“Few people on this planet know what it is to be truly despised,” says Nick Naylor, the tobacco lobbyist at the center of 2005’s Thank You for Smoking. Nearly 20 years after the film’s release, Elon Musk, who many don’t realize was one of its executive producers, has come to know the feeling well.

“I have no problem being hated. Hate away,” Musk told Andrew Ross Sorkin during last November’s DealBook Summit. His remarks came as advertisers were fleeing the Musk-owned social media platform, X, following his endorsement of an antisemitic post claiming Jewish groups have long pushed “hatred against whites.” Until embarrassingly recent days some still considered Musk’s political views elusive. That is no longer the case. He now openly feasts on a media diet of far-right bloggers and acts as customer support on X for the controversial @LibsofTikTok account. But while Musk once managed to fly under the radar as a mostly apolitical tech tycoon, the worldview of Thank You for Smoking seems to have a lot in common with the Tesla founder’s personal POV today.

Shortly after eBay acquired PayPal in late 2002 for $1.5 billion, the company’s then-COO David Sacks sought to use some of that windfall to break into the film business. He came across the screenplay for Thank You for Smoking, based on a novel by chief speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, Christopher Buckley. It’s the story of a tobacco lobbyist, eventually played by Aaron Eckhart, working to get cigarettes into cinemas as stealth product placement, while fending off attacks from the media and the U.S. government. Sacks was smitten.

“In any other movie the main character, this spin doctor, would be the villain,” he told Forbes in 2006, “but in this movie he is defending our freedom, defending our devices against priggishness.”

Along with four others from the so-called PayPal Mafia—Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and Mark Woolway—Sacks produced the film. He was the only one of the group to take a creatively hands-on role. Although Musk’s involvement appears limited to a financial stake, a brief cameo, and a more utilitarian cameo from his private jet, the film seems right up the alley of his 2024 incarnation. It’s not because Musk is a fan of smoking (he isn’t—though he did infamously smoke a joint on Joe Rogan’s podcast), or even that he can identify with someone having an adversarial relationship with a Democratic senator from Vermont, like the one William H. Macy plays in the film. No, it’s that the entire cynical-bordering-on-nihilistic outlook of Thank You for Smoking plays like something Musk would react to right now with a string of ROFL emojis.

Debate me, you coward

The lobbyist character Nick Naylor is introduced in the film on the set of a talk show, alongside a Health and Human Services flak and a 15-year old smoker diagnosed with cancer. During this appearance, our hero manages to turn the tables on the HHS rep, accusing him of hoping that the teenager will die so that his department’s budget increases—directing the studio audience’s ire like an orchestra conductor. As Naylor explains to his young son later, the way to win an argument is not by convincing one’s opponent of anything—it’s by convincing whoever may be watching.

Musk appears similarly enamored with the spectacle of public debate.

Since acquiring Twitter in 2022, he has frequently spoken of the platform as “a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” As tech analyst Ben Thompson wrote in his Stratechery newsletter, though, “The digital town square is the internet, broadly; Twitter is more akin to a digital cage match, perhaps best monetised on a pay-per-view basis.”

As anyone who has ever been in an argument on that platform can attest, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to persuade anyone of anything via delayed bouts of point and counterpoint—especially when dealing with someone who enjoys arguing before an audience. All that can come of it is circus theatrics, rather than enlightenment, which seems to suit Musk just fine. Off the platform, Musk has aligned himself with “Debate me, you coward” conservatives like Ben Shapiro, who is always spoiling for an argument he can turn into content–and dabbled in some public debating of his own, challenging former Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal in 2022. (What he challenged Mark Zuckerberg to last year was more of a literal cage match, so that doesn’t quite count.)

Everybody is an amoral phony with a price tag

Nobody believes in anything except the almighty dollar in Thank You for Smoking. Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s cigarette endorsement can be bought for $25 million, we’re told, thanks to a power broker played by Rob Lowe. The righteously pissed, cancer-ridden Marlboro Man, played by Sam Elliott, can be bribed to stop from speaking out against Big Tobacco. And all politicians are susceptible to regulatory capture, like the Washington senator who takes campaign contributions from Boeing, and the Michigan one who accepts them from Ford.

As sultan of spin Nick Naylor puts it, “99% of everything done in the world, good or bad, is to pay a mortgage.”

Anyone who isn’t bought and paid for in the film is at least a hypocrite, like Macy’s Vermont Senator who, in the same day, “held a press conference calling for American tobacco fields to be slashed and burned, then jumped on a private jet and flew down to Farm Aid, where he drove a tractor onstage as he bemoaned the downfall of the American farmer.”

Believing that hypocrisy and bribery run rampant is just healthy skepticism mixed with common sense. But believing that the world exclusively works this way can lead a person to distrust the motives of almost everyone—which appears to be where Musk has landed. As he frequently bemoans whatever “the woke mind virus” is meant to be, the super-CEO acts as though anyone advocating for DEI or ESG only cares about improving their own image, and that all “social justice warriors” are phony virtue-signalers.

In his world, nobody stands for anything except their own private agenda.

Journalists are the lowest of the low

While few if any characters from Thank You for Smoking emerge looking like decent human beings, the true villain of the piece is a journalist played by Katie Holmes. Her Washington-based reporter initiates a sexual relationship with Naylor while researching a story about him, and then uses off-the-record information to pen a juicy hit piece. She even makes a taunting phone call to Naylor after the story runs, just before he is unceremoniously fired.

In a movie about an industry whose product kills over 480,000 people per year, this is the person the audience is most primed to loathe.

Peter Thiel may have been the PayPal mafioso whose media grievances surfaced sooner—he was the driving financial force behind Gawker’s downfall—but Musk appears every bit as hostile toward the fourth estate. After his takeover of the platform in November 2022, he reportedly fired all but one member of its communications team, and soon started auto-replying to press inquiries with the poop emoji. He has since antagonized journalists on the platform, taking away the verification badges that confirmed their identities and conferred a sense of legitimacy, and throttled the shareability of news links in a number of ways.

Despite being a supposed free-speech absolutist who abhors hypocrisy, Musk has also suspended reporters for vaguely defined reasons multiple times, sued media organizations for reporting on him in a way that might affect his business, and most recently, broke off a deal with Don Lemon to host a show on X after Lemon challenged him during the host’s inaugural interview.

“I don’t have to answer these questions,” Musk said at one point during that interview. “I don’t have to answer questions from reporters. Don, the only reason I’m doing this interview is because you’re on the X platform and you asked for it. Otherwise, I would not do this interview.”

Do your own research

“Whatever information there is, exists. It’s out there. People will decide for themselves. They should. It’s not my role to decide for them. It’s morally presumptuous.”

Those words come from Lowe’s Hollywood agent in Thank You for Smoking–a character Naylor says he could learn a lot from–but they could just as easily be enshrined as the motto of X.

Musk’s insistence that his version of Twitter would be a haven for free speech turned out in practice to mean gutting the content moderation and trust and safety departments. The company pledged in January to build a 100-person “Trust and Safety Center of Excellence” in Austin, but in the meantime, the floodgates are open for hate speech and mis- or disinformation. (During the interview with Lemon, Musk said of X’s redline on hate speech, “We delete things if they are illegal.”) X also remained conspicuously absent from a recent pact among tech companies like Meta, Amazon and Google to put up more guardrails around deepfakes in a pivotal election year.

Perhaps the reason Musk wants to risk mass proliferation of fake news is out of distaste for fact-checkers. Maybe it truly does stem from a desire for unfettered digital liberty. What seems more likely, though, is that he takes trollish glee in the chaos of far-right conspiracy theories–like the one he shared in 2022 about the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi–and engaging with the people who spread them.

The moral relativity of preventable deaths

The climax of Thank You for Smoking is a congressional hearing to determine whether cigarettes should come with more explicit warnings on the packaging. (Little did anyone involved know that cigarette-smoking would become pariah behavior within two decades.) As he has done throughout the film, the protagonist Naylor deflects from the deadliness of cigarettes by bringing up other, less-persecuted products that can also be deadly.

“The real demonstrated number one killer in America is cholesterol,” he tells Macy’s Vermont Senator, “and Vermont is clogging this country’s arteries with Vermont cheddar cheese.”

Although this point could be handily refuted by the weak link on any high school debate team, it lands in the film as an explosive mic-drop. Similarly, Musk seemed to think this same rhetorical flourish was a case-closer when he and Joe Rogan discussed COVID deaths in a May 2020 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience. Neither host nor guest could seem to understand why people were panicking about COVID-19 when so many other deadly dangers lurked all around them. “Tylenol also kills a lot of people,” Musk noted.

The SpaceX CEO tends not to talk very much about his involvement in Thank You for Smoking these days, though he did cryptically tweet the film’s title a couple years ago. He never ended up producing any other mainstream films, nor did Sacks, who currently hosts the All In podcast and moderated Ron DeSantis’s rocky presidential campaign launch on Twitter Spaces. Sacks mentioned wanting to do a Thank You spinoff for Rob Lowe’s character in a 2006 interview, but nothing ever came of it. Nearly a decade later, Musk tweeted a jokey pitch for a sequel that would presumably be about climate change.

Considering all Musk has said and done in the years since, though, and the fact that he now seems to play down the threat of climate change to avoid ruffling feathers with his ideological cohort, it has become unclear whether Musk makes electric vehicles because he actually cares about carbon emissions or just to pay the mortgage.


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