There’s something rich about a guy born to countless wealth positioning himself as the voice of the common man, against the ruling elites. A guy who was born to money from emerald mining, money made profiting off of the apartheid system, standing up as the voice of the people. The guy who spent $44 billion to buy a social media company, basically because he didn’t believe *his* beliefs were being amplified on there, telling us that he is the champion of free speech. A guy who paid a $20 million fine to the SEC telling us that government regulators are criminals and need to go to jail. To be blunt, Elon Musk is a horse’s ass. He is a narcissist that craves our adoring praise, while also believing he is the center of the universe. His belief in your free speech ends right around the time you mock him. For being the richest guy in the world, he sure craves your love a lot more than most of us do.
I don’t hate Elon Musk as much as many of you reading do though. Not by a long shot. The guy created PayPal, how can we say he isn’t an innovator? His work on Tesla is an attempt to fill a vitally needed space in the market, one that both solves our need for cars and combats climate change. SpaceX stepped into the void governments left when space travel was not cool anymore. Sure, he was born on third base and thinks he hit a home run, but his business adventures have actually been consequential well beyond their profit margins. His political positions on the whole are at times offensive and usually laughable, but he is hardly the only person on the planet to challenge the Democratic Party’s “wokeness” problem. Sure, he’s self-absorbed and amplifies some of the worst voices, but Elon Musk is like most people on the planet- complicated. He’s got “value added” for humanity. He’s also a petulant child that thinks far too much of himself.
So let’s take Musk the person out of it for a second. What is drawing some people to the causes he claims to be fighting for? How are people buying into the guy with the biggest megaphone in the world crowing about free speech? How are people taking lectures on “wokeism” from a dude who got his money from the apartheid system? Why is anyone listening to the guy who got a $20 million fine from the SEC tell us about who is a criminal? Are we really taking opinions on public health from the guy tweeting out pictures of guns and Diet Coke cans on his night stand? Really? The answer is yes, and I think maybe we should step back and ask why. He’s not conning us with his looks (for sure), or his charisma, or really anything about him. Hell, he’s getting booed at a Dave Chappelle show (not exactly a “woke” setting). So, what’s going on here?
People are deeply unhappy with the world they live in. To those of us who grew up in the American Middle Class and aged into adulthood, this seems rather obvious, but it is a very foreign concept to many of those in settings of power. Sure, we live in the greatest time in history to be alive- it just doesn’t feel like it. Work-life balance? It’s fucked. Mental health? It’s fucked. Feelings of safety and security? Yeah right, in what manner? The 21st Century so far is a period of terrorism, long-running wars, pandemics, major financial crimes that bring about massive financial failure, climate change driven natural disasters, school shootings, attempted coups, race riots, and basically a series of major global events that feel like the apocalypse. People work more, they take on massive amounts of debt, they feel less connected to other humans, spiral from anxiety driven personal collapse to anxiety driven personal collapse, are getting addicted more substances than they knew existed, and feel like the world around them is in a constant state of “change”- and not change they asked for. If you’re about 40 years old, your entire adult life has been defined by lurching from one existential societal crisis to the next, save for a couple of years in Obama’s second term. One political party tells us we need to hate Russia, the other China, and while both are reprehensible on many levels, we all kind of thought the Cold War had ended in our childhood. Life just doesn’t feel good, even if it is. It’s hard to be happy and optimistic under these conditions.
Unhappy people will seek solutions to their problems that numb the pain. It’s why some people “find religion” in dark times. It’s why other people find drugs and alcohol. It’s why some people find politics. This is not to say that God, weed, and political activism are bad things- I support them all. It’s more to point out that when the world around them is scary and dangerous, and people feel like they’ve lost control, people will find something to make sense of that world and seize back control for themselves. It will often times take on far more dangerous forms than what I mentioned above- white supremacy and ethnonationalism, hard drugs, fascism, violence, personality cults both big and small, religious fundamentalism, and political extremism are all just sitting there, waiting to answer what is wrong with the world, give you back control, and tell you who is to blame for your problems. They will prey on your prior preferences and biases, alienating you from other people, even those close in your life. Conmen will seize on these causes and elevate themselves as “the solution.” People will fall for it too, because they’re unhappy. Their needs aren’t being met. They feel like they’ve lost control.
Of course there’s something slightly wrong with a person who is comprehending the world by believing JFK Jr. is coming back or obsessing over whatever politician they want prosecuted. The reason this can be exploited though is the void in leadership, both in America and globally. Government isn’t solving our pressing needs, and so people look for others to fill the void. Again, life feels like it’s getting worse, and it doesn’t feel like we can do anything within the system, so why not turn to these causes. Some of this is augmented by social media, and some by 24 hour cable news, but the impact is the same. The sky is falling and “the elites” are doing nothing for you. This is dangerous rhetoric, and it has been used by groups as far apart as the Nazis and Communists, who will define “the elites” in whatever way fits them best, then call on you to lash out against them. Obviously demagogues are preying on our failings as people, but as I said above, a lot of us are failing in a world that isn’t meeting our needs. Basic societal functions from public education to policing, from our public health to our financial system, are not meeting our needs every day. “Mainstream” politics, run by the “elites” aren’t getting the job done, and so they look less and less like a good option. What we have has left us deep in debt, stressed by life functions, and increasingly lonely and isolated in relation to others. In fact, to watch the news regularly will make you think many, if not most of your fellow people, are no good. Decisive, bold action is needed, immediately, to stop the “bad” people. Meanwhile the government can’t even do the basic things we (think) we elect them to do.
Actual American elites aren’t Kanye’s “Jews running Hollywood,” Musk’s “woke mob,” or Trump’s “educated people,” they’re anyone in government, business, or culture that wields power, which is to say they come from every group. You don’t get to be a United States Senator or Congressman and claim someone else are “the elite.” You don’t get to be a billionaire and claim someone else is “the elite.” If you took a class at Harvard from Elizabeth Warren or were a classmate of a Bush at Yale, it’s hard for you to call other people elites. If you’re a high paid professional athlete who just signed a massive contract to play for a team next season, you’re not nearly the kind of elite the owner of your team is, but your “commoner” card is revoked. You’re a rapper with a fashion label producing clothes in your name? Yeah, you don’t get to rail against elites either. Certainly the richest man on the planet, who bought one of the largest social media networks as a play toy shouldn’t get to do this either. Despite these things being obvious, there are still people cheering Elon, or Trump, or any number of politicians, or Kanye, or Kyrie, or anyone else from these elite levels, when they launch these attacks on “the elites.” Americans seem to get that every Supreme Court Justice coming from the Ivy League, or nearly every recent American President coming from said schools is problematic and that they don’t represent us, yet we’ve let two Penn Grads (Musk and Trump) dominate the public discourse in the past decade by railing against a class of people they absolutely are a member of. It’s strange. It’s actually fairly dangerous that we fall for this. Again though, we’re falling for it because we’re angry. We’re falling for it because, well, we think “the elite” are failing us. We’re ripe for the demagoguery.
As we’re constantly told, Hitler was elected. Nearly every January 6th rioter, 9/11 hijacker, Hamas suicide bomber, IRA bomber, or ISIS soldier voluntarily took part in their extremist movement. Fundamentalist cult members across religions generally join voluntarily, once they are “awakened.” That’s not something unique to any culture, religion, or race. Generally though, they’re people who lost hope and found a new way of understanding the world- for the worse. Humans find their way to the next person or thing that gives them back control and tells them who or what the problem is. If that leads them to extremism, so be it. The world is broken anyway, because the bad guys they want to remove ignore “the people.” These things generally start the same.
The relationship between policy makers and decision makers in our society and the people who they govern is generally broken. They live inside bubbles, they live in areas where most of the people around them are of the same class or ideological persuasion as they are. Skilled, but dangerous politicians who live in some of America’s wealthiest neighborhoods will warn you of “Beltway elites,” “Massachusetts liberals,” “San Francisco values,” and “Wall Street fat cats,” while they themselves share many of the same traits. We bite hook, line, and sinker too. We have a society that doesn’t have time to learn the system, they’re too busy struggling to survive, and so the pleas that “we’re doing the best we can” are not nearly as satisfying as chants of “lock her up,” and competency within the system is viewed less favorably than bluster, bravado, and arrogance from blowhards who aren’t interested in better policy either, just pursuing power and leading their “sheeple” followers to burn the “other” at the stake. Our “policy wonk” class just don’t get the real world failings of their values and decisions, but dangerous demagogues do. In truth though, they’re rather similar in their relationship to the general public though. One side of the coin are detached and unable to see how hated they are, the other side are greedy bastards that will pursue power to dangerous ends. One is obviously better than the other, but they probably won’t lead us to a better ending. Our people are too broken to “just trust us,” and that lack of faith in our institutions and society is grounded in their real world experiences that the “smart ones” just can’t see. And so we get the worst of all worlds.