Tesla drivers squirm as Elon Musk veers far right on Twitter

“I used to think when people cut me off it was because I was in a fancy car. These days when someone cuts me off, I wonder if it’s because of Elon.”
My brother-in-law Brandon Luce was sounding slightly paranoid when I was talking to him recently in the wake of Elon Musk taking over Twitter. But in the days since Musk made the controversial purchase, and has vied to become perhaps the most polarizing man in America, many owners of their beloved Teslas are in a similar emotional quandary.
Brandon was among a half-dozen Tesla owners I talked with to see to what degree, if at all, their opinions of the man so closely identified with their car has changed recently and how that’s impacted their Tesla-owning experience.
Almost every person began not by venting about any recent Musk tweets but by expressing their intense love for their Tesla. Many of them added in gushing admiration for Musk himself, at least back when they first bought the car. Luce, my brother-in-law, saw Musk as a genius — and a humble one at that — when he bought a Model 3 a few years back.
Now, he says of Musk, “He’s become like a pariah. He’s saying things that don’t jibe with the way I look at the world at all.”
For the ranting of the company CEO to become a factor when a person is buying a car is obviously unique. People do not routinely pay attention to much of anything automobile CEOs say, unless perhaps they’re tracking auto stocks or are avid readers of MarketWatch.
But Musk is clearly different, and since taking over Twitter he has gone into his own kind of “ludicrous mode.” He’s gutted the staff, made it a platform more accessible for hate speech, told his followers to vote Republican this last Election Day and invoked QAnon as he baselessly implied his former right-hand man is a pedophile — which in turn forced that man to flee his home — and more.
So what’s a liberal Tesla owner to do? Do you get rid of your $100,000 car in protest?

James Murakami of Berkeley has no intention of getting rid of his Tesla. But he is well aware that Musk has become a factor in owning one. “[Musk] wasn’t a savory character before but now he’s even less so,” he said.
These days, Murakami describes how he lives with owning his Tesla as being in a state of “cognitive dissonance.” He loves driving the car, but when Musk attacks Dr. Anthony Fauci and Marjorie Taylor Greene eggs him on, that’s something “you have to compartmentalize.”
“When buying the car, my main question was does it check the boxes. Is it EV? Does it have the range? Does it fit my family? It checked all those boxes.” 

He added, “One of the questions was not ‘what’s the integrity of the CEO.’” Now, he says it may be, but “the ship’s already sailed.”

Alex Applegarth of Chicago doesn’t see the integrity of the Tesla CEO as something worth worrying about. He considers Musk a “total jerk” but says, “I’m into the car. It’s f—king awesome. I separate the brand from Elon. I could give a f—k about Elon.”

There’s no doubt thousands of Tesla owners and potential buyers concur with this outlook. But as Musk just keeps getting louder and sharing conspiracies from far-right fake news sites, pretending he isn’t there only gets more difficult.
These days, as Murakami points out, “it’s getting hard to throw your money behind something that doesn’t align with your politics.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures during the Tesla China-made Model 3 Delivery Ceremony on Jan. 7, 2020, in Shanghai. 

STR / AFP / Getty Images

To Chris Peterson, author of the newsletter Red and Blue Customers, “The question is if liberal market interest will erode as a result of Elon Musk’s political engagement, transforming Tesla into a more conservative brand for the conservative market.”

 “There’s an interesting tension here,” Peterson notes, “between a brand that is futuristic, which naturally appeals to urban, liberal customers, and a CEO who is loudly espousing conservative values. Over time, Tesla could be perceived more like a Lexus or Lincoln, which skew very conservative.”
A big factor that will keep the liberals from fleeing is the car itself. As of May, the top three electric cars in the U.S. were all Teslas, and “it’s not even close.” And, it bears repeating, the people I spoke with expressed gushing adoration for their car. The first thing Chris Hua, a Chicago resident who just sold his Tesla, told me was, “I miss it. I loved it. It was awesome.”

Luce prefaced anything negative he said about Musk by saying, “It is by a mile the best car I’ve ever had. It is a pleasure. The car is unbelievable.”
But in our polarized world, Musk may still be able to single-handedly transform Tesla into a brand for conservatives. To what extent remains to be seen. It’s doubtful Tesla will turn into the MyPillow of auto brands because it is so far ahead of the EV competition, but then again, if the CEO keeps invoking far-right conspiracy theories, all bets are off.
“I just feel like there’s a point where you can just tempt fate for so long,” Hua pointed out. “People are going to turn against you.”
Signs that Musk is engendering a Tesla backlash are already beginning to appear. A report by YouGov, a research firm that has been following market approval for Tesla since 2016, reported that the brand recently fell into the negative in terms of consumer perception for the first time. A Morning Consult poll backed the negative perception, finding indicators that it falls along a political dividing line.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduces the Cybertruck on Nov. 21, 2019, at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk introduces the Cybertruck on Nov. 21, 2019, at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, Calif.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

And this week, Bob Wachter of UCSF announced he would stay on Twitter because he hasn’t yet found “a forum to deliver accurate scientific information to the public that matches Twitter.” But, he added, “I have decided I’ll never buy a Tesla. If many people make that choice, it should send a powerful message.”
Among those I spoke with, Luce said he’s ordered a second car and it is a Chevy Bolt.

“I don’t want to put more money toward Tesla at this time,” he said. “His behavior has definitely impacted us negatively in thinking about getting one for a second car.”
Luce paused to consider his car. “I haven’t seen the CEO of Chevy saying weird stuff on Twitter,” he added. “In fact, I don’t even know who the CEO of Chevy is.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk talks to media Sept. 3, 2020, as he arrives to visit the construction site of the future U.S. electric car giant Tesla in Gruenheide near Berlin.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk talks to media Sept. 3, 2020, as he arrives to visit the construction site of the future U.S. electric car giant Tesla in Gruenheide near Berlin.

Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

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