Elon Musk's exploding rocket offers a superb symbol of MAGA's current fortunes

Elon Musk's faceplants, Tucker Carlson's firing, and Trump's zombie campaign: MAGA Part II is failing to take off

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 26, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson | SpaceX Explosion (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson | SpaceX Explosion (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It's fitting that Tucker Carlson's last big-time interview was with Tesla CEO-turned-alt-right-troll Elon Musk. Fox News heavily hyped the dialogue, which was broadcast over two nights, as if were a historical summit between two towering figures. The MAGA viewership was whipped into a frenzy of celebration, made to believe this was a big moment for their movement on its inevitable conquest of the United States. 

Things did not turn out as planned.

Oh, Musk and Carlson tried their best to trigger the liberals. They made a play for the Jordan Peterson fanboy crowd with faux intellectual discourse about how birth control means "civilization's going to crumble." (Not that Salon readers doubt it, but the overwhelming evidence shows the opposite is true.) The trolling, however, was underwhelming. Worse, it was quickly overshadowed by Musk suffering two massive failures in highly public ways. 

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Right after the limp Fox News interview, Musk quite literally blew up a rocket ship. His much-touted company SpaceX had its first scheduled rocket launch on Thursday, but rather than take flight, the supposedly "most powerful rocket ever built" blew up before achieving stage separation, covering the area in brown grime, threatening wildlife, and crushing at least one car. The Federal Aviation Administration soon stepped in and grounded SpaceX while it investigates, which will last months at a minimum.

Two massive flops make Musk the face of the MAGA movement's mood at this point in time.

This was swiftly followed by another, less literal implosion at Twitter, which Musk way overpaid for when he purchased it in a fit of pique last year. Musk's "brilliant" plan to make money at the social media behemoth was to start charging for the blue checkmarks that had previously only been available, for free, for people who could meet strict verification standards. But while Musk fanboys and right-wing dorks signed up to get the badges, most prominent people and celebrities took to Twitter to declare how much they weren't going to pay for it. "Elon Musk Turned the Blue Check Mark Into a Scarlet Letter," proclaimed the headline at Slate

Musk has spent the past year or so trying to make himself into a recognizable avatar of the MAGA movement, mostly through half-baked provocations and restoring the Twitter accounts of repugnant fascists. In a monkey's paw moment, he's finally gotten his wish: Two massive flops make him the face of the MAGA movement's mood at this point in time. The redhats keep thinking they're going to have a big comeback, but instead, it's just one faceplant after another. 

One has to wonder if Carlson feels like he cursed himself for aligning himself with Musk in such a showy manner. His ouster from Fox was so sudden that he was reportedly only told minutes before it was publicly announced. The ease with which he was tossed out suggests that, despite Carlson's top ratings at the network, Fox executives see nothing special about Carlson's bad faith diatribes ripped directly off whatever the neo-Nazis talk about in the darkest corners of the web. 

There was much rending of garments in far-right circles about Carlson's firing. This is likely not because they actually think that Carlson is "a once-in-a-generation-type talent," as Donald Trump Jr. laughably argued. It's because the dispensing of Carlson likely reads to them as a larger portend for their movement. Carlson was supposed to be this great recruiting force for the far-right. If he's so easy for Fox to throw away, however, he can't be that great at getting new people into the MAGA fold. 

As Greg Sargent at the Washington Post wrote, Carlson's firing is "the latest chapter in the tale of the Incredible Shrinking MAGA." He points out that Carlson's repeated efforts to rewrite the history of the January 6 insurrection never had traction outside of his already existing audience of conspiracy theorists. Instead, polling and election outcomes show that most Americans have a firm grasp on how terrible MAGA is, and are determined to keep voting against them until they're gone. 

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On MSNBC Monday night, Rachel Maddow put this into a larger context, noting that Carlson's predecessors, from the fascist Father Charles Coughlin of the 1930s to Rush Limbaugh in the 90s, may build large audiences among people who already agree with them, but struggle to do much beyond that. "Dominance inside far-right media doesn't turn into dominance anywhere else," she notes. Carlson and figures like him have been successful at pushing the Republican Party further right, she argued, but that has only served to make the GOP less popular. 

DeSantis is just an extreme version of the same problem facing Carlson, Musk and even Trump: They have niche appeal to fascists and authoritarians, but most people find them repugnant.

No doubt reports that Donald Trump was rattled by Carlson's firing are accurate enough, but not because Trump cares about the Fox host who called him a "demonic force" in private. It's that Carlson's canning doesn't bode well for Trump's future. Like Carlson, Trump is quite popular within the MAGA world, but they are a minority of voters, and a shrinking one at that. That means Trump may be a cinch for the GOP nomination, but faces fairly steep odds against a general electorate that does not like the far-right extremism. Our electoral college system is so tilted it's possible Trump could win, of course, so complacency is not the answer. But when more voters think you belong in prison than in the White House, that's not a great foundation for a successful presidential run. 

Things are looking so bleak for Republicans on that front that the excuse-making for a lost 2024 election has already begun. Ingrid Jacques, a conservative columnist for USA Today, wrote a cranky op-ed Tuesday morning complaining about Trump's steep chances in 2024 and trying to blame Democrats because he's almost certain to be the GOP nominee. 

The Democratic Party "will do everything in its power to make sure" Trump is the nominee, she warns. The problem with her argument is that the amount of power Democrats wield in a Republican primary lands somewhere between "nil" and "nothing." But so desperate is Jacques to deflect blame that she fantasizes that Democrats will fund some massive advertising blitz that will somehow cinch the nomination for Trump. This is delusional to the point of election denialism.

There's no reason to think Democrats have such a plan, and even less to think it matters. The reason Trump is a shoo-in for the Republican nomination is that he's the first pick of GOP voters. Trump's closest challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, did okay in the polls for a while. But now that voters finally have a chance to hear his whiny voice and see videos showing he's got a weird affect, he's losing steam. So much so that he pretended to reporters that it was preposterous to believe he even intended to run in the first place. 

Watching that video, it's hard not to see why his numbers are tumbling. DeSantis is just an extreme version of the same problem facing Carlson, Musk and even Trump: They have niche appeal to fascists and authoritarians, but most people find them repugnant. Indeed, the more people see of any of these men, the more grossed out they become. Like Musk's rocket, MAGA makes a lot of noise and sends up a lot of smoke, but when it tries to get off the ground, it discovers gravity still matters. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Elon Musk Ron Desantis Spacex Tucker Carlson