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Trump Gets Punked

detail of YouTube and TikTok apps on smartphone.
photo by Aaron Yoo

Richard Nixon had his Plumbers, and Vladimir Putin has his Internet Research Agency troll farm. But Joe Biden has a team of political pranksters that outclasses them all – although he may not have a clue who they are.

Biden has the kids. Lots and lots of kids. Specifically, the kids who spend their days immersed in TikTok and who are all but obsessed with K-pop. They are his secret weapon – or at least they were a secret, until they seemingly tanked a signature event put on by the president of the United States of America. Biden’s kids punked the most powerful man in the world.

Biden is well acquainted with kids, having raised several himself. Maybe I’m selling him short. Maybe he is way cooler than anyone with our mutual hair color has any right to be. But I would lay money on the proposition he had no idea what K-pop was until the K-pop kids pranked the president and the press gleefully reported it.

As for TikTok, I would lay even more money that Biden thinks of it only as the sound made by the clock he winds at night so he can wake up on time to shuffle down to his basement, from which he is running for president. If Biden succeeds Trump as the world’s most powerful man, will he have to start wearing footwear that does not have a comfy fleece lining?

Here I am, teasing Joe Biden, when he is not the man who got owned by the youth of America. Also by the youth of Canada. And France. And Brazil. Actually, by the youth of six continents. It would have been seven, except that the penguin chicks who live in Antarctica struggle with really crummy internet access.

After months cooped up in the White House, the president was eager to relaunch his campaign with a rally on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was, of course, going to be huge (even if that’s not how he pronounces that word). The president assured everyone that there would not be an empty seat in sight.

But we saw lots of empty seats. Anyone who wanted to maintain social distance at Trump’s event only needed to climb into the arena’s upper tier, which was mostly unoccupied. An even more huge (still not how he speaks that word) outdoor overflow event was called off because there was no overflow. More like a 12,800-seat underflow.

Various news outlets, beginning with CNN, reported that the kids outfoxed the Trump campaign by flooding the online system with requests for tickets that they had no intention of using. Campaign officials at one point claimed there had been more than a million requests for tickets. A lot of those requests may have come from kids who don’t know any more about Tulsa than Joe Biden knows about K-pop, but who certainly know how to cover their tracks on social media.

TikTok users and K-pop fans were not responsible for the low turnout at the rally, despite being quick to take credit for sinking it. As Erin Perrine, the Trump campaign’s principal deputy communications director, told CNN, the campaign put no limit on how many seat requests they would take. Attendees were admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis the day of the event. But the pranksters can likely take at least some credit for the discrepancy between the Trump campaign’s expectations and the reality of the Tulsa crowd.

I would advise the president and his campaign staff to tip their golf caps to the kids and move on. Kids have been mastering technology that baffles older people since the first television remote was invented. (Side note to the president: We should stop calling it a “clicker.” TV remotes haven’t made a clicking sound in at least 40 years.)

Today’s kids don’t mess with the clicker; they have access to an entire tech and entertainment ecosystem of which most adults know almost nothing. They don’t use Twitter to argue with strangers, and they only log in to Facebook when they need to check on their parents and grandparents. They communicate with each other on Snapchat or via Instagram direct messages, where they also post “stories” that mostly consist of long streams of exclamation points!!!!! And they entertain themselves making and watching videos on TikTok, or by watching K-pop videos and fancams on YouTube. I assure you, I am writing this paragraph in English.

TikTok is a place where people make silly short videos incorporating licensed or unlicensed music for the entertainment of other users, who watch for hours on end. K-pop, or Korean pop, is an immensely popular music genre. K-pop songs are often sung in multiple languages but may be incomprehensible without subtitles even to someone who is fluent in all of them. This music is frequently accompanied by elaborate synchronized dancing and slick video production. Basically, it is what Busby Berkeley did in “Footlight Parade” in 1933, plus subtitles.

Adults who run political campaigns aren’t going to beat the kids at their own tech game. But they could beat the kids at adult stuff, like campaign finance rules. Next time, rally organizers should try using multi-factor authentication to verify the email addresses and phone numbers they collect, so they get the database material that is a big reason for holding rallies in the first place. Maybe require a modest donation in return for rally ticket reservations; genuine supporters won’t mind. Then, if millions of kids and a few Adelie penguins prank your rally, at least you’ll make some money. But most likely, you’ll just keep most of the pranksters away.

In the process, you could get some genuine contact info for some genuine kids. This gives you a chance to actually talk to them without having to figure out direct messaging, or Instagram in general. Maybe tell them how your education policies will help them get better schools and your economic policies will help them get better jobs, when they are ready to cut down on their TikTok consumption.

Even better than telling them stuff, let them tell you stuff. Listen to them. It may seem to adults that the kids spend way too much time watching silly TikTok videos and listening to incomprehensible K-pop lyrics. But teenagers actually are quite aware of things happening in the world that matter to them, and the range of things that matter to them goes far beyond TikTok and K-pop. You don’t punk the most powerful man in the world, or bulk up a movement that is rapidly changing a centuries-old conversation about race and society, unless you are paying attention.

They are kids and they have strong opinions about the sort of world they want to inherit. Being kids, most of them don’t do nuance or understand trade-offs very well. But their hearts are in the right place.

Anyone who wants to be the most powerful man in the world might find it useful to know a little bit about what the kids are up to, if only to avoid getting punked. Find out what is on their minds. Maybe take a look at TikTok and watch a couple of K-pop videos. This is not to get the kids to think you’re cool – that’s impossible – but because you care enough to make the effort.

Who knows? A few kids may reciprocate by paying attention to what you’re up to, as well. That would be a good time to suggest to them that hiding Joe Biden’s slippers would be an even better prank than leaving half the arena empty at a Trump rally. If you set it to music, it would make a great TikTok video.

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