Elon Musk and his right-wing supporters have portrayed his takeover of Twitter as a major victory for free speech. But the billionaire’s first week as its CEO was characterized by his erratic behavior on the social media platform and lack of compelling answers off of it. Musk’s volatile leadership quickly resulted in wary corporations heeding the concerns of a coalition of organizations — including Media Matters — and exercising their own free speech rights by pausing their Twitter advertisements.
Republicans are not interested in supporting the free speech of those companies. They have a compelling partisan interest in securing Musk’s control of a leading communications hub for journalists, and have responded to the advertiser pause by threatening the firms with political retribution.
“This is a helpful list of brands who are begging to sit in front of a House panel next year to discuss their company’s participation in leftist corporate extortion,” political operative and podcaster Josh Holmes tweeted on Friday, linking to a story about companies pausing their advertisements. When critics pointed out that it was inappropriate for Republicans to use their power to threaten companies for not wanting to advertise on a particular platform, he responded that they were being “so dumb.”
Holmes is a major political player. A former chief of staff and campaign manager to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), he’s been described as “the mastermind of Team Mitch.” The communications firm he founded, Cavalry LLC, has repped the campaigns of a host of Senate Republicans, as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and various GOP political action committees. He’s not some Trumpist flunky shooting off his mouth, but someone with real influence to get Republicans to follow through on his threat if they win either house of Congress in the midterm elections.
Nor is he alone. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) has repeatedly criticized companies for not wanting to advertise with Musk, offering dark hints about what might happen if they continued “throwing in their lot with the far Left of the Democratic Party.” Other GOP leaders, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, have also issued vague threats against the companies.
The Republican salvos on Musk’s behalf haven’t commanded much attention from the press.
But they represent the party’s ongoing institutionalization of the corrupt and authoritarian tactics Donald Trump wielded during his presidency.
Trump repeatedly used legitimate regulatory tools to punish companies that defied him and reward those that supported him. He didn’t just criticize reporting from CNN and The Washington Post, for example — he meddled with a proposed merger involving CNN’s parent company, and blocked a major contract that would have benefited the Post’s owner. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch, owner of Trump’s favorite propaganda outlet, Fox News, saw federal regulators repeatedly support his interests.
Republicans did not throw out this playbook after Trump left office.
Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drew plaudits from the right-wing press when he responded to Disney’s opposition to his “Don’t Say Gay” bill by stripping the company of its special self-governing status in the state.
When Musk first sought to buy Twitter in April, a group of House Republicans led by Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-OH) sent a letter to the company’s board asking them to preserve all records related to the offer — a move that CNBC noted “signals that should Republicans take back the majority in the House in the 2022 midterm elections, they may launch an investigation into Twitter.”
And last week, Axios reported that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was trying to force the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to replace its leadership after the business lobby endorsed some Democratic candidate in the House during the 2020 election cycle rather than serving as a “functional campaign appendage of the Republican Party.”
The Republican threats against companies that don’t want to give their money to Musk are already paying off for the party. On Monday, Musk urged “independent-minded voters” to support Republican candidates for Congress on the purported grounds that “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties.” He is trying to ensure that the party that supports his control of Twitter also holds the levers of power in government — and can reward him in turn.