A populist movement that attracts the enthusiastic support of billionaires is probably not really a populist movement.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has once again reminded everyone why it’s important not to trust a billionaire populist. This week, Musk, who likes to post nonsense on Twitter, embraced the weeks-long Canadian trucker anti-vaccination protest with his usual goofy belligerence. He tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler that read, “Stop comparing me to Justin Trudeau. I had a budget.
After heavy criticism, Musk deleted the tweet without explanation or apology.
After heavy criticism, Musk deleted the tweet without explanation or apology. Most of the pushbacks have rightly focused on Musk’s crude and joking use of Hitler’s image. But Musk’s effort to portray himself as hip, irreverent, and anti-establishment to the people is also farcical, not least because he’s so familiar.
Right-wing populism often allows rich and powerful people to defend the status quo while pretending to care about the little guy. Trump embodied this phenomenon. A hugely wealthy real estate heir, one of Trump’s main achievements in office was a massive tax cut, which allowed billionaires to pay less than the working class for the first time in US history.
Yet Trump has consistently cast himself as an outsider, a brand his base has embraced. He was somehow meant to fight against the elite establishment despite being a firmly entrenched member of the establishment. Trump railed against the “deep state,” inventing baseless conspiracy theories suggesting there were entrenched dark forces working against his presidency. He insisted that immigrants and undocumented people were an existential threat to law-abiding Americans. At one point, he expressed support for the conspiracy theory that Jewish Democratic billionaire donor George Soros was funding an “immigrant caravan.” The idea of Jews manipulating immigrants and people of color to overthrow the government and oppress white people is a classic anti-Semitic fascist fantasy.
Truckers Protesting in Canada Give Elon Musk and other rich reactionaries a new opportunity to pose as heroes of the working class. Truckers may be workers, but they’re not standing up for higher pay, better health care, or better treatment from Musk’s class bosses. Instead, they are protesting vaccination mandates and other public health measures designed to contain a terrifying pandemic. This is a position that does not represent the values of the broader working class, or even the majority of Canadian truckers – 90% of whom are vaccinated.
But anti-vaccine rhetoric represents a virulent strain of right-wing extremism. Swastikas and Confederate flags were prominently displayed at the rallies. A man heavily involved in the protests, Patrick King, warned in the past about a plot to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race because they have the strongest bloodlines”.
Musk has never embraced extremist rhetoric like this. But it is nonetheless part and parcel of a type of populism that serves its 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, undermine God-given gender roles, corrupt your children, and undermine virtue. Immigrants, right-wing populists say, are determined to change the nature of the country by replacing whites and undermining virtue. And so on. The danger comes from anyone except wealthy white people who are in fact the ones in positions of great power.
Currently, California is suing Tesla after a three-year investigation into complaints from black workers that uncovered a pattern of racist discrimination and harassment. The lawsuit alleges that Tesla’s factories are separate. Black employees, according to the lawsuit, are targeted with racist language and racist designs. They would also be denied promotions and paid less than white workers. (Tesla denied the allegations, calling the lawsuit “unfair and counterproductive.”)
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also found Tesla unlawfully fired a worker for union organizing and Musk himself posted a tweet that others deemed threatening. Tesla factory workers said they would have to work long hours under intense pressure for low pay, leading to 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 his fiscal responsibility (Spoiler: Nazis weren’t fiscally responsible). Right-wing populists claim that they speak for good, solid and virtuous workers. But while Musk works long hours, he is not a worker. He is a capitalist boss. A labor movement that cannot make a difference is not a labor movement at all.