Musk, Trump and the demeaning of America

by Robert Reich

Before the midterms, Elon Musk fired half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees, including teams devoted to combating election misinformation — and did it so haphazardly and arbitrarily that most had no idea they were fired until their email accounts were shut off.

This was after he fired Twitter’s executives “with cause” to avoid paying them the golden parachutes they’re owed. And after he taunted Twitter and the law firm it worked with in its lawsuit against him, suggesting he would sue all of them.

It’s been a long few weeks since Musk bought Twitter.

But this has been his M.O. all along.

When the British diver Vernon Unsworth rejected his help rescuing youth football players trapped in a cave in Thailand, Musk described him as “pedo guy.” When the Securities and Exchange Commission went after Musk, he tweeted that the “E” in the SEC stands for “Elon’s.” (You can guess what the “S” and “C” stand for.)

During the pandemic, when public health authorities refused him permission to reopen his Tesla factory, he did it anyway. After several mainstream news outlets called him out for his plans to launch a website ranking journalists’ credibility, Musk linked to what he described as an “excellent” analysis published by the NXIVM cult.

Taunting opponents. Stiffing people he owes. Treating employees like dung. Refusing to be bound by the law. Bullying adversaries. Demeaning critics. Craving attention. Refusing to be held accountable. Attracting millions of followers and gaining cult status. Telling lies. Making gobs of money. Impetuous. Unpredictable. Ruthless. Autocratic. Vindictive.

Remind you of anyone?

Musk is not exactly Donald Trump. They’re different generations, possess different skills, occupy different roles in the bizarre firmament of modern America. And Trump is far more dangerous to democracy — so far.

But both represent the emergence of a particularly American personality in the early years of the twenty-first century: the wildly disruptive narcissist. Both wield sledge hammers to protect their fragile egos. Both are utterly lacking in empathy. Both lie, and push baseless conspiracy theories.

And both are indefatigable self-promoters.

Both are billionaires but they are not motivated primarily by money. Nor are they fueled by any larger purpose, principle, or ideology. Their singular goal is to imprint their giant egos on everyone else — to exercise raw power over people. To make others grovel.

Their politics is neither conservative nor liberal. Call it megalomaniacal authoritarian.

But why now — why do both achieve such prominence at this particular point in history? And why are so many enthralled with them?

The answer, I think, is that a large segment of the American public projects its needs and fantasies on them. People who are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” crave strongmen who shake up the system.

But they are not leaders. They are bullies who demean America.

Beware. The last time the world gave in to megalomaniacs it did not end well. The robber barons of the Gilded Age — men like William (“the public be damned”) Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller — siphoned off so much of the nation’s wealth that the rest of the nation had to go deep into debt to maintain their standard of living and overall demand for the goods and services the nation produced.

When that debt bubble burst in 1929, the world got a Great Depression. And that Depression paved the way for Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and Adolph Hitler, who created the worst threats to freedom and democracy the modern world had ever witnessed, and the most deaths.

We are much safer when economic and political power is widely diffused. We are better off when people like Musk and Trump cannot gain such untrammeled wealth and influence.

We all do better when fewer Americans feel so helpless and insecure that they’re drawn to reprehensible bullies who parade across the public stage as if possessing admirable qualities.

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.