trump term would mean for abortion rights and the future of democracy.  

Many of those young voters are on TikTok. A Pew Research survey last year found that one-third of American adults under 30 regularly scroll TikTok for news. Several polls show the social media platform to be the number one source for news and information among Gen Z. 

That doesn’t mean TikTok is exclusively a haven for socially progressive content. It’s also a popular platform for Trump supporters. The Nelk Boys, whose podcast Trump has appeared on twice, have 4.6 million followers on TikTok. The former Fox News host Tucker Carlson has 1.3 million. Time and again, it’s a venue where pro-Trump content has gone viral. The right-wing American Wire News account amassed more than 6.5 million views on a recent clip of Trump bringing on stage a supporter who kicked out a heckler at one of his rallies. 

Social media experts say that TikTok can be a useful mobilizing tool for the MAGA faithful. “It has an extremely personalized algorithm,” says Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington. “It can amplify these filter bubbles we create for ourselves in terms of primarily or even only seeing political content that we agree with.”

The strategy has worked. TikTok grew by 12% from 2021 to 2023.  It’s now used by more than 150,000 million Americans, making it one of the most popular apps in the country. That runaway growth, members of Trump’s inner circle say, helps to explain why Trump went from trying to ban it to becoming its most prominent defender. “TikTok is more relevant now than when that executive order was written,” says the Trump operative. 

Some of his allies expect him to turn it into a campaign wedge issue. “This is Biden’s ban now,” says Bruesewitz, “and tens of millions of young voters know it.” 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com