Jeff Jackson, TikTok King
a look inside the freshman congressman’s meteoric rise to internet stardom – and behind his claims to transparency in campaign and personal finance
Your head, like mine, was probably spinning. Signature Bank had gone under. Silicon Valley Bank’s finances were in disarray, then their depositors panicked — and ran. All of a sudden we were being told the second largest bank failure in American history had just unfolded. Talking heads were speculating about broader financial contagion, and pundits were pointing fingers at venture capitalists, or regulators, or whoever else they wanted to blame for the disaster. Was it 2008 all over again? Did the government just bail out the banks? Did executives profit off of insider trading ahead of the worst financial crisis for over a decade? Were we all about to get swallowed up by a deep recession birthed by a greedy, irresponsible, corrupt elite?
You knew you wouldn’t be able to sleep, but it was late — or, early, really — and even bleary eyed doomscrollers have to hit the sack eventually. So you got in bed, laid your head on the pillow, and allowed yourself just a few minutes of mindless TikTok content to distract from the chaos. It wasn’t helping. And that’s when a dark-haired, serious-looking man appeared on your screen. He seemed to be staring calmly into your soul. Over his chest was a black box with white letters that read: “Stopping a bank run.” The room was dark, and for the first time all day, your mind fell silent. It was just you and the man on your screen. He started speaking:
It’s about 2:00 a.m., and I just wanted to bring you up to speed on everything that’s happened tonight, because you’re probably seeing a lot of headlines right now.
He went on to tell you about a Zoom call in which members of the U.S. Congress — himself included — learned about “extraordinary steps” that would now be taken “to secure our financial system.”
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What you’d heard was true — we were in the early stages of a financial “domino effect” — but the federal government was stepping in to stop the bleeding. The banks weren’t being bailed out with taxpayer money, but their depositors were being protected. The government had a singular focus: to halt the domino effect immediately. If you’d been hearing arguments about bank regulation and financial risk, good, we needed to have that debate. But for the moment, all that mattered was ensuring this only became a political debate — not a financial crisis. Look, he said, “you can be angry at all of this, so long as you know that your deposits at your bank are safe, because the full weight of the federal government has decided they will be.”
Oh, he added in closing, “and for anyone who follows me, I promise to keep you posted.”
The man’s voice was soothing, his words sensible, his message reassuring. His bio read: Dad, Soldier, Congressman (NC-14). You’d never heard of him before, didn’t know his party affiliation, but you thought to yourself “Jeff Jackson — this guy seems alright.” He made the chaos melt away, and you were glad to know he’d be keeping you posted. You slept okay after all.
Okay, maybe this wasn’t your experience, but for some fraction of the video’s 29 million viewers, it’s probably not far off. In the comments section, users gushed over Jackson’s clarity and calmness, his emphasis on pertinent facts over partisan talking points, and his unusual display of governmental transparency. They declared that he restored their hope in American politics, and they begged him to run for president.
The bank run video is his most viral to date, but it’s not the video itself people love; it’s the man in the video. For the last few months, every time Jackson has appeared on screen as that man — the soothing congressman, the ASMR politician — his legions of adoring online fans have swelled. Each of his last twelve videos on TikTok has amassed over a million views, and his account has 1.6 million followers. Virtually overnight, Jackson has become the most popular American politician on the platform.
And he’s not only beloved on TikTok. Jackson posts his videos all over the internet —Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even LinkedIn — but most of all, Reddit. Every time he uploads a new video to TikTok, Jackson uses his personal Reddit account to post it in every subreddit his constituents have a reasonable chance of visiting. And, of all places, Reddit — that notoriously toxic cesspool of anonymous trolls — loves Jackson. His account has over 380,000 karma, his posts regularly get hundreds or thousands of upvotes, and the top comments on those posts are almost universally positive. The few negative comments often wind up with net downvotes. Jackson has clearly tapped into something, managing to earn bipartisan affection from internet communities typically mired in ideological rigidity or riddled with contempt for authority. But how?
We’ve seen that his style is effective. He exudes calm, and he makes complex subjects easy to understand. But the subjects he chooses to speak on are themselves part of his appeal. He’s released videos on the bank run, the TikTok ban, the war in Ukraine, McCarthy’s rise to the speakership, tensions between China and Taiwan — important topics of universal interest. And, having uploaded only 16 videos this year, he doesn’t post often. So, from the outset, Jackson has cultivated a reputation as someone who weighs in only on worthwhile issues, and only when he has something of genuine public interest to say. He rarely mentions his political party (Democrat) in his videos, and he never attacks political opponents. This strategy has bred trust, and that trust is bolstered by his efforts to appear transparent.
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After winning his seat in the House, Jackson posted a video that he began by saying “three weeks ago, I was elected to congress. Since then, my life has changed completely. I thought you might be interested, so here’s what happens right after you get elected to congress.” He proceeded to give viewers a window into his transition into office. It has the feel of a “day-in-the-life-of-a-tradwife” TikTok, but instead of a random blond twenty-something talking in your ear, it’s a member of the most powerful legislature in the world. At the end of the video, Jackson said: “going forward, I want to give you something we don’t see too often: a real-time, first-person account of being a freshman member of congress.” He makes his viewers feel they’re living vicariously as congressmen through him, seeing secrets typically withheld from public view. And he took the transparency to another level in a video on January 20, in which he offered a rundown of his family’s personal finances.
He earns income from Congress, and from the National Guard. His wife is a marketing director. They have investments in index funds, but not in individual stocks — so they can’t engage in insider trading. This, he says, is where all their money comes from. They have three kids, a 30-year-mortgage on their home, and loans for their two cars, both of which they bought used. He had debt coming out of college, but paid it off through his service in Afghanistan and the GI bill. There you have it, his household’s financial situation. “And look, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘regular American family.’ We’re all different. But I do think it would be a benefit if Congress had more people there with three kids, two car payments, and a mortgage. I think that’s a dose of reality that place could really use.”
He offered further financial transparency in his video on the push to ban TikTok. After noting that TikTok orchestrated a massive lobbying spree ahead of its congressional hearing, Jackson says “that’s one of the reasons I don’t take corporate donations — not from TikTok, not from Facebook, not from any corporation… I’ve taken those steps so that in moments like this, I can just level with you and be transparent about where things stand, and frankly I don’t have to worry about the influence of corporate money, because I don’t take it.”
When Jackson posts a video online, then, what his viewers see is a family man who doesn’t take corporate money, doesn’t own individual stocks, drives a used Ford Fusion, doesn’t engage in partisan hackery or fear-mongering — in short, a man of integrity who’s in D.C. simply to serve his country. A man who won’t bullshit you, in a world ruled by bullshitters.
I’ve written, so far, only about Jackson’s image — the man on the screen. To a certain extent, for now, that image is all he is, having only been in the national spotlight for a few months. But one thing already seems certain about the man behind the image: he’s not going anywhere. Jackson is an ambitious man, and in his home state, expectations for him are as great as his ambitions. As early as 2018, local political commentators were predicting he’d be on the shortlist for Democratic presidential nominee in 2024. And based on his behavior since joining the House, Jackson — just 40 years old — certainly seems to have eyes on higher office. So we should have ample opportunity moving forward to gauge how well his image corresponds to reality.
Even now, though, it’s possible to scrutinize him more intensely than the press has managed to date. An April 11 profile of Jackson in the Washington Post, for example, included absolutely no assessment of the veracity of his claims about campaign and personal finance. But there are significant questions surrounding those claims.
Jackson assures his viewers that, because he doesn’t accept corporate donations, they can trust that he’s breaking down the issues of the day without being swayed by business interests. But what he really means when he says he doesn’t take corporate money is that he doesn’t accept campaign contributions from corporate PACs. Swearing off corporate PAC money has become commonplace among Democratic politicians; meanwhile, journalists have exposed an array of loopholes through which candidates can honor this pledge while still benefiting from corporate financing. For instance, a no-corporate-PAC candidate can accept money from non-connected PACs that themselves accept corporate money. They can also accept personal contributions from corporate executives, as opposed to having those executives go through a corporate PAC middleman — a distinction without a meaningful difference. Jackson has done precisely this, in ways that raise some red flags around his explainer videos.
Viewers of Jackson’s video on the TikTok ban, for example, might want to know that he accepted a $5,000 campaign contribution from the BRIDGE PAC, to which TikTok lobbyist Michael Hacker gave $7,500 last election cycle. They might also want to know he accepted $4,310 from individuals affiliated with K&L Gates, a law firm with at least one partner who’s a registered TikTok lobbyist, and another who’s being paid by TikTok to advise them on congressional investigations. Likewise, viewers of Jackson’s video on the Silicon Valley Bank failure might want to know he accepted $5,000 from the Digidems PAC, along with $29,612 from individuals employed by it. Digidems is a super PAC funded largely by two prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists — Ron Conway and Reid Hoffman — both of whom are known to have helped arrange the government’s intervention in the crisis.
Jackson’s claim to immunity from the temptations of insider trading is based on the premise that he only has investments in index funds, not individual stocks. But trading individual stocks is not the only way for an elected official to profit from access to privileged information — and Jackson has failed to inform his viewers of other relevant assets. Since at least 2021, he’s been an active cryptocurrency trader, disclosing between $57,000 and $120,000 in capital gains from Bitcoin, Cardano, and XRP trades that year. And he has continued to trade in cryptocurrency even after being sworn into the House, having sold stakes in Cardano and Ankr as recently as January 29.
Finally, Jackson projects an image of himself as a used-Ford-Fusion-driving, GI-bill-dependent middle class American. But in his personal finance video, he failed to mention that for roughly seven years before his election to congress, he was a business litigation attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson — North Carolina’s second largest law firm — where he earned a six-figure salary on top of his state senate and National Guard income streams. None of this information — the no-corporate-PAC pledge loopholes, the crypto trading, the six figure salary — is damning, or remotely unusual in the context of congressional politics. What is unusual is the extent to which Jackson has convinced people online that he’s uniquely transparent, and uniquely immune to corporate influence and insider trading.
The cynical take on the gap between Jackson’s rhetoric and behavior is: duh, all politicians are bullshitters, and anyone who took the man at his word was hopelessly naive. We should never indulge in hero worship nor expect anyone who steps foot in D.C. to avoid being swallowed by the swamp. He misled us once; he’ll mislead us again; the world keeps turning.
A more optimistic spin: Jeff Jackson — the man on the screen — is the hero we need, and it’s not too late for the man himself to better align with the image he’s cultivated. He should either pull back a bit on his holier-than-thou financial rhetoric, or actually start living up to his lofty claims. Either way, he could become a unifying leader in a fractured republic. We don’t need a saint, just a man who abides by the code he preaches. The fact is he still has a viable bipartisan appeal. He still brings a nuanced but common sense perspective to bear on complex, important issues, and he’s still good at using social media to deliver that message to the masses. Were he to correct the record early on about the ways he’s misled viewers, his image — and his future — could remain largely intact.
But the bottom line, for now, is Jackson has repeatedly claimed immunity from corporate influence and the temptation to engage in insider trading, while concealing contradictory facts. For a man whose image has become synonymous with transparency, that’s a bad look. He’s been crowned our TikTok king, but if he wants his reign to last — and more importantly, if he wants to become a serious national leader — he’s got his work cut out for him.
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It's baffling to me that more politicians don't do this sort of messaging. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact most of them are both remarkably old and remarkably out of touch.
Interviews on cable news and 15 second attack ads might be effective for voters born during the Truman administration, but short, clear, easily sharable videos of the sort this fella is producing are going to be orders of magnitude more effective for everyone else. If I were a politician, I'd be doing my best to imitate YouTubers/influencers.
Questions of corruption aside, I think this dude's strategy is a winning one.
I have a personal rule not to call anyone corrupt if they are at a similar income level to an owner/operator of a Denny’s franchise. I’ll give him a chance to show some leadership but he’ll never have the place in my heart that I keep for George Santos.