IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Elon Musk is drifting toward the hard-core authoritarian right

Musk's interest in a QAnon-affiliated Republican and Gov. Ron DeSantis suggests that he's lurching to the right.
Image: Elon Musk speaking to the press.
Tesla head Elon Musk talks to the press as he arrives to have a look at the construction site of the new Tesla Gigafactory near Berlin on Sep. 03, 2020 near Gruenheide, Germany.Maja Hitij / Getty Images file

Earlier in June, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed that he voted for a QAnon-affiliated Republican for a U.S. House seat in Texas and that he’s leaning toward supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. While the world’s richest man has claimed to have centrist inclinations and has held political views that are all over the map, he appears to be drifting toward hard-right Trumpian territory.

The political tendencies of the ultra-wealthy are always a matter of public interest: They have disproportionate sway over political life through their business enterprises, political donations and public commentary. And Musk’s political evolution is particularly noteworthy given that he’s in the midst of a (potentially ill-fated bid) to purchase Twitter, one of the most influential online public squares in the world. If he does indeed take over it, and if he continues to identify increasingly with the right, his politics could shape the kind of culture and rules he tries to enact on the platform.

Musk’s articulations of his political views have suggested his ideological worldview is not coherent or stable.

Historically, Musk has followed a conventional playbook in the business world: playing both sides. As Business Insider notes, Musk’s political activity has been “quite average for a business leader with operations in both solidly red and blue states,” with consistent donations to both Republicans and Democrats. In 2015 he said he got involved in politics “as little as possible,” only to the extent that he had to get involved to secure contracts with the U.S. government for his company SpaceX. In 2004 he gave money to both major-party presidential candidates, Republican incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Beyond the typical big-business posture of trying to ingratiate himself with both parties in order to advance his business interests, Musk’s articulations of his political views have suggested his ideological worldview is not coherent or stable. He’s called himself a“socialist” while simultaneously seeming to decry the redistribution of wealth, and despite a history of hostility to labor unions. He’s also expressed ideas that align with a libertarian worldview (“the government is simply the biggest corporation") in his criticism of big government, despite benefiting from federal tax breaks and other government incentives. He’s also advocated for centrism and supported the libertarianish universal basic income champion Andrew Yang in the Democratic presidential primary in 2019. Musk has criticized Donald Trump, but also agreed to sit on some of his business councils — which he left after Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord.

But something seems to have changed. As Business Insider notes, Musk’s political donations have shifted to Republican candidates and causes in recent years. On Twitter in recent months, he has repeatedly disparaged Democrats and expressed a newfound fondness for the right as an alternative home. “In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” Musk tweeted in May. “But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.” Musk did not elaborate on how the Democrats' program of aid to the less economically fortunate, attention to the environment and inclusivity for people from marginalized backgrounds constituted "division and hate," nor did he elaborate on how the increasingly white nationalist, militant and antidemocratic Republican Party served as a preferable alternative for someone looking for kindness in a party.

Then last week he seemed to pivot rather plainly to the Trump wing of the GOP. He said he had cast his first ballot for a Republican, but not the kind of conventional business-friendly moderate that an earlier version of Musk might have been most fond of. Instead, he voted in a special election for the right-wing extremist congressional candidate Mayra Flores, who declined to distance herself from Trump’s "big lie," called for people to buy “more guns” three days after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and has promoted the authoritarian QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump is on a mission to reveal a secret cabal of pedophilic Democratic elites. (Despite signing social media posts with QAnon hashtags, Flores has claimed in statements that she does not believe in the theory.)

At the same time, Musk’s interest in DeSantis — who embodies Trumpian politics in a slightly more stable form — suggests that he’s comfortable with the white nationalist, authoritarian wing of the GOP. (DeSantis said of Musk’s interest in him that he welcomes “support from African Americans,” a joke that riffs on Musk, a white man, being born and raised in South Africa, but only makes comic sense if DeSantis doesn’t expect Black votes.)

It’s not entirely clear what’s driving Musk to the right. He’s complained about the Biden administration’s exclusion of him from a summit for electric vehicles because Tesla isn’t unionized. It seems possible that the partisan valence to the response to his bid to purchase Twitter — with a big chunk of the left expressing skepticism of his laissez-faire attitude toward content moderation — is a cause. He may also be wagering that it’s economically advantageous to win over politicians on the right in an era in which Republicans increasingly engage in bald favoritism when considering how to treat corporations and are likely to win more power in coming years. And of course the subtext of his complaints about the Democrats allegedly being divisive and hateful could be that he's uncomfortable with the intensifying anti-bigotry on the left. Whatever is inspiring him, it’s a pivot worth paying close attention to, given that he could be on the brink of holding a huge amount of control over our civil discourse.