“He serves first and foremost the political party of Elon Musk”

Katelyn Fosset: Why do you think Elon Musk bought Twitter?

Ashlee Vance: Well, that’s a bit of a mystery. It doesn’t fit with the things he’s been working on for 20 years. It was certainly more atoms than pieces and largely ridiculed some of the more consumer and entertainment oriented services. He always tried Facebook in particular.

Over the past few years, it’s become clear that he uses Twitter in a way unlike any other businessman or figure of his stature. It’s become this tool that’s used for his businesses but also for his brand – that’s a terrible way to put it, but you know, his personality. And he seems to have fallen in love with the service.

I don’t have any inside knowledge on this, but I guess he was going to join the Twitter board, and the lawyers there were probably trying to put restrictions on him and Elon doesn’t like them limitations. And so he just decided, “You know what? I’m just going to buy the thing. So I think there’s a bit of fantasy in all of this.

Foset: Do you think he hopes to make money from this?

Vanced: To me, that doesn’t sound like the biggest business.

It’s a business that makes money sometimes, loses money other times. He certainly has this outsized impact on the world, but it’s still hard to figure out how it makes a ton of money, and he pays an extraordinary amount of money for it. If you read what he says, he doesn’t care about the economy. He just thinks it’s important for free speech and all that. So I don’t know if he hopes to make money from it. But Elon has a pretty unique ability to make money from things that are struggling or that other people have never been able to make money from before.

Foset: People fear that he will run the company like the boss troll he once was on the platform and just wreak havoc. But I wonder how that squares with what we know of how he already runs businesses. Do we have any evidence to suggest that once he’s in charge, he’ll run the company more like a conventional CEO would?

Vanced: Well, there’s nothing very conventional about Elon, so I doubt he falls into that category. At Twitter, I know there are a lot of employees who work very hard on all content moderation. But my overall impression of Twitter is that it has 7,000 employees who, overall, don’t seem to be doing much. It’s a service that has barely changed in the last decade. And if you know anything about Elon, not working hard isn’t usually tolerated in his companies. So my general intuition tells me that a lot of people are going to get fired.

But beyond that, I think the way Elon primarily runs his businesses, there’s usually someone very high up in the businesses who runs the day-to-day operations more. If you look at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is the president. She was amazing; she helped build this huge and hugely successful business. Elon tends to focus on what he calls the “critical path,” which is like the most pressing issue that’s keeping one of his companies from achieving their goals at any given time. So I guess Twitter is going to follow that pattern. For example, if it 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 – the most pressing immediate problem – he’s going to put all his energy into dealing with it. If it’s moderation, you know, he would focus on that. I have a hard time imagining he’s going to be in the weeds on Twitter’s day-to-day operations.

Foset: I guess what I’m asking is, for example, the edit button… that kind of stuff could have negative social ramifications if used to spread misinformation. But they could also be bad for the business. Does he listen to councilors about concerns like that?

Vanced: He will listen to people, but Elon will do what he wants. And he usually goes with his hunches, for better or for worse. It works pretty well for him overall. The only other part of that is if they’re private, he has almost no fiduciary duty right now to anyone but himself.

Foset: Do you think he’ll let Trump back?

Vanced: Well, I have a hard time reading minds, but if you look at what he says about free speech and censorship, all the signals seem to indicate that he would be quite reluctant to ban people on this platform, especially someone who a lot of people want to hear from. So my dominant guess would be that Trump would return.

Foset: What do we really know about Elon Musk’s politics? Is there anything consistent there?

Vanced: Not a lot. Historically, it was quite apolitical. I think he primarily serves Elon Musk’s political party. It is really funny. There’s been a huge shift in thinking…People kind of forget that between SpaceX and Tesla, Elon and his companies were pretty hated by the right wing for most of their existence until fairly recently. Even when Mitt Romney was running for president, in a debate he called Tesla a loser. There was this idea that Elon was in the pocket of the left and the greens and all that.

Elon was also apolitical in the sense that he often donated to political candidates on either side as long as he helped 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 hard-line pro-life Republican. I think deep down he leans more to the left on issues like that. But clearly, over the past 3-4 years, he’s been tweeting all sorts of things that the right would identify with. And I think over time he’s become a bit more fiscally conservative and identifies more with traditional conservative leanings. But at the end of the day, I still think it’s all of Elon’s political party.

Foset: What is his relationship with official Washington and lawmakers there?

Vanced: SpaceX is probably the company where this plays out the most. They are mostly in competition with very large military contractors. So he usually found himself on the wrong side of the Republicans who benefited from the donations of these companies and fought on their behalf. So for a long time SpaceX was seen as – less than Tesla, which was a pure right-to-left problem – but SpaceX was this upstart that defied military contracts and incumbents. And then over time, Space X really stepped up its lobbying and the company did extremely well. And so now you’re considered a bit of a jester if you’re not behind them. SpaceX is somehow in the national interest of the United States now. So he has deep ties to Washington. I mean, the country depends on SpaceX to install astronauts and military satellites.

Tesla has always been more of a counter-puncher, 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. It is therefore even more of an outsider.

Foset: Do you think owning Twitter will change that relationship at all? Do you see that as a complicating factor in these relationships?

Vanced: It’s a good question. I mean, if you just look at the beginning of it all, it would seem that the right is excited about the prospect of him buying this company, and it might win him more favors from the right. Honestly, I can’t imagine owning Twitter would have that much of an effect on what’s already happening with SpaceX and Tesla.

I mean, you have to remember, one of the smartest things Elon has ever done is he has huge factories in California, Texas. He has a big business in Florida, New York. You know, he 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 Elon Musk’s business. It’s not like he has to beg for many favors at this point.

Foset: You talked a lot with him for your book and a little since. What surprised you about him?

Vanced: I think the easiest way to explain Elon to some people is that he’s the biggest risk taker in the world. He has a tolerance for risk that I don’t even think these people can understand because we’re not really wired that way. He is willing to do those things he thinks are important on a level that is beyond most people’s comprehension. He’s just the most persistent person on the planet and he’s willing to see it through to the end. I think that’s a side of him.

I think the other side is – he lets his sense of humor out on Twitter – but I think people take it too seriously. You know, he’s got this dry, sarcastic British sense of humor and I think people take him way more seriously than he takes himself on some of these things. It tends to bloat out of proportion. I think the world is a bit of a game for Elon, and he just messing around and playing in it. And some of that is just for fun. It might not be great for everyone, but I think it does.

Foset: Does he care about being loved?

Vanced: I think, like everyone else, he likes to be liked, I think. He went through a pretty big transformation. He was a guy who was a little lonely. Growing up, he was not in the crowd. Pretty much the opposite; he was intimidated. And when he first ran companies like Zip2 and PayPal, he wasn’t well liked within the company and has had a pretty rough road ever since. And I think things have gotten better and better in his businesses and he’s gone from being that kind of shy person to being confident… I think those shackles have come loose and he’s relishing his fame and the adoration he received.

Part of that is easy to explain is that he likes to be loved, and he’s loved on an almost religious level, and I’m sure that would pop into anyone’s head. I think the other part is pretty mercenary and calculating, which is to say, he’s able to use that huge pulpit and that adoration to get what he wants for his businesses in a way that everything other CEO would dream. [Twitter] is an amazing tool for him in so many ways. Tesla has never spent $1 on advertising. Meanwhile, the automotive industry is the biggest ad consumer in the world. Elon can post 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.


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