No one can claim that US president Donald Trump lacks empathy for at least some of the downtrodden. Interviewed by CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump responded to a question about Elon Musk. Given all that Musk has been through in recent times, Trump acknowledges that the poor fellow deserves the pity his fellow billionaires. After all, Musk has been denigrated by multiple critics in the past 18 months, even, on occasion, excoriated in the Daily Devil’s Dictionary. As Tesla’s CEO, he has been under regulatory scrutiny after the Security Exchange Commission accused him of fraud for attempting to manipulate share prices.
Conscience of the injustice done to Musk due simply to his sometimes unorthodox business practices, Trump praised the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company and Neuralink because “he likes rockets and he does good at rockets too.” Trump then added this pertinent comment: “I was worried about him, because he’s one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius. You know, we have to protect Thomas Edison, and we have to protect all of these people that came up with, originally, the lightbulb, and the wheel and all of these things.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Enshrine the already successful and extremely wealthy, granting them the status of unassailable icons to ensure their limitless prosperity and deflect any criticism of their methods or actions.
Describing Trump’s CNBC interview, The New York Times dryly and indulgently explains that “President Trump reflected the enthusiasm that many investors have for Mr. Musk, comparing him to Thomas Edison and describing him as ‘one of our great geniuses.’” In the same article, The Times provides an evaluation of Musk’s fortune. We learn that “Forbes and Bloomberg estimate Mr. Musk’s current net worth at about $32 billion” before being reminded that, according to the exceptional compensation deal recently voted by the Tesla board of directions, “Mr. Musk could receive up to $55 billion in compensation.”
As Trump insists, Musk is in dire need of the government’s and society’s protection. He fears that people like Musk are may be left by the wayside. “We want to cherish those people,” he told his CNBC interviewer. Musk and others like him need to be encouraged in their noble quest to add to the billions they already possess. Otherwise, unloved and insufficiently pampered, they might choose to crawl back into their shells and deprive humanity of the searing light of their genius.
From Trump’s Davos interview, most commentators have highlighted the president’s apparent belief that the wheel is an American invention. Some, like the Huffington Post, have taken the trouble to point out that the wheel was invented some 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq. Two hypotheses may account for Trump’s attribution. The first is that, as the US continues to occupy Iraq against the Iraqi government’s own wishes, Trump may consider it licit to claim the industrial property rights on Iraq’s inventions as repayment for the burdensome cost of sending an army in to massacre its people and spread chaos throughout the region.
The second seems more credible. Trump, like any 10-year-old schoolboy, knows that the invention of the wheel was a prehistoric accomplishment and couldn’t have been invented in America. But the wheel Trump was referencing isn’t the one you find on vehicles. It’s the “Wheel of Fortune,” the popular TV show often simply called “Wheel.” It has been running since 1975 and is now a fixture of US consumer culture. It was invented by another billionaire, TV game show creator and host, Merv Griffin.
This reference to television should have been obvious since in the same interview Trump revealed his understanding of what he sees essentially as a two-class system in the US. At the top, we find the billionaires, like Trump and Musk, stable geniuses who are abused not only by villainous critics jealous of their success but also the media. They are crying out for protection. At the bottom subsists a vast class called “consumers,” represented, in Trump’s mind, by an individual he refers to as “the consumer.” In the interview Trump made this clear when he announced this basic truth: “The consumer has never been so rich … We have a consumer that has never done so well.”
This vision of society is extremely coherent. Listening to the full 19-minute interview makes Trump’s vision extremely clear. On one side, you have the billionaires who serve three essential purposes in society, besides earning excessive fortunes for themselves. They create jobs for the hapless but “rich” consumers; through the products they invent and control, they secure valuable industrial property rights that should not be stolen by other nations; and they create a vast array of goods the consumer class will buy to affirm its status as citizen consumers of the capitalist republic.
As Trump tells it, “the consumer” is now basking in the glory afforded by the wealth shared by the entire consumer class. Consumers are so well-off these days that an impressive proportion of them can now afford to consume luxury products such as the opioids they are increasingly addicted to. Diabetics find it a bit more difficult to procure insulin, but Trump intends to address that problem in his second term.
In the meantime, billionaires add billions to their already impressive fortunes, protected by the government and its bloated military, whose essentially purpose is to guarantee their unfettered access to the world’s resources. And thanks to their fortunes, they also provide jobs and a growing catalogue of shiny, well-packaged products to consume in an increasingly deregulated economy that Trump promises will be even more prosperous as soon as the Fed gets around to implementing negative interest rates.
Such is Trump’s vision of the US economy and society three years after taking office. On the same day as the interview, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin grappled with 17-year-old Greta Thunberg at Davos, informing her that he will listen to her musings only after “she goes and studies economics in college.” He might have said, more fittingly, the same thing to Trump after listening to Trump’s Davos interview. But of course Trump did study economics at Wharton.
Some think that when Thunberg graduates high school, she might be better off studying a subject less prone to pure hyperreal fantasy than economics.
Half of humanity — or rather half of the human oligarchy that runs the economy — believes in the hyperreal success story of Elon Musk. Apparently, another half sees it in a different light, as a manifestation of hyperreality, a bit of inflated fiction that seduces the media who, in turn, use it to trigger the adulation of broad swathes of the public.
A recent article in Forbes sums up the dispute about believing in Musk and cherishing his contribution. Its author, Amiyatosh Purnanandam, writes: “Elon Musk thinks Tesla will change the world. Short-seller Jim Chanos believes it is a worthless enterprise. One of them has to be wrong, and the wrong one will lose a fortune.” On the subject of Musk’s eventual astronomic payout of $50 billion, The New York Times quotes Bob Sloan, the founder of financial services firm S3 Partners: “The amount is just telling you that the soap opera continues.”
The story of Musk’s rise to the level of cultural icon over the past 10 years brings together all the ingredients required for the production of unadulterated hyperreality: his flogging of futuristic technology, the mountains of venture capital, Musk’s provocative personality, his unbounded appetite for practically any wild idea derived from science fiction that he can convince other people to fund and, concerning Tesla alone, the entire myth built around a largely unsubstantial promise by which the company claims to be about improving the world and saving humanity from the recognized threat of global warming.
This is what we are asked to believe: Rich people driving expensive cars will usher in a new utopia thanks to electric vehicles destined to solve the climate crisis by demonstrating that humanity (starting at a certain level of income or net worth) no longer depend on fossil fuel.
And if all those future self-driving electric cars don’t end up solving the climate crisis, Musk will provide the rockets that will enable humanity to move to Mars. He is already blanketing the Earth’s atmosphere with tens of thousands of satellites astronomers on earth are complaining will hamper their ability to observe the universe. But, as Trump says, Musk is “good at rockets” and wants to use the satellites to position himself as the world’s number one internet access provider. This may incite the astronomers to be the first to book passage on a SpaceX rocket, if only to set up business on Mars, where they will be able to observe the universe unencumbered.
All this illustrates a deeper problem in society as a whole. As with climate change, human civilization finds itself at a historical turning point, in which the stakes have become survival or extinction. In this context, the success or failure of Tesla and SpaceX will serve as a metaphor for the fate of the planet and its inhabitants. Some think the planet and its economy will thrive, others see it coursing toward extinction. Both of Musk’s favorite solutions — the electric car and rockets that will permit the colonization of Mars — skirt the real questions humanity is dealing with.
Tesla and SpaceX are modern enterprises focused not on achieving some generous goal, but on establishing a monopolistic position through the uniqueness of their offer with the goal of gaining a captive market that will translate into maximum profit. In other words, the future of humanity when things are left in the hands of people like Trump and Musk turns out to be an exaggeration of the worst trends of the recent past. It’s about a small group of people controlling simultaneously the world’s resources and the principle levers of the human economy — or what’s left of that economy before those who can afford it will need to book their SpaceX rocket ticket to Mars.
This article was originally published in Fair Observer
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius