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Jake Paul, Donald Trump and the Never-Ending Scandal Strategy

What YouTube is for Paul, Facebook is for Trump: a platform happy to profit off abuse

Want to know why Trump is Teflon? Let me tell you about Jake Paul. 

On Wednesday, the FBI raided the YouTuber’s Calabasas, California, mega-mansion as part of an undisclosed investigation, allegedly involving his appearance at a Scottsdale shopping mall riot during Black Lives Matter protests in May. The FBI removed several guns from Paul’s home, which he’d previously shown off on his YouTube channel.

Paul’s legal woes come a week after he was chastised by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti for repeatedly hosting house parties during the coronavirus pandemic. Paul expressed little remorse for bucking social distancing orders. “No one has answers, our leadership is failing us and everyone kind of just doesn’t know what to do. But I personally am not the type of person who’s gonna sit around and not live my life,” he told Insider last week.

Of course, the life Jake Paul lives always seems to be at the expense of someone else. Saying the N-word in a 2017 freestyle rap to Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Sum Mo” secured hate clicks and think pieces. Scamming his young audience for fake insider hustler secrets boosted his bank account. Paul’s litany of scandals seems never-ending: He faked a hurricane rescue mission, told his followers anxiety is “created by you,” and posted racy shots of his ex in a YouTube thumbnail. An ex-girlfriend has accused him of physical and mental abuse. (It was Paul’s brother, Logan, who filmed and laughed about a dead body in Japan.)

This is the art of the infamy chain. Paul knocks a house down, then starts a fire with the wreckage. 

He’s following in a tried-and-true celebrity-scandal formula of the early 2000s, adapting it for today’s digital consumption. His technique might feel familiar to anyone who’s followed the Donald Trump White House over the past four years — it’s exactly how the president skirts accountability for increasingly outrageous offenses. Trump’s ability to “wriggle his way out of this jam” has become a running joke:

For many actors and musicians in Hollywood (Paul is loosely considered both), an FBI raid and coronavirus scandal would tank their careers. Exes Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s careers are on the lines over a disastrous libel trial. Outspoken women like Janet Jackson, Megan Fox and the Chicks were sidelined for much less in an industry that rewards shitty men.

Somehow, Paul, who has been embroiled in controversy since he first found fame in 2013 on Vine, has seen his celebrity and net worth only grow. He’s gained over 20 million YouTube subscribers over seven years.

People always ask what happened to 2000s tabloid figures like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian, whose careers hinged on their scandals. Page Six’s starlets didn’t fade with the demise of print publications. They moved online to YouTube, Instagram and now TikTok. The canceled influencer is the modern-day mess about town. 

But unlike Lohan or Kardashian, Paul knows he doesn’t have to answer to record labels, TV networks or production companies in Hollywood. He’s made that mistake already: In 2017, Disney severed ties with Paul, then starring in the sitcom Bizaardvark, after his L.A. neighbors said living next to him was a “living hell.” 

What’s more, Paul — unlike most influencers — rarely partners with brands for sponsored content. The only authority he must answer to is YouTube, which has demonstrated time and again that it prioritizes revenue over combating hate and harassment.

Instead of riding out scandals in silence, YouTube influencers — even villainous ones with racist or predatory pasts, like Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson — make apology videos, profit off the clicks and continue on, inevitably causing a new scandal in need of a monetized video to explain it all. On YouTube, bad behavior isn’t an embarrassment. It’s career longevity. 

And being a supervillain can sure be lucrative. Following Hurricane Harvey, Paul drove to Texas, promising to rescue victims of the flood. Fans stormed him in a San Antonio Walmart, shutting down the store for people who actually needed it. He made a YouTube video for his “rescue” and used it to hawk his own merch. He also faked a marriage with problematic YouTuber Tana Mongeau (ex of Bella Thorne) and turned the timed “break-up” into $600 million worth of media value

Call it invincibility by content inundation. Just like Paul and YouTube, Trump has found an eager ally in Facebook, which helped him win the 2016 election and then capitalize on a toxic brand to develop lasting influence and power. The strategy has never failed them: Paul and Trump churn out new scandals and turn them into irresistible content, exploiting the media’s short attention span and forcing us to make mental space for the new atrocity. What was I mad about last week? Who can remember?

As for how to stop this cycle, that’s largely out of our individual hands. Paul is another reminder that any real change in our society must come when corporations value humanity over their bottom line. Based on how the pandemic is going, I’d put money on a Jake Paul–branded hoax vaccine first — exclusive content sold for $69 per person, monetized at $0.20 per view.