Elon Musk is not a dumb guy. However hands-on he might or might not be as SpaceX’s “chief engineer,” the man knows enough about rockets to revolutionize commercial spaceflight, enough about batteries and materials science to revolutionize the electric vehicle industry, and enough about markets to earn the title of “world’s richest man” in doing both.
But he’s kind of a “dumb guy,” insomuch as he constantly does “dumb guy things”: performatively smoking a joint on Joe Rogan’s podcast; getting into a pointless, ad hominem Twitter fight (and eventual lawsuit) with a British cave explorer; and prolifically sharing juvenile, sub-chain-email quality memes. A decade ago, this didn’t really matter unless you were heavily invested in one of Musk’s many companies, or part of his then-nascent cult of personality. Figures like him existed mostly in an ideological vacuum, affecting a sort of faux-philosophical, dorm-room-stoner “I’m-not-into-politics” stance that limited their impact on American cultural and political life in general.
Things have changed. In a manner that was almost touchingly naïve in how personal — and transactional — it was, Musk tweeted a few weeks ago that “given unprovoked attacks by leading Democrats against me & a very cold shoulder to Tesla & SpaceX, I intend to vote Republican in November.” His political donations over the past several years have trended from majority-blue, to mixed, to almost entirely Republicans. He’s promised that if his bid to purchase Twitter is successful, he’ll bring former President Donald Trump back to the platform, a decision he says he’s made on the non-ideological grounds of “free speech” but which has an obvious partisan valence.
The white-hot hatred of many liberals toward Musk was always sort of silly, given that he might be the single most important individual driver of commercial renewable energy tech in the world. Now, it makes more sense. “Wealthy zillionaire entrepreneur becomes a Republican” isn’t shocking news. But Musk is sui generis; his publicly expressed opinions on specific issues have been all over the map. Examining his conversion more closely can teach us as much about how our politics and culture have shifted over the past decade as it can about his own frequently baffling mind.
To begin to understand that shift, we need to talk about free speech. Or rather, “free speech” as usually conceived of today — which is to say, social media moderation.
In a somewhat awkwardly worded tweet, Musk recently described Democrats as “the kindness party” that has now become “the party of division & hate.” Whatever he meant by that, there’s one thing the Democratic Party clearly has become: The party of the mods. As social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become the de facto public square over the past decade, liberals have been outspoken about the necessity for those platforms to remove extremist and misleading content, inspiring a lucrative new industry meant to combat internet-driven “misinformation.”
Of which there is, of course, plenty, and equally plenty mountains of evidence that conservatives are more likely to concoct and share it — hence the liberal appetite for moderation. (In fairness, liberals haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in policing this information landscape, most notably in pushing for the censorship of legitimate stories about the incriminating content of Hunter Biden’s laptop.) The key to understanding Musk’s “free speech” crusade is to understand that for a large number of Americans, the actual substance or direction of that censorship is mostly irrelevant (except, of course, when it happens to overlap with your newfound ideological beliefs).
There are a slew of reasons why “free speech” has become a right-wing-coded political value, including progressive-driven changes in social norms around personal identity. But more important here is the basic principle of non-interference — what former Twitter Vice President Tony Wang meant when he once referred to Twitter as the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” To Silicon Valley-native quasi-libertarians like Musk, moderation is a break-in-case-of-glass emergency tactic if it’s to be used at all.
In this view, the internet is an oasis of humanity in its vast, uncontrollable wooliness, allowed unlimited freedom of expression contra the institutions that govern our real lives. That was once a techno-utopian, vaguely liberal-coded idea; now it’s one that squarely appeals to, and largely benefits, due to the effects of social media algorithms, the right. (Although for hardcore activists, of course, that commitment to free speech can always be conveniently discarded in service of waging the culture war.)
Another major shift that clarifies Musk’s about-face is the Republican Party’s changing attitude toward business. At least for now, the Mitt Romney presidential candidacy was the last gasp of the staunchly laissez-faire, invariably pro-business GOP. Trump’s willingness to reward his friends and punish his political foes in the corporate world, like in the high-profile case of a Carrier plant in Indiana from early in his presidency, was one of his signature contributions to the new Republican Party, inspiring would-be heirs like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his crusade against anti-American purveyors of degeneracy like… Disney World, or a Major League Baseball team.
In a certain light, one might look at that use of government power to censure businesses for their political stances as, well, a free speech issue, much like the aforementioned book-banning. But given Musk’s newfound political affiliation, it’s incredibly easy to imagine him forgiving a figure like, say, Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott, after he would theoretically expand local carve-outs for SpaceX in Texas as a salute to the billionaire’s achievements in owning the libs.
It was always somewhat foolish for liberals to so fervently antagonize Musk given his environmentalist bona fides, including, it should be remembered, dinging Trump himself for his appointment of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State; Musk and those to his left have a theoretical common enemy in the decidedly clean energy-hostile Republican Party. But the simultaneous transformation of Democrats into the pro-moderation party and Republicans into the party of old-school, Huey Long-style patronage means it’s paradoxically almost impossible for Musk to find common cause with the former. Both are at their heart media-driven, culture-war related phenomena, divorcing the actual environmental impact of Musk’s work even further from the place he holds in American society.
Another bit of poor timing for Musk’s split with the Democratic Party tracks with his evolution from an Edisonian technologist and occasional cultural gadfly into a more direct, Fordist political force. Henry Ford was an infamously hyperactive and reckless political actor, as well as a Nazi sympathizer to boot. Musk, to be very clear, is no such thing, but the two men share the same rare, outsize status as prime movers at a global scale, as best represented in Musk’s case by his still-tentative purchase of Twitter.
All of which, if you’re a liberal, you might look at and say: So what? To paraphrase a wise elder-millennial icon, Musk has the plant, but we have the power. And furthermore, despite his overarching environmentalism, Musk has done plenty to shred his viability as a liberal ally, from questionable labor practices at Tesla to his, shall we say, retrograde cultural views. In that light having one fewer airheaded billionaire on Team Blue is simply more proof of the party’s identification with minorities and America’s beleaguered working class.
The problem ultimately has less to do with Musk himself than his function as a cultural bellwether. To look at his long and contradictory track record of political statements, one can venture to say that his ideological commitments are shallow, to say the least. Which surely in no small part endears him to his legions of fans and followers — according to YouGov, Musk is the 25th most popular figure in America; predictably, he enjoys 13 points of favorability more with men than with women.
In a country where politics increasingly breaks down by lines of education and cultural attitudes rather than traditional indicators like class or family ties, Musk is the high-profile avatar of the exact kind of ideologically agnostic, anti-PC, notionally Rogan-enjoying middle American who would at one time have balked at identifying too strongly with either party. (To many of them, the “dumb guy things” as described at the top of this essay aren’t dumb guy things at all, but badass, iconoclastic antics.) There are a lot of these voters, and although they might in their heart identify more with one major party or the other, they have unpredictable, cross-pressured views on hot-button political topics like abortion, marijuana legalization or immigration.
Democrats shouldn’t, and don’t, have to grovel for Elon Musk’s goodwill or political affiliation. But it’s worth considering why, in a political era where the salience of speech and cultural issues have been massively elevated, they’ve lost such a powerful and influential figure who would otherwise be aligned with their policy goals — and one who shares a somewhat inscrutable, yet seemingly persuadable outlook with the kind of Americans with whom they’re losing ground.
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