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The Most Useful Idiot
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The Most Useful Idiot

Trapped in Elon Musk’s world.

Elon Musk speaks during an event in Paris, on June 16, 2023. (Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

I think I’m becoming a communist.

“We know,” Trump fans will say, having been conditioned to treat contempt for their hero’s fascist inclinations as proof of leftist sympathies.

It’s not Trump who’s turning me into a pinko, though. It’s Elon Musk.

He tends to have that effect on people. Including his own girlfriends.

Conservatives believe that privatization is good. You want an organization to run efficiently and effectively? Then give the people in charge of it a strong financial incentive to make it run that way. When government officials mismanage an operation, it’s your money that they’re squandering. When their counterparts in the private sector mismanage an operation, it’s their own.

Pretty simple. But things get complicated when private actors acquire so much wealth and power that they begin to exert government-level influence over global events.

Conservatives believe that privatization is good, but they also believe that democracy is good. (I stress: Conservatives, not Republicans.) If an oligarch sets about thwarting the will of the people as expressed by its government in a life-and-death matter of great international import, what is to be done?

Boycotts? Congressional investigations? Nothing at all? Full communism? I’m open to suggestions. 

But we should think about it. Because twice in the past week, in unusually garish ways, we’ve learned that the whims of a single mega-mega-mega-rich brain-poisoned weirdo are making American culture and geopolitics more dangerous.

We could spend the rest of this newsletter spitballing theories for why Elon behaves the way he does. The Occam’s Razor explanation appeals to me instinctively: Like millions of other people his age, he’s been seduced by the populist belief that contrarianism is intrinsically virtuous. Internet tribalism has turned a healthy impulse to question authority into an unhealthy reflex to dispute the conventional wisdom in all things, even when the conventional wisdom is stuff like “Ukraine’s cause is just” or “Jews aren’t to blame for antisemitism.”

Social media is a factory for manufacturing useful idiots. Elon doesn’t just own the factory, he lives there. He’s the most Very Online person in America.

And so he’s the most useful idiot.

There are other theories. Maybe he believes what he believes because it’s worth his while financially to do so in ways we don’t fully understand—or we do fully understand. Maybe he’s an authoritarian at heart and sincerely sympathizes with some of the world’s worst regimes, separate and apart from the filthy alt-right memelord subculture he panders to.

Maybe, as several media outlets have reported, he uses drugs. Who can say?

“Musk is just a guy who says things,” writes Jonathan Last. “Sometimes for attention. Sometimes because he’s mad. Sometimes because he’s high. None of it means anything. Don’t take him literally or seriously.” I think that’s almost right. 

Not taking him seriously is the part that’s wrong. The erratic way in which Musk rules his empire, replete with his suspicious solicitousness toward some of the worst people on earth, turns out to have real consequences for our empire. To some extent, we’re all prisoners of his caprice.

There’s now reason to believe innocent people have died needlessly because of it.

On Thursday CNN published details from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk alleging that Elon singlehandedly foiled a major Ukrainian naval operation against Russia. Ukraine’s military has relied on the Starlink satellite system created by Musk’s company SpaceX to communicate in the field since the start of the war. Last year the Ukrainians launched a special operation against the Russian fleet based in Crimea that might have changed the course of the conflict had it succeeded.

It did not. At the fateful moment, Starlink failed. By design.

Elon Musk secretly ordered his engineers to turn off his company’s Starlink satellite communications network near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet, according to an excerpt adapted from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the eccentric billionaire titled “Elon Musk.”

As Ukrainian submarine drones strapped with explosives approached the Russian fleet, they “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly,” Isaacson writes.

Musk’s decision, which left Ukrainian officials begging him to turn the satellites back on, was driven by an acute fear that Russia would respond to a Ukrainian attack on Crimea with nuclear weapons, a fear driven home by Musk’s conversations with senior Russian officials, according to Isaacson, whose new book is set to be released by Simon & Schuster on September 12.

Musk reportedly described the Ukrainian plan to Isaacson as a “mini-Pearl Harbor,” which succinctly captures his moral confusion. Russia is the side that instigated hostilities in this conflict, of course; they’re the proper analogue to Japan, not Ukraine. The Ukrainian operation in Crimea wasn’t an attempt to prepare the wider battlespace for a war of conquest by decapitating the enemy’s navy. It was a defensive measure to try to end that sort of war.

When Twitter (sorry, “X”) erupted at the revelation on Thursday, Elon calmly and unremorsefully confirmed that the story was true.

By that logic, the Battle of Midway was a “major act of war and conflict escalation” by the United States Navy for which Washington should be blamed. One wonders whether President Musk would have given the order to abort that mission too.

Ukraine’s government was mortified at the news. 

Why did Elon do it? Is he simply a doofus about how to shorten a conflict, giving Ukraine just enough satellite access to hold off Russia while denying it the access it needs to win? Why, that’s as silly as, uh … Joe Biden giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to hold off Russia while denying it the weapons it needs to win.

Or did Musk succumb to the Kremlin’s usual blowhard-ery about nuclear war whenever the Russians don’t get their way? Perhaps Elon feared being seen in hindsight as the man who preferred an atomic attack to limiting Ukraine’s access to his satellite system. No decent person would have blamed him for Russia’s genocidal response in that case, but the thoroughly indecent crowd he runs with on social media would have—once they stopped cheering the spectacle of Ukrainians being vaporized.

Or, as owner and sole proprietor of the useful-idiot factory, is he just a useful idiot for Russia like his fellow tech-bro contrarian David Sacks? That accusation is hard to square with Musk’s willingness (reluctant willingness) to provide Starlink access to Ukraine in the main theater of the conflict, but the fact that he’s spoken with Vladimir Putin directly, floated terrible Kremlin-friendly “peace plans,” and made “X” much friendlier to Russian propagandists leaves us to wonder.

What term beside “useful idiot” would one use to describe a man who holds this position?

He may have saved Russia’s bacon by pulling the plug on Starlink at a potentially decisive moment. And arguably that’s not the most malicious thing he’s done lately.

Earlier this week, before the revelations in Isaacson’s book leaked on Thursday, Musk was preoccupied with a burning question: Are Jews to blame for antisemitism?

Not all Jews, I should clarify. Just the ones who criticize him for letting neo-Nazis and other alt-right zoo animals run wild on “X.” 

Let’s back up.

Shortly after he bought Twitter last year, Musk reassured users that he wouldn’t let the platform become a barnyard of red-pilled chuddery like everyone expected. He pledged to form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” that would ride herd on the fringiest customers. That sounded good.

But that’s not how Elon operates, as we’ve come to learn. He governs by whim.

No council was formed. Instead, he granted an imperial amnesty to trolls who’d been exiled by prior management and gutted Twitter’s moderation staff. The Anti-Defamation League objected and, in conjunction with other groups, called for a “pause” in corporate advertising on “X.” Later the group publicized evidence that bigotry on the platform had increased after the troll amnesty. Musk’s new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, sought to heal the rift by contacting the ADL last month and reportedly had a “productive” conversation with the organization’s CEO.

The zoo animals reacted badly.

The point of Elon’s takeover of “X,” they thought, was to make the platform safe for “free speech”—by which they mean racism, Russia apologetics, vaccine skepticism, and other strains of toxic contrarianism. Suddenly it looked like Yaccarino might try to clean up the barnyard. The hashtag #BanTheADL began trending on the platform in protest.

There are valid reasons to criticize the ADL. Many respectable conservatives have done so over the years by objecting to the progressive skew of the group’s politics. The sort of people who were using the #BanTheADL hashtag this week were … not those people.

There was so much Der-Sturmer-vintage Jew-bashing going on, in fact, that Claire Berlinski concluded the only way to convey the scale of it was to screencap dozens of examples and collect them in a post. I encourage you to scroll through and see for yourself just how many there are. And bear in mind, this isn’t mere anecdotal evidence; there’s actual data to support the belief that antisemitism has—duh—increased since Musk let a bunch of antisemites back onto the site.

Elon’s reaction to this enormous stain on his and his site’s good name was to … amplify the #BanTheADL hashtag to his tens of millions of edgelord followers.

Musk went on to blame the ADL for X’s steep decline in ad revenue and inanely proclaimed that he had little choice but to sue the organization for defamation. Predictably, the group has now had to increase security thanks to a surge in threats.

As with Ukraine and Starlink, Musk’s insouciant irresponsibility has serious consequences for innocent people.

As repulsive as all of this is, though, the tweet above blaming the ADL for the antisemitism to which it’s being subjected carries a particular, and familiar, odor. “Anti-semites love to blame Jews for whatever problems they personally perceive in the world,” Yair Rosenberg notes at The Atlantic. In this case, the eternal scapegoat is being scapegoated for Elon Musk’s ongoing humiliation as an incompetent manager:

In reality, Twitter’s cratering valuation is the fault of a far more obvious offender: Musk himself. The social-media site was already in terrible shape when the entrepreneur acquired it, shedding power users and overrun by bad actors, and the new owner has done little to reverse its trajectory. Instead, he has accelerated the decline. By allowing users to pay to prioritize their replies, Musk enabled trolls and scammers to dominate the discourse with low-quality contributions that would previously have failed to gain traction. Musk has also abandoned the company’s iconic name and logo, fired much of the site’s content-moderation team, throttled its direct-messaging capability, replaced its free TweetDeck service with an inferior paid version, and repeatedly engaged conspiracy theorists and bigots on the site, most recently the self-described “raging anti-Semite” and unapologetic white nationalist who popularized #BanTheADL. It’s hard to keep brands and users on your platform when you keep making it worse. As Musk himself has said, “advertisers avoid controversy,” and he has been a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to Twitter’s—sorry, X’s—reputation.

That’s the most damning theory of what’s driving him. The less damning yet still plenty damning alternative is that one of the world’s richest men, with one of the world’s largest megaphones, is now so immersed in contrarian tribalism that he can’t detect the very obvious bad intentions of some of his fellow travelers. His blindness has turned him into a useful idiot for the alt-right.

The most useful idiot, really.

How Tesla and SpaceX became major successes is a story that’s yet to be fully written but the trajectory of “X” suggests strongly that it’s in spite of Elon at least as much as it is because of him. “The platform designed to be the world’s public square is being driven in large part by Musk’s impulses,” the Wall Street Journal marveled on Thursday, neglecting to mention that in both of Musk’s scandals this week those impulses just so happened to redound—here and in Ukraine—to the benefit of fascists.

What is to be done?

There’s nothing to be done about Jew-baiting on “X,” or nothing official anyway. Elon paid good money to turn his platform into a barnyard. He has an indisputable First Amendment right to do so.

But you have a First Amendment right not to use it. I stopped tweeting for fun long ago but will still indulge sporadically to promote content at The Dispatch. If you’re using Musk’s service to promote your own work, fine. Exploit him at will.

But if you’re using his service for other purposes, you’re not working for yourself—you’re working for him. You’re providing him with free content to monetize. Why are you doing that, especially when alternatives are proliferating?

The question of what to do about Starlink and Ukraine is more complicated. On the one hand, Musk benefits richly from Uncle Sam’s largesse. If he’s intent on undermining the policy of the United States, which is to see Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, then perhaps Uncle Sam should haul him in for a chat.

It’s a fair point, but it raises an uncomfortable question. Why is the U.S. government forced to rely so heavily on Elon Musk in the first place for basic logistical support in Ukraine? Blaming him for the failure of the attack on the Russian navy amounts to excusing the Pentagon for not being able to provide that satellite communication capability itself.

The unhappy answer is that we need him.

The Washington Post reported recently on just how far ahead SpaceX is in the space race. “SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is the only way NASA can send its astronauts to and from the International Space Station,” the paper noted. “It launches sensitive national security satellites for the Pentagon and the National Reconnaissance Office. It launches more rockets than any other company or country—this year it has already surpassed its record last year of 61—and operates more satellites than any other entity on Earth, with more than 4,500 in orbit.”

If we didn’t want an oligarch to have veto power over Ukrainian military operations, perhaps we shouldn’t have let ourselves depend so heavily on that oligarch for so much of our military and civilian space infrastructure.

So, sure, let’s get Elon before Congress and have him explain his thinking about blacking out Starlink to Ukraine. But before we do, we’d better have a plan for how we’ll respond if we threaten to cut his money and he answers, “Do it, I dare you.” If we’re not willing to pay him, I bet he knows some people who will.

See why I’m a communist now?

Well, almost. All I need to do is convince myself that a communist regime could produce the same sophisticated capabilities that the free market has delivered in the form of SpaceX. It, er, might be a while. But stay tuned.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.