He has scorned organised labour, mocked political correctness and espoused small government – so the deluge of tweets from conservatives congratulating Elon Musk on his move to buy Twitter was hardly a surprise.
Yet smoking marijuana during interviews, courting the Hollywood set with movie cameos and musing about nuking Mars make the SA-born entrepreneur an improbable talisman for political traditionalists.
In polarised America, the 50-year-old triple divorcee’s opposition to Covid restrictions is often taken to demonstrate Republican sympathies, although his occasional disdain for draconian immigration control has suggested the opposite.
The world’s richest man has berated President Joe Biden for proposing a tax credit for electric cars produced by unionised workers. He has also gone much further, calling for an end to all US federal subsidies.
Yet he has aggressively pursued government support himself, taking billions in handouts for his own companies. International investor James Hickman, founder of the libertarian-leaning Sovereign Man newsletter series, sees Musk as a check on the “tyranny of the minority” – a supposed cabal of elites in tech, media and academia who make decisions for the rest of us and yet “consistently get it wrong”.
“What makes someone a true libertarian is an outright rejection of labels and being completely independent in one’s thinking,” Hickman said.
“Musk clearly qualifies in this regard across both politically and professionally.”
Other analysts have suggested that as inconsistent as his political philosophy appears, Musk rarely diverges from his own business interests. Yet even that thesis needs some finessing. If it’s all about money, why has the Tesla CEO – with his extensive green business interests – called for increased fossil fuel production? His political donations don’t particularly cleave to one party or point of view either.
A self-styled “moderate” independent – although he has unironically described himself as a “socialist” too – Musk ostentatiously moved to deeply conservative Texas from ultra-liberal California in 2020. He has given donations to the governors of both states, despite criticising Texas anti-abortion laws and a “complacent” business environment in California.
Other donations have gone to Democratic grandees Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, right-wing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Republican Party itself.
Like a recent former president, he is not averse to lashing out on social media at establishment figures, from one-time presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren (“Senator Karen”) to Biden himself (“Sleepy Joe” – a coopted Trumpism). And then there’s the issue of free speech, which he has called “the bedrock of a functioning democracy”.
Musk has complained that Twitter is too censorious in its regulation of speech, simultaneously illustrating and undermining his point in a tweet depicting the company’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, as brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Critics say his passion for unfettered conversation has often appeared less profound when his own interests have been at stake. Some media outlets have raised questions over Musk’s reaction to journalists writing stories critical of Tesla.
Accused of unleashing his army of supporters on individual reporters, he once mulled creating a website for the profession as a whole called Pravda – presumably a tribute to the Soviet propaganda outlet.
“Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication,” he tweeted in 2018. Nothing came of it.
Former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Judd Legum, who produces the Popular Information politics newsletter, pointed to a tweet – also 2018 – in which Musk appeared to threaten to rescind employee stock options at Tesla if workers decided to join a union.
Each of these posts on its own can be explained away as a robust defence of his work, but critics say they are part of a pattern of suppressing less powerful voices that has also included forcing workers to sign notoriously restrictive nondisclosure agreements (NDAs).
Popular Information reported that the Tesla NDA warned employees that “they were not allowed to speak with media without explicit written permission” – but the company neglected to add that labour laws protected them from reprisals when discussing work conditions.
Baruch Labunski, an internet marketing expert and web consultancy CEO, says that, amid the sheer volume of “contradictory evidence”, it’s safest to describe Musk’s politics as “pragmatic”.
“He is frequently characterised as a libertarian but that designation doesn’t accurately describe the man whose businesses have benefitted from government tax breaks and business subsidies,” Labunski said.
The consultant sees Musk as a “fundamentally self-interested” celebrity.
“We don’t talk about his politics because he’s particularly politically astute or because he shines a light on issues that matter to ordinary people,” Labunski added. “Musk gets to play in and around politics because he’s rich and he’s outspoken.”