Elon. Trump. Resentment.
A combination more powerful than one might think
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The former president and the new Twitter boss are role models for voters whose concerns are not about democracy, justice, or the cost of milk, but their own bitterness.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
On October 7, the Republican House Judiciary Committee cryptically tweeted, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” The tweet was, predictably, ridiculed—especially after Ye (as Kanye West is now known), just days later, threatened “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” on Twitter. But, intentionally or not, the committee had hit upon a basic truth: The three are alike.
What unites these successful men—and, yes, Trump is successful—is their seething resentment toward a world that has rewarded them money and influence, but that still refuses to grant them the respect they think is their due. And if we should have learned anything since 2016, it is that resentment is perhaps the most powerful political force in the modern world.
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, nationalism had its turn at spurring us to destroy ourselves; in later years, the struggle with monstrous ideologies killed tens of millions and brought us repeatedly to the brink of nuclear war. Today, however, social and cultural resentment is driving millions of people into a kind of mass psychosis.
I will leave aside Ye, who has his own unique problems (although I will note that his early career was marked by his anger at being shut out, as he saw it, from hip-hop and then the fashion world). Prominent and wealthy Americans such as Trump and Musk, along with the former White House guru Steve Bannon and the investor Peter Thiel, are at war not so much with the American political system, whose institutions they are trying to capture, but with a dominant culture that they seem to believe is withholding its respect from them. Politics is merely the instrument of revenge.
Don’t be fooled when such people protest that they hate the dominant culture and want no part in it. Trump has spent his life as the outer-borough mook with his nose pressed to the windows of midtown Manhattan, wondering why no one wants him there. He claims to hate The New York Times but follows it obsessively and courts its approval. Musk, for his part, has put people in space, but when Twitter users started impersonating him, mostly to show him how idiotic his new “verify everyone for $7.99” plan is, he blocked and suspended them. (As one Twitter wag noted, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is like Elmer Fudd buying a platform full of Bugs Bunnies.) The great irony is that Musk’s other achievements might have vaulted him past perceptions that he’s a spoiled, rich doofus, but buying Twitter and making (and then deleting) jokes about self-gratification while telling people to vote Republican has pretty much obliterated that possibility.
Trump (and Bannon, Thiel, and others) is enraged, apparently, that his transition to elite-class status did not produce respect—or, at least, not the kind of respect he wants from the quarters of society from which he seems to crave it. Never underestimate the kind of anger that such insecurity can produce: Trump and those like him managed to get a ticket in the swankiest carriage on the train, only to find themselves sitting alone. And if that’s how it’s going to be … well, the only answer is to derail the entire thing, from locomotive to caboose, and make everyone suffer.
Even worse, the voters who do accept someone like Trump are people with whom Trump would never associate. Howard Stern, once a close friend of Trump’s, has said bluntly that the former president actually hates his own voters. Trump, Thiel, and many others have no interest in “the people” other than to use their votes as raw fuel for settling scores with other elites.
And in many cases, plenty of “the people” are just fine with that. As the British journalist Simon Kuper noted a few years ago, anti-system parties in the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States are powered not by struggling workers, but by the “comfortably off populist voter” who has “never been invited into the fast lane of life: the top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations.” The January 6 rioters were, by and large, not the dispossessed; they were real-estate agents and chiropractors. These citizens think that the disconnect between material success and their perceived lack of status must be punished, and if that means voting for election deniers and conspiracy theorists, so be it.
If you still doubt the power of resentment, remember this: Trump wasted his years as the most powerful man in the world whining about how no one respects him. Thiel has spent many millions propping up two candidates who are shameful buffoons. And Musk just lit $44 billion, with a B, on fire so that he could be a hero to an army of trolls that continues to goad him into doing even dumber things, as the Bonfire of the Dead Presidents roars away.
There is one more example of such resentment, and it’s a lot less funny. Russia is an entire nation seized with a massive inferiority complex, and the Russian regime is giving vent to that resentment in the continual murder of Ukrainians. Putin, an insecure thug, has his own bizarre reasons for the war, but the brutality of the Russians on the battlefield against their Slavic kin is very much rooted in resentment: Why do you live in freedom? Why are you living better than us?
And finally, look at the Republican campaigns across the nation. Few are about kitchen-table issues; many are seizing on resentment. Resentment sells. The GOP is running a slew of candidates who are promising that “we” will make sure “they” never steal an election again, that “we” will stop “them” from making your kids pee in litter boxes, that “we” will finally get even with “them.”
Voters in the United States and many other developed countries can lie to themselves and pretend that a one-year hike in the price of eggs is worth handing power to such a movement. Human beings need rationalizations, and we all make them. But voting as responsible citizens requires being honest with ourselves, and I suspect that we will soon learn that more of us are gripped by this kind of sour social irritation than we are by the price of gas.
- In several battleground states, Republican officials and candidates have filed lawsuits to disqualify thousands of mail-in ballots.
- World leaders gathered in Egypt yesterday for the COP27 global climate summit.
- Facebook’s parent company, Meta, is reportedly planning layoffs that could affect thousands of workers.
- I Have Notes: Nicole Chung talks with a fellow adoptee about what adoption “salvation” narratives get wrong.
- Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf collects reader responses on what colleges should care about when accepting students.
Jamie Oliver vs. Inflation
By Sophie Gilbert
It was about 20 minutes into Jamie Oliver’s new British cooking show, while Oliver was grating a big hunk of cheddar over a dish he called “mega meatloaf,” that I realized I was going to cry. It wasn’t his fault; the recipe looked lovely. What tore at my heart was Oliver’s commitment to energetic cheerfulness in the face of ongoing hardship, as though he were a newly divorced dad totally intent on proving to his kids that he was fine, terrific actually, he had a can opener somewhere, dinner would be ready in a jiffy. “This is full of flavor,” Oliver exclaimed, the most enthusiastic man to ever encounter a meatloaf. “There’s no shortage of flavor right here. The fun hasn’t stopped!” He brandishes the cheese; the cheese is “the fun,” apparently: “That’s joyful. That’s family food. And for under £1 a portion.”
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Elon Musk using Twitter as his personal clubhouse is a bad development, but now and then, it’s also hilarious—especially because Musk’s skin is thinner than phyllo dough. There are some very funny memes circulating, but I am surprised no one has drawn the most obvious parallel here: Elon Musk is Homer Simpson in “Homer the Great,” a Season 6 episode of The Simpsons in which Homer tries to join the cool secret fraternity in Springfield known as the Stonecutters. It turns out that Homer has a birthmark denoting him as their Chosen One, and he’s given absolute power over the club. Homer, as he often does, screws everything up, and the Stonecutters, fed up, disband and form a new society: the Ancient Mystic Society of No Homers. The episode is worth it just for the greatest song ever done on The Simpsons: “We Do (The Stonecutters’ Song).” I dare you to watch it without thinking of Musk.
One other parallel, far less humorous, that comes to mind is with the millionaire Paul Radin in the Twilight Zone episode “One More Pallbearer.” I can’t explain why without spoiling the surprise for you, but the comparison is obvious—and sad. It’s a classic episode, and again, I challenge you to watch it without thinking of Musk (or Donald Trump).
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.