By Robert Reich
Last Friday — after Elon Musk said he planned to cut thousands of jobs at Tesla and also expressed worry over the economy — Joe Biden dismissed him with a zinger: “Lots of luck on his trip to the moon.”
There’s no love lost between them. The fiercely anti-union Musk has been livid ever since pro-union Biden pushed a provision in a bill that would benefit electric-car makers that are unionized at the expense of those that are not (namely Tesla). In recent weeks Musk has said he has become a Republican because the Democratic Party has grown too radical. (On which planet has he been living?)
Musk may be an innovator, but he’s a lousy boss — with a long record of punishing his workers for exercising their rights under the labor laws and exposing them to unsafe working conditions. He reopened his Tesla factory in California over the explicit objections of county officials who deemed it unsafe from COVID, resulting in hundreds of infections. And he’s brazenly disregarded securities and related laws in order to generate even more wealth for himself.
Yet in yesterday’s New York Times’s DealBook, Andrew Ross Sorkin warns Biden against further mockery or criticism of Musk because of the “power of [Musk’s] voice and potential political potency,” noting that Musk “has a loyal almost religious following. Some of his fans have even tattooed his name, his face and the Tesla logo on their bodies. And he can often control the news cycle with a single tweet.”
Rubbish. If the president of the United States isn’t willing to stand up to the richest person in America — a modern-day robber baron who treats his workers like horse manure and gives his middle finger to public servants — who is?
Sorkin even urges that Biden cozy up to Musk — lavishing praise on him and arranging a soiree at the White House. Why? Because, Sorkin argues, Biden needs Musk’s support more than Biden needs the support of unionized workers. Sorkin notes that while only about 14 million Americans belong to unions, Musk has nearly 100 million followers on Twitter.
Hello? Have we really come to a point where a president should check how many Twitter followers a mogul has before deciding how to treat him? In the United States today, notoriety and money can command so much public adulation that an establishment organ like the Times unabashedly advises a president to make nice to a childlike business thug.
Forget the older badges of honor — bravery in war, great artistry or insight, superb public service, years of government experience, extensive philanthropy. Now all you need are tens of millions of Twitter followers, the biggest bank account in human history, and an attitude.
This past weekend, MAGA-extremist Senate candidate “Dr. Oz” clinched the Republican nomination for the senate seat in Pennsylvania. Oz has no history of public service or qualifications relevant to holding one of the highest offices in the land. His embrace of junk science has been repeatedly condemned by respected members of the medical community. It’s not even clear that he lives in the state he’s running to represent. He is a proponent of the Big Lie who wants to ban abortion and implied in at least one ad that conservatives should use guns to intimidate lawmakers (or worse).
Like Donald Trump in 2015, Oz is politically viable only because skilled TV producers and editors spent years crafting an illusion that he is wise, competent, and caring. The production teams on The Apprentice and Dr. Oz could not have anticipated that the illusions they created might one day pose real-life political dangers to the nation (any more than Spielberg would have worried the mechanical shark in Jaws might run for office).
But we are living in an age of distrust toward all major institutions of society. The old badges of honor — which emanated from and depended on such institutions — no longer apply. Public acclaim today, and the power that accompanies it, come by way of image and hype ricocheting through Twitter and other social media, thereby creating the illusion of wisdom and strength. That illusion can get someone who has no qualifications whatsoever nominated to the United States Senate. It can elicit a recommendation from the New York Times that a president refrain from criticizing someone who deserves public censure. It could even result in another presidential term of office for someone who staged an attempted coup.