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Twitter is reportedly on the verge of accepting billionaire Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company. One of Musk’s early goals is likely to be reinstating the account of former President Donald Trump, who was permanently banned from Twitter for his part in encouraging the January 6 insurrection. He has referred to the “woke mind virus” before in the past, and a few days ago promised to “authenticate all real humans” on the social media site if his bid is successful. And Musk and Trump have a fairly friendly history, with the former president praising Musk as a “genius” and Musk publicly agreeing with Number 45 on everything from Covid lockdowns to moon exploration.
Musk arguably has more money than anyone who has ever lived, and he’s using his vast fortune to advance the political fortunes of an authoritarian demagogue. US democracy is in serious trouble in no small part because extremely powerful oligarchs don’t like democracy and have the resources to aid its enemies. It’s important we are realistic about this threat.
Trump was banned from Twitter in early January following the attack on the Capitol by his supporters, who were trying to overthrow the certification of the 2020 election results. The former president tweeted in support of the insurrectionists, causing Twitter to conclude that he was trying to incite political violence.
Twitter banned Trump permanently. Given subsequent evidence about Trump’s role in 1/6, they were right to do so. And disinformation on Twitter dropped precipitously after Trump was forced off the platform.
In general, good-faith publications and platforms committed to democracy don’t want to spread disinformation or materially aid insurrection. Those are perfectly reasonable and even laudable editorial stances. Twitter lets its users publish lots of controversial opinions. But it has tried to draw the line at incendiary lying designed to bring about authoritarian rule.
In doing so, it has imposed one of the few concrete penalties on insurrection that Trump has so far faced. The Democratic House impeached Trump following 1/6, but Republicans in the Senate refused to remove him. The slow House investigation has not held hearings or released findings more than a year after the event, and the Justice Department has not gone public with any charges.
Trump’s country and his party have done little to punish him for trying to overthrow the Constitution. The one consequence he faced was losing access to his favorite social media platform. It’s not much. But facing any consequences at all made him really, really angry. That’s better than nothing.
Unfortunately, Trump has many powerful friends, and when you have many powerful friends, no punishment for wrongdoing is allowed to stand.
Trump offered Musk support in 2020 when the owner of the Tesla electric car company wanted to reopen a California auto factory despite a Covid lockdown. Musk’s regular mockery of “wokeness” and sharing of deliberately controversial content — such as a transphobic meme after his former girlfriend, the singer Grimes, reportedly began dating a trans woman — puts him squarely on the side of right-wing talking heads who rail against the same kinds of thing.
Trump is the current symbolic figurehead for angry, reactionary, wealthy, unaccountable white men everywhere. Make America Great Again always meant keep those with the most power in power. Trump loves shoveling money at the 1 percent. His tax cuts allowed billionaires to pay less in taxes than the working class for the first time ever. Musk in particular became the wealthiest person in the world on Trump’s watch.
Since Biden became president, Musk has been a vehement opponent of Democratic proposals to tax billionaires at higher rates. Boosting Trump back into office would be one effective way to stymie such proposals for the foreseeable future.
Musk claims he wants to push Twitter to allow more free speech. But really he’s just changing the editorial stance of a private company to publish more conservative speech — like Fox taking over the New York Times. More, Musk is specifically changing the editorial stance to favor Donald Trump, who has demonstrated a flagrant contempt for democracy.
Using the rhetoric of freedom, Musk plans to make Twitter’s editorial policy pro-authoritarian. Twitter found that Trump violated its terms of service. Musk has the resources to sweep in and declare that the terms of service should change to be more friendly to insurrection.
Our institutions, public and private, have struggled to respond robustly to the Republican party’s escalating slalom towards authoritarianism. That’s because there are many individuals who would prefer GOP-imposed authoritarian minority rule. Republican partisans, Christian conservative nationalists, a large proportion of white men — they see America becoming less Republican, less Christian, and less white, and they believe that the only way to hold onto power is to abandon America’s democratic experiment. If elections are going against you, throw out the election. That is Trump’s program, and it has a lot of support.
Among those supporters are the very wealthy. Oligarchs have a vested interest in stifling democratic processes that might make them accountable to the public. And they have a lot of power to advance and normalize those anti-democratic impulses. If anyone can help Trump achieve his authoritarian dreams, it’s the richest man on earth.