Musk drops the bipartisan pose - and Republicans cheer

  • In Politics
  • 2022-12-02 09:30:00Z
  • By Politico

Before buying Twitter, the world's richest man was a political cipher - an entrepreneur tangling equally with Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau, pushing gun control while questioning Covid-19 rules. And Twitter, meanwhile, was a social-media platform increasingly policed for sensitivity by progressive-leaning top executives.

That world was so early-2022.

Since taking the company private in October, Musk has abruptly re-invited numerous right-wingers to the platform, including Trump. He has mocked Democrats, backed Republicans ahead of the recent midterms, and - perhaps most notably - tweeted last weekend that he'd support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024.

Though he still says he's after "balance" in Washington, he's come down hard on the Republican side - and the party is now treating him as a convert. The informal alliance has already paid some early political dividends, when the GOP backed Musk in a spat with Apple, and with Republicans taking over the House next year, it could prove useful for a tech CEO who's constantly in the spotlight.

"Every time we can add someone of Mr. Musk's intellect to the Republican Party, I'd do an old-man backflip. I'm happy to have him," Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said of Musk.

The billionaire is the kind of tech gatekeeper Republicans have been looking for. As a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, he's relaxed or removed many of Twitter's content moderation guardrails, actions conservatives have welcomed after years of chafing under what they alleged was censorship by the big platforms. And with each feud that Musk engineers - with liberal leaders, other tech companies, "cancel culture" - he draws himself closer to his new fans on the right.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the expected incoming speaker, defended Musk against President Joe Biden's call for a national security review of foreign investors' role in Musk's purchase of Twitter. "That is offensive to me. The government's going to go after someone who wants to have free speech?" he told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. "I think they should stop picking on Elon Musk."

Longtime tech industry analysts have been shocked by Musk's cavalier embrace of politics. It's an arena most tech CEOs try to "take great pains" to distance themselves from, said Nu Wexler, who worked in policy communications at Twitter, Google and Facebook as well as for Democrats in Congress.

"Social media executives have spent the last five or 10 years tip-toeing around the political swimming pool; it's funny to watch the new guy just do a belly-flop straight into it," Wexler added.

Most of Twitter's media team was part of Musk's company-wide layoffs, and didn't respond to a request for comment.

For now, Musk's theatrics aren't netting him tangible wins on regulatory or legislative issues. But he is able to whip up GOP rhetorical support with a handful of tweets, as he did this week when he accused Apple of threatening to kick Twitter off its App Store, before abruptly retracting his accusations as a "misunderstanding" after meeting with Tim Cook. Cook told reporters on Thursday night at the White House state dinner that his meeting with Musk was "very good."

In the hours after Musk made his original allegations, DeSantis joined Republican lawmakers including Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado in lining up behind the new Twitter CEO. Several of them renewed calls to pass an antitrust bill that would dramatically curtail Apple's control over what apps are allowed on the iPhone.

For all their fiery words, no politician has publicly changed their position on the antitrust bills after Musk's tirade, which has remained stalled in Congress amid opposition from key lawmakers. And his quick retraction and declaration of harmony might make those threats to punish Apple seem a little hasty.

However, Wexler said Musk may eventually sway some undecideds in Congress. "Musk might be able to pull some Republicans over to support the competition bills," he said.

If nothing else, Musk demonstrated how quickly the GOP would rally to his cause, particularly when he was taking aim at a conservative bogeyman like Apple. Republicans have borne a grudge against the company ever since it - along with Google - banned the conservative-friendly media app Parler after the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. More recently, Republicans have slammed Apple for limiting the airdrop sharing feature on iPhones in China ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown protests in that country.

"Right now, it looks like Republicans might go a little easier on Twitter because they like decisions that Musk is making," said another tech industry executive, who asked not to be identified so they could speak freely.

Future Proofing 

Tech policy observers say Musk's GOP allyship could potentially benefit him, particularly when it comes to defending the tech industries' coveted liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act - which Republicans have said they want to roll back next year.

Trump and Biden have both called for removing the statute, which protects online companies from being sued over their decisions to host, remove or filter content posted by users. Some Republicans have proposed paring back the shield, for example by allowing suits against companies that show political bias in making content decisions. Democrats, meanwhile, have called for holding tech companies liable for extremist content, hate speech and misinformation.

"If Elon is able to explain Section 230 protections to congressional Republicans and a conservative audience in a way that they understand and agree with, I think that could be very helpful to Twitter and to the industry," Wexler said.

On the other side, some progressive Democrats - such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York - have been quick to attack Musk's latest antics, including his missteps and false starts trying to persuade people to pay for Twitter's formerly free account-verification system.

"Lmao at a billionaire earnestly trying to sell people on the idea that 'free speech' is actually a $8/mo subscription plan," she tweeted in early November when Musk rolled out a botched attempt at the paid subscription service - dubbed Twitter Blue - which led to a surge in fake accounts mimicking politicians and brands. She also criticized Musk's reinstatement of Trump after the former president's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol.

"Musk is increasingly entering the political arena, which means he's going to be engaged in more political combat," said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant and partner at public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies. "I would expect if he's going to support Republicans, he should expect Democrats to increase their scrutiny of him."

As Musk stepped deeper into politics, he had said it was because he favored divided government - a manifesto he tweeted the day before the midterms - arguing that "shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties, therefore I recommend voting for a Republican Congress, given that the Presidency is Democratic."

And later in his endorsement of DeSantis, he said he preferred a 2024 candidate who is "sensible and centrist." He tweeted that he'd hoped that would be true for the Biden administration, but he's "been disappointed so far."

"He endorsed divided government in the midterms, he seems to be consistently pushing for more centrist candidates and bipartisan control," Conant said.

So far, at least according to Musk's metrics, his foray into politics - and his welcoming back of right-wing users like Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) - has been good for business, reportedly driving new user sign-ups and engagement to an all-time high.

"Musk is probably seeing something in the data that gives him hope or encouragement to continue on the course that he's going," said Eric Wilson, a managing partner at conservative investment fund Startup Caucus. "We're several weeks into it, he would've pivoted out if it weren't working."

Musk hasn't shied away from dramatically remaking Twitter since he bought it for $44 billion a month ago. He's slashed two-thirds of staff, driven away at least 50 of its top 100 advertisers, drawn a warning shot from the Federal Trade Commission and rolled back Twitter's Covid-19 misinformation policies - among other major changes to the site.

And it's clear to outside observers that he's not following any traditional playbook. "It does strike me that the strategy seems to be - throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks," Wilson said.


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