Analysis: Musk and Trump, 2 disrupters face reckoning
December 21, 2022
WASHINGTON (AP) — Elon Musk and Donald Trump share bestride-the-colossus egos, an incessant desire to be the center of attention and a platform to showcase their eccentricities and erraticism.
Both the Tesla CEO and the former president have used that platform, Twitter, as a sword and a shield — a soapbox to rouse the passions (and tap the pocketbooks) of tens of millions of followers and repulse the other side.
Trump weaponized Twitter before he was banned after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Musk was a persistent Twitter poster, taunting stock market regulators and railing against his version of conformity in numerous tweets. Then he decided to buy the platform.
Now both face a reckoning this week brought on at least in part by their use of Twitter to advance their agendas and feed their outsize id.
Trump is confronted with a select congressional committee's unanimous recommendation to the Justice Department on Monday that he be criminally prosecuted for his part in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters stirred to action that day by his public remarks, on and off social media.
Right behind that could come the release Tuesday of Trump tax returns, now in the hands of another House panel, that he has spent years fighting to keep private.
After firing about half the Twitter workforce and sowing chaos with impulsive and ever-changing policies, Musk essentially asked users whether he should fire himself. In an unscientific poll he set up, a majority of the 17.5 million respondents said he should step down as Twitter chief. No word yet whether he will honor the result as promised.
The tribulations of these two June babies, born 25 years and continents apart, may be unlike anything thrown at them before.
"The biggest thing they have in common is little experience with true failure, that is, failure with consequences," said Eric Dezenhall, a consultant to companies beset by crisis.
"Even though Trump has failed multiple times, he's always been protected by family money and amazing luck," Dezenhall said. "While Musk is a genius, he's had the good fortune to have built multiple businesses on government funding rather than in the bruising free market.
"Given their life experiences, how could these guys not feel invincible?"
Kindred spirits at least in part, Musk invited Trump back on Twitter shortly after he bought it. So far, Trump is sticking with his own platform, Truth Social, which has miniscule reach in comparison.
Musk's invitation was a selective exercise of the right to free speech, as he also suspended a variety of mainstream journalists from Twitter and banned links to "prohibited" social media sites like Facebook, before relenting to some degree on both fronts.
Musk was until recently the world's richest man, with the amount verified by the worth of his stock. Trump has often argued he should be considered among the wealthiest, though behind that claim was a mirage.
Both have operated from a sense that things begin and end by CEO fiat. But Musk has also built viable companies and genuine wealth, in contrast with Trump's record of self-branding, fraught real estate deals and dubious enterprises regarding steaks, vodka or even his own real estate investor "university."
Musk registers 120 million Twitter followers; Trump, a Republican, had 88 million when he was barred from the platform after the Jan. 6 insurrection. The site has vastly amplified both their voices, in a way that has benefited Musk's businesses and Trump's political career over the years, though at a cost to their reputations.
"A hater hellscape," Musk called Twitter in 2017. But it also was a siren's call to him.
"On Twitter, likes are rare & criticism is brutal," he tweeted in 2018. "So hardcore.
On that platform, Musk comes across less as the visionary engineer who made electric vehicles hot, builds reusable rockets and cares deeply about climate change than as a petty settler of personal scores who can sink into right-wing conspiracy theories and misogyny.
A month ago, teasing Trump for holding out just after Twitter agreed to let him back in, Musk posted a depiction of a woman naked from the waist down, with the Twitter logo covering her genitals and Trump, as Jesus, looking on. "And lead us not into temptation," said Musk's post.
Both men have used Twitter to assail the mainstream media, spread misinformation, push the limits of what's acceptable in social media and engage in provocations that can make it hard to look away.
But of the two, only Trump held the power of office. For all his spacecraft, Musk's universe is much smaller. In the public-opinion influence game, it's made up mostly of tweets and corporate policy about how to manage them.
Their politics don't match — Musk's right-wing and libertarian beliefs come with a devotion to controlling global warming, for example, and Trump's don't. Their personalities differ in some respects, too — Musk admits error and even apologizes on occasion; Trump doesn't.
Their work ethic bears no resemblance to each other.
Trump, a 76-year-old from Queens in New York City, spends most of his time at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, after a presidency notable for ample time on the golf links. Musk, a 51-year-old native of South Africa who lived in Canada as a young man, is known for working insane hours, hands on, these days in Twitter's San Francisco headquarters.
But as disrupters, they might as well be twins separated at birth.
"Both of these guys are free-stylers," said Dezenhall. "There is never a plan, never a strategy, just a collection of on-the-fly tactics. This has worked out very well for them.
"It wouldn't be the case for the rest of us."
Associated Press writers Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco and Josh Boak in Baltimore contributed to this report.