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The elusive politics of Elon Musk

The assembly line at Tesla's factory in Fremont, California.
The assembly line at Tesla's factory in Fremont, California.

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 a 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 country’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.)

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 unionisation, criticising 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 cancelling 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.”

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 non-denominational 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.”

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