In a mere five words, Elon Musk, emerging darling of right-wing extremism and CEO of Twitter, managed to contain two hallmarks of the fascistic state when he tweeted Sunday: “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.”
The main offenses: criminalizing lifelong public servants whose political views deviate from those in power and scapegoating minority communities.
The fact that over 1 million people liked his tweet — and that Musk has 121 million followers — is only part of why it should be taken so seriously.
While the balance of power will shift between political parties at federal and local levels, the civil service is what keeps government functioning and preserves democratic ideals.
To the first hallmark, it is absolutely crucial to democratic governance that the civil service be depoliticized. While the balance of power will shift between political parties at federal and local levels, the civil service is what keeps government functioning and preserves democratic ideals. The danger of targeting civil servants was brought into sharp relief in 2020, when then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order at the end of his term allowing federal agency heads to fire civil servants tasked with devising policy, removing long-standing employment protections that prevented civil servants from being fired for having incongruent political views with those in charge. This is what Musk was calling for, taking things a step further by suggesting we criminalize such civil servants.
Troy Cribb of legal forum Just Security has explained why moves like Trump’s executive order — and by extension, Musk’s suggestion — are so dangerous. “Now more than ever, our government needs experts with long-term institutional memory who serve to protect our national security, enforce our laws and preserve our health, safety and economic well-being. This order does just the opposite,” Cribb wrote. “It puts government on a constant learning curve, disrupts critical operations, and potentially sabotages future civil service reform. Despite claims to the contrary, the new order makes government less effective and less efficient.”
You may recall how Trump and members of his populist political movement targeted election officials following the 2020 election, including Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Wandrea’ ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, two Black women working in Fulton County, Georgia on Election Day. In his attempt to overthrow the election, Trump speciously claimed both women committed election fraud. His accusations sent them into hiding after death threats flooded in, among other horrifying consequences, which the two women testified to during the Jan. 6 committee hearings. Just as targeting election officials will reduce the diversity of the workforce by terrorizing minorities and/or progressives out, so will targeting members of the civil service. Efforts like these are a systematic attempt to hijack such institutions by creating hostile environments for anyone who ideologically deviates from the right, thereby ensuring the majority of its members are political adherents to right-wing, autocratic ideologies.
And then we have the matter of making a mockery of trans people. I am so unbelievably sick of people using pronouns in a feeble attempt at being witty. It is lazy. It is uninspired. It is dangerous. From politicians (like Senate candidate Herschel Walker) to comedians (like Louis CK, who has admitted to sexual misconduct), pronouns have become low-hanging fruit — and an all-too-common punchline for right-wing populists and cryptofascists like Musk.
Pronouns have become low-hanging fruit — and an all-too-common punchline for right-wing populists and cryptofascists like Musk.
Walker mocked the issue at on of his last rallies in the final push for the Georgia Senate runoff: “Why are they bringing pronouns in our military? Pronouns? What the heck is a pronoun?” he said. “I’m sick and tired of that pronoun stuff. Aren’t y’all sick and tired of that pronoun stuff? So why don’t we call this senator ‘former senator’?” You can buy popular T-shirts on eBay, proudly emblazoned with lines such as, “I identify as Trumpgender. My pronoun is ultra MAGA” (whatever the hell that means).
In her writing, scholar Shon Faye discusses how trans people have become a primary pawn in this ideological game (a game which literally costs lives). “Trans people have become much more visible which is wonderful, but it also means we have become the scapegoat for grievances and problems that have their roots elsewhere,” Faye wrote in a 2021 op-ed. “A hostile consensus has been generated that views trans people as a nuisance at best, and at worst a threat to society. I’ve noticed that this rhetoric has amped up during the pandemic. We’ve all been sat inside glued to our phones which makes people ripe for online radicalization.”
Many public figures did vigorously push back against Musk’s grotesque tweet, recognizing the dangers of scapegoating minorities and how it often serves as a harbinger for a right-wing autocratic state. There has also been resistance to its dehumanizing nature. Astronaut Scott Kelly was one such figure to object. “Elon, please don’t mock and promote hate toward already marginalized and at-risk-of-violence members of the #LGBTQ+ community,” he tweeted. “They are real people with real feelings. Furthermore, Dr Fauci is a dedicated public servant whose sole motivation was saving lives.”
This only spurred Musk further, who responded by doubling down on his original tweet, perversely victimizing himself and other anti-trans cisgender individuals like him: “I strongly disagree,” Musk wrote. “Forcing your pronouns upon others when they didn’t ask, and implicitly ostracizing those who don’t, is neither good nor kind to anyone.” He went on to accuse Fauci of being responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Again, if you don’t take this seriously, perhaps pause to reflect on the fact that Kelly’s tweet had around 170,000 likes at the time of this article’s publication, while Musk’s reply had around 620,000.
I, myself, delayed coming out as trans and publicly changing my pronouns precisely because of the fear produced by this hostile climate in which trans people are both the punchline and the enemy. This is something I’ve written about before. Coming out was life-affirming but also unnecessarily frightening (and I say this from a position of extraordinary privilege; most trans people exist in far more hostile and frightening environments). Given the very difficult journey it’s been to arrive where I’m at today and how fundamental being recognized as trans is to my mental health, my stomach physically lurches every time I see pronouns being turned into a punchline.
So, Musk’s tweet is an assault at all levels. It is an assault on democratic values, which are seriously under threat. It is an assault on people like me. The consequences of Musk’s tweet and similar messaging are qualitative, which means they’re harder to quantify and therefore easier to overlook. But do not be fooled: If we normalize this, the cost to us all is enormous.