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Critics say Musk has revealed himself as a Conservative. It’s not so simple

Elon Musk, ever a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies, has long made his politics tricky to pin down.

Twitter CEO Elon musk (File)
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He has called himself an independent and a centrist, yet “economically right of center, maybe.” He has said he was until recently a supporter of only Democrats and voted for President Joe Biden. He’s encouraged people to vote Republican, which he said he did for the first time this year. Last year, he once even declared himself indifferent about politics, saying he’d rather stay out of it altogether.

Elon Musk, ever a bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies, has long made his politics tricky to pin down. To many of his critics, though, his relentless flurry of tweets in the six weeks since he took over Twitter has exposed his true conservative bent and intensified their fears that he would make the social network more susceptible to right-wing misinformation.

And at times, he’s made it hard to argue with that. He has said he’d welcome former President Donald Trump back on Twitter; suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was lying about the attack at their home that left him hospitalized; and reinstated accounts that have trafficked in offensive ethnic stereotypes and bigotry, including for the artist formerly known as Kanye West. (Musk later suspended West’s account again after the rapper-entrepreneur posted an image of a swastika.)

His copious tweeting has generated huge amounts of attention. In a 24-hour period late this week, he tweeted more than 40 times, often with little rhyme or reason. He criticized the Biden administration’s deal with Russia that freed Brittney Griner, the WNBA star. He asked Elton John to clarify his complaint about misinformation flourishing unchecked on Twitter. At times, Musk was acting like Twitter’s in-house customer service representative, boasting about new features and improved functions.

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And maybe that is a big part of the point — improving the image of his new $44 billion property, which he has said repeatedly is in dire financial straits.

Yet Musk, who did not respond to a request for comment, continues to defy easy political categorization. His views have been described as libertarian, though these days, his politics seem more contrarian than anything else. He is clearer about what he is against than what he is for.

It’s true Musk certainly sounds a lot like a Republican — and sometimes a lot like Trump — with his missives on Twitter against “woke” politics and COVID restrictions, his attacks on “elite” media and his efforts to draw attention to allegations that Hunter Biden profited from his father’s political clout.

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But where Musk has seemed most in line with the GOP of Trump is in the tenor of his political commentary, which if anything seems more spiritedly anti-left than ideologically pro-right. While he has not been shy about sharing his disdain for many Democrats, his enthusiasm for Republicans has been more muted. He has stressed repeatedly that his problems are with extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

“To be clear, my historical party affiliation has been Independent, with an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year,” he wrote on Twitter the day before the midterm election. “And I’m open to the idea of voting Democrat again in the future.”

As with many people who describe themselves as politically independent now, the hostility Musk harbors toward Democrats appears to have drawn him closer to the Republican Party over the last few years. He considers himself as part of the “center 80% of people, who wish to learn, laugh & engage in reasoned debate.”

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He has eagerly encouraged his followers to weigh in with their views on the country’s culture wars and traded tweets with some of the right’s favorite punching bags, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. When she criticized his plan to charge Twitter users $8 a month to have a verified account with one of the social media service’s signature blue check marks — “Lmao at a billionaire earnestly trying to sell people on the idea that ‘free speech’ is actually a $8/mo subscription plan,” she wrote — he dismissed her.

“Your feedback is appreciated, now pay $8,” Musk shot back.

Many of his recent tweets have had that kind of “own the libs” tone, the shorthand on the right for when conservatives think they’ve deftly, often sarcastically, swatted down a liberal. A couple of weeks ago, he posted video on Twitter of a closet full of T-shirts with the slogan “#stay woke” that he said he had found at the social media company’s headquarters. Then he followed up with a tweet that linked to a Justice Department report that undercut one of the central narratives of the mass protests against police brutality: that Michael Brown, a Black teenager killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, had his hands raised when a white officer shot him.

On occasion, his remarks have raised concerns that he has planted himself firmly among right-wing conspiracy theorists. When he tweeted about the attack on Pelosi’s husband, he shared the unfounded claim that there was “a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.” He later deleted the tweet, which linked to an article from a fringe website.

He also said he would support Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida for president in 2024, though his endorsement was not especially resounding. He merely replied “Yes” when someone on Twitter asked him. DeSantis, a hard-line conservative, would be an odd choice for someone who professes to want centrist governance in Washington.

Musk has always claimed his concerns with Twitter’s previous management were about the ability of a small group of the company’s employees whom he described as “far-left” to censor content. And over the past week, he has cheered on tweets about internal communications before he took over. The communications, which were given to two writers who have posted their findings on Twitter, calling them the Twitter Files, showed how the company went about deciding what information got suppressed.

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It’s been a mixed bag of revelations. Some showed how Twitter employees made it harder to see tweets from a Stanford University professor who warned about how COVID lockdowns could harm children — a view many public health experts have come around to accept well after the fact. Other documents show how more conventional, conspiracy-theory-embracing conservatives were shut down, like Dan Bongino, the radio host who was one of the biggest amplifiers of lies about the 2020 election.

Musk has not professed to have any profound attachment to Republican policies, though, which is consistent with his posture before taking over Twitter.

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He has been highly critical of people who do not believe that human activity is responsible for the bulk of climate change and said he’s proud of how Tesla forced the rest of the automobile industry to embrace electric vehicles. In 2020, he revealed that he’d spoken to Trump numerous times about the importance of developing sustainable energy, which the former president dismissed in favor of traditional fossil fuel-based sources. And Musk quit Trump’s business councils after the administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2020, he described his politics as “middle-of-the-road.” “I’m socially very liberal. And then economically right of center, maybe, or center. I don’t know. I’m obviously not a communist.”

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His political giving supports that claim. According to the Federal Election Commission, which reports spending in federal but not state races, he has donated just shy of $1 million since 2003 to candidates as conservative as former President George W. Bush and as liberal as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. More recently, in 2020, he donated to senators of both political parties — including Chris Coons and Gary Peters, both Democrats, and Susan Collins and John Cornyn, both Republicans.

Often, it seems, his posts are motivated by personal pique, not political philosophy. He’s criticized the Biden administration, for instance, as “not the friendliest” and for excluding Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle maker, from a White House summit on zero-emission vehicles in August 2021. His speculation on the reason for the exclusion: General Motors and the other car companies invited are union companies; Tesla is not. “Seems to be controlled by unions,” he complained at the time.

Many of the views he has espoused on Twitter over the last two years have become popular in today’s Republican Party but are hardly exclusive to card-carrying Republicans. His criticism of progressives he views as overly censorious and sanctimonious is a sentiment many on the left have expressed. And his public condemnation of strict COVID containment measures in 2020 channeled what would become a growing skepticism of widespread public health restrictions — although he was more exercised about them than most. “Fascist,” he once declared.

First published on: 10-12-2022 at 10:45 IST
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