Bezos, Musk, Ellison, and the Rightward Lurch of Silicon Valley

Musk and Trump
Photo: Matt McClain/Getty Images

I’m not sure it’s ever been true that Silicon Valley, as Mark Zuckerberg put it during his umpteenth address before Congress, is “a very left-leaning place.” It is a seductive narrative for Republicans like Jim Jordan, and it is certainly a useful feint for people like Zuckerberg, himself. But it doesn’t pass the smell test. Silicon Valley may be somewhat culturally liberal, but its economic value system is as unmistakably conservative as Wall Street or Houston. 

Steve Jobs dropped acid, but he also knew that he needed Foxconn to manufacture the iPhone. Sam Bankman-Fried, a top Democratic donor, makes his money from a scarcely regulated cryptocurrency exchange domiciled in The Bahamas. While the preponderance of tech executives took various stands against Donald Trump, they also welcomed his corporate tax cut. The industry was profoundly outraged when Trump moved to restrict H-1B skilled-worker visas, but Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax found few takers here.

And yet media commentators have often overlooked all of this, casting conservatives like Peter Thiel as aberrations in an otherwise unanimous Silicon Valley. To some extent that’s true: Most political donations from people in tech still go to Democrats, and the rank-and-file entrepreneurs certainly lean left, especially on issues like climate, immigration and abortion. But at the upper-most elite level, Thiel is an aberration primarily in that he spends real money on his convictions. There are plenty of center-right tech leaders these days—Marc Andreessen, John Chambers, Scott McNealy—as well as plenty of liberals who diverge from the progressive consensus in meaningful ways. Even Jack Dorsey, of the silent meditation retreats and Ferguson protests, has adopted more libertarian views on free speech, despite his push for more content moderation when he was actually in charge of Twitter. There is a great research paper from David Broockman, a well-wired political scientist at Berkeley, that makes this very point: Tech elites may be social liberals, but they are actually more conservative on regulation and labor issues than the standard G.O.P. donor.

The Trump era papered over these differences. Now that Trump is out of office, of course, industry leaders can express center-right viewpoints again without getting lumped in with the MAGA circus. Others remain self-identified liberals but have found themselves precariously out of step with the social-justice politics and Slack room activism that erupted in Trump’s wake. That shift has become increasingly apparent as some of the industry’s most visible avatars have more publicly embraced their  conservative views. In just the past week, Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, and Jeff Bezos have offered up potent reminders.

The Big Three

The loudest example, of course, is Musk, whose politics until recently aligned with his professional interests. He has called himself a “strong supporter” of Barack Obama (who supported Tesla), disliked Mitt Romney (who called Tesla a “loser”), and now routinely criticizes the Biden administration (also for snubbing Tesla). His past political donations were mostly perfunctory checks to legislators who have regulatory oversight of Tesla and SpaceX. His late-night, lib-tweaking Twitter commentary has always been provocative, so much so that it was easy to forget his day jobs were running two companies meant to combat and deal with the effects of climate change.  

Over the past several months, however, Musk has become perturbed by the rise of left wing activism and ideas—an escalation that led him to tweet last week that he is leaving the Democratic Party to vote Republican. Musk’s grievances? Covid wrist-slapping, political correctness, online censorship, a wealth tax, the aforementioned Biden snub. Some part of Elon’s heel-turn, as with his attempt to purchase Twitter, is surely a reaction to his unsympathetic treatment by Democrats and in the media, and a desire to ingratiate himself with some tribe or another. But just look at the content of his tweets nowadays to get a window into his media diet: regularly replying to alt-right influencers Mike Cernovich and other Breitbart talent, breathlessly following the Michael Sussman trial, calling one of Hillary Clinton‘s 2016 tweets about Trump a “campaign hoax.” Some of this is an act—in the latter case, Musk was razzing Twitter for not labeling it as disinformation—but it’s trolling with a purpose. 

Then there is Larry Ellison, the Oracle founder and G.O.P. mega-donor who recently committed $1 billion to help Elon buy Twitter. Ellison has been moving rightward for more than a decade, as I documented earlier this month. But last week offered a revealing example of how enmeshed he has become in Republican politics. Ellison was one of a handful of then-president Trump’s allies on a conference call, shortly after the 2020 election, about strategies to contest the results of the vote, as the Washington Post reported on Friday. Among the participants, according to court documents released last week, were Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, Senator Lindsey Graham, Fox host Sean Hannity, and election truther Jim Bopp.

The Post story was unsatisfying, though, because the specifics matter tremendously. Did Ellison think Trump was justified in trying to overturn the election? Did he help? I reached Bopp myself this week, and he described the inbound call from Sekulow as unscheduled, unexpected, and in-progress when he joined. From his perspective, the conversation was brief and focused on whether Graham should host a congressional hearing on voter fraud in the election. He also recalled that both Hannity and Graham spoke, but he had zero recollection of Ellison contributing to the conversation. In fact, Bopp told me, he didn’t even know who Ellison was until last week—although, now alerted to his politics and enormous wealth, he joked, “I’d like to know him better.”

Oracle and Ellison spokespeople declined my many entreaties over the last few days to clear things up, or to say definitively what Ellison thought of the 2020 results, or what transpired on the Sekulow call. Given the uproar over this story, that may be telling. But several close Ellison watchers I pinged told me they found his presence on the call to be out of character, and probably an isolated incident, given that Ellison is by no means in Trump’s inner or even outer circle, unlike Hannity and Graham. “The way I would interpret it is somebody brought him in for advice,” speculated one of those Ellison sources. “Larry knows databases.” 

I similarly suspect that Ellison was merely roped into the call, perhaps like Bopp with little notice. As I wrote the other day, Ellison has grown very close with Graham, and the two talk often about Republican politics. But it speaks to Ellison’s deepening involvement with the Republican Party that someone—Graham, most likely—thought he might be a valuable ally in an undemocratic attempt to keep Trump in power. Two decades ago, Ellison was golfing and nightclubbing buddies with Bill Clinton. Now, is he a potential witness for the Jan. 6 commission?

Finally there is Bezos, who has been far more carefree and personal with his tweets and Instagrams ever since he stepped down as the C.E.O. of Amazon last summer. But his posts in recent weeks have recently been almost unnecessarily provocative, caustic and high-risk, taking aim at America’s political class, Musk’s ties to China, and Biden’s record on inflation. Some sources texted me to hypothesize that Bezos is thinking about following his friend Michael Bloomberg into the presidential arena. I don’t buy that, but it is remarkable to watch Bezos—an assiduous political figure with a highly-managed public image—throwing caution to the wind and picking gratuitous Friday evening fights with the White House trolling its defunct Disinformation Board. I wouldn’t be the first to wonder whether Bezos, now no longer speaking for Amazon, sees Elon’s success in cultivating a fanbase online and wonders, why not me? 

The Party of Obama No More

Beyond the specific triggers for Ellison, Musk and Bezos, there are a few higher-level explanations for why Silicon Valley elites are lurching rightward. The first is that many tech leaders are reacting to what they see as unfair treatment by media organizations that increasingly scrutinize them like robber barons. Another is the backlash to the heightened politics of the Covid era, in which lockdowns, protests, rising crime and a bitterly contested election combined to turn nearly every facet of previously ordinary life into grist for various culture wars. 

Perhaps most salient, from the Ellison-Musk-Bezos point of view, is their belief that the Democratic Party—their de facto former home—is now defined by a terrifying level of anti-billionaire, anti-corporate, anti-tech vitriol that would have been foreign to them during the Obama era. Musk’s recent meme, portraying the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party, is not accurate—the G.O.P. has very much moved rightward, too—but it epitomized a real feeling among Silicon Valley elites. “Don’t forget the Democrats also triggered Jeff Bezos this week,” top G.O.P. fundraiser Caroline Wren tweeted last week, “meaning they have now made enemies with two individuals (Musk & Bezos) collectively worth over $459 billion.” 

I’m skeptical that people like Bezos and Musk actually will take that money and funnel it into partisan politics. And of course, there are still plenty of donors like MacKenzie Scott and Laurene Powell Jobs on the left in tech. But the political energy in Silicon Valley is trending away from Democrats in the post-Trump era.