You may recall that nobody thought much of Donald Trump’s chances when he announced, in 2015, a run for president. Establishment conservatives had hopes for Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but over the weeks and months of the campaign, Trump pummeled them with insulting tweets and nicknames they couldn’t seem to shake: “Lyin’ Ted.” “Little Marco.” The one time Rubio tried to punch back by inartfully joking in a stump speech that Trump had a small dick, the shameless reality TV veteran retorted at a debate that his dick was fine and normal.
Well. Much has happened since then. But the prospect of Trump running the table once more in 2024, again by roasting every opponent in his signature belligerent style, cannot be discounted. It is only in this period of limbo, when he’s been banished from the White House and his preferred communication platform, Twitter, after an election loss and failed coup, that we might permit ourselves to laugh at his vituperative attacks on public figures. Especially when the figure is Elon Musk — a right-wing billionaire dweeb undeserving of a defense or collective sympathy.
For some context: Trump and Musk once had the mutually advantageous relationship that is possible between two grifters. But then Musk said last month that he’d cast his first-ever vote for a Republican in a Texas special election — contradicting his claim to have voted for Trump in 2016 — and expressed hope that he could support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an emergent Trump rival, for president in 2024. So Trump laid into him at an Alaska rally, declaring the tech executive a “bullshit artist” and mocking his attempt to weasel out of an agreed deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. Musk had previously said he would reverse Trump’s permanent Twitter suspension if the takeover were successful, which must have appealed to the former president no matter how much he pretends to love his knock-off social media network, Truth Social.
Musk tried for a dignified response, which has never worked for anyone trying to fend off Trump’s attacks (even Joe Biden told him to shut up on live TV). Trump countered with the scorched-earth rant he’d held back for just this moment, hitting Musk with “driverless cars that crash” and the instantly iconic “rocketships to nowhere,” along with the psychosexually terrifying assertion that he could have had the richest man in the world on his knees in the Oval Office. Musk, clearly out of his depth, resorted to the fatal “not mad, actually laughing” defense: an “Lmaooo” tweet followed by a GIF of Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud. Weak, scared, hoping to affect a detached amusement — yet unable to form a substantive reply. It only got worse when Musk sought refuge in his beloved, pilfered memes, and the easier victory of dunking on the “far left,” who have nothing to do with this feud. He had to delete his post when it became apparent that his leftist critics were happily cheering on Trump’s assault.
Trump now has Musk on the ropes in a way that recalls his battering approach to the 2016 primaries, because Musk — like Cruz and Rubio before him — should have every advantage but has taken all the damage. Trump is kicking his ass on a platform he’s banned from, with far fewer resources, limited reach and congressional hearings on his efforts to overthrow American democracy currently underway. He benefits in part by having essentially nothing to lose at a moment when Musk, in contrast, is being sued by the very social network he’s addicted to, desperate for clout on and may be forced to buy against his will, in accordance with the deal he signed. (That Trump has the opportunity to malign his business strategies is just icing on the cake for a guy obsessed with the art of the deal.) Musk is also limited in his ability to go after Trump because he’s in the midst of a conservative rebrand, and while he might be wary of alienating the MAGA machine, Trump couldn’t give a shit about his legion of simps. In fact, he’ll probably go after them, too.
What it finally comes down to is Trump’s gift for bitchy observations that ring undeniably true while being, in some cases, the most hilarious thing you’ve ever read. Awful person, catastrophic president, but a master of his medium. There’s no point denying it. Both men are transparent egomaniacs who want the adoration of crowds. But for all Musk’s power, influence and wealth, he is someone striving with every fiber of his being to be funny, while Trump simply is. Musk is compelled to scrape together a personality from Reddit posts and the fawning crypto accounts that reply to him; Trump is nobody but himself, the radioactive id of a rude New Yorker born to believe that everyone ought to kiss his ass or fuck right off.
So no, it’s not a fair fight by any means. Still, it would be nice if neither of them won.