Why Elon Musk is the second most important person in MAGA

Tesla and SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk speaks with President Donald Trump speaks in the SpaceX command center at Kennedy Space Center, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

One of the most remarkable developments of the new century has been the concentration of right-wing power and adulation in two men. Donald Trump is the obvious one, the unquestioned king of the American right. But easier to miss if you’re outside the MAGA world is the central importance of Elon Musk.

We’re familiar with Trump’s arc, of course. But why is Musk so important to the right? Why is a reported illicit drug user and unmarried father of 11 children by three women, a man whose social media site, X, formerly Twitter, is overrun with hatred and pornography, celebrated across the length and breadth of the new right, including parts of the Christian right?

The answer is that if Trump is MAGA’s champion, Musk is its gatekeeper. He doesn’t just use his immense reach (he has 174 million followers on X) to fight the left; he owns the right wing’s public square. This is because outside of X, the public isn’t reading the right. And as a result, X now shapes the right as much as even Fox News.

On Feb. 22, a website called The Righting released an analysis using Comscore data to compare web traffic at top right-wing sites from January 2020 to January 2024. The findings are surprising: Right-wing media appears to be struggling even more than mainstream media. Of the top right-wing sites in 2020, only Newsmax gained audience over the past four years. Every other right-wing site lost visitors, and most lost a staggering percentage of them.

For example, The Righting reports that The Washington Examiner lost 66% of its visitors. The Washington Times lost 82%. Breitbart lost 87%, and The Daily Wire 73%. Aside from Newsmax and Fox News (which lost only 24% of its visitors), every other right-wing site has lost at least half its visitors in four years. Some have lost so many that The Righting could no longer measure their reader numbers.

In fact, the loss is so profound that there are individual articles and columns in The New York Times that get more visitors than all of the content that many of these sites post for an entire month. As a practical matter, this means that social media — and principally Musk’s X — becomes the central way in which many right-wing figures reach the public.

There are several consequences of this reality. It’s altering the way the right speaks. People will be naturally prone to focus most of their efforts on the medium through which they interact with the most people. A vast majority of people who interact with my work, for example, do so by reading my pieces, not by viewing my social media posts. My written work is the central focus of my professional life, while my social media posts are essentially an afterthought.

But what if that balance is reversed? It bends a person (or a movement) around the attitudes of social media and away from the kinds of arguments that require the length of a column or essay. Social media creates not a marketplace of ideas so much as a gallery of takes, where you can spend hours doomscrolling through short videos and snappy retorts.

That’s how a movement transfers its allegiance from the ideas of a man like William F. Buckley Jr. to an X influencer like @Catturd2 and his 2.4 million followers. It’s one reason a person like Tucker Carlson devolves from an interesting, idiosyncratic writer and thinker to an online shock jock and outrage merchant.

This transformation has the effect of further radicalizing the right. There’s a “Can you top this?” dynamic to posting that pushes people to extremes. In the offline world, paranoia is a liability. It inhibits you from seeing the world clearly. In parts of the online world, you’re considered a rube if you’re not paranoid, if you’re not seeing a leftist plot around every corner, if you’re not believing that Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s romance is a Biden administration psy-op that culminated with rigging the Super Bowl.

Moreover, a social media-centered movement understands what to think — the marching orders, however incoherent, typically trickle down from Trump — but often breaks down on the why. To take one vivid example, last month Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz interviewed the founder of the popular X account Libs of TikTok, a woman named Chaya Raichik. Libs of TikTok is one of the most influential accounts in red America. Her posts don’t just trigger public outrage (and sometimes spawn an avalanche of threats against her targets); they directly affect legislation. Yet the interview is agonizing to watch. Time and again, Raichik proves unable or unwilling to articulate the basis for her beliefs. Her attitude is clear. Her ideas are not.

Finally, this dependence on social media is shaping the right’s position on free speech. As the platforms they created lose traffic, it becomes even more important that right-wing figures secure their place on the platforms they did not create. Thus, the same Republican Party that circled its wagons to protect corporate speech and the corporate exercise of religion in Supreme Court cases involving Citizens United, Hobby Lobby and 303 Creative has now passed laws in Florida and Texas trying to dictate private companies’ moderation policies.

To be clear: The dynamics of social media are corrosive to both right and left, and it’s not just right-wing sites that are losing readers. (The Righting also reported that CNN had lost 20% of its visitors, for example.) Left-wing activists on social media can be just as conspiratorial and vengeful as the worst actors on the right. But there’s been a substantial divergence. Whereas pre-Musk Twitter was once a center of the left-leaning journalistic and activist universes, they have substantially abandoned the site as a sideshow. For the right, meanwhile, Musk’s X has become the main stage.

It’s hard to think of a worse pair of human beings to shape the character of a movement than Donald Trump and Elon Musk. Yet here we are, with Trump controlling the right’s access to power, and Musk increasingly controlling the right’s access to the public. At best, those on the right who wish to maintain that access must cynically ignore, rationalize and minimize the two men’s profound flaws. At worst, it means actively embracing their values to curry favor. Like Trump’s ugly, erratic politics, Musk’s website is substantially contributing to the devolution of thinking on the right. The ideas are in retreat. It’s the attitude that matters now.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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