In 2013, then-London mayor Boris Johnson described an Australian political trick which would come to be known as the dead cat strategy.
There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.
Johnson himself has used it many times when in self-inflicted political peril, but the most recent example of it was yesterday when it was deployed by Elon Musk to distract from news that under his leadership Twitter has lost $25 billion in value in just one year. His dead cat of choice, like that of many politicians, was anti-trans bigotry – and it worked. There’s much more discussion online of whether, as Musk claims (bizarrely), “cis is a heterosexual slur” than of Musk’s disastrous time in charge of the social network.
What he’s doing so transparently is the same thing the entire right wing media establishment, backed by conservative billionaires, has been doing with the entire anti-trans panic.
In many cases the people pushing anti-trans nonsense don’t necessarily believe it; it’s just convenient and when it stops working they’ll find another kind of cat to throw. But while I think this is absolutely a dead cat strategy, I also think that with Musk it’s coming from a more personal place: one of his children is trans and wants nothing to do with him. Which is worth bearing in mind whenever Apartheid Clyde, Space Karen, Poundland Iron Man or whatever else you’d like to call him embarks on another round of transphobia. He’s the trope made flesh of the racist, vaccine-denying, gammon-faced Fox News viewer furious that their kids don’t visit any more.
On a slightly related note, Musk also announced yesterday that he intends to turn Twitter/X into a dating app. Suggested names in my social media feeds so far include OKStupid, Plenty of Fash, OKKKupid and my own contribution, Fash-ly Madison.