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Donald Trump and Elon Musk are both wealthy white male men with narcissistic traits who like to go on Twitter to insult their enemies and boast about their awesomeness to their oodles of reactionary fans.
They’ve also, until recently, been allies of a sort. Trump praised Musk in January 2020, calling him “one of our great geniuses.” Musk, for his part, criticized Twitter for banning Trump after Trump used the platform to organize an attempted coup. Musk signed a contract to purchase Twitter in April and promised to restore Trump to the platform. It all seemed to be going so well.
The Trump/Musk (Trusk?) lovefest is over, though. Musk and Trump have betrayed each other, in the same way they’ve betrayed a lot of people in their respective lives. And few can deny that it’s fun to watch two terrible people try to ruin one another. But it’s less fun when you realize that they try to ruin everyone else in much the same way — often with a great deal of success.
Trump and Musk’s relationship soured because, as Mark Levine at Bloomberg puts it, “Musk lost interest in pretending to buy Twitter.” Musk claims he wants to end the deal because Twitter didn’t provide enough information about bots on the platform. Levine, like most knowledgeable commenters, points out that this is ridiculous, and doesn’t matter anyway since Musk signed a contract agreeing to buy the company. There’s no backsies for bots stipulation in contract law.
The real issue for Musk is probably that the stock market has plummeted, erasing a good chunk of Musk’s wealth, and that tech companies have been hit especially hard. That makes Twitter look like much less of an attractive commercial prospect. Also, he may just have gotten bored. Like Trump, or many an entitled wealthy bloviator, Musk is an instant-gratification kind of guy, and his attention span is short.
In any case, Musk says he is no longer interested in making the purchase. Twitter, unsurprisingly, has sued to force him to honor the $44 billion deal. Twitter called Musk’s assertions about bots a “model of hypocrisy” and included many of his trolling tweets as evidence in their filing. No one knows how the suit will go, but it certainly makes Musk look ridiculous.
And then, like an orange shark scenting blood and tanner, Trump also decided to take a hunk of flesh. Trump was relying on Musk to buy Twitter and restore him to his role of tweeter-in-chief. When it became clear that that was unlikely to happen, the former president sneered that Musk is “another bullshit artist.” For good measure, he also mocked Musk for making “driverless cars that crash” and for sending “rocketships to nowhere”. (Musk rejoined that it was time for Trump to “sail into the sunset.”)
Musk has betrayed Trump; Trump has turned on Musk. Both have stayed true to a shared brand identity.
Trump is notorious for destroying the lives of all those who rely on him. Mike Pence was a loyal and even sycophantic vice-president throughout his tenure. But when he refused to help Trump overturn democratic election results, Trump immediately turned on him, defending rioters who shouted “Hang Mike Pence,” and encouraging a violent attack on the Capitol which threatened Pence’s life.
Trump also lied to his own followers. One former Trump fan, Stephen Ayers, testified at the January 6 hearings that he joined the attack on the Capitol at Trump’s behest, because he believed his lies about election fraud. Ayers was indicted and the fallout caused him to lose his job and his house. He is not the only one. There is no evidence that Trump cares even a little bit.
Musk has also regularly abused trust and power. The billionaire has pandered to cryptocurrency proponents by talking up Bitcoin, only to tank the price with policy shifts at Tesla and ill-advised tweets. Musk also engaged in illegal union-busting on Twitter, tweeting out what amounted to labor threats to his own employees. He has also made numerous anti-trans comments online. His own daughter is trans, and has filed papers to change her name and disown him.
Musk and Trump betray colleagues and fans. They betray those close to them and those more distant. Yet they continue to be celebrated by swarms of trolls online and by retinues in real life. What is the appeal?
The appeal is straightforward: It’s just power. Musk and Trump are very rich. When you have lots of influence and money, people turn you into an empowerment fantasy. By identifying with Trump or Musk, fans can imagine that they too are (or will be) rich and influential.
Ayres went to the capital to restore Trump, believing that he was seizing control of the country from nefarious evil forces. He thought he was a righteous footsoldier for the former president. He thought people like him would be rewarded for their loyalty and courage. Musk’s Twitter fans cheered him on as he promised to take over the platform because they thought that when he was in control, they would be too.
The same power which makes so many trust Musk and Trump also makes them completely untrustworthy. Rich men like Musk and Trump face few consequences when they betray friends or fans or even loved ones. The normal political, financial, and even emotional bonds that keep society functioning become meaningless when you have that much money and that much power. Musk and Trump can always buy new friends.
Musk and Trump pretend to care about collective goods — our country, our freedom, our communities. But they’ll betray them all as soon as it’s convenient. They enjoy doing so, in fact, because it shows just how much bigger than any of us they are. It would be nice if they’d destroy each other in this current spat. But I doubt any of us are going to be that lucky.