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Elon Musk sees climate change as an existential threat, but might vote Trump anyway

With just over a month to go before Election Day, Elon Musk doesn't know who he is voting for.

In an interview aired Monday with the New York Times's Kara Swisher on her podcast Sway, Musk was asked if he would be voting for Trump. "Um," he said, "let's just see how the debates go."

In an environment in which the idea of swing voters has almost entirely disappeared, one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country is still undecided.

"That's going to be your thing, the debates?" Swisher asked, with a hint of incredulity in her voice. She noted her skepticism that anyone, particularly someone as engaged as Musk, who has had direct engagement with both candidates, could be waiting for a single, two-hour event to make up his mind on who is most qualified.

"I think that [the debates] is probably the thing that will decide things for America," the billionaire said.

That statement is not backed up by political science. While it’s true that voters often say the debates are helpful in deciding who to vote for, most evidence suggests that they have a pretty small, if not entirely negligible, effect on the outcome of elections. That is particularly true this year, in which both candidates are known quantities. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 70 percent of Americans say the debates won't affect how they cast their votes.

"I think people just want to see if Biden's got it together," Musk explained. "If he does, he probably wins."

Over the course of the conversation, Musk appears to be entirely perplexed by politics while also displaying a clear understanding of how it works. "If you've got a two-party system, then the problematic issues are going to kind of fall somewhat randomly into one party or another," he said. "It's not clear to me that there is a cohesive set of reasoning why these things are in one party versus another." However, he showed a very clear-eyed view of why he hasn't been able to get Trump and other Republicans to back Tesla the way they have backed SpaceX: "If you're a politician and you want to win, and you've got a big chunk of support coming from oil and gas, then there's a limit to how far you're going to push that situation."

Musk is not dumb, and he sees existential threats everywhere he looks. During the interview, he warned that artificial intelligence "does not need to hate us to destroy us." He argued, "the longer we take to transition to sustainable energy, the greater the risk we take." He said, at the risk of coming off too doom and gloom, that "the fossil record does show many extinction events over the millennia," including ones from "natural planet variation, which does become very severe, but at a pace that would seem slow to us." He even said that humanity has to become a multi-planet species and spacefaring civilization in order to survive because "eventually the sun is going to expand and engulf Earth."

He also knows firsthand that Trump does not take seriously these issues that Musk views as central to the survival of the planet and life as we know it. He had a seat on multiple White House advisory councils, which he left after Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

"Am departing presidential councils. Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world," Musk tweeted at the time. A year later, after saying he did his "absolute best" to convince Trump to take climate change seriously, he admitted that the president "screwed" him.

By contrast, Musk had pretty good luck under the Obama-Biden administration. His companies, particularly Tesla, were the beneficiaries of massive government subsidies. Much of that funding came as the result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an $800-billion stimulus package designed to revitalize the economy following the collapse of the housing market. Musk's SpaceX also secured most of its contracts under the Obama-Biden administration, which was the first to open space exploration projects up to private enterprise.

And yet Musk can't bring himself, a self-described "socially very liberal and economically right of center maybe, or center" person to make up his mind on who he will vote for.

Part of it could be that Trump's cult of personality likely appeals to Musk, as he has similarly fervent followers. Musk sees Trump shake off doubters, deny fair and factual criticism as fake news from the haters, and feels empowered to do the same. He's taunted the Securities and Exchange Commission multiple times, going so far as to effectively tell the regulatory body to perform fellatio on him. He called a cave explorer who saved some children trapped in a cave a "pedo" because the diver dismissed Musk's proposed solution to bring the kids to the surface in a submarine. He wrongly predicted that the coronavirus pandemic would produce "close to zero new infections" by the end of April, then blew off the fact that the virus continued (and still continues) to ravage America and demanded the right to re-open his car factory.

Perhaps the most telling part of Musk's interview came toward the end, when Swisher attempted to bring up the coronavirus. Musk refused to engage, becoming stiff in his answers and refusing to let the conversation go on, before saying that he won't get a coronavirus vaccine because he personally is not at risk of suffering from the virus. The same could be said for his response to Trump. At this point, it's impossible for Musk to not see the risk, to not know that Trump only makes the threat of climate change worse. But Musk wants off this planet anyway, and he sees humanity setting up shop on Mars as just a few decades away. So while Earth might be doomed, in Musk's view, that won't affect him anyway.