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The elusive politics of Elon Musk

Musk has objected when politicians have tried to characterize his views as in sync with their own, insisting that he would rather leave politics to others, despite ample evidence on Twitter to the contrary.

April 17, 2022 / 11:27 AM IST
Tesla chief Elon Musk launched a hostile takeover effort for Twitter

Tesla chief Elon Musk launched a hostile takeover effort for Twitter

The opinions poured in, 280 characters at a time, as to whether it was good or bad that Elon Musk had offered to buy Twitter for more than $40 billion and take it private.

A person’s politics typically dictated how they felt: Conservatives cheered it as victory for free speech. Liberals fretted that misinformation would spread rampantly if Musk followed through with his plan to dismantle how the social network monitors content.

But what no one seemed to be able to say with any certainty was what kind of political philosophy the enigmatic billionaire believes himself.

That’s because Musk, 50, who was born in South Africa and only became an American citizen in 2002, expresses views that don’t fit neatly into this county’s binary, left-right political framework.

He is frequently described as libertarian, although that label fails to capture how paradoxical and random his politics can be. He has no shortage of opinions on the most pertinent and divisive issues of the day, from COVID-19 lockdowns (“fascist,” he called them) to immigration restrictions (“Very much disagree,” he has said.)

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There is not much consistency in the miscellany of his public statements or his profuse Twitter commentary — except that they often align with his business interests. And despite the intense partisan reaction to his unsolicited bid to buy Twitter, his opaque politics make it difficult to say whether the elation and fear about how he would run the company are justified.

He has railed against federal subsidies, but his companies have benefited from billions of dollars in tax breaks and other incentives from federal, state and local governments. He has strenuously opposed unionization, criticizing the Biden administration for proposing a tax credit for electric vehicles produced by union workers.

He is the co-founder of an electric car manufacturer, Tesla, who quit former President Donald Trump’s business councils after the administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord. But he recently ran afoul of environmentalists for calling for an immediate increase in domestic oil and gas production, although it would not be helpful to his businesses in electric cars and solar energy.

He is an avowed enthusiast for the First Amendment. But he tried to force a journalist to testify in a defamation lawsuit against him, and he has often had outsize reactions to criticism.

Four years ago, he floated a plan to create a website to rate the credibility of reporters, calling it Pravda, in an odd nod to the Soviet Union’s propaganda publication. (Nothing much came of it.) And a venture capitalist wrote at length about Musk canceling his order for a new Tesla after the investor complained about a Tesla event.

Musk said he was a registered independent when he lived in California, the state he famously and loudly left for Texas because he said its business climate had grown too inhospitable. He has described himself as “politically moderate” but added, “Doesn’t mean I’m moderate about all issues.” He did not respond to a request for comment.

His concerns about the way Twitter censors content echo those of conservative activists and politicians who have argued that social media companies are poor arbiters of truth and should not be engaged in policing speech.

One person who has worked closely with Musk said that it is Musk’s firmly held belief that in a functioning democracy, it is anyone’s right to say “whatever stupid thing you want.” This person, who spoke anonymously to not violate Musk’s trust, added dryly, “Which he occasionally does.”

If he were to become Twitter’s owner, Musk said he would scrap the program of content monitoring and censoring. Conservatives were elated. “Elon Musk seems to be our last hope,” declared Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

Ordinarily, with public figures so outspoken and wealthy, their political leanings are easy to discern because they are explained in campaign finance disclosures. But Musk’s political giving is paltry compared with that of other billionaires like Charles Koch and Peter Thiel, whose donations have largely supported conservative Republicans, and George Soros, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to liberal causes in recent years.

Musk tends to give only a few thousand dollars at a time — nothing like the tens of millions that Thiel has given this year to support candidates like J.D. Vance for Senate in Ohio, for instance. And his giving is fairly evenly distributed to candidates in both political parties.

He has donated to stalwarts in the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. But he has also cut checks to Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, and to the Republican National Committee.

Here, too, his actions appear to reflect the moves of someone who is not thinking ideologically but pragmatically. Many of his donations were funneled to politicians in states where Tesla has manufacturing operations like Texas and California. He has given to both Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.

Musk has objected when politicians have tried to characterize his views as in sync with their own, insisting that he would rather leave politics to others, despite ample evidence on Twitter to the contrary.

When Abbott last year defended a strict anti-abortion law that made the procedure virtually illegal in Texas by citing Musk’s support — “Elon consistently tells me that he likes the social policies in the state of Texas,” the governor said — Musk pushed back.

“In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness,” he responded on Twitter. “That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics.”

If that is the case, he often can’t seem to help himself. He heckles political figures who have taken a position he disagrees with or who have seemingly slighted him. Musk’s response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren after she said that he should pay more in income taxes was, “Please don’t call the manager on me, Senator Karen.”

After one of Musk’s Twitter fans pointed out that President Joe Biden had not congratulated SpaceX for the successful completion of a private spaceflight last fall, Musk hit back with a jab reminiscent of Trump’s derisive nickname “Sleepy Joe.”

“He’s still sleeping,” he replied. Several days later, he criticized the Biden administration as “not the friendliest” and accused it of being controlled by labor unions. These comments came just a few weeks after his insistence that he preferred to stay out of politics.

Few issues have raised his ire as much as the coronavirus restrictions, which impeded Tesla’s manufacturing operations in California and nudged him closer to his decision last year to move the company’s headquarters to Texas. That move, however, was very much symbolic since Tesla still has its main manufacturing plant in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Fremont, California, and a large office in Palo Alto.

Over the course of the pandemic, Musk’s outbursts flared dramatically as he lashed out at state and local governments over stay-at-home orders. He initially defied local regulations that shut down his Tesla factory in Fremont. He described the lockdowns as “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes” and posted a libertarian-tinged rallying cry to Twitter: “FREE AMERICA NOW.” He threatened to sue Alameda County for the shutdowns before relenting.

In an interview in the fall of 2020 with The New York Times’ contributing Opinion writer Kara Swisher, Musk expressed dismay over his belief that the pandemic had brought out irrational fears in many Americans. “It has diminished my faith in humanity, this whole thing,” he said.

At the same time, as the country’s nerves were fraying six months into an outbreak with no end in sight, social media companies came under pressure to take more proactive steps to limit the spread of false information about COVID-19 and the presidential election on their platforms.

And when new content moderation policies after the 2020 election began to affect users on Twitter — where Musk has 82 million followers — he sided with many conservatives and allies of the former president who accused the social media company of arbitrary censorship.

Many accounts that spread disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines and voter fraud have been suspended or shut down. People like Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who denied the Sandy Hook massacre, and Trump, who used Twitter to rally his followers to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6, have been banned.

Supporters of the former president cheered his possible return to Twitter. A Republican congressman from Texas, Troy Nehls, tweeted, “Make Twitter Great Again.” For his part, Trump, who is promoting his own social media venture, Truth Social, said last week that he doesn’t think he will come back.

“Twitter’s become very boring. They’ve gotten rid of a lot of their good voices,” he complained in an interview on Americano Media, a Spanish language network.

But given Musk’s largely nondenominational political philosophy, some on the right were less sanguine. Ann Coulter, a frequent presence on Twitter, said that the billionaire entrepreneur struck her as “mostly apolitical” and “mostly about promoting himself.”

 

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
New York Times
first published: Apr 17, 2022 11:27 am
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