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How Elon Musk went off the deep end

The tech billionaire has always been awful, but he is now drifting further to the right, peddling far-right conspiracy theories and racist misinformation

If someone describes themselves as ‘neither conventionally left nor right’, they are right-wing. If they describe themselves as a ‘moderate’, they are right-wing. If they describe themselves as a ‘free-speech absolutist’... oh, brother. After hedging his bets like this for a number of years, Elon Musk has finally lifted the veil and revealed his true political leanings. In a not-so-shocking revelation, it turns out that he’s right-wing!

Still, the speed at which he’s radicalising himself in public is striking. This is someone who, until fairly recently, tried hard to present himself in a certain light: practical; fiscally conservative but socially liberal; untainted by ideology or dogma. He prided himself on his support for the LGBTQ+ community and spoke publicly about having voted for Clinton, Obama and Biden. At the very least, he cloaked his politics with enough plausible deniability to avoid alienating the well-off liberals who comprised the natural market for Tesla, the electrical car company which he co-founded. It’s difficult to pinpoint when this changed – there was no single ‘red pill’ moment that drove him to the right. As is usually the case with online radicalisation, it was a gradual process, albeit one which seemed to speed up when he purchased Twitter last October.

He was always terrible. But in a relatively short space of time, he went from supporting the Democrats to describing them as a “party of division and hate” and urging his followers to vote for the Republicans. He went from making cruel but inane jokes about pronouns to advocating lifetime imprisonment for anyone who facilitates hormone therapy for trans minors and believing that the woke mind virus” poses a threat to civilisation. This year alone, he has defended a cartoonist who said that African Americans are “a hate group”; suggested that the US media and education system are racist against white people; flirted with the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory (a white supremacist framework which posits that white people in the West are being deliberately replaced with migrants), and promoted racist misinformation about the criminality of Black Americans. He’s only getting more brazen as time goes on. This week, in one of his lowest moments yet, he endorsed a right-wing conspiracy about a recent mass shooting event at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas, during which eight people were murdered.

In the aftermath, it was revealed that the shooter had a number of Nazis tattoos and had written a white supremacist manifesto that quoted two right-wing media personalities (Tim Pool and LibsofTiktoks). As often happens in the wake of mass shootings, a conspiracy theory emerged that accused the event of being a “false flag” – in other words, a left-wing setup staged by the government, deep state or some other shadowy force, probably to increase gun control. These theories have the potential to compound the pain of survivors and grieving family members of those who are killed, who are often smeared as “crisis actors” (hired performers complicit in the deception).

Confronted with the evidence that the Texas shooter was a white supremacist, Musk mused that it was “odd”, “very strange” and “either[...] the weirdest story ever or a very bad psyop”. By doing this, he helped legitimise the false flag narrative to an audience of 139 million people. This isn’t the only time he has peddled conspiracy theories, either: after a far-right extremist broke into Nancy Pelosi’s house and attacked her 82-year-old husband with a hammer, Musk promoted a conspiracy theory that the perpetrator was a male sex worker and, contrary to the official narrative, the incident was a lover’s tiff gone wrong. Whether or not Musk actually believes these baseless theories is beside the point. What matters is that they serve a purpose, deflecting criticism from the right-wing movement with which he is now firmly aligned.

As extreme as it is, Musk’s trajectory mirrors American conservatism as a whole – he’s not so much a thought leader as a reactive figure, parroting the culture war obsessions of the day. A large portion of Republican politicians and mainstream conservative commentators are dealing in the same rhetoric, and his crusade against “wokeness” has won him plenty of fans on the right. These are his people now and he’s drifted towards them, while hardening his stance against everyone else.

We have seen this trajectory over and over again, particularly in relation to transphobia. Most people are already on their way to being radicalised by the time they first speak out against trans rights, but the dynamics of social media encourage them to dig their heels in: if one faction is calling you a bigot and another is lauding you as a brave truth-teller, listening to the latter camp is obviously going to be more appealing. This dynamic seems to be playing out with Musk (although I’m not suggesting we could start treating racist billionaires with kindness on the off-chance we can rescue them from their own beliefs).

However powerful Musk is, he comes across like a deeply insecure man whose ego has been battered by months of (well-deserved) mockery and critique – it’s no surprise he’s taken refuge with the people most willing to shower him with flattery. Radicalisation can best be understood as a social phenomenon, something which accelerates when you are interacting with like-minded people who egg you on. On the one hand, Musk is not some wayward teenager who has been led astray by a bad crowd – he is a grown man with agency, who has not been “pushed” into anything. The kind of beliefs he’s expressing don’t just spring up overnight, and we can’t blame them all on the camaraderie he feels with a middle-aged man called “Cat Turd”.

But at the same time, it does seem as though a positive feedback loop has encouraged his worst tendencies, or at least allowed him to express them more openly. This happens all the time. While Musk is one of the most powerful people on earth, being a billionaire wouldn’t make someone uniquely invulnerable to the same process – why would that be? Because he’s smarter? Stronger-willed? That doesn’t seem credible. Musk’s ongoing meltdown shows that it’s possible to be powerful and weak at the same time.

Musk’s drift to the far-right has already come at a cost: where he was once a broadly popular figure (hard as that may be to believe), he is now a polarising one: most Republicans like him, most Democrats dislike him and, according to a NBC poll conducted last November, a majority of the American public now view him negatively. Being such a divisive figure might pay off if you’re a Republican candidate, but less so if you’re a businessman: Tesla stock continues to decline in value and advertisers are abandoning Twitter. But Musk is still a billionaire and, whatever happens, he will be insulated from the effects of the anger, fear and resentment he is helping to ferment. The rest of us might not be so lucky.

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