‘He Serves the Political Party of Elon Musk First and Foremost’
What does Elon Musk plan on doing with his purchase of Twitter? We can only guess, and many of us, on the right and left, have. Conservatives think the free-speech absolutist is going to be their savior, freeing them from the shackles of the platform’s content moderation policies, which they think unfairly target conservative speech. The mood among liberals was less celebratory and more alarmed. Senator Elizabeth Warren said the purchase called attention to how “one person can literally turn upside down how millions of people across this country communicate.” Senator Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) worried about whether Donald Trump, who was banned from the platform in January 2021, would be reinstated.
We can’t read Musk’s mind, but we can talk to someone who has written a book about his life and how he operates — so we did. I called Ashlee Vance, a senior writer at Bloomberg News and author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, for which he spent more than 40 hours talking with the billionaire back in 2015. (He’s also talked with Musk occasionally since.) We discussed how much we actually know about Musk’s politics, the evolution in how the world sees Musk and how this will change his relationship with Washington — a relationship that the billionaire has managed deftly so far, against all odds.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katelyn Fossett: Why do you think Elon Musk bought Twitter?
Ashlee Vance: Well, it is a bit of a mystery. It does not fit in with the things he’s been working on for the last 20 years. He’s definitely been more atoms than bits, and has largely ridiculed some of the more consumer-oriented and entertainment-oriented services. He’s always had a go at Facebook in particular.
Over the past few years, it has become clear that he wields Twitter in a different way than any other businessperson or figure of his stature. It’s become this tool that is used for his companies but also for his brand — that is a terrible way to put it, but you know, his persona. And he seems to have fallen in love with the service.
I have no inside knowledge of this, but my guess is that he was going to join the Twitter board, and the lawyers there were probably trying to put some restrictions on him and Elon doesn’t like restrictions. And so he just decided, “You know what? I’ll just buy the thing.” So I think there’s a bit of whimsy to all of this.
Fossett: Do you think that he expects to make money off of it?
Vance: To me, it doesn’t look like the greatest business.
It’s a company that makes money sometimes, loses money other times. It definitely has this outsized impact on the world, but it’s still hard to figure out how it makes a ton of money, and he’s paying an extraordinary amount of money for it. If you read what he says, he doesn’t care about the economics. He just thinks it’s important for free speech and all that. So I don’t know if he expects to make money out of it. But Elon has a pretty unique ability to make money out of things that are that are either struggling or other people have never managed to make money from before.
Fossett: People are concerned that he will run the company like the troll-in-chief that he’s been on the platform already and just sow chaos. But I’m wondering how that squares with what we know about how he runs companies already. Do we have any evidence to suggest that once he’s in the driver’s seat, he’ll run the company more like a conventional CEO would?
Vance: Well, there’s nothing very conventional about Elon, so I doubt it will fall into that category. At Twitter, I know there are many employees there who do work very hard on all the content moderation. But my overall impression of Twitter is that has 7,000 employees who, on the whole, don’t seem to do a whole lot of anything. It’s a service that’s barely changed over the last decade. And if you know anything about Elon, not working hard is usually not tolerated at his companies. So my overall gut feeling tells me that a lot of people will get fired.
But beyond that, I think the way Elon mostly manages his companies, there’s usually someone very high up at the companies who handles more of the day-to-day operations. If you look at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is the president. She’s been amazing; she’s helped build this enormous, tremendously successful business. Elon tends to put his focus on what he calls the “critical path,” which is like the one most pressing issue that’s stopping any one of his companies from achieving their goals at a given time. So I would assume that Twitter is going to follow that pattern. For instance, if he decides the edit button [Ed. Note: Musk polled followers on whether they wanted an edit button, a popular request of users, after Twitter announced he was joining the board of directors. Critics worry it could be used to spread false information after tweets have been widely circulated.] is sort of the critical path — most pressing immediate problem — he’s going to put all of his energy into dealing with that. If it’s the moderation stuff, you know, he would put his focus there. I have trouble imagining that he’s going to be down in the weeds on day-to-day operations of Twitter.
Fossett: I guess what I’m asking is, for instance, on the edit button … these kinds of things could have negative social ramifications if they are used to spread disinformation. But they could also be bad for the company. Does he listen to advisers about concerns like that?
Vance: He’ll listen to people, but Elon is going to do what he wants to do. And he usually goes with his intuitions, for better or worse. It works out pretty well for him on the whole. The only other part of this is that if they’re private, he has almost no fiduciary duty right now to anyone except himself.
Fossett: Do you think that he will let Trump back on?
Vance: Well, it’s hard for me to mind-read, but if you look at what he’s saying about free speech and censorship, all the signals would seem to indicate he’d be pretty loath to ban people from that platform, especially someone that a lot of people want to hear from. So my prevailing guess would be that Trump would get back on.
Fossett: What do we really know about Elon Musk’s politics? Is there anything coherent there?
Vance: Not a lot. Historically, he was pretty apolitical. I think he serves the political party of Elon Musk first and foremost. It’s really funny. There’s been a huge evolution in thinking … People sort of forget that between SpaceX and Tesla, Elon and his companies were pretty detested by the right for most of their early existence, until pretty recently. Even when Mitt Romney was running for president, during a debate, he called Tesla a loser. There was this idea that Elon was in the pocket of the left and the greenies and all that.
Elon was also apolitical in the sense that he would often donate to political candidates on either side just so long as it was helping SpaceX, for the most part, or Tesla. And so he was doing what was good for Elon. I think on social issues, this is not a guy who is a gun toting pro-life, hardcore Republican. I think in his inner core, he leans more left on issues like that. But clearly, over the last 3 to 4 years, he’s been tweeting all kinds of stuff that the right would identify with. And I think over time, he’s become a little more fiscally conservative and identifies more with traditional conservative pushes. But at the end of the day, I still think it’s all the political party of Elon.
Fossett: What is his relationship with official Washington and lawmakers there?
Vance: SpaceX is probably the company where this plays out the most. They’re competing against very large military contractors for the most part. So he found himself usually on the wrong end of Republicans who benefited from donations from those companies and fought on their behalf. So for a long time, SpaceX was seen as — less than Tesla, which was a pure right-left issue — but SpaceX was this upstart challenging military contracts and incumbents. And then over time, Space X has really ramped up its lobbying and the company’s done extremely well. And so now you’re seen as a bit of a buffoon if you’re not behind them. SpaceX is kind of in the United States’ national interest now. So he has deep ties to Washington. I mean, the country depends on SpaceX to put up astronauts and military satellites.
Tesla still been more of a counterpuncher, despite its success. The big automakers are obviously kind of favored by Biden over Tesla. And obviously, oil and gas get more benefits than Tesla. So it’s still more of an underdog.
Fossett: Do you think that owning Twitter will change that relationship at all? Can you see that being a complicating factor in those relationships?
Vance: That’s a good question. I mean, if you just look at the early take on all this, it would seem like the right is excited about the prospect of him buying this company, and that would perhaps earn him more favors from the right. I honestly do not imagine that owning Twitter would have all that much effect on what’s already been going on with SpaceX and Tesla.
I mean, you’ve got to remember, one of the smartest things Elon’s ever done is he’s got huge factories in California, in Texas. He’s got a big business in Florida, New York. You know, so he’s put these big, massive manufacturing operations in the biggest states that have both Republicans and Democrats and all these jobs involved. So I think everyone pretty much everywhere wants to be in the business of Elon Musk. It’s not like he has to go begging for a lot of favors at this point.
Fossett: You talked with him a lot for your book and a bit since. What surprised you about him?
Vance: I think the easiest way to explain Elon to some people is that he is the world’s biggest risk taker. He has a tolerance for risk that I don’t even think those people can wrap their head around because we’re not really wired that way. He’s willing to do these things that he thinks are important on a level that is just beyond comprehension for most people. He’s just the most persistent person on the planet and is willing to see everything through to the end. I think that’s one side of him.
I think the other side is — he lets his sense of humor out on Twitter — but I think people take him just way too seriously. You know, he’s got this he’s got this British sarcastic, dry sense of humor and I think people take him way more seriously that he takes himself on some of this stuff. It has a tendency to get blown out of proportion. I think the world is a little bit a game to Elon, and he’s kind of just messing around and playing it. And some of this is just to have fun. That’s maybe not great for everybody else, but I think that’s what he’s doing.
Fossett: Does he care about being liked?
Vance: I think, like everybody, he likes to be liked, I think. He’s gone through a pretty big transformation. This was a guy who was kind of a loner. Growing up, he was not in the in-crowd. Pretty much the opposite; he was bullied. And when he was first running early companies like Zip2 and PayPal, he wasn’t all that beloved within the companies and has had a pretty tough road of it since. And I think as things have gotten better and better at his companies and he’s gone from being this sort of shy person with self-confidence … I think those shackles have come off and he relishes his celebrity and the adoration that he’s received.
One part of this is easy to explain, which is that he likes to be liked, and he’s being liked on a near religious level, and I’m sure that would get in anybody’s head. I think the other part is pretty mercenary and calculating, which is that he’s able to use this enormous pulpit and adoration to get what he wants for his companies in a way that any other CEO would just dream of. [Twitter] is an incredible tool for him in a lot of ways. Tesla’s never spent $1 on advertising. Meanwhile, the auto industry is the world’s largest spender on ads. Elon can issue a tweet that generates more press than Ford can buy in an entire year. So I think a lot of it comes down to that.