On August 2, an anonymous TikTok account that posts jokes and memes from a conservative perspective called @the.republican.hub uploaded an unusually somber video for its 57,000 followers. In the clip, an animated elephant moves its trunk up and down to the beat of melancholic elevator music. “If TikTok is banned this is my chance to say thank you!” the caption reads. “It was really fun and I hope I can rebuild on my Instagram.”
Unmentioned was the catalyst for this preemptive goodbye: The leader of the Republican Party, President Donald Trump, had told reporters just days earlier that he was “banning” TikTok from the United States, after members of his administration raised national security concerns about the popular Chinese-owned social media app. Trump would later sign two executive orders that may effectively force ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to sell its US operations to an American firm within 90 days of August 14. (Microsoft has said it is pursuing a potential deal.) TikTok has repeatedly denied that it poses any threat, and on Monday, the company announced it had filed a lawsuit against the US government, accusing it of depriving TikTok of its right to due process.
Thousands of digital creators in the US rely on TikTok to reach their fans. That includes Republican influencers, who have built massive followings on the platform promoting Trump and his administration’s policies. Many of these right-leaning TikTokers rose to prominence posting short political commentary in the style of conservative stars like Ben Shapiro or Charlie Kirk. Hashtags like #Trump2020 and #Republican now have billions of views each on the app. As Trump has explicitly sought to villainize TikTok this summer—in July, he ran a series of Facebook advertisements warning that “TIKTOK IS SPYING ON YOU”—Republican creators have found themselves caught in the middle.
“This platform has grown the fastest out of all my other platforms,” says Christopher Townsend, a 29-year-old Republican hip hop artist and Air Force veteran from Mississippi with over 540,000 followers on TikTok. Townsend, who is Black, often uses his videos to address what he says are myths about the Republican Party and race. He believes Republicans support minorities and civil rights, but haven’t done an effective job explaining that. “My hopes are to show people that side,” he says.
By almost every measure, Townsend has benefited greatly from TikTok. His audience on the app is far bigger than on other sites like Instagram and YouTube. Earlier this month, the actor Terry Crews even posted a video on TikTok featuring one of Townsend’s songs that garnered millions of views. Townsend also says he had recently been accepted into a new fund TikTok launched to pay creators directly for their work. And yet, he still sympathizes with Trump’s position, and says he would understand if TikTok were to disappear from US app stores.
“It is what it is, some platforms just disappear,” says Townsend, citing now-defunct sites like the short-form video app Vine. The difference is that Twitter, which owned Vine at the time, shut the service down for business reasons, whereas TikTok may cease operations in the US because of an executive action by the White House. After serving in the military, Townsend says he understands Trump’s worries about whether the Chinese government might use TikTok to obtain data about Americans. “Was it possible and probably gonna happen? Probably not, but we can’t eliminate that the possibility is there,” he says. (TikTok has repeatedly denied that it shares information with the Chinese government, and maintains its data collection practices are in line with other apps that also earn revenue from advertising.)
Other Republican TikTok creators echo the same ideas. “When I heard Trump was thinking of banning TikTok, I wasn’t really surprised,” says Blake Kresses, a 17-year-old from Atlanta and a member of the Republican Hype House, a group of young, right-leaning creators on TikTok who take turns posting to a central account with over 800,000 followers. “If it’s a threat to our national security, a ban is entirely warranted,” he says.
Kresses says being part of the hype house has been “fantastic,” but he wouldn’t lose much sleep if TikTok were no longer around. “TikTok is fun and all, but an app’s existence isn’t going to have that big of an effect on my life, and it kinda disappoints me to see people freak out or even break down crying that they’re going to lose an iPhone app,” he says.
The Republican Hype House is one of several prominent political collectives on TikTok, including The Republican Girls, Conservative Hype House, and the Democratic Hype House. Perhaps just as popular are individual political creators like Republican Barbie, an account run by a 16-year-old girl from Texas who asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons. She says she would be more disappointed than some of her peers if TikTok were to go away. “Of course I would be, it’s such a great and diverse platform,” she says. “It’s so easy to connect with followers on there, too, which is something I really enjoy doing.”
Rather than trying to save TikTok, the app’s Republican influencers say they’re working to ensure they have audiences on other platforms, which isn’t always easy. “It’s pretty hard…I know I’ll lose a lot of my platform if TikTok does get banned,” says the teenager behind Republican Barbie. Townsend says he’s actively trying to attract more followers to his Twitch and YouTube channels, where it can also be easier to make money through established monetization tools. Kresses says he’s confident that the Republican Hype House can “survive and thrive on other mediums.”
While other apps like Instagram certainly have a healthy number of pro-Trumpers, the features that made TikTok popular have proven difficult to copy. Facebook recently launched a competitor to TikTok called Reels, which The New York Times declared a “dud.” Trump himself has set up an official profile on another rival app called Triller, but so far his audience there is still only a fraction of what it is on other sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Republican TikTok influencers are also preoccupied with the kinds of challenges that come with sharing political content anywhere online, especially when a lot of people are watching. Kresses says he’s lost friends for being outspokenly conservative, and Republican Barbie’s account owner says she regularly gets spammed with hateful comments and even receives death threats. Townsend is concerned about whether social media companies may be reluctant to pay him because his work may be seen as controversial. Those problems will all likely follow the Republican creators no matter if TikTok lives or dies.
Republican lawmakers who have for years complained that social media companies censor conservative voices have largely remained silent about Trump’s steps toward banning TikTok in the US. While the national security gains remain unclear, the challenge to free speech is apparent—no matter what your political persuasion.