On Sunday afternoon, just days after the birth of his seventh child, the billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted to his audience of 34 million followers: “Take the red pill.” The term is popular in internet communities such as the alt-right and the manosphere, and refers to the scene in the film The Matrix in which the protagonist, Neo, is offered the choice between a blue pill that will allow him to remain safely deluded, or a red pill, which will allow him to discover the underlying truth about reality. The phrase has come to mean rejecting widely accepted truths — particularly those that relate to equality between races, genders and social groups — and choosing an alternative narrative about society. Such narratives lean, in many cases, towards racism, misogyny and other highly controversial beliefs. While this is not true of every single person who would consider themselves “redpilled”, the members of pretty much every alt-right group you might have heard of – incels, neo-Nazis, eco-fascists – will often consider themselves to have awakened in this way to their fringe theories and socially unacceptable beliefs.
For Musk’s followers, or indeed anyone aware of him, this tweet would have been little more than regular programming from an eccentric billionaire for whom unpredictability is an inextricable part of a valuable personal brand. Musk often tweets memes to garner a reaction online, although whether he does so ironically is not clear.
Just over an hour later, things got more interesting when Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump’s eldest daughter and confidant, quote-tweeted Musk with the word “Taken!” Within minutes, both Musk and Trump began trending globally on Twitter.
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) May 17, 2020
At the time of writing, the two tweets have over a cumulative 479,000 likes and 97,000 retweets. Roughly 30 minutes after Ivanka posted her quote tweet, Donald Trump Jr, President Trump’s eldest son, liked Musk’s tweet from his personal Twitter account. The rapid attention even spurred one of the writers and directors of The Matrix, Lilly Wachowski, to reply to Ivanka Trump: “Fuck both of you.” And with the tweet still up almost a day later, it’s safe to presume that it wasn’t a hack.
Ivanka Trump’s tweet suggests that the Trump children are familiar with, and perhaps sympathetic to, some of the more radical internet communities. This is not the first time the Trumps have employed the language of the alt-right – Donald Jr has liked and retweeted controversial internet figures such as Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones, while Eric Trump infamously used the anti-Semitic internet term “shekels” in an interview on Fox News. But that’s all it’s ever been: hints, clues that they’re frequenting particular subreddits and 4chan boards, where these people and the terms they use are popular.
This tweet from Ivanka Trump suggests something more profound is taking place, however. We no longer have to guess whether the Trump kids consider themselves “redpilled”; the president’s daughter has told us. In past presidencies, a story such as this would have become a scandal, but in this presidency such views may simply become policy. Ivanka and Eric Trump are rich kids with big Instagram followings, living in mansions and flying everywhere on private jets – but they’re also advisers to the president and representatives of the United States, attending world summits on the behalf of their father, not as businesspeople but in political roles. Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, is in charge of the Trump administration’s response to the global pandemic.
Ivanka Trump has been cast as a rare, level-headed voice operating in the White House. This tweet strongly suggests that she gets her opinions from teenage boys on 4chan. Her capacity to normalise dangerous, offensive and wilfully perverse ideologies should not be underestimated; simply by using their language, she takes what belongs on the murkier corners of the internet and gives it the presidential seal of approval.