Elon Musk is elevating the global extreme right

The billionaire wants to advance his political program while preserving his power and wealth

Elon Musk is elevating the global extreme right
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Elon Musk in June 2023. Photo: Palazzo Chigi Press Office
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Within hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Elon Musk had inserted himself into the news cycle by providing Starlink terminals that were quickly ferried by the US military to the besieged country. Musk received great praise for his action, even as governments like those of the United States and Poland had bought many of the terminals and paid for the service being put to use by the Ukrainian army.

But by the fall, Musk’s views had shifted. A Ukrainian attempt to attack Russian forces in Crimea failed in September because its Starlink access had been disabled. In October, Ukrainian soldiers found that SpaceX had geofenced their service area, ensuring that when they got close to Russian positions in southern Ukraine they’d lose Starlink access. Musk was reportedly not only getting fed up with paying part of the cost of the service, but according to Colin Kahl, then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon who had to personally make a deferential call to the billionaire, “he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concern.” On the same call, Kahl claims Musk volunteered that he’d personally spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin, something Musk later denied.

The Pentagon negotiated a contract with SpaceX in the months that followed to take over the cost of provisioning Starlink service, which likely also included clauses against Musk’s unilateral disabling of service. Since then, Russia has reportedly also obtained thousands of Starlink terminals that its soldiers are using, and which Musk has shown no sign of disabling. This story shows Musk is not just any old tech billionaire. He’s one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, and that’s turned him into a figure who can stand alongside world leaders and governments as their equal, and in some cases even their superior as they praise him in the hopes of gaining access to his growing empire.

Musk’s shifting preferences away from Ukraine and toward Russia are indicative of a larger shift in his politics where he’s not only been speaking out in favor of right-wing issues and echoing conspiracy theories around topics like immigration and gender, but actively seeking to build an alliance with likeminded political movements the world over. In some cases, there’s a business incentive to what Musk is doing, but it’s become increasingly clear that the relationships he’s forging are not just about getting preferential access for his companies; they're about creating a world where the political agenda he champions on Twitter is the policy of governments around the world.

Ties to the extreme right

The first key international meeting Musk had with a member of the ascendent extreme right-wing axis in global politics was in May 2022 with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Musk was officially in the country to launch Starlink, promoting it as a means to connect rural schools and increase monitoring of the Amazon. As Progressive International explained, that narrative not only helped to greenwash Starlink, but also to provide a technological cover for the cuts the Bolsonaro government had been making to environmental protection and enforcement in the rainforest. Bolsonaro also praised Musk’s plan to buy Twitter as a “fresh breath of hope.” Later that year, after Musk took over the company, he fired virtually all the company’s Brazilian staff, leaving it open to right-wing influencers who promoted false narratives about election fraud.

That meeting showed how politics and business could complement one another. Musk got a new market for Starlink and helped advance Brazil’s far-right movement. But things only accelerated from there. In June 2023, he met with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, calling himself “a fan.” Modi has been credibly called a fascist, and his Hindu nationalist movement is undertaking an unprecedented crackdown on the country’s Muslim population. Musk and Modi discussed potential uses for Starlink in India and the prospect of building a Tesla factory in India. But Musk has also allowed Twitter to become an important tool of Indian government censorship. As the Washington Post reported of Twitter months after the meeting, “A company that not long ago adopted the risky strategy of fighting government censorship in the Indian courts now consistently bends to official demands.” Those demands meant taking down posts critical of the Modi regime and removing the accounts of journalists and political opponents.

A few months later, Hungarian president Katalin Novák arrived in Texas for a tour of the Tesla Gigafactory. She hails from the same party as prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has been a central figure in the growth of illiberal right-wing populism in Europe, with a particular focus on racist anti-migrant politics and similar natalist views as Musk espouses. The meeting took place because Musk hadn’t been able to attend the Demographic Summit in Budapest the week before. Soon after, he agreed with Orbán’s criticism of European migration policies on Twitter and retweeted a post from a right-wing account called Radio Genoa that called out non-governmental organizations helping save the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. “Let's hope AfD wins the elections to stop this European suicide,” the tweet read. Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a far-right German political party.

In October, Musk replied to a tweet by New Zealand’s newly elected conservative prime minister Chris Luxon, saying, “Congratulations and thank goodness!” He had just ousted the Labour Party and now leads the most right-wing government the country has seen in decades, in coalition with the libertarian ACT and nationalist NZ First parties. Musk has also intervened in the politics of his native South Africa, echoing the myth of “white genocide” spread by white nationalists to suggest Black South Africans are killing white farmers en masse, and more recently has been boosting Ireland’s far-right fringe by giving them free rein on Twitter and echoing their criticisms of the government, including on recent attempts to pass new hate speech legislation. After those interactions, Musk gave an interview to Gript, a website that promotes extreme right-wing politics.

Musk’s most recent dalliances are probably no surprise. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni is quickly becoming a driving force in Europe’s tilt to the far right. She leads the Brothers of Italy, which has direct links to the country’s fascist past. In December, Musk was the main attraction at Meloni’s annual Atreju festival for conservative youth. He joined Meloni on stage to warn of “unchecked” migration, emphasize the importance of preserving the “cultural identity” of countries like Italy, dismiss climate fears as “somewhat overblown,” and tell attendees how important it was to have more children. “If people do not have children there is no new generation,” he said, which was almost exactly what the Hungarian president was quoted as telling him months before.

Back in the Americas, Musk swiftly congratulated “anarcho-capitalist” Argentine president Javier Milei when he was elected last year and praised an unhinged speech he gave at the World Economic Forum in January. Milei acted quickly to unleash “shock therapy” on Argentina, gutting public spending and making life even worse for citizens who were already struggling under the weight of soaring inflation. Musk is one of the beneficiaries of Milei’s economic deregulation, as rules were changed to allow the launch of Starlink in the South American country. Milei also confirmed that Musk is “extremely interested” in gaining access to the country’s lithium deposits.

To top it all off, Musk met with Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu in November to clean up his image after echoing an antisemitic conspiracy theory on Twitter. In exchange for his tacit support of the genocidal war in Gaza, Musk promised Israel would have a veto over any access to Starlink in the besieged enclave, including by aid organizations.

Embrace of the Republican Party

Musk’s growing relationship to the global extreme right may be concerning, but it’s not surprising. There was a time when Musk was happy to present himself as a liberal businessman aligned with some progressive priorities like fighting climate change because it meant preferential loans and various subsidies to benefit Tesla, not to mention getting Democratic backing to transform the aerospace industry in SpaceX’s favor. But those days are long gone.

It’s reasonable to believe that Musk has long held views that are more aligned with a conservative understanding of the world, and they were turbocharged as he became more radicalized during the pandemic (arguably by the very platform he now owns) and his position in society changed. No longer is he the plucky upstart challenging the big guys in the automotive and aerospace industries. SpaceX and Tesla are now powerful forces in their own right, and that means they’re subjected to higher standards of accountability. As the Democratic Party has targeted the tech industry for greater regulation and billionaires to pay higher taxes, Musk’s incentive to turn to the political right has only grown. Conservatives are not only willing to embrace him, but will eagerly defend his power just as they do with other corporate titans.

In the United States, Musk has shifted his base of operations from Democratic California to Republican Texas after being wooed by the latter’s governor Greg Abbott. He has a long-running problem with the Securities and Exchange Commission after they held him accountable for lying about having funding to take Tesla private in 2018. He’s also hidden injuries at Tesla from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, blasted the Fish and Wildlife Agency for doing environmental reviews of SpaceX’s operations in Texas, and has a history of conflicts with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Most recently, Musk decided to have SpaceX sue the National Labor Relations Board to gut its authority, which would cause an unprecedented setback in the rights of workers across the country. That campaign is supported by the Republican Party, which Musk has been forging closer ties to in recent years. He’s explicitly backed extremist GOP candidates and told his followers to vote Republican in the 2022 primary elections. Musk now regularly scaremongers about migration across the southern US border, and even traveled to it last year to sneer at migrants with a Republican lawmaker.

In taking those actions, Musk’s business, political, and personal interests are often intertwined. He’s undoubtedly seeking to preserve his own power and grow his empire, but he’s also looking to move forward the right-wing project that he vocally advocates on Twitter and in virtually any interview he gives these days. Yet not all of his relationships are designed to move forward every one of those interests at the same time.

Mixed motivations are still dangerous

The United States is the place where Musk’s political and business interests are most closely aligned, since he lives there and his companies are based there. As Tesla and SpaceX have grown, he wants to make sure they can continue ignoring environmental and safety regulations and that his vast wealth will not be targeted by lawmakers. That creates an incentive to back the Republican Party, even beyond his political views — though it certainly helps that he agrees with them on a long list of issues. The Republicans also want to be close to the man who was lauded for so long and held up as the creator of our collective future. Seizing him for their project is politically valuable, meaning there’s mutual benefit to the alliance.

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In much of the rest of the world, right-wing movements have a similar incentive to attract Musk’s attention and support him because it boosts their profile. In some cases, those alliances are more political, like in Hungary or Italy where Musk does not have major business interests. Meanwhile, there are other instances that are much more about commercial opportunities, such as Musk’s relationship with Modi as Tesla looks to India as a future market for its products and a likely site for a factory that can make use of lower cost labor, along with Argentina’s potential to be a supplier of lithium without the problem of dealing with the left-leaning governments of Chile or Bolivia.

This is also where Musk’s relationship with China is distinct. American liberals often point to Musk’s uncritical embrace of China as evidence of his fondness for the Chinese Communist Party, but that’s a misread of the situation just as it would be for other Silicon Valley companies that have sought to break into the Chinese market. Musk built a relationship with Chinese officials because it’s a large consumer market, is ahead of the West in electric vehicle adoption, and provided low-cost manufacturing labor as he hopes to grow Tesla and export its vehicles to more markets.

Does Musk like the labor discipline and dependability that comes with a lack of Western democracy? Undoubtedly. But he doesn’t have the approach to Xi Jinping as he does with Giorgia Meloni or other members of the extreme right-wing axis. Politically, Musk is much more interested in making sure Western countries align with his values, while other parts of the world are seen through more of an economic lens. Musk approaches India like he does China: whether Modi is fascist or not is of little concern, as long as he can access its market and cheap labor on good terms. If that requires letting Modi’s government censor Twitter to make him happy, then so be it.

Ultimately, Musk is not alone in this. He’s just the most visible Silicon Valley leader to have openly embraced white nationalism and far-right politics to defend the power and wealth he accumulated since the internet’s privatization in the 1990s. It helps that the right-wing views many tech CEOs and investors advocate have a long history in the tech sector, but more than anything they’re concerned with cementing their positions at any cost. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen was quite explicit about it in last year’s techno-optimist manifesto where he cited numerous far-right thinkers, including the Italian Futurists that supported Meloni’s forebears. If fascism rises again, that’s perfectly fine with the titans of tech, as long as they get to hold onto their influence.