It’s been a rough weekend for Elon Musk, and it’s not letting up: the Tesla CEO came under sudden and harsh scrutiny Saturday for political contributions to conservative politicians and campaign groups. Detractors, primarily on Twitter, say the donations contradict Musk’s purportedly pro-environment and socially progressive image, while illustrating deeper problems with the role of money in politics.
The controversy appears to have been kicked off by reports, from outlets including Salon, on new Federal Election Commission filings showing that Musk donated $38,900 to a Political Action Committee named Protect the House. Other contributors to the same fund include NFL owner Robert McNair and casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, both of whom have made large contributions to President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
Critics have characterized Musk’s contribution as support for a party that opposes much of what he claims to stand for. Above all, the GOP has long been affiliated with attempts to deny the science that predicted climate change, while Musk created an entire company, Tesla, aimed at spreading green-energy technologies.
Musk has been vigorously defending himself against critics, primarily by describing his contributions as aimed at getting access across the political spectrum, not at supporting a Republican agenda.
Musk has also pointed out that characterizations of his contribution have been misleading. The Salon piece described him as “one of the largest donors for a House Republican PAC,” but records show the contribution barely put him in the top 50 for the PAC. Adelson, McNair, and other actual top donors to the fund contributed $371,500 each—nearly 10 times as much as Musk and SpaceX. Further, some detractors may have mistaken the characterization as claiming Musk is a top donor to the Republican party as a whole.
The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, has defended Musk against accusations that he isn’t living up to his own P.R.
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Of course, despite his concerns about the environment and human rights, there are other substantive reasons Musk might want to support Republicans, including their support for tax cuts for the wealthy and limitations on workers’ organizing rights.
And the PAC contribution is only part of Musk’s donations to the GOP. As CNBC points out, public records show that Musk and his companies have donated widely to candidates and campaign organizations of both parties, roughly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Musk’s claim to simply be buying political access with those contributions is itself problematic for many. Some saw it as evidence that the U.S. political system as a whole has become entirely beholden to money, rather than citizens, with large corporations playing an outsized role.
The vitriol generated by Musk’s contributions can be explained in one word: Trump. Musk has previously expressed opposition to the Trump administration, including publicly opposing Trump’s immigration agenda and resigning from Trump’s tech industry advisory council in June 2017 after Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Musk stood in stark contrast to his PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who loudly supported the Trump campaign.
But Musk’s contribution to Protect The House significantly undermines that stance. The group is specifically aimed at preserving a Republican majority in the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterm elections, against a predicted “Blue Wave” that could put Democrats in control. Winning a majority in the House would allow Democrats to push back at least somewhat against Trump administration policies, as well as potentially ramping up investigations into allegations of corruption by the Trump campaign, White House staffers, and the president himself.