The elusive politics of Elon Musk

Opinions poured in, 280 characters at a time, as to whether it was right or wrong that Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter for over $40 billion and take it private.

A person’s politics usually dictated how they felt: conservatives hailed it as a victory for free speech. Liberals feared misinformation would spread rampantly if Musk went ahead with his plan to dismantle how the social network monitors content.

But what no one seemed able to say for sure was what kind of political philosophy the enigmatic billionaire believed in.

That’s because Musk, 50, who was born in South Africa and only became a US citizen in 2002, voices views that don’t fit neatly into America’s binary left-right political framework.

He is frequently described as libertarian, although this label fails to capture how paradoxical and haphazard his politics can be. There is no shortage of opinions on the most relevant and contentious issues of the day, from COVID-19 lockdowns (“fascists,” he called them) to immigration restrictions (“strongly disagree “, he said.)

There’s not much consistency in the mix of his public statements or his abundant Twitter comments, except that they often align with his business interests. And despite the intense partisan backlash to his unsolicited bid to buy Twitter, his opaque politics make it hard to say whether the elation and fear over how he would run the company is warranted.

He has spoken out 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 vigorously opposed unionization, criticizing the administration of US President Joe Biden for offering a tax credit for electric vehicles produced by unionized workers.

He is the co-founder of an electric car maker, Tesla, who quit former President Donald Trump’s business boards after the administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord. But he has recently clashed with environmentalists for calling for an immediate increase in domestic oil and gas production, even if it would not help his electric car and solar energy businesses.

He is a strong supporter of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But he tried to force a journalist to testify in a defamation lawsuit against him, and he often had an overreaction to criticism. Four years ago, he launched a project to create a website to assess the credibility of journalists, calling it Pravda, in a bizarre nod to the Soviet Union’s propaganda publication. (Nothing 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 while living in California, the state he left for Texas because he said its business climate had become too inhospitable. He described himself as “politically moderate”, but added: “That does not mean that I am moderate on all issues”. He did not respond to a request for comment.

His concerns about how 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 police talk. A person who worked closely with Musk said Musk strongly believes that in a functioning democracy everyone has the right to say “any stupid thing you want.” The person, who spoke anonymously so as not to breach Musk’s trust, added dryly, “Which he does from time to time.”

If he took ownership of Twitter, Musk said he would scrap the content monitoring and censorship program. The curators were delighted. “Elon Musk seems to be our last hope,” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said.

Usually, with such outspoken and wealthy public figures, their political leanings are easy to discern because they are explained in campaign finance information. But Musk’s political donations pale in comparison to those of other billionaires like Charles Koch and Peter Thiel, whose donations have largely backed conservative Republicans, and George Soros, who has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to liberal causes. these last years.

Musk tends to donate only a few thousand dollars at a time — nothing like the tens of millions Thiel has donated this year to support candidates like JD Vance for the Ohio Senate, for example. And his donations are fairly evenly split between the candidates of the two political parties. He has donated to Democratic Party stalwarts, including Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. But he also cut checks to Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, and the Republican National Committee.

Here too, his actions seem to reflect the movements of someone who does not think ideologically but pragmatically. Many of his donations have been directed to politicians in states where Tesla has manufacturing operations like Texas and California. He gave to both Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, and California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.

Few issues have raised Elon Musk’s ire as much as the coronavirus restrictions, which have hampered Tesla’s manufacturing operations in California. | Reuters

Musk took issue when politicians tried to characterize his views as in line with theirs, insisting he’d rather leave politics to others, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary on Twitter. When Abbott last year defended a tough anti-abortion law that made the procedure virtually illegal in Texas by citing Musk’s support — “Elon constantly tells me he likes the social policies of the state of Texas,” he said. said the governor – Musk pushed back.

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

If so, he often seems unable to help himself. He heckles political figures who have taken a position with which he disagrees or who have apparently despised him. Musk’s response to Senator Elizabeth Warren after she said he would have to pay more income tax was, “Please don’t call the manager for me, Senator Karen.

After one of Musk’s Twitter fans pointed out that Biden didn’t congratulate SpaceX on a successful private spaceflight last fall, Musk fired back with a jab reminiscent of Trump’s derisive nickname “Sleepy Joe.” .

“He’s still sleeping,” he replied. Days later, he slammed the Biden administration as “not the friendliest” and accused it of being controlled by unions. The comments came just weeks after he insisted he preferred to stay out of politics.

Few issues have raised his ire as much as coronavirus restrictions, which have hampered Tesla’s manufacturing operations in California and brought him closer to his decision last year to move the company’s headquarters to Texas. This move, however, was very 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.

During the pandemic, Musk’s outbursts have erupted in spectacular fashion as he lashed out at state and local governments over stay-at-home orders. He first defied local regulations that shut down his Tesla factory in Fremont. He described the shutdowns as “forcibly trapping people in their homes” and posted a libertarian-tinged rallying cry on Twitter: “FREE AMERICA NOW.” He threatened to sue Alameda County over the closures before relenting.

In a fall 2020 interview with New York Times opinion columnist Kara Swisher, Musk expressed dismay at his belief that the pandemic had sparked irrational fears among many Americans. “It diminished my faith in humanity, all of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the nation’s nerves fray six months after an outbreak with no end in sight, social media companies have come under pressure to take more proactive steps to limit the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. and the presidential election on their platforms.

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

Many accounts spreading misinformation about COVID-19, 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 supporters to march on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, have been banned.

Supporters of the former president applauded his possible comeback on Twitter. A Republican congressman from Texas, Troy Nehls, tweeted: “Make Twitter Great Again”. For his part, Trump, who promotes his own social media company, Truth Social, said last week he didn’t think he would return.

“Twitter has become very boring. They got 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 non-sectarian political philosophy, some on the right were less optimistic. Ann Coulter, a frequent Twitter presence, said the billionaire entrepreneur struck her as “mostly apolitical” and “mostly self-promoting”.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2022 The New York Times Company

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