On TikTok, John McEntee is an "icon."
The 33-year-old Californian is well-known on TikTok for starring in video skits that parody the political left for conservatives-only dating app The Right Stuff.With more than 400,000 followers and some 18 million likes on the social media app, McEntee has found modest fame there by any measure.
But McEntee’s matchmaking isn’t reserved to the dating app’s social media.
A former Trump aide once dubbed the “deputy president,” McEntee has been tasked with pairing political appointee candidates with the next conservative presidential administration as part of the Heritage Foundation's 2025 Presidential Transition Project, or "Project 2025."
"Any conservative candidate, if he or she prevails in 2024 – one of the first people they're going to turn to is John McEntee to say, 'How do I stock this government?'" said Paul Dans, head of Project 2025.
From 'trick shot quarterback' to 'deputy president'
Big leaps have defined McEntee’s career.
McEntee was raised in a Republican family in Orange County, California – a longtime conservative stronghold in the largely blue state. His father, a lifelong Republican, founded the celebrity booking company TEI Entertainment. The senior McEntee told Politico in 2017 that the junior McEntee has been around fame “his whole life,” making his eventual job in the White House “easier.”
But McEntee told USA TODAY he paid little mind to politics growing up; he focused more on sports. As a student at the University of Connecticut, McEntee joined the football team as a walk-on his freshman year. By his senior year, he was starting quarterback for all the season’s games. His knack for internet virality became apparent after a football trick-shot compilation earned more than 7 million views on YouTube.
A few years after college, McEntee moved to New York City on whim, sleeping on a friend's girlfriend's couch and picking up odd jobs while looking for the next thing. He met a man at church who worked at Fox News and soon after joined the network as a production assistant.
Then, sitting in his cubicle at Fox in June 2016, McEntee watched Donald Trump descend down a golden escalator, launching his 2016 presidential campaign with a speech in which he called for more competitive international trading, characterized Mexico as dumping its problems on the U.S. through immigration and promised that he could make America great again.
"I remember at the time, everyone in the office was laughing; they were saying he had no chance," McEntee said. "The speech had the total opposite effect on me. I thought he was tapping into something Republicans had forgotten about."
"I'm like, 'How do I work for him?'" he added.
McEntee said he started emailing anyone who could possibly connect him to the Trump campaign, to no avail. Eventually, someone – Ivanka's clothing company, he thinks – pointed him toward Trump's campaign website. After messaging the campaign every day for two weeks without a response, McEntee said he sent one more email.
"I say, 'Apparently, this campaign doesn't have anyone to check emails. I'll take that job and I'll do it for free,'" he said. "And they were like, come in and do it. So I quit my job at Fox, I started as a volunteer on the Trump campaign in July of 2015 and I worked my way up from that."
When Trump won the 2016 race, McEntee was hired as his body man – the guy who carries the president's bags and coordinates his meals. By the end of Trump's presidency, McEntee was known by other Trump officials as the "deputy president," according to reports.
Turning to TikTok and The Right Stuff dating app
Despite his strong political resume, McEntee's recognition as of late hasn't come from politics; it's come from TikTok.
When Trump lost reelection in 2020, McEntee went back to California and turned his attention to a new venture: founding The Right Stuff, a dating app for singles who lean politically right. Backed by conservative billionaire Peter Thiel, the app launched in September.
While the app has a presence on all major social media, TikTok is its "number one" platform for exposure, McEntee said.
McEntee stars in all of Right Stuff's TikToks, most of which satirize Democrats and liberalism. In one video with 1.8 million views, McEntee plays a liberal parent dropping their child off at school and encouraging them to play with "V.F.O. – vaccinated friends only" during recess. In another video with 2.8 million views, the former Trump staffer double-fists handfuls of plastic straws in an In-N-Out, posing as a liberal stealing the straws to "save the turtles."
"It's night and day," McEntee said. "I don't think I've ever been recognized outside of D.C. for anything political I've done, but I get recognized almost every day walking around here."
His time on the app hasn't changed his political views. But it has put him squarely at odds with a majority of other Republicans on the perception of TikTok.
At one point seen by many Americans as just a dance app for kids, TikTok has faced intense federal scrutiny over its possible implications for national security because of its Chinese ownership. Republicans and some Democrats have expressed support for an all-out ban on the app in the U.S., and the White House in February blocked the popular app from all government-issued devices. To McEntee, that's a mistake.
"You have to speak to people where they are," McEntee said. "And I think a lot of conservatives are making the mistake of trying to be off of TikTok, or being anti-TikTok. Because that's where all of the eyes are – as much as people want to pretend it's not."
McEntee's TikTok presence and work for Project 2025 are not linked, he said, though it's possible he could bring some of that knowledge into the fold.
Staffing the next conservative administration
Boiled down to a single word, Dans said Heritage wants the next conservative administration to be "based."
It's a term that has become popular slang for the online political right, meaning something that's purportedly based in fact, not influenced by outside forces – in many cases, not influenced by "woke" ideology.
And it's McEntee job to help find that staff.
The former Trump staffer's role in Project 2025 is building out the “Presidential Personnel Database," collecting resumes and vetting potential applicants in advance of a possible transition to a conservative administration in January 2025. The New York Times deemed the project "right-wing LinkedIn."
The project is, in part, meant to address personnel issues the Trump administration faced in 2017. When Trump took office, the transition from Barack Obama's presidency to Trump's moved slowly; four months into Trump's presidency, the administration was more than 50% behind past administrations on filling the 221 "most important" appointments, the trade publication FCW reported in April 2017.
McEntee said he's looking for candidates both in and outside the Beltway – though the latter offer a "fresh perspective" to the job that the former does not – who share a commitment to moving forward the "conservative agenda."
"As long as they're there for the right reasons, we can sort out the rest later," McEntee said.
While Project 2025 will create a candidate pool for the next administration to hire from, it’s ultimately the president’s job to select political appointees, with the help of their personnel office. McEntee served as personnel director in Trump's White House starting in early 2020, overseeing more than 4,000 positions in the federal government requiring political appointments.
In that role, he helped Trump recruit, vet and nominate potential political appointees – reportedly heavily vetting personnel for loyalty to the president.
ABC chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl reported in his book, “The Final Act of the Trump Show," that "some Trump aides privately compared the PPO (under McEntee) to the East German Stasi or even the Gestapo – always on the lookout for traitors within."
Applications for Project 2025 include questions about specific social and policy perspectives, like whether America is systemically racist, whether more than two genders exist and whether life has a right to legal protection from conception. Another question asks whether a president "should be able to advance his/her agenda through the bureaucracy without hinderance from unelected federal officials."
"Having people that aren't aligned politically working in political appointed jobs just doesn't work," McEntee told USA TODAY. "That's a recipe for disaster."
In contrast to once Republican President Abraham Lincoln's "Team of Rivals," it's a team of Yes-Men that McEntee appears to be seeking out. Dans said he doesn't think that McEntee's strict personnel approach in Trump's administration was "a negative at all."
"Everything that any President says is really aspirational – it's hot air – until it becomes reality," Dans said. "The only way things become reality is if the people below the president can make it so.
"That would suggest that the very essence of being able to make any change in Washington falls on the shoulders of the people working for the president," he added.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TikTok 'icon' John McEntee to help staff the next GOP administration