Elon Musk is backing Ron DeSantis for president. Strictly speaking, that’s a forward-looking prediction, but in some significant ways, it is already happening. Musk said in November that he would vote for the Florida governor if he ran, and on Wednesday night, he gave DeSantis’ nascent campaign an in-kind contribution—although maybe one that DeSantis’ team regrets. Musk and his venture capitalist sidekick David Sacks promoted and hosted a Twitter Spaces launch event for DeSantis. The thing crashed before it could get started. Once everyone got a working connection, Sacks, who has already started to lay fundraising foundations for DeSantis, joined a list of the governor’s pals in lobbing softballs in his direction until the technology gave out.
All of that is more than most rich guys and their associates do for any given campaign. But Musk’s coming support of DeSantis is an eventuality, an inevitable convergence of the various hats the billionaire wants to wear at the same time. Because of how he makes his money, how he has chosen to brand himself to his loving hordes of fans, and what his other options are, Musk will need to support DeSantis. He could, in theory, “sit out” the 2024 election cycle, but that would be a bit farcical, given that he’s already bought a major social media platform under explicitly political pretenses—to boost “free speech” at a time when it’s a conservative pet issue. Musk clearly feels a pull to be in the game, and if he wants to play in a deeper way than wasting a few bucks on a loser, he has but one choice.
Musk’s politics, as he describes them, are incoherent beyond revealing a general distaste for things that make his life less convenient. He said this month that he’ll cast his first Republican vote for president in 2024. His dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party stems from it being “overly controlled by the unions and by the trial lawyers, particularly class-action lawyers.” The former point is silly; Musk is just touchy about unions because Tesla sometimes gets in trouble for trying to crush them. President Biden just broke a rail strike, and during the two years in which the party just controlled all of Congress, it did not turn the very pro-union PRO Act into law. The point about class-action lawyers is mainly just funny, and if you polled 100 people on who ran the Democratic Party, it’s possible that you’d get zero people answering “class-action lawyers” unless you had Musk himself in your sample. (Musk has defended more class-action lawsuits than … maybe any person ever? One can see why he’d disdain lawyers.)
Musk’s description of why he’s turned toward conservatives is revealing in its flimsiness. His objections are not to actual Democratic orthodoxies of the moment, but to ones that he made up and that look designed to pave himself a lane as the reasonable guy in the room. If the Democrats are under the thumb of labor and lawyers, and thus doing things that run counter to what Musk calls “the people” rather than, say, Tesla’s share price or his own legal bills, then he can be the populist, common-sense guy standing against them. That’s different from being the conservative firebrand against them, which Musk has tried to avoid as a branding tack. He has repeatedly (including this month) called himself a moderate and noted that he voted for Biden in 2020.
And there’s where Musk begins to quickly run out of 2024 choices. He cannot come out for Biden, as that would alienate the right-wing fanbase he has been cultivating over the past few years, and he would have fewer people saying nice things to him in the replies to all of his posts. But he cannot come out for Trump, at least not yet, because backing the least popular president in the history of political science wouldn’t be super-duper moderate of him. Musk’s preferred brand positioning rests on supporting a Republican who’s plausibly broad in his appeal. In reality, DeSantis is running to the right of Trump on several issues, but at least his particular culture-war tactics sometimes align with Musk’s own free-speech and COVID-skeptical preoccupations. It’s easier to be the purported reasonable guy in the room, standing up against the woke mind virus (only someone as extremely online as Musk would think most Americans care about woke mind viruses), when you can steer clear of Donald Trump and back the guy who has already started to ape your talking points. The Republican nominee is probably not going to be someone other than Trump or DeSantis, so no matter how much Musk likes Tim Scott’s ads, the South Carolina senator cannot be the apple of this billionaire’s eye. Scott can take heart, at least, that retweets don’t require FEC filings.
But again: Most of this isn’t a matter of prediction. Musk already said he’d vote for DeSantis and gave him an easy (though technologically wonky) launch ride on a platform he bought. Sacks, one of Musk’s top guys who advises him and whom he allegedly kicks out of meetings, is already in DeSantis’ corner. Also, DeSantis seems confident enough of Musk’s support that his campaign posted a video that makes them look like running mates. I think I would not do that if I thought the owner of an influential social media platform was about to slap me down in public. Whether Musk makes a proper endorsement or starts cutting checks is the only question. Whatever energy he exerts on any candidate who actually might win the Republican primary will be on DeSantis.
What is that support worth? It’s hard to say. The cleaving of Musk’s popularity on Twitter, the little fiefdom where many of us like to roll around like pigs, is relatively clear. People on the right like him a bit more, and people on the left like him a bit less. There hasn’t historically been much polling about Musk, because he’s been just a rich guy instead of a political player who insists on putting himself at the nexus of any conversation about anything. There’s a bit more of an effort to capture real public sentiment about him now, and Republicans do seem to like him a lot more than Democrats. That would figure to make Musk’s public statements more influential in a primary, where the voters are more likely not to think he’s a weenie, than in a general election. But who knows how much sway he has? It’s an untested question. The Republican base is not outrageously online at all times and might miss a lot of what he says. Here, maybe it’s worth thinking about how Fox has pretty much sat out the streaming wars not just in sports, but in news. Musk has a megaphone, but he’s one guy and Twitter isn’t on cable.
Come general election time, Musk could be a bit of help to Trump or DeSantis. (Or he could not! Political punditry is good fun.) By launching a paid product at the same time he was making a hard-right pivot in his public persona, Musk has changed Twitter dramatically. Subscribers get their posts boosted far and wide compared to nonsubscribers, and that has made many corners of the platform into right-wing echo chambers. Musk is likely to take a financial bath on Twitter, a product he recently valued at $20 billion after a purchase at $44 billion. But he might get a win insofar as he turns Twitter into a place where it is fundamentally harder for left-wing sentiment to flourish. That seems like it’d be good for whoever is running in the red column in future elections. Then again, Twitter isn’t that popular, and while Musk’s ambition is to make it something that entrances people’s minds, the site doesn’t really do that.
At any rate, the 2024 election will be a capstone for Musk. He bought Twitter under explicitly ideological pretenses, framing it as his contribution to free expression on the internet at a moment when that was a right-of-center cause célèbre. While Musk had turned toward worrying about the dollars and cents by the time Twitter’s old management backed him into closing the deal, the money was never going to be the fun of owning Twitter. The company is, historically, a money pit. Instead, the fun of owning Twitter would come in making himself the eternal center of the internet’s attention and using his new toy to shape the world to his liking. Why buy Twitter if you won’t even dabble in buying a presidential candidate?