A populist movement that attracts enthusiastic support from billionaires probably isn’t much of a populist movement.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk once again reminded everyone why it’s important not to trust a billionaire populist. This week Musk, who loves to post nonsense on Twitter, embraced the weeks-long Canadian trucker antivaccination protest with his usual clumsy belligerence. He tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler that said, “Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau. I had a budget.”
After heavy criticism, Musk deleted the tweet with no explanation or apology.
After heavy criticism, Musk deleted the tweet with no explanation or apology. Most pushback has, understandably, focused on Musk’s crass, joking use of Hitler’s image. But Musk’s effort to present himself as a hip, irreverent, anti-establishment man of the people is also grotesque, not least because it’s so familiar.
Right-wing populism often allows wealthy, powerful people to defend the status quo while pretending to care about the little guy. Trump, an extremely rich real-estate heir, embodied this phenomenon. One of his main achievements in office was a massive tax cut, which allowed billionaires to pay less than the working class for the first time in U.S. history.
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Yet Trump constantly presented himself as an outsider, a brand his base embraced. He was somehow supposed to be fighting against the elite establishment while a firmly embedded member of the establishment. Trump railed against the “deep state,” inventing baseless conspiracy theories suggesting that there were shadowy entrenched forces working against his presidency. He insisted that immigrants and undocumented people were an existential threat to upstanding Americans. At one point he expressed support for the conspiracy theory that billionaire Jewish Democratic donor George Soros was funding an “immigrant caravan.” The idea that Jewish people are manipulating immigrants and people of color to overthrow the government and oppress white people is a classic antisemitic fascist fantasy.
The truckers protesting in Canada give Elon Musk and other wealthy reactionaries a new opportunity to pose as working-class heroes. The truckers may be working people, but they aren’t rallying for higher pay or better health care or better treatment from bosses in Musk’s class. Instead, they are protesting vaccine mandates and other public health measures designed to contain a terrifying pandemic. This is a position that doesn’t represent working-class values writ large, or even the majority of Canadian truckers — 90 percent of whom are vaccinated.
But anti-vaccine rhetoric does represent a virulent strain of right-wing extremism. Swastikas and Confederate flags have been prominent at rallies. One man heavily involved in the demonstrations, Patrick King, warned in the past about a conspiracy to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race because they are the ones with the strongest bloodlines.”
Musk has never embraced extremist rhetoric like this. But it’s nonetheless part and parcel of a type of populism that serves his interests. Right-wing populism deliberately undermines class analysis and class resentment by identifying marginalized groups as “elites” bent on violence and oppression.
Black people, right-wing populists say, are trying to use critical race theory to corrupt your children and undermine virtue. Trans people, right-wing populists say, are undermining God-given gender roles, corrupting your children and undermining virtue. Immigrants, right-wing populists say, are bent on changing the nature of the country by replacing white people and undermining virtue. And so forth. Danger comes from anyone but wealthy white people who are actually the ones in positions of great power.
Right now, California is suing Tesla after a three-year investigation into complaints by Black workers, which found a pattern of racist discrimination and harassment. The lawsuit alleges that Tesla’s factory floors are segregated. Black employees, the lawsuit says, are targeted with racist language and racist drawings. They’re also allegedly denied promotions and paid less than white workers. (Tesla has denied the allegations, calling the lawsuit “unfair and counterproductive.”)
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also found that Tesla had illegally fired one worker for union organizing and that Musk himself had posted a tweet others found threatening. Tesla factory workers have said they are expected to put in long hours under intense pressure for low pay, resulting in high stress, low morale and frequent injuries. (Musk told The Guardian that such accusations are “hurtful” and “false.”)
Musk’s trucker tweet “ironically” praises Hitler for being fiscally responsible. (Spoiler: The Nazis were not fiscally responsible.) But he also not so ironically uses the tweet to build on actual fascist tactics of scapegoating and conspiracy theories. Right-wing populists claim that they speak for good, solid, virtuous, workers. While Musk works long hours, he’s not a worker. He’s a capitalist boss. A workers' movement that can’t tell the difference isn’t a workers' movement at all.