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Unpacking Elon Musk’s inexplicable donations to Republican campaign groups

There are a few problems with Musk's rationale.

Business magnate at The Metropolitan Museum on May 07, 2018 in New York City.  (CREDIT: Ray Tamarra/GC Images)
Business magnate at The Metropolitan Museum on May 07, 2018 in New York City. (CREDIT: Ray Tamarra/GC Images)

Elon Musk, the visionary inventor who founded Tesla and SpaceX, is facing a public backlash over his decision to donate $38,900 to a Republican political action committee.

Recent FEC disclosure forms revealed the donations to a group called “Protect the House” which aims to bolster campaigns of vulnerable House members.

Musk, responding to the resulting outcry, explained on Twitter that he views the donations not so much a question of largesse, as a matter of political expediency.

Donating to Republicans means you can “maintain an open dialogue,” he wrote. He explained that having made a donation to a politician ensures that someone like him doesn’t get the door slammed in his face when he tries to convince them to change their approach to something like climate change.

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Musk said his donations to the GOP actually give him more political leverage with Republican lawmakers who are “willing to listen when I call to object about issues that negatively affect humanity.”

There are a couple of problems with this thinking.

First, if climate change-denying Republicans who push agendas that negatively affect humanity were not running all three branches of government, Musk would not have to call them to object to their policies. Funding their political efforts merely helps them stay in power.

Second, the House GOP’s campaign effort is not the only possible recipient of Musk’s money. Even in an increasingly-radicalized Republican party, there remain moderates who do not deny the scientific reality of climate change. There are Republican and conservative climate advocacy groups such as RepublicEn. Musk could establish a dialogue with groups like these, instead of giving his financial support to the increasingly extreme members of the House GOP.

Also, let’s face it: It’s not as if Musk gets the door slammed in his face a lot. He already has a huge microphone and the economic influence to create his own open dialogue. Republicans of all sorts seek his advice regardless of whether he gives them any of his cash.

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Musk has given zero dollars to the Trump campaign or the RNC, but Trump invited him to be on three advisory panels, including the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative council in early 2017. Musk even appeared at a meeting of tech leaders in Trump Tower before Trump was inaugurated. Musk stayed on the councils until June of last year when Trump pulled America out of the Paris climate accord.

It should not have been shocking that Trump pulled the country out of Paris because most of the Republican Party has been calling for the same thing ever since President Obama brought the country into the agreement along with literally every other country on the planet. In fact, only four House Republicans asked Trump to stay in the accord.

With his contributions to House GOP campaign efforts, Musk finds himself in some peculiar company. He just makes it into the top 50 donors to the House Republican PAC, a donor group that includes conservative bankroller Sheldon Adelson and several large fossil fuel industry leaders.

Musk said he donates a “nominal annual amount” to “both parties” every year “automatically” and had until now not seen the checks.

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Yet last year he donated $33,900 to the National Republican Campaign Committee, as well as maxing out to Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Earlier this year he gave $2,500 to the Democratic Midterm Victory Fund. In the past several election cycles, while he has given to both parties and key California political figures, his largest donations have gone to House Republican campaign groups.

Earlier, during Obama’s first term, he maxed out to the Democratic National Committee and steered clear of the House GOP committees. This suggests that Musk follows the rubric of donating to ascendant political groups. Other large companies like Google and Apple also donate to both parties using similar arguments, while also trying to maintain a socially-conscious approach to many issues alongside their monetary philanthropy. That balance is getting harder as radicalism ensnares the current GOP.

His political donations aside, Musk has done a lot of good. As ThinkProgress’ Joe Romm reported earlier this month following a Tesla production milestone of 5,000 cars per week, “Elon Musk almost single-handedly revived the domestic and global electric vehicle (EV) market.” Musk has said he started Tesla in part to combat climate change and take down the fossil fuel industry.

He also donates generously to “humanitarian” causes. In his own defense, Musk said what he donated to the GOP was “about 0.5%” of what he donated to” the Sierra Club. The environmental group’s executive director, Michael Brune, said on Twitter that Musk has donated $6 million to Sierra Club’s climate advocacy.

The billionaire inventor already had been having a rough few months prior to the backlash over his political contribution.

Musk criticized the media for its reporting on Tesla’s failure to report on-site injuries and problems with the braking system of its Model 3 passenger cars.

And on Sunday, Musk was busy fending off criticism that his offer of assistance earlier this month to help rescue several Thai children trapped in an underwater cave was merely a ploy to garner publicity and self-promotion. He fanned the flames of the controversy however, by inexplicably maligning a British cave diver involved in the rescue.