Is Elon Musk the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy? with Puck's Teddy Schleifer

Oct 5, 2022 35 min listen

With one tweet about the outlines of a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, the world's richest man (as of the Bloomberg index on October 5) Elon Musk elicited a derisive response from Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, waves of accolades from Russian government sites, and tons of international press with scholars debating the merits of his proposal. Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin ask Puck's Teddy Schleifer if this is a new billionaire model of international relations or a one-time global phenomenon.

How are monied interests shaping foreign policy ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November? And where is dark money flowing?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming in a minute or two Teddy Schleifer from Puck News who is going to talk to us about billionaires, power, and influence.

But before we get to him and also as part of the conversation that I want to have with you, Nick, is: What is going on with Ukraine? We did two episodes on Ukraine, we have been looking at Ukraine, and you have been doing a ton of work on Ukraine in the last few months and weeks. We just had recent interviews with you at Newsweek, and soon the new issue of Orbis will be coming out, where you are the editor, with a piece by me on Ukraine, digital war, and how war has changed with Twitter, and we will be talking about Twitter with Teddy in a second.

Before we go there, let's talk about the recent gains that Ukraine has made on the battlefield. Is that expected, Nick? Are you shocked? Now, what is even more shocking is that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) said: "No, we're going to cut your supply. You cannot control oil prices." How is that going to affect midterms? What is going on? We try to compartmentalize these issues, but it sounds like Ukraine is everywhere all the time, that yellow-and-blue flag flying from a concert in Madison Square Garden for Pet Shop Boys to The New York Post cover. What is going on with Ukraine?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Ukraine sits at the center of a lot of things that are happening and that do connect to the doorstep. Let's start with: Ukraine has made very good use of Western military aid and intelligence. I think it has not been appreciated the extent to which the Ukrainians reformed their own military to be able to use this aid, and they are pushing the Russians back on the battlefield. They are trying to do this now to show that they can succeed because what the Ukrainian government is worried about is that sooner or later the aid might stop or there might be pressure to engage in a settlement with Russia. This is of course the context of Elon Musk's supposed "peace plan" for Ukraine and Russia, motivated in part by the sense that if Russia is losing too badly that we will we have a nuclear scare, which of course has direct doorstep impacts for people around the world.

Connected to that, OPEC+ today decided that they want to keep oil prices where they are. They would rather make money on selling fewer rather than larger quantities of energy, and this has real impacts again on that aid that Ukraine is depending on. The flags are out, people are wearing them, people are flying them, but some polling data that was done by JL Partners from London says that winter could be very decisive in terms of drops in public support as energy prices go up and as the economies are not doing as well. So we see OPEC in its alliance with Russia essentially seeing energy as a form of influence on the West, that this in turn could effect the level of Western support for Ukraine, and then do people start to embrace an Elon Musk peace plan by saying, "Well, we now need to stop this conflict because we need to bring energy prices down and get us out of the global struggle?"

If the Ukrainians can continue to do better as they have been doing already on the battlefield, that changes a lot of these dynamics as well, so it is a very fast-paced story. For all of the reporting that says people are losing interest in the Ukraine story in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, it does sit at the heart of everything from what you are paying at the pump to the economic slowdown and supply chains, and for the first time in 30-plus years the nuclear question is back on the table.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We are going to talk about that and more, especially more about Elon, with Teddy right now.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Teddy. I am so excited to have you on today of all days but also especially because of the work you do over at Puck explaining how the elite are remaking the world in their image. We feel that is an area we need to explore here at The Doorstep and bring that message home to people who may not be connecting the dots. We will talk a little bit about a recent survey of what Americans think about billionaires, especially tech billionaires, but the lead-in to our discussion today is this idea of Elon Musk as foreign policy expert and his tweet about a peace deal in Ukraine.

I want your sense from covering Silicon Valley and Musk: What on a macro level is he trying to do? Is he trying to get people to come on Twitter because he is now definitely buying it? Does he really care? What is going on here? What are your thoughts?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: Sometimes I think that people can almost make these characters into aliens, that these are individual people who have some masterstroke and are almost deities who are making decisions and playing 3-D chess. The reality is that Elon Musk is just a guy. All the people we cover have the exact same genetic code, no matter what they put in their bodies, as the rest of us do. Elon Musk is entitled to his opinion about what he thinks should happen in Ukraine, and Elon Musk is a guy with a phone and a Twitter feed. I think he has over 100 million followers as of now.

The only difference between us and him is that a lot more people listen to his opinions, but I don't necessarily think there is some strategy here. Elon Musk reads the news, Elon Musk—as we know from the texts he was sending to fellow executives and bankers in Silicon Valley—has been very concerned about the war in Ukraine, particularly its implications financially, but also he has tweeted publicly about how he has been concerned about human rights abuses and the war in Ukraine. He set up Starlink services in the country, which seems to have gone over pretty well. I have not seen any reporting that suggests otherwise.

So he is a guy with lots of resources, he is a guy who reads the news, and he is a guy who cares. The difference is that he can articulate his opinions to a much bigger audience than we can. Obviously there was a brushback pitch that he got over the last 48 hours. I am not an expert on the wisdom of his policies, but I think it is fair to say that it has been widely panned. Who knows? Maybe the expert consensus on Ukraine is wrong and Elon Musk will be right, but certainly the reaction has been negative. That is how Twitter works for any of us. You have a thought, you tweet your thought, and people disagree with your thought. In this case the stature of the people involved is much greater.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I want to get at that question of stature and also how people in the media, in the policy community, and in the general public react when an Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or someone decides, "I have an idea." As you said, we all have a right to ideas, we all have a right to have a voice, and yet there seems to be a willingness to at least grant a sense, "Well, we need to listen to this," or "This is a voice," even when in Musk's case—not a foreign policy expert, not much of a background either in Russian or Ukrainian affairs, and yet this proposal. I want to ask you: Is there something about particularly people in a tech a sense that they are problem solvers or that "They get the job done" in a way that experts and politicians don't?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: That's a good point. I think there is an element of that here.

I can almost make a comparison to COVID-19 and the ways in which tech elites thought about COVID-19, which as we remember the beginning of COVID-19 was at the end of the Trump administration, and there was this sense from tech leaders that Trump—but society more broadly—was botching it. Lots of tech leaders, for instance, were early to the idea of masks and early to the idea that COVID-19, even in January and February of 2020, was serious.

Expert consensus can be wrong of course, and tech elites—obviously I should say I am over-generalizing here, but play along—can be wrong and that the know-how that tech and Silicon Valley have developed with things like disintermediation, the ability to own direct consumer relationships, and the anti-establishment ethos of frankly the entire technology industry. Does that play a role here? Maybe. Elon is sitting there saying, "Hey, why do I care what "the Blob" thinks about Russia or Ukraine? The Blob can be wrong." The Blob can be wrong, and I think there is probably an element of anti-establishmentism in how Elon thinks about this.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: To be fair, to defend him, the Blob, left to its own devices, might not have gotten Internet service to Ukraine for years. The Russians would have taken down the existing network. So I think there is a sense that getting the job done and antiestablishment thinking can get you through.

Also, the level of engagement, maybe touch on that. We had President Zelenskyy himself on Twitter—and that says something about the change; one might be hard-pressed to think of JFK or someone else doing this in a pre-Internet social media age—and sovereign heads of countries engaging with again Musks, Bezoses, and so on as if they are almost their peers.

Is that simply because of Twitter followers? Is it because of the bank accounts? What is it about this group where we have a certain degree of deference that we don't always give, even with celebrities? If a celebrity had proposed this peace plan, it would have had potentially the same amount of followers. Ariana Grande could have said, "I have a peace plan for Ukraine," and it would have gone to 100 million followers. I don't know that it would have gotten the same level of serious engagement that Musk—as you said, even if most people are turning the Musk plan down, they engaged with it.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: That is an interesting point. Take someone like Ariana Grande, who has a massive public profile and has followers, and it is not purely based on the cult element here. Elon has been declared a "Serious Person" and therefore deserves—Zelenskyy has a lot of things he can do with his time. Why is he weighing in here? It's a sign of Elon's influence, I guess. What do you think? Does that say something about business culture in the United States, or is it Elon-specific?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am going to throw out a hypothesis here, and it's something I think that you follow closely, Teddy. It's this idea that businesspeople are getting very involved in politics. We don't talk about it enough. You cover it. Your last couple of pieces have been about Peter Thiel and what he is doing and Sheryl Sandberg and her donations to the American Civil Liberties Union for abortion rights. These things are going on, but they are not getting as much play in the press on a wide scale as something else might.

I think this same ethos of participating in the political process is participating in the international political process. I don't think there is this differentiation. I think that international and national have become more one than in decades past. I think because of the globalized nature of the world, people are not separating out issues as much. That is my hypothesis. I'm throwing that out to both of you.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I would throw out also: Is there a question that people see many sectors of business but tech in particular as, "This is where you go to get things done?" There used to be an era—the Great Society, New Frontier, we saw it in the first years of the Clinton administration—this idea that you go to law school, then you enter government because that's how you solve things, and now it does seem that the ethos is that you go to tech to solve things. You want to solve climate change? You don't go to Washington, you to go to Silicon Valley to build batteries or come up with alternate energy. My read, also now being outside of Washington, is a sense that this is where the motive power is and where people are more attracted to.

I liked your point that the conveyance of this level of "you are a Serious Person." We used to say you had to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations to be considered a Serious Person, and now perhaps that definition is changing. Like Tatiana, I am hypothesizing here rather than having a definitive take.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: I am trying to think of a Wall Street type who is very active on Twitter, and I'm struggling with it. If Jamie Dimon was suggesting—not that he's active on Twitter—do we think that Zelenskyy wouldn't respond? I don't know if it is a tech-specific thing.

Part of the reason Elon gets this reaction is partially Elon-specific. If Larry Ellison was saying this, no one would care, but Elon is this broader cultural figure. He has been the host of Saturday Night Live. There is a reason he has so many followers. He is provocative. He has a cult following. He has people who absolutely despise him. I don't know if anyone else not just in tech but in corporate America would get that response. I think part of it is that Elon is a uniquely divisive influential figure. I don't know.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Is this perhaps connected in Silicon Valley to the founder's myth? Jamie Dimon did not create the company that he has. He rose through the ranks. He was brought in. But the idea that Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Zuckerberg are creators and therefore that puts them in a different category. Again, I am trying to get at the idea of what conveys the Serious Person, which I think is a great label that you have applied to this.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: This is a broader phenomenon with regard to why these people have influence in politics or philanthropy. This critique that has taken hold on the left primarily but also in elements of the right over the last five years especially is like: "Just because you are successful, founding SpaceX, kind of founding Tesla, founding Facebook, or whatnot, why do we care about your opinions on climate change, education policy, or who should be the next senator from Wisconsin?" These are questions that are democratic in nature, and billionaire influence fundamentally distorts the democratic nature of it.

I don't necessarily believe that small-d democracy should be the end all be all necessarily. Certainly there are good arguments to be made in tons of billionaire-led projects where you would rather have their influence, as undemocratic as it may be, than not have their influence. I guess the canonical example now is the Gates Foundation and COVID-19. But there are also counterexamples. The canonical one would be Mark Zuckerberg and Newark schools a decade ago, which was broadly seen as a failure, and the critique that emerged from that was: "Who decided that this one guy in Silicon Valley should be deciding whether or not there is merit pay in Newark, New Jersey?"

I find those intellectual debates interesting. The reality, though, is that we are not getting rid of billionaires anytime soon, these people do have influence, and there should be journalism about the good and bad they do and whether or not people should respond to Elon Musk like they do. I sometimes find those debates ponderous, like, "Should Mark Zuckerberg have $100 billion with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative?" I don't know, but he does. Here on planet Earth, that's the world as it is.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's talk a little bit about that YouGov survey that you tweeted about to bring us back to reality. What struck me in one of the questions was how much people didn't know the names of—you mentioned Larry Ellison—Rebekah Mercer or even MacKenzie Scott. The "don't know" numbers were stratospheric compared to the favorable or unfavorable numbers.

How do we then talk about this group of people and their influence on policy, never mind international but on a national level, when we don't even know who they are? What are some of the ways that you suggest we can talk more widely about their influence? I know that you cover this at Puck News, but how can we make it part of the conversation, to my college students, for example?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: It's a good question. I don't know if I have a good answer. People become famous for their influence, for lots of reasons. Part of this is like partisan combat. The reason George Soros is super-well-known is because the right has made him into this bogeyman. Did people know who Charles and David Koch were before the 2012-era Harry Reid, post-Citizens United attack on the Kochs?

I told this story on a podcast before, so I am not breaching any confidences here. I graduated from college in 2014. I am young. I was on our college commencement committee at Princeton, where we decided who we were going to invite to be the commencement speaker. We had serious discussions about inviting Elon Musk in 2014, but we did not because we did not think he was a big enough deal. We did not think people knew who he was. You want kids to be excited about your speaker.

Now obviously, all of eight years later—that is ridiculous—it makes me think about the public profiles of these people. Elon has seeped into the public consciousness over the last couple of years. Even though Elon was involved with Silicon Valley startups since the mid-1990s, he became this public fascination over the last couple of years. Why did that happen? It happened because Tesla stock partially exploded over the last couple of years. Elon became much wealthier. He is now the wealthiest person in the world, which is new.

It happened partially because of Twitter. I would say that Elon became this extraordinarily provocative person on Twitter. Obviously there is a little bit of chicken-and-egg dynamic there. To answer your question, how do these people become famous or should they be more famous, part of this is due to factors beyond their control, which is market cap, politics, and all we can do is keep on doing journalism.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to share this statistic I was reading in The New York Times: "Forty percent of all political donations come from the top 1 percent of the 1 percent." I know you look at some of these donations and some of this activity. As we are looking at midterm elections what are you seeing? Are you seeing any particular trends, any particular dividing lines that we should be looking at or aware of that people are not talking about? Is there anything that concerns you in this "40 percent of all political donations come from the top 1 percent of the 1 percent?" Where are they going? What are you seeing today, pre-November 8?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: I am sure that stat is based obviously only on disclosed giving. If you include undisclosed giving, that is probably ludicrously inaccurate.

To some extent the story is as it always is, which is that there is a war between the two sides at this point. Up until about 2016, which is when I started covering money and politics, it was a one-sided war where conservatives were piling more and more money into political causes and liberal donors were naïvely thinking that they could keep doing their campaigns and not starting their own Democratic super political action committees (Super PACs). The left has caught up, and I think lots of people would argue that the left leaped over the right during the Trump Era in terms of billionaire political fundraising and leadership.

The storylines over the final stretch here is that lots of Democratic Senate candidates have more money than their Republican counterparts, but the question right now is whether or not the Republican outside-spending groups can chip away at Democratic candidates' leads in fundraising because Republican Super PACs are bigger. The big storyline right now is the Senate Leadership Fund, which for listeners who do not follow every twist and turn is the Mitch McConnell Super PAC as a shorthand. They are basically unleashing hundreds of millions of dollars in television ads against Democrats, and whether or not the Democrats can withstand the barrage is one big storyline.

Another big storyline here—I know this is sort of a meta-meta comment—is how little we know. More and more money is going more and more into the shadows. What I mean by that is that Super PACs increasingly get large amounts of their money from affiliated nonprofit groups. If you have heard of a 501(c)(4) or a "dark money" group—and this is true in both parties frankly. The Super PACs, if you look at their campaign finance disclosures, more and more money comes from something that does not itself disclose. For instance, you will see blahblahblah Super PAC's biggest donor is blahblahblah nonprofit, and that does not instill much confidence in transparency here. In turn lots of dark money groups increasingly are getting money from tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charities, which also don't disclose donors. Increasingly reading the tea leaves that are public is meaningless, which may be sad for disclosure, but it's war, and everyone is digging in accordingly.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is exactly to my point. This is why I make my students read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, a great book that talks about how this system was created.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: It's old now, no offense to Jane. It is just a reality that the stories have changed. Jane's work obviously is primarily about the Kochs. The Kochs are not out of the game, but they are no longer the feared force they once were. Obviously David Koch died, and other people have filled the void or are trying to fill the void.

TATIANA SERAFIN: They set the stage, but I do want to go back to my thesis about how national and international are more intertwined, especially in the younger generation.

I am going to give you an example. The protests in Iran. My students were upset that places like The New York Times did not cover them as much. To find out information about what was going on, it was so below the fold that you couldn't even see it. It was in the nether regions. They got very upset at this because they thought: This is a women's rights issue, is a Gen-Z issue, and it is getting no attention.

Most of my students will probably never to go Iran, yet here they were, concerned that there was not more information coming out. Perhaps they had seen Elon Musk trying to get in with his Starlink—even though that is problematic, and you can't really get the Starlinks there—maybe they had seen it through that lens or maybe through the women's rights lens, but it was this idea that they felt connected to this place that was completely not a place that you would normally say an American citizen would be connected to because of a greater issue.

I am going to go back to my hypothesis that there is no longer this divide between national and international issues or domestic and foreign policy. I sent you this word "omnipolicy" that Nahal Toosi at Politico gave us, and we have run with it, this idea that there is this omnipolicy, that everything now is more issue-based so that a billionaire supporting an issue will not just be supporting an issue here but might be seeking to influence what is going on in other parts of the world. Do you get that sense? Am I completely off?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: I'm not sure I have a great answer, the premise being that how—again, I am not a foreign policy expert—from an individual donor's point of view, there is a consistent worldview that could permeate all the work they do. Not to go back to my earlier point, but these are individuals. Sometimes that's true for people. Sometimes people have values—freedom, democracy, blahblahblah—that permeate everything they do, but humans are also complicated, and sometimes there are inconsistencies and not an omnipolicy for people as individuals. We are all weirdos.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In terms of the difference in what you are seeing coming out of Silicon Valley, a Gen-Z perspective on issues and priorities, is there a difference that you are seeing or changes in priorities this election cycle from younger cohorts versus older cohorts?

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: Generationally there are differences. Elon is about 50, maybe 51 now. I think he turned 50 a couple of years ago. To some extent he has more in common with the younger generation—I don't know if people consider that young—with people in their 30s than people who are in the elder generation. I am thinking about someone like Jeff Bezos, who I think is only a couple of years older than Elon, but Elon is very online obviously.

His political thinking I think does match with lots of tech leaders who are—"apolitical" is oversimplifying it. There is almost like a nihilism to their political beliefs among a younger generation, "The system doesn't work and that's why engaging in politics is stupid," versus the older people in Silicon Valley who are more traditional, play the game, and host fundraisers even if they might vote for the same people in the ballot box, the same center-left or center-right politicians.

I think that the younger generation as they engage in Silicon Valley—not in terms of age because I would put Mark Zuckerberg in the latter category even though Zuckerberg is only now 40. People have a different approach depending on how long they have been in the game. I will put it that way.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's interesting. You mentioned your work and research on billionaires and philanthropy. Are you seeing any trends that we need to be looking at in their giving that is not politically related but might be issue-related. Again, with my thesis looking at issues across the world, maybe there are issues like climate change that are getting more of their dollars than others.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: Just as trends in the philanthropic space?

Obviously I am tremendously generalizing here. One trend in philanthropy is the trend toward politics, which is the other side of what I was saying earlier about 501(c)(4)s getting money from 501(c)(3)s. I think during the Trump Era a lot of philanthropies realized that they had to get more politically involved, and lots of donors got more partisan. That's one trend.

In terms of specific issue areas, of course climate is a big priority, at least the people I cover in Silicon Valley. Probably not so for oil barons, but for tech types climate has become a big focus; immigration in fits and starts; ways to support DREAMers. For instance, in California last year there was a big push to give undocumented immigrants access to stimulus funds, which was funded by private philanthropy; education across the board. We are probably 20 years into that trend. Lots of Silicon Valley types were in the vanguard of the charter school movement, which in its heyday probably was the early Obama Era. It now is no longer as trendy. Those are a few of the things.

There is also a huge international development part of philanthropy that is ignored because it's boring or perceived as boring, but efforts by Silicon Valley types to support global aid, direct cash transfers, or to put up malaria nets in Africa, that is a huge part of the charitable industrial complex.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is very interesting, and I think we will have to follow these trends more in the future and have you back. Thank you so much for your time today.

TEDDY SCHLEIFER: You bet.

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