After Ron DeSantis’s glitch-riddled presidential campaign launch on Wednesday, Donald Trump did something entirely predictable: he mocked him on social media. The former President posted a video with the words “Ron! 2024” superimposed on a SpaceX rocket going up in flames.
But the needling was aimed at more than just his most formidable 2024 rival. It was also a repudiation of Musk, the owner of both Twitter and SpaceX, who in recent months has become something of a hero to the MAGA right.
After purchasing Twitter, Musk swiftly reinstated the accounts of Trump allies who were removed under the previous ownership for spreading misinformation. Then he released the so-called Twitter Files, a series of internal documents that showed the company’s deliberations on crucial content moderation decisions. Republicans widely cited the material as evidence that the platform had been systematically suppressing conservative speech. Musk has further amplified right-wing banter to his more than 140 million followers. And last month, he welcomed the recently fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson to launch a new show on Twitter.
But now, the MAGA-Musk relationship is far more complicated. While the billionaire has made Twitter a haven for hard-right Trumpian voices, he’s appeared to cross the man who leads the MAGA movement, which has been a source of many of his most loyal supporters since taking over the influential communications platform, even as Trump has stayed on his alternative site Truth Social.
Musk tweeted last year that he would support DeSantis for president if he ran. In April, he appeared on Carlson’s show, then still on Fox, and suggested that he didn’t want Trump back in the White House: “I would prefer, frankly, that we put someone, just a normal person as president.” He’s continued to send messages that he’s eager for an alternative to Trump. On Monday, he raised eyebrows after retweeting South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s presidential announcement video. Then on Wednesday night, he participated in DeSantis’s campaign launch during a live audio conversation on Twitter, which he co-moderated with the venture capitalist and GOP donor David Sacks.
Despite his comments last year, Musk has tried to tamp down the perception that he’s endorsing DeSantis; he suggested at a Wall Street Journal forum on Tuesday that he’s merely promoting his social media firm. But he’s still been drawing the ire of some of the former President’s fiercest allies and surrogates, who see him as a self-interested businessman whose proclamations are disingenuous.
“Sacks and Musk are oligarchs,” Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon tells TIME. “DeSantis comes from billionaires’ lunch to launch at an oligarch’s ball.” (The Florida governor held a lunch on Wednesday with donors at the Four Seasons in Miami before the Twitter Spaces event.)
Musk’s latest moves have also made some MAGA influencers worried about whether he may tilt the platform’s scales during the primary. “The thing that I’m concerned about is, will Elon suppress Trump supporters on the website?” says Alex Bruesewitz, a GOP consultant and CEO of the Trump-allied firm X Strategies. “Will Community Notes be biased in one direction over the other?” he asks, referring to the site’s fact-checking service. “Those are things that we’re gonna have to wait and see.”
Hours after the DeSantis campaign launch, a pro-Trump Super PAC’s tweet criticizing DeSantis’s record in Congress showed a Community Note with points undermining the attack.
To Peter Loge, a political communications professor at George Washington University, the DeSantis Twitter launch was designed as “a clever political stunt” that would be mutually beneficial to both parties. “This isn’t a complicated political strategy,” Loge tells TIME. “Elon Musk wants money and attention. Ron DeSantis desperately needs somebody to pay attention to him.”
Trump’s team declined to comment on Musk’s involvement in the announcement, but one Trump adviser teased the Florida governor for his venue choice, implying that it was indicative of the common perception that he’s socially awkward. “Announcing on Twitter is perfect for Ron DeSantis,” they told TIME. “This way he doesn’t have to interact with people and the media can’t ask him any questions.”
But even as Musk has been muddying his stature among the MAGA faithful, some of Trump’s supporters in Congress remain optimistic that he will live up to the identity he’s cultivated in their orbit as a speech-rights absolutist.
“I don’t know that Elon will suppress MAGA,” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, a Florida Republican who has endorsed Trump, told TIME. “From what I hear and from his actions that I have observed, he is very much so a libertarian when it comes to free speech. He spent a large portion of his fortune on Twitter to show how important free speech is and then handed over the Twitter Files so we could investigate.”
Luna, a social media influencer before arriving to Capitol Hill, sits on the House Oversight Committee, which is currently investigating Hunter Biden. The panel held a hearing earlier this year focused largely on the Twitter Files’ first installment, in a session that highlighted communications between the company’s top executives on the decision to suppress the original New York Post story on the president’s son’s laptop.
While Musk has unambiguously aligned himself with the American right since his $44 billion Twitter acquisition, he hasn’t always been in lock-step with the right-wing nationalist populists who comprise the MAGA movement. He’s widely seen as sympathetic to Vladimir Putin; he once called one of the Russian President’s ally’s tweets predicting an end to the Russia-Ukraine war an “Epic thread!” But Musk has also been providing Ukraine with satellites that have served as vital to its self-defense. At the same time, he’s corporate tycoon who created an electrical vehicles company, a line of business that’s not exactly a favorite among the far-right.
Meanwhile, his rhetoric has been increasingly reactionary. In October, days after the Twitter purchase, he shared a conspiracy theory about former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul. A few months later, he channeled conservative grievances by tweeting, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.”
That may have gained him adulation among MAGA diehards, even as he diverges with them on some core policy issues. He’s also resurrected their ability to participate on the platform with arguably the most influential political audience in the world. But Trump and his associates may not be as forgiving over anything seen as a direct assault on Trump the man. Says Bruesewitz: “Just because he says right-wing things doesn’t mean that conservatives are going to give him a pass.”
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