Once again, Elon Musk kicked up a news cycle after declaring that he felt “super bad” about the economy and would cut 10 percent of the workforce at Tesla, the electric carmaker he owns. Joe Biden, inevitably, had to respond. Musk did not elaborate on his feelings — he’s not the sort for astute analysis or introspection — and he eventually backtracked on the vow to slash jobs. This came just as he had already ignited another media firestorm by telling his workers he could terminate workers who didn’t return to the office 40 hours a week.
It was all very exhausting and quite typical. Musk, who has attempted (or not really attempted) to spend an absurd amount of money to buy Twitter, had commandeered the spotlight for himself with stray pronouncements and gestures, infuriating many of his observers, much of them on the left who reside on Twitter no less. One of the great favors left-liberals and Democratic Party activists could do for themselves is to think less about him. Ire should be focused instead on the billionaires actually causing substantial damage to the nation.
Attention and outrage are not exactly zero sum, but they are somewhat close; energy and scrutiny reserved for Musk can mean far less for the more dangerous American oligarchs. Jeff Bezos’s Amazon is attempting to crush unions wherever they might breathe. The Koch family remains one of the greatest obstacles to combating climate change worldwide. Ken Griffin underwrites numerous right-wing causes at a degree far beyond whatever Musk can try to do. Even Bill Gates, now somewhat beloved by liberals, cut his teeth as a ruthless monopolist and now fuels the creeping privatization of American public schools.
The Gates example is instructive. One of Musk’s recent controversies concerned an incredibly vulgar and sophomoric tweet about Gates. In such a clash, it is easy to view Gates with sympathy as the benevolent ideal of what a billionaire should be: refined, genteel, seemingly committed to the public good. For much of the left, the Gates aesthetic is much more acceptable. He does not behave like a classic internet troll as Musk does. The mere difference between Musk, of course, and your run-of-the-mill troll is almost 100 million Twitter followers.
Such global fame hasn’t altered Musk’s behavior. He embodies a certain kind of early-21st-century internet culture that won’t quite die. The brash, misogynistic keyboard warrior has his patron saint in Musk. On certain issues, he’s been in lockstep with conservatives, including downplaying COVID-19 entirely. His bid to take control of Twitter, liberals fear, would unleash new waves of misinformation and allow banished conservatives to return to the platform, including Donald Trump. Yet Musk’s politics are not extraordinary for a man of his class. His businesses, relative to those of others who occupy his tax bracket, are fairly benign. Yes, SpaceX is doing what NASA should be doing and there are looming concerns about the privatization of space. We’d all be better off driving Teslas instead of gas-guzzlers if the automobiles ever became affordable for working-class people. The initial source of Musk’s wealth, spinning off PayPal to eBay, would be a forgettable transaction of the dot-com era if it hadn’t led to the creation of the Musk that grates today.
Is Musk wrecking the American political system? No. The closest he came, perhaps, was in purchasing Twitter, but few made the cogent case for why Musk’s takeover of one social-media platform used by relatively few Americans would pose a threat to democracy or even how we conduct our discourse already. Twitter matters only because a large number of influential people — academics, activists, journalists, and certain celebrities — congregate there. Musk, not surprisingly, never articulated a serious vision for the company. And if he delivered on what liberals most feared — reinstating Trump—it’s unclear how this would have altered a political firmament where right-wing Republicans are poised to make huge gains this year in Congress anyway. The Trump wing of the GOP has certainly not diminished since his 2021 banishment from Twitter.
As the Musk black hole consumes every inch of column space left, men like Griffin, the Chicago hedge-fund manager, are actually pumping millions into the resurrection of the Trump-led Republican Party. Griffin gave more than $28 million to Republicans in 2021, outstripping any single GOP donor. He gave $5 million to Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s PAC. He funneled $11 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund and $5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund. In Illinois, Griffin is expected to unload millions in the attempt to defeat the center-left Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, a fellow billionaire.
Griffin is not logging any hours on Twitter or making ugly jokes at the expense of Gates. He is surgically plowing his personal fortune into the Republican Party in a bid to support regressive taxation, lax environmental regulations, and the classic suite of conservative elite causes. Musk favors much of this, but he is not so focused or invested. He’d rather pop off and move on.
In one sense, Musk offers cover for the billionaires actually spending enormous sums to influence federal policy. If Democratic heat comes against him, there’s less of it to go elsewhere. More average voters and pundits are outraged at the stray Musk tweet than Gates’s belief that vaccine formulas shouldn’t be shared with the developing world. Musk is an easy mark, and he seems to like it this way. Like a professional wrestler, he revels in his heel status. This doesn’t mean, however, the left should give him what he wants. Heels are nothing without an audience.