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Elon Musk’s Politics Are About As Complicated As Trump’s

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Elon Musk believes that a “woke mind virus” has infected the body politic. He thinks that COVID containment policies were “fascist,” that the New York Times is a “lobbying firm for far left politicians,” that trans people asking others to use their preferred pronouns is “neither good nor kind,” and that Anthony Fauci should be prosecuted. He encouraged his followers to vote Republican in this year’s midterms and has endorsed Ron DeSantis for president in 2024.

Yet he “continues to defy easy political categorization.” Or so the New York Times reports.

The paper published this assessment in a “news analysis” (a fancy name for a tendentious opinion piece that lacks any normative content) by Jeremy Peters. Headlined “Critics Say Musk Has Revealed Himself As a Conservative. It’s Not So Simple,” the piece seems to exist primarily to defend the honor of a previous Peters dispatch; last April, the reporter declared that Musk’s politics were “elusive” and did not “fit neatly into this country’s binary, left-right political framework.” It may seem like this take has aged as poorly as Tesla’s stock over the past nine months. But in reality, Peters reports, he is actually still right.

Peters is not alone in characterizing Musk as “a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies” whose politics are “tricky to pin down.” Several other reporters have puzzled over Musk’s apparent transformation from politically taciturn Obama donor to compulsive sharer of cringe-inducing conservative memes. Musk himself maintains that his politics are “neither conventionally right nor left.”

Nevertheless, neither Musk’s political trajectory nor his present orientation seem all that difficult to comprehend or categorize. Musk is not only an identifiable political type but a familiar one. In many respects, he is a conservative in the mold of Donald Trump.

American liberalism is multifaceted. It has a welfarist component (which aims to shave the hard edges off the market economy by financing social insurance through progressive taxation), a pro-labor aspect (which aims to mitigate the power imbalance between workers and owners), a social-justice element (which aims to equalize the social status of marginalized groups), and a developmentalist ethos (which aims to promote economic modernization through public investment and subsidies to private industry).

This last dimension drew both Trump and Musk into the Democratic orbit in the early chapters of their careers. In the Reaganite 1980s, real estate was one of the few industries to maintain strong support for the Democratic Party, as the political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers documented. This was partly because Democrats retained political dominance in the major cities where development promised the highest returns. But it was also because urban developers like Trump stood to benefit from federal investment in cities and mass transit, which would increase the valuation of their properties. As a result, Trump bankrolled many Democratic politicians and maintained warm relations with liberal power brokers before his entrance into conservative politics.

Musk also benefited greatly from liberalism’s interest in guiding economic development. The Democratic Party has long been committed to expediting the maturation of the electric vehicle and renewable-energy sectors through public subsidies. And that made Tesla’s rise possible. As of 2012, conservatives were deriding Musk’s company as “a prodigious harvester of government favors and handouts,” while the GOP’s presidential nominee was deriding Tesla as a bad investment on national television. It is therefore unsurprising that Musk was a Democratic voter in the Obama era, one whose political donations tilted left.

If Musk and Trump appreciated liberalism’s commitment to public investments that aided their private interests, however, they had less enthusiasm for the creed’s other components. Neither mogul has much fondness for progressive taxation or workers’ rights. For decades, Trump was one of our nation’s most creative tax avoiders and wage thieves.

Musk, meanwhile, illegally fired a Tesla worker who was trying to organize a union, and discouraged other workers from organizing over Twitter in 2018. He has also voiced a preference for “small government,” and has reacted hostilely to proposals for raising top tax rates. When Elizabeth Warren called for fixing the “rigged tax code” so that Musk would “actually pay taxes” in 2021, the Tesla CEO indignantly replied that he had paid “​​more taxes than any American in history this year.” He then added, “Don’t spend it all at once … oh wait you did already,” apparently conveying his low opinion of the American Rescue Plan’s transfer payments.

But one’s politics are rarely determined by material interests alone. And Trump and Musk are not merely businessmen who desire public subsidies, low taxes, and docile workers. They are also, by all appearances, thin-skinned narcissists with insatiable appetites for attention and public adoration.

Here, I admit, I’m veering into the inherently speculative terrain of long-distance psychology. Yet it seems uncontroversial to say that both Musk and Trump harbor grandiose conceptions of their personal significance (the former openly styles himself as the human species’ would-be savior, the latter as the greatest president in American history), suffer from compulsive and often self-destructive social-media addictions, and do not take kindly to perceived slights. Now, if you are a white male billionaire with a taste for womanizing and longing for plaudits on social media, then you’re bound to experience social-justice politics as a problem. In its emphasis on the unearned advantages that accrue to individuals with Trump’s and Musk’s phenotypes and class backgrounds, and its broader insistence on the centrality of luck to success in the marketplace, contemporary liberalism is an unfavorable ideology for rich white businessmen who wish for their net worth to be read as gauges of their brilliance and social value.

It’s unclear exactly why Trump made the transition from nonpartisan reactionary libertine to conservative demagogue during the early Obama years. But there’s reason to think he was radicalized in the same way that many other graying boomers were; namely, by offsetting the heightened social isolation of old age with compulsive spectatorship of Fox News. In any event, once Trump developed an interest in joining a community of cable-news obsessives — and specifically, one in which he would be recognized as a great businessman and commentator — he could only find what he was looking for on the right. Given the mogul’s inveterate political incorrectness, and his serial business failures, he was never going to enjoy a fawning reception in blue America. The right, on the other hand, does not demand propriety from its pundits or genuine business acumen from its star entrepreneurs (since mainstream media documentation of the latter’s failures can be summarily dismissed).

In short, Trump found that he could give the conservative base what it wanted (e.g., racist conspiracy theories about Barack Obama) and that it could give him what he wanted (unqualified admiration). This led Trump to spend more and more time in the right-wing-media ecosystem. And as he did, he came to share its preoccupations, resentments, and truth claims.

A similar process seems to have sped Musk’s path to conservatism. Granted, the billionaire’s rightward turn can be partly ascribed to contingent events. The pandemic heightened the contradictions between Musk’s business interests and liberal governance. Tesla’s CEO was an adamant opponent of COVID containment policies, who predicted in March 2020 that there would be “close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.” He therefore did not take kindly to California’s relatively heavy-handed approach to the pandemic, which involved shutting down production at Tesla’s factory in Fremont. Musk derided these policies as “fascist” and threatened to relocate his company to Texas to escape them.

Of course, any compulsive Twitter user who took this point of view in 2020 was liable to earn applause from the right and jeers from the left. And over the ensuing two years, Musk found himself attracting slights from liberals on several other fronts.

In August 2021, the Biden administration convened a summit on electric vehicles and declined to send Tesla an invitation. At a tech conference the following month, Musk complained that Biden “didn’t mention Tesla once and praised GM and Ford for leading the EV revolution. Does that sound maybe a little biased?” before adding, “Not the friendliest administration, seems to be controlled by unions.” Shortly thereafter, Warren published her call for hiking Musk’s income taxes, so that he would stop “freeloading off everyone else.”

In March of this year, Musk found himself once again deprecated by contemporary liberalism, this time for allegedly sexually harassing a SpaceX flight attendant (and then paying her $250,000 to keep quiet). Musk attempted to preemptively discredit Insider’s exposé on that subject by characterizing it as a “dirty trick” perpetrated by the Democrats, who had now become “the party of division & hate.”

As Musk collected these grievances, he gained right-wing Twitter followers. And over the past two years, Musk has plainly become more immersed in the extremely online right, more fluent in its style of posting, and more liable to view events through its peculiar lens. Musk has taken to trolling prominent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Warren, replying to far-right provocateurs like Ian Miles Cheong, decrying Twitter’s erstwhile verification system as modern-day feudalism, issuing apocalyptic warnings about declining birth rates, lamenting the tyranny of Twitter bios that include pronouns, calling for Anthony Fauci’s prosecution, and libelously branding gay liberals as pedophiles, among other pastimes of the Twitter right.

Musk is so thoroughly immersed in this parasocial realm and its epistemology that he felt comfortable speculating that Nancy Pelosi’s husband had not been attacked by a right-wing terrorist looking to harm the Democratic speaker, as the mainstream media (and, eventually, the terrorist) claimed. Rather, Musk suggested that it was possible that Paul Pelosi had merely gotten into a drunken fight with a male prostitute, a theory based on essentially nothing beyond some conservatives’ desire to believe it.

The commonalities between Trump’s and Musk’s politics do not end with their mutual radicalization via the pursuit of likes and retweets. Both men also advertise a commitment to free speech that amounts to little more than a plea for personal license. Trump is surely more hypocritical in his critiques of political correctness, given that the former president has endorsed all manner of draconian restrictions on religious practice and freedom of expression. But Musk’s avowed commitment to open discourse is also highly context dependent, with the mogul forcing former Tesla employees to sign indefinite nondisclosure agreements, stonewalling media critics, and, apparently, suspending Twitter accounts that mock him. 

Finally, and most alarmingly, both Musk and Trump have a penchant for describing progressive cultural power as an existential threat to the nation (if not the human race) in terms redolent of fascist oratory. “The woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide,” Musk recently declared.

To be sure, Musk does not endorse every item on the Republican agenda. But then neither do most GOP voters, including Donald Trump circa 2015. And Musk’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy are not random. As evidence for the elusiveness of Musk’s politics, Jeremy Peters cites the CEO’s opposition to restrictions on H-1B visas, which facilitate the immigration of high-skilled workers. But this position is a natural extension of Musk’s business interests. As an employer of high-skill labor, Musk has an interest in increasing the supply of such workers. And as a notably exploitative employer, meanwhile, he is liable to have a special fondness for laborers whose immigration status hinges on their employment, and who therefore have greater difficulty resisting unfavorable terms or conditions.

Similarly, Musk’s dissonant affection for the Chinese Communist Party betrays Tesla’s financial imperatives, not Musk’s philosophical quirks.

Likewise, Musk’s opposition to Trump’s climate policies wasn’t the product of an odd ideological idiosyncrasy but rather Tesla’s mercenary interests. This is not to say that Musk only believes in climate science because he runs a green tech company; he probably would not have taken over Tesla if he had not already believed in the greenhouse effect. The point is just that Musk’s present politics generally reflect a balance between his business interests and the ideological preoccupations of a sycophantic social-media community. Regardless, Musk’s current position on climate policy — that the U.S. should “increase oil & gas output” in the near term while investing in green energy for the long run — is officially shared by many Republican officials.

In arguing that Musk cannot simply be described as a conservative, Peters writes that Musk’s commentary is more “spiritedly anti-left than ideologically pro-right,” and that he “is more clear about what he is against than what he is for.” Yet one could say the same about much of the contemporary Republican Party. After all, the GOP did not produce a formal platform in 2020, while its standard-bearer told voters virtually nothing about what he intended to do with another four years in office, opting instead to run against the crime wave that he was himself presiding over.

None of this is to say that Musk’s politics are literally indistinguishable from Trump’s. In addition to his disparate views on climate and immigration, Musk claims a more ambitious (if ambiguous) ideological project than the former president ever did. For the most part, Trump has always sought his own aggrandizement as an end in itself. Musk seems genuinely concerned with humanity’s long-term fate, even if this preoccupation may function principally to rationalize his own egoism and self-importance.

More basically, Musk’s political views are bound to be more heterodox than Trump’s current ones, since the Tesla CEO has never faced the conforming pressures of seeking a political party nomination, which blunted many of Trump’s own heretical impulses in 2016.

Nevertheless, like Trump, Musk is a businessman whose appreciation for public subsidies pulled him left, before his antipathy for unions, taxes, and social-justice politics — and hunger for online sycophants — pulled him right.

Musk may still prefer to style himself as a nonpartisan independent. But he is a DeSantis supporter who directs the lion’s share of his campaign contributions to Republicans, opposes tax increases and labor organizing, and insists that a “woke mind virus” threatens humanity with extinction. In 2022, that makes him a conservative. It is that simple.

Elon Musk’s Politics Are About As Complicated As Trump’s