The TikTok saga is proving another deep pool for reflection about the appropriate role for government – this time in private business, the seemingly endless political need to build fear of The Other—the Chinese government, and the flip-flopping from our White House.
So, let's see what we can learn from this case that might apply more broadly.
Much as we might like to do so, the TikTok story cannot be separated from the flailing around Donald Trump's re-election campaign. Trump grabs for a moment to immigration to urban horrors to a new healthcare system. There is no discussion about effectiveness in government, a subject the White House insists should be handled by only listening to its propaganda, not by results.
Trump first said he wanted to ban TikTok in the United States as a national security threat. He argued, without specific evidence, that the Chinese are using it to harvest tons of personal data of Americans. Then, within a day, he relented to allow U.S. ownership of the company as being sought by Microsoft, even while continuing to wave his powers over all things in America.
TikTok is an object to Trump, useful as a political tool, not an actual service.
For those not familiar with it, TikTok is a social media platform mostly used by young people to post silly videos. Its popularity results from its very silliness, and the ease with which one can distort faces, images and videos—including comedian-author Sarah Cooper's funny impressions of Trump.
TikTok is the most well-known of Trump's China-based targets. The app has more than 100 million U.S. users, many of whom joined very recently. That drew the attention of the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) which must approve any sale.
Of course, exactly what the Chinese Communist Party apparatus would do with zillions of personal data entries from teenagers is not exactly clear. But in TrumpWorld, we do not want to lose a good chance to bash the Chinese for using technology as low-effort spying on Americans.
Naturally, the idea that the Chinese are building enormous databases of personal information, particularly about our kids, is frightening on its face. But, then, isn't it just as frightening that Amazon, Google, Facebook and now Microsoft are doing the same?
Funny, neither Trump nor House Republicans in a hearing last week showed any concern about that antitrust issue.
Objections all around
The TikTok case has politicians of all stripes up on their hind legs—providing ways to see this specific case in broader terms.
House Republicans want hearings giving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a chance to rain on the Chinese, business types are excited that Microsoft might renew itself by entering the social media market and Trump has a re-election cudgel, even if he has taken multiple views here. China is the enemy is the basic message, without regard to how that is supposed to work in this case.
The New York Times' Peter Baker had a smart piece outlining how Trump has overflowed the usual political riverbanks with a pattern of interfering with American businesses as part of his view of running the government as if he were running The Trump Organization. "The events followed a pattern that Trump set early on in his presidency, in which some of the world's most powerful companies have found themselves at his whims. . . . Unlike his predecessors, Trump has frequently waded in to berate or praise executives and try to influence their operations."
That sentiment fits neatly into a continuing concern about Trump's unrestrained broadening of presidential privilege.
And The Washington Post highlighted Trump's remarks that the U.S. treasury should collect a portion of the potential TikTok sale for making it possible (or necessary?) – although it was unclear under what authority the White House could demand such a payment. Trump said at the White House that if that sale to Microsoft goes through, the president said, part of the proceeds should be paid to U.S. taxpayers as compensation for operating in America.
It is true that companies do routinely pay the costs of a Treasury/CFIUS review of security, though those are capped. Otherwise, someone should remind Trump that we have a system by which companies pay the government to operate. We call it taxes, though since he believes companies should not pay taxes, perhaps he is not familiar with the concept.
Trump said that the United States "should get a very large percentage of that price" of the sale. It would come from the sale — whatever the number is," the president said. "Which nobody else would be thinking about but me. But that's the way I think."
Neither the Treasury nor the White House could offer an explanation.
Maybe this all will just pass away, as most of the Trump talk does. But it does seem important to take note of the directions in which Trump would lead us.
Trump is going to continue to use China as a weapon in the election. Importantly, he is using his ability to make everything an emergency more routine, allowing for a continuing expansion of his powers to tell other countries or U.S. companies what they can or cannot do, and the rest of us that we cannot stop him. Instead, we can appeal to his whim.
What he is doing about TikTok now follows similar pressures a couple of years ago involving ownership of a tech platform called Grindr and the continuing discord over Huawei and ZTE operating 5G networks outside of China.
It does strike me that just on political grounds, the president would be better served if he thought through the issue before speaking. Taking a popular social program from 100 million young people a couple of months before the election might just backfire politically.
It's all enough to make a video parody. But then that would be posted on TikTok.