Elon Musk's reactionary populism
It's all about punching down at the already marginalized.
This work is entirely reader supported. I’m offering a holiday special for new subscribers. Click the link below to to sign up for one year of full access to Public Notice for just $40, or less than a cup of coffee each month.
By Noah Berlatsky
“Make some noise for the richest man in the world,” comedian Dave Chappelle told a San Francisco crowd at an arena show earlier this week.
At that point, Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk walked on stage — and was relentlessly and repeatedly booed.
The big question here is: Why would Chappelle and Musk think that anyone would want to cheer the richest man in the world? The extremely wealthy aren’t very relatable; Musk is bloated with privilege and power. He’s every asshole who’s every fired you. He’s the guy who spends $500 on a bottle of wine while you can’t afford groceries. What about that is supposed to be appealing to the public at large?
Yet, despite his extreme wealth, Musk loves to cosplay as a populist hero. He runs polls on Twitter to make important decisions (like whether to reinstate the account of former president Donald Trump) and then intones “Vox populi, vox die” — "the voice of the people is the voice of God.” In February he tried to cast himself as a champion of the proletariat by comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler in support of Canadian anti-vax truckers. He’s said that he took over Twitter to fight for the speech of all (especially far right Nazis like Stormfront founder Andrew Anglin) because “if free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.”
Musk, one of the richest people on earth, frames himself as a brave voice of the people fighting against entrenched elites. It’s easy to call him an out-of-touch hypocrite — and everyone should call him that! — but the populist cosplay of the very rich isn’t just a deception. It’s the implementation of an ugly, more or less explicitly fascist, ideology. Musk thinks he’s “of the people” because he sees his own power as deserved. For him and his ilk the real elites are the undeserving who dare to criticize the rightful hierarchy — or who simply dare to exist.
Thus Musk this week (not for the first time) framed trans people as dangerous oppressors. After making a snide (and tired) joke about pronouns, astronaut Scott Kelly politely asked him not to be a jerk. At that point, Musk doubled down.
“Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone,” he wrote.
In Musk’s populist fascist mirror-dimension, trans people — a tiny minority that are being targeted nationwide by viciously bigoted legislation — are a tyrannical cabal who have the power to ostracize and immiserate. Musk is cis, and assumes people will use his pronouns as a matter of course. He doesn’t see that as “forcing” people to use his correct pronouns, because the entire dead weight of tradition and cis expectation is on his side. It’s only when someone asks for a slight adjustment from the cis world that it’s oppression. The problem is not wealthy people exploiting workers. It’s trans people asking to have their existence nominally recognized.
You can see the same dynamic at play in rapper Kanye West/Ye’s discussion of Jewish people. Ye is a wealthy and famous musician, with instant access to a massive platform and decades of good will. But over the last months — and really the last years — he’s made a range of increasingly inflammatory, bigoted, and generally horrible white supremacist and antisemitic statements, culminating in his announcement on Alex Jones’s show that “I like Hitler.”
Hitler is, to put it mildly, unpopular. Ye’s business partners scattered. But Ye doesn’t blame himself for wrecking his own fortune and brand. Instead, he insists that a nefarious, tyrannical conspiracy of Jewish people in media and banking have been plotting against him. Kanye, as a Christian, feels he’s entitled to authority and power — he said one reason to appreciate Hitler is that he “was born Christian.” Jewish people who speak against antisemitism, or who protest at the suggestion that antisemitic genocide is cool, are dangerous elites.
In her 2020 book Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, philosopher Kate Manne argues that misogyny is not really about hating women. Rather it’s about a sense of male entitlement — a belief that women owe men praise, deference, sex, obedience. When women ask for equal treatment by, for example, protesting against sexual abuse, asking for equal pay, or just trying to take up any space in a conversation, men can become angry, abusive, or violent. Men may claim the woman in question is oppressing them or behaving arrogantly.
This is how right-wing populism works. Musk, as a rich white man, sees himself as rightfully at the top of a traditional hierarchy of power. Nothing he does, or can do, is overreach. If his employees criticize him, and he fires them, swarms of reactionary accounts on Twitter will race to his defense, insisting that workers who are not completely subservient to their corporate overlords deserve to be destroyed. If he targets trans people over and over, noted transphobe Dave Chappelle will trot him out on stage as a hero.
Chappelle and Ye are both Black, but they can bond with Musk and his fanbase over their deserved elevated status as Christians, as cis people, as wealthy men. In contrast, marginalized people who dare to speak up for themselves, or who simply want to live their lives without being insulted, tormented, or brutalized, are pilloried as vaunting elitists who must be confronted, overthrown, destroyed.
Black athletes like quarterback Colin Kaepernick and basketball player Britney Griner who protest police violence against Black people are labeled as entitled and ungrateful. LGBT people are pilloried for their “lifestyle” choice, as if being queer is a luxury good. In fact, LGBT poverty rates are higher than those of cis straight people — as you’d expect, since LGBT people are stigmatized, discriminated against, and may not have support from homophobic family members.
Bigotry, stigma, and convention shape, and misshape, our cultural sense of whose power is righteous and whose is an aberration or even an abomination. Would-be reactionary populist heroes like Musk and, yes, Chappelle as well, take advantage of those malformed intuitions. Right populism defends the most powerful by asserting that the least powerful are elitist scum for daring to have, or to ask for, any power at all.
Dave Chappelle’s audience may be okay with transphobia. But in San Francisco many of them have probably had friends fired by Musk. Fans of a Black comedian may also be less than thrilled with Musk’s kowtowing to Trump and other open white supremacists. Or maybe the audience just didn’t come to a comedy show to watch a grotesquely wealthy asshat stammer awkwardly on stage. Not everyone takes populist satisfaction in the power of rich white guys. Hopefully that’s a message that Musk, Chappelle, and all their bigoted buddies will hear more often going forward.