Elon Musk, Fair-Weather Friend?

Elon Musk, Twitter’s new master, intimated recently that he would like to step down as CEO of the social media platform. That’s not entirely surprising. Musk always intended for his role as “Chief Twit” to be temporary. Musk, however, only took the helm at Twitter in October, and so for him to be sponsoring polls already about whether it’s time for him to step aside suggests a degree of uncertainty about his future with the company. He may even be feeling some remorse about his decision to take on the Herculean challenge of saving free speech online. 

The sheer volume of vitriolic attacks against Musk in recent weeks by the media, Democratic politicians, and opinion leaders across the world must have been deeply shocking to a man who only recently was being feted as Time‘s “Person of the Year,” and who historically elicits more plaudits than paroxysms of outrage. Musk is now reaping the whirlwind that is the inevitable fate of anyone who threatens the hegemony of the left-leaning cultural, economic, and political elite. He doesn’t seem to enjoy it one bit! Who could blame him if, in the end, he mounts a strategic retreat?

On the face of it, one might assume the world’s second-richest man is in a uniquely strong position to thumb his nose at the progressive nags who are accustomed to running the media, social media, and, well, more or less every major institution in existence. Yes, Musk could afford to buy Twitter, as he has proven, and he can afford to run it at a loss, at least for now. Musk also can draw on a reservoir of goodwill that many well-connected people feel toward him, based on his history of technological and commercial achievement and, frankly, based on his past embrace of many causes beloved by leftists.

Musk’s assets are not unlimited, however, and even he may fear ruination if he pushes his luck too far.

Consider the fact that Musk is massively exposed to the risk that big government will turn against him. Musk benefits from enormous tax breaks and subsidies flowing from federal, state, and local governments. One of his biggest companies, SpaceX, is hugely reliant on federal contracts. Moreover, since most of Musk’s wealth resides in Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, it is worth remembering that the company’s customer base is comprised mostly of affluent, highly educated, and liberal-minded people whose increasingly negative perceptions of Musk could imperil (and already are imperiling) Tesla’s business model.

The risks to Musk may go beyond the merely financial, however. Musk recently suspended several prominent journalists from Twitter for sharing a website that tracked his physical location. He appears to take seriously the idea that his political and philosophical adversaries are prepared to share “assassination coordinates” online in a way that jeopardizes his safety and that of his loved ones. That may or may not be paranoia, but increasingly Musk is among the world’s most hated men, and, unlike many other men on that inauspicious list, he does not enjoy Secret Service protection. That’s food for thought, at the very least.

Recall, too, that Musk has never been temperamentally inclined to ideological combat. Musk is a futurist and an entrepreneur. He is also something of a technological and corporate dilettante. He is currently leading no fewer than six companies, some of which are household names and some of which are more quixotic than economically viable. If Musk ultimately were to step back from Twitter, it would not be the first time he has done something like this, and it probably would not be the last.

All in all, conservatives and lovers of liberty have always had good reasons to doubt Musk’s devotion to their cause. As Musk takes more and more incoming fire from leftists, it would hardly be surprising if he began to reassess his commitment to the goal of protecting and enhancing freedom of expression online.

Is Musk a fair-weather friend to the Right? The question presupposes that he was ever a friend to begin with. Certainly his constancy is, and always was, doubtful.

About Nicholas L. Waddy

Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.

Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

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