How Elon Musk Is Fully Embracing Donald Trump’s Billionaire Populism

FILE PHOTO: Elon Musk, Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of X, formerly known as Twitter. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Elon Musk, Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX and Tesla and owner of X, formerly known as Twitter. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo (REUTERS)


In some ways, Elon Musk is gaining even more influence as he becomes more like Donald Trump.

It is hard not to see echoes of Donald Trump in Elon Musk these days.

Both are world-famous entrepreneurs who have faced operatic dramas. Both are provocative on social issues, can be politically incorrect and, at times, even crude. And both excel at the art of the sell—themselves and their companies—and the ability to spin the world around their vision of it.

The greatest similarity, though, comes from how they built a populist following through years of savvy use of Twitter-turned-X. That populist support, in many ways, has made Musk even more influential, though his provocations risk turning off his customers at Tesla and alienating his advertisers on X.

For many, Musk’s evolution from a green-energy techie to self-labeled chief troll officer has made the billionaire the spiritual heir to Trump on X—the social-media platform that banned him under previous leadership and reinstated him soon after Musk took control of it in late 2022.

The past few days, in particular, are full of examples of Musk’s embrace of Trumpian ways: He devolved to name-calling in a feud with the billionaire Mark Cuban. He questioned the sanity of the nation’s election system. He reiterated concerns over illegal migration by suggesting the government would take people’s homes to house migrants. And he amplified claims that corporate diversity efforts, known as DEI, threaten the safety of air travel.

“It will take an airplane crashing and killing hundreds of people for them to change this crazy policy of DIE," Musk tweeted on Tuesday, rearranging the abbreviation for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cuban, the billionaire and former majority owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, drew Musk’s wrath after defending the principles of DEI. “Having a workforce that is diverse and representative of your stakeholders is good for business," Cuban replied to Musk at one point.

It is especially easy to see shades of Trump in Musk when he used the former president’s own words as missiles against foes. The attack came this past Monday, when Musk nuked a philosophical disagreement with a simple tweet declaring that Cuban is a racist (a post later deleted).

To spice up his tweet storm even more, Musk resurfaced a 2014 posting from Trump throwing shade on Cuban over a failed business deal. “Was it his financials or the fact that he’s an asshole?" Trump tweeted at the time.

On which Musk posted almost 10 years later: “Epic."

Musk then engaged with a user calling for Trump, the front-runner to be this year’s Republican presidential candidate, “to start firing off posts again on X in 2024."

Musk deemed that worthy of fire and tears-of-joy emojis.

All of that came in a week when Musk criticized reporting by my colleagues that said some executives and board members within his business empire are worried about his drug use. Musk responded by saying he hasn’t failed drug tests and touted the success of his businesses. He even included a Trumpian-like boast: “Whatever I’m doing, I should obviously keep doing it!"

That was a line reminiscent of classic Trump bravado, including a comment during the 2016 presidential campaign, in the midst of chaos, when he touted: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters."

The two men’s defiance and aggressive rebuttals are just one approach they share. They can be, at the core, showmen, weaving together stories first sold to investors, then customers and, eventually, the public at large.

Trump’s narrative as a great businessman helped launch a TV career on NBC’s “The Apprentice." He secured lucrative branding opportunities that attached his name to deals around the world.

Musk’s ability to sell investors on a future of driverless cars and Mars missions helped get Tesla and SpaceX off the ground, and ultimately helped make him the world’s richest man.

They don’t always appreciate what they see in each other, however. Ahead of Musk’s move to buy Twitter in 2022, Trump called him “another bullshit artist." In turn, Musk told the biographer Walter Isaacson in “Elon Musk," published last year, that “Trump might be one of the world’s best bullshitters ever."

Others see them as being cut from the same tweet.

The Republican pollster Frank Luntz finds that the two men are often compared and supported by the same cohort of people when he conducts focus groups.

“The reaction of people [for both men] is, ‘Well, good for him, … I don’t always agree with what he says, I don’t necessarily like how he says it but I like what he’s doing, he is shaking things up,’" Luntz said.

In “Political Tribes," the author, Amy Chua, a Yale University law professor, suggested that Trump’s populist success came by tapping into supporters who were antiestablishment. They harbored deep resentments against elite professionals such as professors, politicians and journalists, while also being pro-rich and identifying with his wealth because they aspired to it for themselves.

“Trump’s base identifies with him at gut level: with the way he talks (locker room), dresses, shoots from the hip, gets caught making mistakes, and gets attacked over and over by the liberal media for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough," she wrote. “His enemies, they feel, are their enemies."

In another way of putting it, Trump represents the primal American dream: That, in this country, we have a history rooted in the possibility of amassing enough power to tell the king of England more than 200 years ago to essentially “go f— yourself." Or, in a modern twist, your boss. Or, in Musk’s case, the CEO of Disney.

In that regard, Musk is the poster boy of such ideals: an immigrant who, against great odds, gambled everything over and over again, sleeping on factory floors and fighting the forces of big business, big media and big government—the elites out to keep him down—to make it in America.

For many of Musk’s fans, his enemies have become their enemies.

While some of them might wish he spent more time this past week touting Tesla’s updated Model 3 sedan, others are cheering him on for championing opinions and topics that, they say, were recently forbidden. They argue that he has moved the so-called Overton Window, or essentially the range of policy ideas that are acceptable within mainstream political debate.

“The Overton Window has shifted so severely over the past three years that it’s difficult to even wrap my mind around," Austen Allred, co-founder of an education startup called BloomTech, posted this past week. “There are just a bunch of positions people take publicly now that they wouldn’t take before. They were actually untouchable."

Another user agreed: “Elon has pried the Overton window open."

To which Musk replied: “You’re welcome."

Write to Tim Higgins at

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