Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Cape Canaveral, FL
President Donald J. Trump and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center Launch Control Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, May 30, 2020. Photo credit: Trump White House Archived / Flickr (PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0)

Why are so many Americans enthralled with Musk and Trump?

Listen To This Story
Voiced by Amazon Polly

Elon Musk and convicted felon Donald Trump have been in contact several times a month since their private meeting in March at the home of billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, according to The Wall Street Journal. They’re discussing an advisory role for Musk if Trump wins back the White House in November — potentially giving Musk influence over economic policy.

Musk has already briefed Trump about his plans to invest in a data-driven project to prevent voter fraud (which, as I’ve noted recently, is almost nonexistent).

And Musk has committed his social media platform, X, to host live video town halls with Trump ahead of the election.

Musk is also using X to spread conspiracy theories that Democrats are intentionally “importing” millions of undocumented immigrants to vote in elections.

Musk has accused Biden of “treason” and claimed that if Democrats win control of the White House and Congress in November, America “will become a permanent one-party deep socialist state.”

What’s Musk’s motive? Not simply more money. Hell, he’s the second-richest man on the planet. He wants more power. Unaccountable power. One route to unaccountable power is to hitch his fortune to the bucking bronco that is Trump.

A Poor Man’s Trump — With Gobs More Money

Musk has been emulating Trump for years.

Consider Trump’s MO of treating underlings like dung. In 2022, 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 Musk fired Twitter’s executives “with cause” to avoid paying them the golden parachutes they were 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.

Musk’s concern about the dwindling number of people seeing his tweets prompted him to convene a group of engineers to discover why his engagement numbers were tanking. When one of the company’s two remaining principal engineers explained it was likely due to waning public interest in Musk’s antics, he fired the engineer.

A few weeks ago, Musk laid off 14,000 Tesla workers. They discovered they no longer had jobs only when their keys to the parking lot no longer worked. In order to receive severance, they had to agree not to participate in any lawsuit or mass arbitration against the company or publicly defame Tesla.  

Musk has also been copying Trump’s bombastic ridicule of anyone who gets in his way. When the British diver Vernon Unsworth rejected his help rescuing youth soccer 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.)

Musk has copied Trump’s disregard for the law. During the pandemic, when public health authorities refused Musk permission to reopen his Tesla factory, he did it anyway.

Musk has been just as shameless as Trump when it comes to padding his pockets. In 2018, Musk got the richest pay package in US corporate history, then worth around $56 billion. Earlier this year, a Delaware court voided that pay package, finding that the process to decide on it was “deeply flawed” because Tesla’s board hadn’t properly disclosed it to investors and had “barely” negotiated it with Musk.

In response to the Delaware court’s finding, Tesla’s board (that is, Musk) said it would ask shareholders to vote again on that same pay package at its annual meeting on June 13. In a letter to shareholders, Robyn Denholm, Tesla’s chair, wrote that the court’s decision was “fundamentally unfair, and inconsistent with the will of stockholders who voted for it.”

Fundamentally unfair that Musk hadn’t been paid the exorbitant pay package that a court found to be illegal?

In effect, Musk got the giant multibillion-dollar package by extorting Tesla — implying that if the board refused to sign off on it, he’d devote even more of his time to his other businesses, like SpaceX or his xAI startup. The Delaware judge cited a meeting at which the board planned to ask Musk to commit a minimum level of time to Tesla but chickened out because, according to one participant, “‘that would have been like saying goodbye to Elon.’”

Thugs on a Roll

Treating employees like dung. Taunting and ridiculing opponents. Refusing to be held accountable or be bound by norms or even laws. Bullying adversaries. Demeaning critics. Craving attention. Self promoting. Making gobs of money. Impetuous. Unpredictable. Autocratic. Vindictive. Utterly lacking in empathy.

Musk and Trump are different generations, of course. They possess different skills and occupy different roles in the bizarre firmament of America’s billionaire class. But both represent the emergence of a particularly ruthless and dangerous American power monger: the wildly disruptive narcissist.

Their singular goal is to imprint their giant egos on everyone else — to exercise raw power over people. To make others grovel. 

They disdain democracy. Their politics might be called, instead, thugocracy.

They demean America with their brazen assertions of untrammeled power to dominate and force others to submit.

We used to call such behavior shameless. Now it’s just what Trump, Musk, and a few other super-rich (e.g., Peter Thiel, Bill Ackman, Stephen A. Schwarzman) do. It’s the new norm of the brazenly wealthy.

So Wherefore the Love?

Shame once reenforced the common good. Through most of human history, survival depended on extended families, clans, and tribes. To be ostracized often meant death.

Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, thought shame may have evolved as a way to maintain social trust necessary for the survival of a group and, therefore, of its members.

In a 2012 paper, psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Dacher Keltner and sociologist Robb Willer found evidence that shame and embarrassment function as a kind of “nonverbal apology” for having done something that violates social norms. A display of embarrassment shows others that the embarrassed person is still aware of the group’s expectations and is still committed to the group’s well-being.

“Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death,” wrote Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who also sought to put an end to public stocks and whipping posts.

But shamelessness has now gained a certain elan. Audacity, insolence, and impudence are welcomed. Irreverence is celebrated. Many Americans love Musk’s and Trump’s loutishness.

Why are so many Americans enthralled with Musk and Trump? What’s attractive about their thugocracy? Why are billionaires who violate the common good treated like Wild West outlaw heroes?

The answer, I believe, has a lot to do with America’s shameful degree of inequality.

A large portion of the American public projects its needs and fantasies on these billionaire thugs. People who have been bullied their whole lives want super bullies capable of bullying everyone who’s been bullying them.

Reprinted with permission from Robert Reich’s substack.

Robert B. Reich is the Carmel P. Friesen Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, including as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eighteen books, including the bestsellers The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It; The Common Good; Saving Capitalism; Aftershock; Supercapitalism; and The Work of Nations.


Comments are closed.