Elon Musk is not the populist he pretends to be

by Isaac Lozano

In the latest chronicles of Big Tech’s most contentious tycoon — Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, founder of SpaceX and self-described “free speech absolutist” — the illusion of a populist hero is flickering. Earlier this month, several workers at SpaceX were fired after issuing a letter criticizing Musk for his online antics, labeling him a frequent source of “distraction and embarrassment” and alluding to reports last month of sexual assault allegations.

It’s an odd move considering Musk’s repeated statements in favor of free speech. In a recent talk with Twitter employees, Musk reiterated his stance on free speech, saying that “we should allow people to say what they want.” Musk has long capitalized on his “absolutist” position to fuel contrarian expressions, from sharing a Hitler meme to tweeting that “pronouns suck.” His antics suggest a kind of populist heroism, as if he works for the benefit of the masses. Earlier this year, Musk said calling billionaires bad people is “dumb” because they create products that make “millions of people happy.”

But while Musk often portrays himself as a maligned man of the people, his record reveals that he’s hardly a populist ally. In 2019, Musk broke California labor laws in a bid to prevent Tesla factory workers from forming a union. That’s not to mention the company’s omission of hundreds of worker injuries from its workplace reports. Musk also paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2018, though he has received $4.9 billion in many forms of government support to shore up his companies.

And yet Musk, despite this record, enjoys a wide popularity beyond the fringes of the internet. Musk has amassed more than 99 million Twitter followers and enjoys a favorable view by half of Americans. In 2021, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year and is rated the 25th most popular public figure, according to YouGov, a global public opinion and data analytics company. Musk is rated just below George W. Bush, and even two slots above the pope. His appeal, in some ways, runs counter to the distrust most Americans have of billionaires.

How do we make sense of this dissonance? It’s partially explained by the mythology of billionaire saviorism: that the needs of society can be addressed not through social safety nets but through a rich guy’s vision of grandeur.

But Musk isn’t a savior; he’s, at heart, an elite whose core interests contradict those of the public. Like the great majority of the uber-wealthy class, he supports the kind of fiscal policies that undermine social equality, such as reducing social spending and gutting of estate taxes. But such policies are widely unpopular among Americans, both liberals and conservatives. Polls show that about half of Republicans favor “Medicare for All” and believe the U.S. economic system unfairly favors the powerful.

But Musk won’t tell his fans that their interests are fundamentally at odds with his. He much prefers pretending he exists outside the periphery of America’s elite than face the real class divide between himself and the rest of society. Though most billionaires in the political arena generally don’t seek the spotlight, which helps mask wrongdoing, Musk seems to have chosen another tack: create an iconoclastic public image that masks his personal financial agenda.

That’s not to dismiss Musk’s technological innovations. His pioneering work in solar and electric cars offer legitimate solutions to the threat of climate change, which we all know poses the greatest risk to the most vulnerable in our society. But as rising inequality seeps further into our nation, where in 2019 the top three people owned as much money as the bottom half of Americans combined and while the top 1% possess roughly a third of our country’s wealth, billionaires like Musk will continue to use their financial and political power to drive public policies for their benefit. Research shows the ultra-rich hurt democracy by secretly lobbying for corporate interests, such as privatizing Social Security.

Critics love to dismiss progressive critiques of powerful billionaires as divisiveness or “toxicity,” but such sentiments fail to see the point.

Musk might try to intimidate his workers from unionizing, but that’s hardly a surprise for a tech mogul. The only shock — tragedy, really — is that Musk seems to have successfully marketed himself as a populist, when behind the facade is a typical capitalist whose main agenda is perpetuating the system that has brought him billions.

Isaac Lozano is a summer 2022 opinion intern at the Los Angeles Times.