Everybody’s talking about the teens who allegedly beat Donald Trump.
Apparently, tens of thousands of TikTok users — along with megafans of K-Pop, the irresistibly-bouncy Korean pop music — waged a secret campaign to order tickets to the president’s June 20 rally, with no intention of actually attending.
Those empty seats in the upper deck of Tulsa’s BOK Center? Possibly claimed by your teenage daughter, who, at the time of the actual event, was eating Flaming Hot Cheetos and watching a 6-year-old rerun of “Dance Moms.”
That girl, to a certain segment of anti-Trumpers, is the new American hero.
Me? I’m more excited about the woman who goes by #TikTokGrandma.
She’s one of the underground leaders who sparked the movement, according to the New York Times, where adults go to learn what the kids were doing three months ago.
The kids took it from there ... using their rapid-fire thumbs for actual action while their parents were ranting helplessly on Twitter.
An earnest, fast-talking 51-year-old from Iowa named Mary Jo Laupp, she posted a viral TikTok in which she urged kids to Google “Juneteenth” and “Black Wall Street,” then suggested a way to undermine the Trump rally. The kids took it from there, quietly sharing Laupp’s post, creating fake email accounts and Google phone numbers, using their rapid-fire thumbs for actual action while their parents were ranting helplessly on Twitter. It was the digital equivalent of sneaking out the bedroom window while mom and dad were falling asleep in front of “Frontline.”
Adults have always wanted to harness teen energy and channel it toward democracy. When I came of age, in the era of shoulder pads and parachute pants, MTV was urging us to Rock the Vote. A generation later, P.Diddy tried to get the kids to Vote or Die. Most of them did neither. And the medium may have been part of the problem: There’s something deeply condescending — two years ago, the kids would have called it “cringe-y” — about celebrity trying speak the language of youth through platforms controlled by rich adults. Many years ago, I covered a presidential debate hosted by MTV, and watched as the Boomer candidates paraded out in mock-neck sweaters and extra hair gel. I don’t think the kids were so impressed.
TikTok is today’s MTV, wrapped into every other entertainment platform you can think of. (“So, it’s like Facebook, for cool people?” I asked my 15-year-old daughter, when she gave me a primer. “For younger people,” she corrected, which was kind.) Its content is decidedly bottom-up, an endless scroll of user-generated 60-second-or-less joke videos, calisthenic dances, and miniature screeds, all pitched to the frequency of “under 25.” Adults don’t know what to make of it, if they even know it exists. Any parent who ever made the mistake of trying to dab or floss with her tweens knows better than to try to crack its code.
TikTokking a rally -- can we make that a new verb? -- is as much nihilism as democracy...
But #TikTokGrandma finds a way. In the video that maybe launched a movement, she’s not trying to be cool, exactly; she’s more like your favorite high school teacher, giving you a lecture that you listen to because she is all in. Scroll back in her feed, and you’ll see that she does have command over the medium: she does duets (look it up) with younger TikTokkers, hashtags with abandon, lip-synchs from Hamilton. Most of all, she understands that the best youth activism happens where the adults aren’t looking.
We'll never know precisely how much effect the teen revolt had on the Trump rally. And it’s doubtful that a platform like TikTok could reverse the trend of low youth voter turnout, not least because so many of its users are, like, 14. Apathy and disconnectness, among the youngest voters, is a problem even in the most charged political times. According to Tufts University’s CIRCLE center, which studies civic participation, the 2018 Congressional elections drew the highest youth turnout for a midterm election in decades. It was still only 28 percent.
But there are other ways, besides taking to the polls, to exercise political power — and showing up a president in a very public venue is one of them. TikTokking a rally — can we make that a new verb? — is as much nihilism as democracy, but when you’re under 18, what else can you do?
Take it from #TikTokGrandma: There’s a way to work together.
Joanna Weiss is editor of Experience magazine, published by Northeastern University.