Add this to the list of cherished American institutions that the Donald Trump era has stampeded: the bipartisan romance. The inspirational spectacle of James Carville and Mary Matalin scrapping on TV and cuddling on the couch—maybe we can all get along!—has been replaced by ugly breakup stories. Like that of the Republican ex-cheerleader who felt “isolated” in her marriage to a Democratic state attorney after the 2016 election. Or the liberal-leaning spouse of Anthony Scaramucci who filed divorce papers after he joined the White House (and reconciled with him some time after his firing). Or the newly single Costa Rican immigrant who credited his wife’s rising xenophobia to Trump. Maybe love will eventually heal this divided nation, but for now the balm of choice seems to be alimony.
Which makes the case of Grimes and Elon Musk all the more surreal. She’s a Canadian experimental-pop musician who has Karl Marx for a profile picture; he’s a Silicon Valley billionaire who preaches against unions and previously advised Trump. They started dating earlier this year, and what initially scanned as an amusing aesthetic mishmash—checked shirts for him, chain mail for her—has, as is the way of all things now, mushroomed into a sociopolitical Twitter skirmish. It’s not quite a tale of bipartisanship: He identifies with no party and has supported liberal causes, and she once labeled herself an “anti-imperialist.” But it’s precisely the way that a familiar script has played out against idiosyncratic circumstances that makes the controversy over their relationship a sign of the times.
Online, observers have hounded Grimes about her beau’s financing of Republicans, his demonstrated contempt toward organized labor, and his general rich-and-rude savior shtick. “Fans of Elon Musk and Grimes Are Worried Their Relationship Has Broken Art and Capitalism,” summarized Slate, without much exaggeration. “Break up with elon NOW,” went a tweet that launched the latest round of scandal by drawing Grimes to reply “no.” Shot back the fan:
elon donates to republicans, people who deny climate change, a cause you and your boyfriend or whatever are supposed to care for so??? why are [you] still with him? why? you’re one of my favorite artists it is quite infuriating how blind or unwilling to see you are
In response, Grimes could have hit “block ” and moved on. She could have dropped some bromide about the mysterious ways of the heart, the value of getting to know someone different from you, or the need for everyone to butt out of her private affairs. But instead came a volley on the merits of the claims. She offered excuses for Musk (donating to the GOP is “the cost of doing business”), argued for his progressive cred (he gives “way more money, like absurdly more, to environmental causes”), and testified to his veracity (she’d personally tried to get Tesla factory workers to unionize but a majority didn’t want to, just as he’d said). Later, she deleted some of those tweets, objected to the media writing them up without interviewing her, and stressed her own views, saying, “i’m not on the board of tesla or any of these companies.”
Those defenses may vary in persuasiveness, but they all cede the premise that a person should answer for her romantic partner’s politics. Which is rooted in a larger idea: that one’s personal life is political, and that one’s politics are directly tied to one’s moral character. Those are old ideas, but they’ve come to be taken for granted in our allegedly woke zeitgeist—which has, of course, partly been shaped by figures like Grimes proudly linking their values, art, and lives. “I’m sad that it’s uncool or offensive to talk about environmental or human rights issues,” she wrote in a widely shared (then deleted) 2013 Tumblr post titled “I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living.”
Now her fans are extending that principle to include romance, and she doesn’t seem to object: The substance of the disagreement is just over whether Musk is unaligned with her. Were Grimes to decide that Musk is in fact more on the side of the “imperialists,” the implication goes, they’d have to break up. The much-mythologized irrationality of love? The fun of “opposites attract”? It never enters the conversation.
Of course, people have always wanted their partners to share their deepest convictions. But for better or worse—and there are strong arguments that it’s for the better when racism, xenophobia, sexual assault, fascism, and the fate of the planet are at issue—those desires appear to be increasingly litigated in blunt political terms nationwide. Relationships of all sorts are being tested on the crucible of rising partisanship, which is now arguably a more significant divider than race, class, or geography.
“Members of the two parties are more likely today to describe each other unfavorably, as selfish, as threats to the nation, even as unsuitable marriage material,” reported The New York Times in a June 2017 Upshot post that mentioned bipartisan romantic unions were becoming scarcer. A 2018 survey found that 56 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans would be upset or uncomfortable if their child wedded someone from the opposite party: a new high. “If You Are Married to a Trump Supporter, Divorce Them,” read a popular 2017 Harper’s Bazaar piece, one of a few recent columns offering similar advice.
But ideological purity—which, again, is now nearly to say moral purity—is not only being policed across party lines. Headlines about Trump ruining Thanksgivings and White House staffers’ dating lives have coincided with examples of less overtly partisan scrutiny toward relationships that might have previously been defined as “just business” or “beyond politics.” It’s less okay than ever before for an actor to work with a venerated director accused of sex crimes. Or for a filmmaker to keep his job when offensive jokes come to light. Or for a conservative conference to tolerate slight dissent among its panelists. Or, yes, for two sci-fi geeks from the music and tech worlds to hold hands without squaring their views on labor.
Strikingly, Musk has been one of the era’s rare public figures to try and enact the bygone ideal of “crossing the aisle.” The Tesla CEO clearly finds Trump distasteful, but he nonetheless joined two White House advisory committees after the election, which prompted noisy criticism. “The more voices of reason that the President hears, the better,” he told Gizmodo. “Simply attacking him will achieve nothing.” It’s a theory that under most other presidents wouldn’t have been controversial. And tellingly, it’s been abandoned: When Musk’s lobbying for the United States’ participation in the Paris climate agreement proved futile, he resigned from the councils. But the effect on his reputation clearly lingers, helping fuel Grimes-related public clamor.
That clamor raises an all-too-familiar question: Who cares what a famous person does in their private life? But the celebrity realm is, as with all shifting norms, a place where the increasingly urgent questions around guilt by association are being tested, crudely. Hence Ivanka Trump’s role in her father’s White House turning complicit into buzzword. Hence Kim Kardashian being made to answer for Kanye West’s Trump-ward swerve. And hence Grimes being placed—and placing herself—on public trial over whom she chooses to attend galas with. Her views never actually changed: “i support the right to unionize and i’ve never supported trump,” she tweeted, adding, “calm down lol.” She must know, though, that what’s riling people up isn’t what she believes, but what those around her do—which is coming to feel like the same thing.
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