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What Elon Musk and Donald Trump have in common

People don’t talk about the movie Network anymore. Maybe because it was released in 1976, way ahead of its time. Or maybe because its satire hit a little too close to home. The whole movie criticizes some of the sickest, most psychotic aspects of our society. It points out our complacency in the face of all the terrible things happening in our world, and how attempts to tell the truth about those horrors just end up commercialized and packaged for our consumption. In the clip below, the protagonist goes on his first prophetic rant, encouraging Americans to tap into the anger they feel and shout it from their windows. Expressing that anger, he believes, is the first step towards change.

By the end of the movie, though, “I”m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” had become a catchphrase, shouted by studio audiences more interested in the spectacle of this prophetic truth-teller than in the truth he told. And so the movie ends, with Americans glued to their televisions looking for a little slice of escapism in the nightly programming, or watching the news to get enraged only to have that raged channeled into a frenzy of consumption.

Within the world of Network––which is our world––truth no longer matters. Or, in the soon-to-be infamous words of Rudolph Giuliani, “truth isn’t truth.” If truth isn’t truth, then what is truth? Truth has become spectacle and distraction.

Think about Donald Trump. Objectively, that man does not tell the truth. He’s not interested in truth, he’s interested in protecting himself. So he lies, he lies, he lies. But here’s his genius: his lies don’t fit a pattern, they don’t form a narrative, and sometimes they don’t make sense. They’re chaotic, and any attempt to analyze them or debunk them ends where it started––in chaos. That’s why Trump’s lies don’t stick to him. That’s why Trump hired Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway. These people all spew different stories, different excuses, and different lies. No journalist can fly through that amount of flak and make it out the other side. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, no one can walk through that much bull manure and come out clean.

But all these myriad chaotic lies actually have one thing in common, but it’s so common it’s often overlooked. Trump manufactures villains to make himself look better. Terrorists, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, immigrants, whatever the case, Trump paints himself and his supporters are living under siege. This has been commented upon, of course, but it’s often just chalked up to another lie and, as a result, it gets lost in the shuffle. Let’s think about that commonality for a second, though.

There are two effective ways to unite people. The first is to rally people around something. Maybe an idea, maybe a person, maybe a mascot. For a long time, Americans were united around the American Dream––a promise of equality, prosperity, and happiness. Another way to bring people together is to unite them against something. In fact, that’s the easiest way to forge a community of people. Everyone remembers “that kid” in your high school, the one that everyone ganged up on. Friend groups formed by mocking that poor scapegoat.

For a variety of reasons, the American Dream is not just dead, but it has been publicly executed––and perhaps rightfully so. Social justice movements of the last forty years have drawn our collective attention to the various inequalities plaguing America, and the ways in which those inequalities prevented many of our citizens from reaching the elusive Dream. That needed to happen, there is no doubt about that. But the execution has left a void in our country. We no longer have an identity, and even though the American Dream was a flawed idea around which to rally, it was at least something to bring people together. Without that, we are far more susceptible to the other kind of unification, the negative kind.

Donald Trump has built his presidency on make believe or exaggerated enemies. Is immigration a problem in this country? Immigration is a problem in every country! It’s a challenging thing to navigate. Are immigrants evil rapists and murders? Nope. Was Hillary Clinton corrupt and terrible? She was definitely a political insider, but no, she did not have anyone killed. Are liberals trying to turn America into a socialist tyranny? They certainly want more government involvement on social issues, but tyranny is a bit much. Why do people believe such extreme statements, such lies?  Because when you no longer feel like you understand your country or your place in it, you’re more likely to believe things that bring clarity. Enemies bring clarity. Unfortunately, that kind of clarity is inherently murky since it’s built on exaggerations and lies.

Making fun of alleged enemies is a great way to keep people on your side because it reminds audiences that it’s an “us versus them” world. You don’t have to do it all the time, of course, just when you’re in a spot of bother. And you don’t have to be too extreme, either, just casually mock them like a teenager might on the schoolyard. Say something like this:”They’re not dumb guys, but they’re not supersmart. They’re O.K. They’re smartish.”

That gem was not about liberals, or Democrats, or immigrants, or any of Trump’s fake enemies. It was about Tesla’s short-sellers, the people who are betting that Tesla will fail. And it wasn’t uttered by Donald Trump. Elon Musk said it in a recent, highly revealing interview with The New York Times. That interview confirmed for this author that Elon Musk and Donald Trump employ the same survival strategy. They both muddy the water so much with their lies and blame enemies for their problems in order to make themselves effectively invulnerable to criticism.

Like Trump, Musk relies on a cult of personality for his success. He’s cultivated a sort of Tony Stark image, dramatically sending a (useless) submarine to Thailand to save those kids trapped in a cave. He then fired off a tweet calling one of the rescuers a pedophile. Last week, his reckless tweeting led to a federal investigation. He claimed––allegedly while on acid––that he was considering taking Tesla private. Stocks soared, then plummeted after the fallout. And then again after the Times interview.

Elon Musk has turned himself into a one-man gossip machine. The Times interview was actually a stroke of genius, nevermind the fact that Tesla stocks fell. This author thinks that Musk wanted that. He also wants rumors flying around that he’s tweeting while tripping on acid or loopy on Ambien. He wants to do dramatic things like promise to save Flint, Michigan.

Like Trump, Musk is telling a bit of the truth about his enemies. There really are short-sellers out there who want Musk to fail. In his Times interview, Musk said that he thinks he’s in for “at least a few months of extreme torture from the short-sellers, who are desperately pushing a narrative that will possibly result in Tesla’s destruction.” These short-sellers will make a ton of money if Tesla fails, so we shouldn’t write Musk off here. Nor should we write Trump off, especially in his vilification of Democrats and liberals. These people really do want Trump out of office. For both men, caricaturing and vilifying their enemies is one way of maintaining control of their respective organizations by rallying people against a villain.

Furthermore, both men lie frequently in order to distract their followers and their critics. Musk’s tweets, interviews, and shenanigans send Tesla share prices up and down wildly. He’s hoping that no one sees the forest for the trees. He’s worried that Tesla is not going to succeed, and he’s worried that people will see that. The same goes for Trump. His administration is an unprofessional mess, but enough white noise will drown out any narrative. That’s the key to each man’s success. Counter-narratives don’t work, because those can be picked apart with logic, reason, and truth. A chaotic and unceasing hodgepodge of lies and exaggerations, however, will simply drown out the opposing narrative.

And so we return to Network. That movie reminds us that we simply do not want to hear the truth. If we accidentally get some truth dished out to us, we quickly try to turn it into a sideshow, something to be consumed and laughed at rather than pondered over or engaged with. The anonymous audiences in that movie did not really want truth, they wanted to be mollified and entertained. Musk and Trump know that, and they give us what we want.

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