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Elon Musk and his conspiracy-laden leap to the extreme-right

The tycoon’s descent into the pit of far-right hoaxes has been crystallized on social media. His identity crisis seems to have been marked by financial interests and personal issues

Elon Musk
Elon Musk greets the audience at an event held by the fascist Brothers of Italy party in Rome, on Saturday, December 16, 2023.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE (REUTERS)
Javier Salas

On May 9, 2022, the cover of Time magazine read: “What everyone gets wrong about Elon Musk.” At the time, the magnate explained to the magazine that, for him, Republicans and Democrats are all the same and that he refuses to choose between the lesser of two evils. In December of that same year, The New York Times ran a profile on him: “Critics say Musk has revealed himself as a conservative. It’s not so simple.” The press wondered about the worldview of the richest man in the world, who has been decisive in wars such as the one in Ukraine, by offering the use of his satellites to the government in Kyiv. Several journalists concluded that his ideological profile is complex, laden with both progressive and right-wing features. In June 2022, in an assembly with Twitter employees, he noted that his “political leanings are moderate.”

A lot has changed since then. This past Saturday, December 16, Musk landed at the epicenter of the Italian post-fascist universe, where far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosted several extremist European leaders. “Please don’t import the woke mind virus from the United States!” the businessman laughed, to the delight of the audience. At the annual convention held by the fascist Brothers of Italy political party, Musk opined that woke policies have resulted in “an artificial mental civil war.” The Tesla CEO — who was born in Pretoria 52 years ago, during the era of apartheid in South Africa — also criticized excessive European regulations, denounced illegal immigration, advocated for the defense of national cultural identities, demanded that fossil fuels not be demonized and voiced disapproval of multiculturalism. His speech wasn’t exactly “moderate.”

Musk — who was never much of a progressive, given his past support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — has continued to meet with moderates, such as Emmanuel Macron (they were together in June), while also catering to conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, who was recently given back his X account thanks to the chairman of the company. He then held public conversations on social media with a variety of far-right figures, such as Congressman Matt Gaetz, Michael Flynn — the former U.S. national security advisor, who was pardoned by Trump — and Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican presidential candidate who questions both the 2021 assault on the Capitol and climate change. And, just days earlier, Musk had referred to a string of antisemitic conspiracies published by a tweeter as “the actual truth,” which resulted in X losing important advertisers such as Disney, Apple and IBM.

It appears that far-right conspiracy theorists increasingly share the worldview of the world’s richest man. As a result, it’s crucial to pay attention to the repercussions that their perspectives may have, given Musk’s power in strategic sectors, such as disinformation, telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

It’s also valuable to understand how Musk has fallen into the most absurd and toxic conspiracies. “You can be the richest man in the world and have an entire social media network at your disposal… and yet be completely unable to distinguish fact from fiction. He chooses to live in a fantasy land of false beliefs,” explains Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at NYU who specializes in social identity. Musk has questioned the Covid-19 pandemic and believes in the existence of a secret elite — he of all people, who has the greatest fortune and direct access to any ruler — with dark plans to replace white people. “Throughout 2022, he went from benign praise of [centrism] to furious musings about how [woke ideology] and the censorship imposed by media elites are an existential threat to humanity,” notes a biography of Musk, published in September 2023 by Walter Isaacson.

As recently as 2022, Musk noted that he was thinking about creating a “super-moderate super PAC” that supports candidates with centrist views from both parties. However, in just a short period of time, a variety of factors have crystallized into his new alternative narrative: his economic interests, his personal issues, his identity crisis and his social media network. His company, X, has become especially toxic since he acquired it, as several studies show. His personal interactions with far-right accounts skyrocketed as soon as he bought Twitter.

Musk has always been fiscally conservative and “progressive on social issues, [although he showed] some libertarian resistance to norms and political correctness,” according to Isaacson. But all of this changed because of three cultural wars, which have affected him personally: the pandemic’s influence on the manufacturing of Teslas, the debate over trans rights (his daughter came out as trans at the age of 16) and the “woke” phenomenon. According to Musk, progressives are wrong on these issues. He claims that, while he has remained steadfast in the center of the political spectrum, it’s the rest of the world that has suddenly become far-left.

The closure of the billionaire’s car factories in China and California due to Covid restrictions “was devastating for Tesla’s share price,” explains Isaacson. But, above all, the lockdowns “inflamed his anti-authoritarian streak.” The controversy over the restrictions — supported by Democrats and rejected by Republicans — was a decisive factor in Musk’s political evolution, according to his biographer. The political decision hit his pocket hard. As the extreme-right tends to be suspicious of science, he embraced this faction.

Musk supported Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s decision to mount a run for the White House. The son of the assassinated presidential candidate is a well-known anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist. However, in the following elections after the pandemic, Musk asked his followers to vote Republican for the first time. He also says that he won’t vote for Biden in 2024… although he finds it difficult to vote for Trump. Instead, he has shown his preference for a candidate such as Ramaswamy or Ron DeSantis, who have been vocally “anti-woke.”

“As he became more obsessed with [woke ideology], Musk’s political loyalties shifted,” Isaacson writes. He feels that this “mental woke virus” has taken away his “son.” Vivian Jenna Wilson has cut off her father, because he doesn’t respect her female pronouns.

Musk believes Jenna isn’t talking to him because she professes “communism.” He feels “attacked” because of his wealth. Many analysts point out that these criticisms against the wealthiest 1% — which have become widespread after the pandemic — trigger another reaction in Musk, because he demands admiration for his success and his cool rockets.

Journalist Elizabeth Lopatto writes: Musk wants to be “perceived as a visionary who will reshape human society.” However, he is booed when he is introduced to audiences as “the richest man in the world,” as occurred when comedian Dave Chappelle brought him on stage.

That’s why he decided to get rid of all his mansions. In May 2022, he tweeted that “it’s morally wrong & dumb to use the word billionaire as a pejorative,” while also claiming that he “doesn’t even own a home.”

Fighting the so-called “woke virus” apparently pushed him to buy Twitter: “This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.” According to him, the left curtails freedom of expression and threatens the human future on Mars by imposing its “herd thinking” on the media. To avoid this, the tycoon has returned the loudspeaker to online neo-Nazi groups.

Musk’s social environment has also played a key role in his defense of “alternative facts.” His father, Errol Musk — a property developer from apartheid South Africa — has always been a lover of conspiracy theories. But it’s also Musk’s libertarian friends — such as his Trumpist partner Peter Thiel — who have tended to “reinforce his anti-woke sentiments,” Isaacson writes.

This past Saturday in Rome, Musk responded to the applause of the young supporters of Meloni by forming a heart with his fingers on his chest: without a doubt, he felt valued. The more he’s criticized on the left, the more support he receives from radical options on the extreme-right. “Most of us are confused by social media. With his fame and wealth, Musk could be treated like a king almost anywhere in the world. However, this isn’t enough: he still seems to need the adoration that comes from spreading destructive nonsense,” Van Bavel concludes.

“Musk’s move to the right baffled his progressive friends, including his first wife (Justine Wilson) and his then-girlfriend, Grimes,” his biographer explains. “When Musk started sending Grimes right-wing memes and conspiracy theories, she replied: ‘Did you get this from 4chan or something? You’re starting to sound like a far-right guy.’” After his appearance in Rome, there’s little doubt which lane one of the most powerful men in the world has chosen.

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