Billionaires turn their backs on Biden: Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos go to Twitter to get political

Both Bezos and Musks have curiously found their political voices at the same time — just as labor forces take hold

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published May 21, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Jef Bezos, Joe Biden and Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jef Bezos, Joe Biden and Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

For years, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, who recently became the richest man in the world, has positioned himself as something of an ideological enigma. Online and in the media, the eccentric and outspoken billionaire has at various points in his life called himself a "socialist," a "registered independent," a "moderate,"and a "fiscal conservative." When it comes to political giving, Musk has donated to both former Presidents Barack Obama, a Democrat, and George Bush, a Republican. And in the 2020 presidential election, the Tesla executive threw his support behind Andrew Yang, an independent, and Kanye West, the pro-Trump turned anti-Trump rapper who received 70,000 votes on Election Day. 

But this week, as Musk angles to acquire Twitter, a financial undertaking that has sounded alarms amongst liberals and free speech advocates, the tech billionaire sought to put an end to all the speculation, unveiling himself as, low and behold, a Republican. 

"In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party," Musk tweeted. "But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican. Now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold."

RELATED: Trump will return: Elon Musk vows major change to Twitter under his ownership

Musk's political unmasking could prove incredibly consequential in the coming election cycle. For one, the billionaire's conservative leanings might portend a significant rollback of Twitter's content moderation policies. This is especially concerning when past elections have shown that conservatives are far more inclined than liberals to use Twitter as a means of spreading misinformation. 

But for the most part, Musk has handwaved concerns about fake news, repeatedly stressing the value of "free speech" on Twitter.   

"I think it's very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech," Musk said during a TED conference last month. "Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it's just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law."

Back in April, Musk likewise implied that too many people on Twitter "fear free speech," saying, "I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law."

To be clear, Twitter, a privately-held company, has no legal obligation to uphold free speech, a constitutional right that ensures citizens can express themselves without government coercion or censorship. But conservatives like Musk have nevertheless insisted that the company systematically "censors" unpopular viewpoints. That sentiment became especially salient after Donald Trump was officially banned from Twitter back in January of last year, just days after a 2,000-strong horde of Trump supporters violently raided the Capitol building.

At the time, Twitter made clear that it removed Trump to prevent the risk of "further incitement of violence." But Musk has promised to reverse the action, saying it was a "mistake" to ban the former president because it ostracized his base.

"Permanent bans should be extremely rare and really reserved for accounts that are bots, or scam, spam accounts," he said at a conference earlier this month. "I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump," Musk said. "I think that was a mistake, because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice."

RELATED: Elon Musk, Twitter and the future: His long-term vision is even weirder than you think

According to Zignal Labs and CrowdTangle, mentions of Trump plummeted by 34% on Twitter after the ban, and the circulation of misinformation dropped by 73%. But those numbers might increase if the former president's account is restored, potentially improving his odds of being re-elected.

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Apart from election and misinformation concerns, Musk's impending ownership of Twitter is also likely to spell adversity for labor advocates, who have in recent years steered unprecedented union efforts across a spectrum of corporate goliaths, including Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and Alphabet (which owns Google). 

This week, in his rebuke of the Democrats, Musk said that the party is "overly controlled by the unions and … class-action lawyers," calling unions "another form of a monopoly" that have "captured" President Biden.

Musk's remarks presumably come in response to the president's apparent solidarity with various union efforts throughout the country. On the campaign trail, President Biden vowed to be "the most pro-union president" in American history. That promise was tested this month, when the president arranged a meeting with Christopher Smalls, the face of union election victory by Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York. Biden said that Smalls was "making good trouble and helping inspire a new movement of labor organizing across the country." 

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And while Musk is now well-known for sensationalistic ribble-rabble, his anti-union rhetoric is not just bluster. Up until 2021, the tech billionaire had been under a three-year federal investigation by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over possible union-busting at Tesla. The agency ultimately found last year that Musk threatened to strip workers of their pay and benefits, ordering the CEO to rehire an employee who was illegally fired for leading a union effort. The NLRB has also filed a complaint against Musk over the company's alleged surveillance and intimidation of workers attempting to join a union. "Anything union or pro-union is shut down really fast," one Tesla employee told The Guardian back in 2018. "Pro-union people are generally fired for made-up reasons," said another. "We are told Tesla would go bankrupt if we unionize because we are not a profitable company yet."

As of this writing, it remains unclear whether Musk's acquisition of Twitter will come to pass. This week, the executive said that there would be no deal until the site can prove that fewer than 5% of its user base is made up of bots. To make matters more complicated, on Thursday, the billionaire was freshly accused of sexual misconduct by one of his former flight attendants, who alleged that the tech magnate exposed himself to her, rubbed her leg without consent, offered to buy her a horse in exchange for sex acts, and had Tesla arrange a $250,000 settlement to keep her silent over the incident, according to Business Insider. 

Musk, who also owns and operates SpaceX, is not the only billionaire to lock horns with the Biden administration as of late.

On Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world's second richest man, got into an online scuffle with Biden over inflation after the president suggested that he would combat the soaring cost of food and fuel with corporate tax hikes. 

RELATED: Behind the Joe Biden v. Jeff Bezos beef: What their inflation spat is really about

"You want to bring down inflation?" Biden tweeted. "Let's make sure the wealthiest corporations pay their fair share."

Bezos immediately called the president's tweet "misdirection," suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security's newly-formed Disinformation Governance Board should flag the post. 

"Raising corp taxes is fine to discuss. Taming inflation is critical to discuss. Mushing them together is just misdirection," Bezos tweeted. 

The exchange set off vigorous debate around the apparent link between inflation and corporate taxes, with many conservative pundits arguing that hikes might exacerbate price increases. 

However, Lindsay Owens, Executive Director of the Groundwork Collaborative, told Salon that corporate tax hikes would disincentivize companies from applying excessive markups to their products. 

"Since the pandemic, about 54% of the price increases we're seeing are coming from what we call the markup," she said in an interview. "That piece gets a lot less fun and a lot less lucrative," she added, when "it's taxed back and shipped off to the Treasury."

RELATED: Why Joe Biden is afraid to blame Big Business for inflation

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told CNBC that "it doesn't take a huge leap" to figure out why Bezos would disapprove of higher corporate taxes. Bezos, he said, "opposes an economic agenda for the middle class that cuts some of the biggest costs families face … by asking the richest taxpayers and corporations to pay their fair share." 

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Elon Musk Jeff Bezos Joe Biden Twitter