A decade ago, Elon Musk was an object of contempt for conservatives. Tesla was “a prodigious harvester of government favors and handouts,” complained Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. During a presidential debate, Mitt Romney mocked President Obama for giving a tax break to Musk’s “loser” company. “You put $90 billion — like 50 years’ worth of breaks — into solar and wind to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said, ‘You don’t just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers.’”
Musk has refashioned himself into a conservative idol, strategically leaking selected Twitter communications to sympathetic journalists and spraying out a series of right-wing talking points, from accusing Paul Pelosi of lying about the attack that hospitalized him to ranting about the “woke mind virus.” By October, he had secured a place in the pantheon of conservative heroes so rarefied that the House Judiciary Committee tweeted in adulation, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.”
But this past weekend, Musk’s peripatetic communications wandered into awkward territory. Musk began demanding that Anthony Fauci be prosecuted, claiming the infectious-diseases expert “funded gain-of-function research that killed millions of people.” Here, Musk inadvertently exposed a gaping contradiction between his newfound status as Republican culture warrior and his longtime (and very much extant) practice of lauding the Chinese Communist Party.
The idea Musk is gesturing toward as his pretext for prosecuting Fauci is the theory that COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory leak in Wuhan. That theory is unproven but perfectly plausible. (The Biden administration’s intelligence review of the virus’s origins remains inconclusive.) The right-wing version of this idea spins off into insanity by further proposing that Fauci is to blame for faulty lab protocols in China and deserves to be in prison, an impulse that is consistent with Republicans’ mania for locking up their hate objects but totally unjustified by any normal interpretation of the law.
The key thing to understand about Fauci’s supposed criminality is that it is premised on him being an accomplice to Chinese crimes of a much higher magnitude. And when conservatives expound upon their theories about gain-of-function research, they generally link Fauci with the Chinese government, attacking both. Indeed, the whole reason Republicans are obsessed with this topic is to justify Donald Trump’s efforts to brand COVID the “China virus” and blame that country for the pandemic, absolving himself for his inept and dishonest response.
But Musk, unlike his conservative allies, does not blame China for the (potential) lab leak. The Musk version of this theory seems to imagine that Fauci funded research somewhere — Musk does not even identify the country where the lab was located — and single-handedly let the virus slip out.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to grasp why Musk has developed this idiosyncratically China-free version of the lab-leak theory. Tesla’s largest factory is located in China, and his car business requires cooperation from that country’s government. The Chinese Communist Party is notoriously rigid about policing the speech habits of any businesses it permits to operate.
Musk, accordingly, has reliably toed the Communist Party line. He has proposed that China be handed control of Taiwan. He has praised the Communist regime as superior to American democracy: “China rocks in my opinion. The energy in China is great. People there — there’s, like, a lot of smart, hardworking people. And they’re really — they’re not entitled; they’re not complacent. Whereas I see in the United States increasingly much more complacency and entitlement, especially in places like the Bay Area and L.A. and New York.” Before his Twitter feed became a Tucker Carlson knockoff, it was a conduit for Chinese Communist Party propaganda:
Musk’s need to stay in Beijing’s good graces puts him in a tricky spot. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have recently unified around a nationalist economic response to China, enacting a combination of subsidies and controls to onshore strategically important production and push back on China’s global influence. “Musk faces the possibility that eventually Washington could erect hurdles that will obstruct his China plans,” noted Michael Schuman.
As Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, Musk’s ownership of Twitter poses an especially stark national security risk. China has a track record of pressuring firms it deals with to censor criticism of its government. Musk’s evident subservience to — or, at least, refusal to contradict — the Chinese Communist Party line raises the obvious risk that he would give China leverage over Twitter’s content-moderation regime.
Conservatives don’t seem to care about any of this as long as Musk is owning the libs. If you wish to credit Musk with strategic forethought, this is exactly the point: He is buying right-wing support on the cheap with some shitposting and unbanning a handful of right-wing trolls, thus neutralizing a potentially huge threat to his much larger automobile business.
If you think he’s just a red-pilled billionaire, he has wandered conveniently into a stance that makes no sense. He believes Fauci caused the pandemic by funding researchers who share none of his guilt. He thinks the “woke mind virus” might destroy civilization but that Chinese communism is an admirable model. Musk is at worst a cynical tool of authoritarianism and at best an idiot savant. Either way, the conservative celebration of his newfound persona — and total refusal to question his curious blind spot for the CCP — reveals a complete lack of principle.