If there’s one tweet that will tell you everything you need to know about Elon Musk, it’s this one from early this morning:
My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 11, 2022
In five words, Musk manages to mock transgender and nonbinary people, signal his disdain for public-health officials, and send up a flare to far-right shitposters and trolls. The tweet is a cruel and senseless play on pronouns that also invokes the right’s fury toward Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, for what they believe is a government overreach in public-health policy throughout the pandemic and an obfuscation of the coronavirus’s origins. (Fauci, for his part, has said he would cooperate with any possible investigations and has nothing to hide.)
Beyond its stark cruelty, this tweet is incredibly thirsty. As right-wing troll memes go, it is Dad-level, 4chan–Clark Griswold stuff, which is to say it’s desperate engagement bait in the hopes of attracting kudos from the only influencers who give Musk the time of day anymore: right-wing shock jocks. But that is the proper company for the billionaire, because whether or not he wants to admit it, Musk is actively aiding the far right’s political project. He is a right-wing activist.
Currently, Musk’s politics are a subject of debate in the press. On Saturday, The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters attempted to offer a nuanced portrait of the Twitter owner’s ideologies, arguing that Musk “continues to defy easy political categorization.” But Peters’ laundry list of Musk’s recent lib-trolling and “woke” scolding—such as Musk’s November recommendation to his millions of followers to vote Republican—undermines the very thesis of the article. The nuance Peters is looking for does not exist: Musk’s actions and associations make a clear case that he is a right-wing reactionary.
Musk, for his part, has maintained that he is a centrist, that his politics have remained unchanged, and that it is the Democratic Party that has veered dramatically leftward. (Musk and Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Musk’s logic—that wayward leftism has given a lifelong moderate liberal no choice but to support right-wing causes—is a common trope among far-right activists. It has been employed by many in the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and influencers such as Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, and others. The argument stretches far back in American politics. The neoconservative movement in the United States was originated by liberals who grew disillusioned with the Democratic Party, especially in relation to the left’s Vietnam protests.
Beyond Musk’s political affiliations, his actual political convictions—by which I mean the bedrock set of values, ideologies, and organizing principles through which he sees the world and wishes it to be structured—are a slightly different conversation. Here, I tend to agree with The Verge’s Liz Lopatto, who wrote recently that Musk doesn’t really have political beliefs, only personal interests. But one can have vapid or nonexistent political beliefs and still be a political activist. Political activism is about actions. Here’s what those actions look like in practice:
I am gratified for the reinstatement of my account on Twitter and am grateful to @ElonMusk for his commitment to fairness and free speech.— Roger Stone (@RogerJStoneJr) December 7, 2022
God Bless America and thank you, Jesus.
I affirm your pronouns Elon.— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (@RepMTG) December 11, 2022
Publicly, Musk appears deeply committed to the right’s culture war against progressivism in most forms. His purchase of Twitter was an explicitly political act couched in the notion of preserving free speech. But Musk’s notion of free speech is a broad course correction that involves amplifying and advancing the interests of right-wing reactionaries while trolling the left. Musk might argue that this is restoring balance to the system, but if we are judging based only on actions and outcomes, it is very hard to see his tenure at Twitter as anything other than a series of policies intended to benefit a particular ideology.
Musk also simply loves palling around with far-right influencers on Twitter. A scroll through his Twitter replies is a rather remarkable document of a man who has (or at least had) more money than any other human being in the history of humanity, a fair amount of power, and an endless supply of options for how to spend his time, and who chooses to spend his time as a reply guy for prominent MAGA voices, such as a user who goes by the handle @catturd2 and Turning Points USA’s Charlie Kirk.
In a similar fashion, Musk’s “Twitter Files” project, for which he has been releasing Twitter’s old internal documents concerning controversial content-moderation decisions to independent journalists, is an attention spectacle dressed up in the style of investigative journalism designed to delight Musk’s Twitter friends. As I wrote on Friday, some of the internal conversations and screenshots from Musk’s company are fascinating documents that shed light on the intractable problem of content moderation at scale. But they are presented in a blatantly partisan and misleading manner, and have been released only to journalists who share Musk’s pet ideological issues: that the mainstream media is ethically bankrupt, that social media and most elite institutions are biased and colluding with the government.
The hypocrisy at the center of Musk’s Twitter tenure is crucial to the understanding of Musk’s political activism. He has championed ideals of free-speech maximalism and amnesty to those who’ve offended his rules. Twitter, under his management, has let back on organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; neo-Nazis such as Andrew Anglin; and January 6–investigation personalities such as Roger Stone. At the same time, Twitter has suspended accounts that have mocked Musk or expressed left-leaning views. Whether intentionally or not, Musk has, in effect, been governing Twitter using the classic Frank Wilhoit maxim: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” Put differently, the billionaire has been advancing a long-running right-wing political project described recently by my colleague Adam Serwer as a “belief in a new constitutional right. Most important, this new right supersedes the free-speech rights of everyone else: the conservative right to post.”
Why is Musk doing all of this? The answer is reasonably simple. Musk’s far-right activism clearly seems to be, like all else in his life, personally motivated, not by a strong political ideology or value system but, as Lopatto argues, by the accumulation of money and “being perceived as a visionary who will reshape human society.” Musk is interested in preserving the political values and systems that keep him on top as a revered member of culture. It’s a philosophy that the writer John Ganz has described as “bossism” or “bosses on top.” For Musk, right-wing activism serves that role. Musk’s tweets—like his dismissive tweet this morning, or his concerning insinuations that, perhaps, his former trust-and-safety employees did not stop child-exploitation posts for motivated reasons—are cruel for the shallowest reasons: because they are likely to draw engagement to the platform that Musk has plunged into financial uncertainty, due to both his piling on of debt and his alienation of advertisers.
But even as a far-right shitposter, Musk is hapless. Unlike somebody such as Donald Trump, who remains the Twitter troll template, Musk is a try-hard. And although the Twitter shock jocks will happily lap him up because he triggers the libs and serves their purposes, Musk is still seen as a dilettante by the inveterate shitposters and bigots. Over on 4chan, the far-right message board, Musk’s Fauci tweet barely merited discussion. “Elon is just being controversial to drive traffic to his website,” one poster mused. Even in his thirsty attempts to be an edgelord, Musk is failing to be anything other than cringey.