The Self-Demonization of Elon Musk

His critics portray him as a cartoonish billionaire boogeyman, while the world’s wealthiest individual works hard to prove them right.

PUBLISHED SEP 17, 2023 11:52 P.M.
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A Complicated Billionaire: Elon Musk, one of the great industrial inventors of all time, is on a rocketship to villainhood.

A Complicated Billionaire: Elon Musk, one of the great industrial inventors of all time, is on a rocketship to villainhood.   Photo by Daniel Oberhaus (2018)   CC-BY-2.0

Walter Isaacson‘s long-awaited biography, Elon Musk, has inspired gales of commentary, as you have no doubt noticed. The media storm actually began a few weeks before the book’s publication date, when the New Yorkers Ronan Farrow beat Isaacson to the punch with an investigative piece that spawned responses everywhere.

If you’ve gotten wind of any of this blanket coverage, then you are aware that most of it has focused on a revelation in Issacson’s book, which is also in the scene that opens Farrow’s piece. It involves Musk’s decision to not allow the Ukrainian military to use SpaceX’s Starlink internet system in a planned offensive against Russian forces in Crimea.

Musk himself addressed that decision at the All-In Summit in Los Angeles on Sept. 10-12.

“Isaacson was  actually mistaken a little bit with his understanding of the situation,” Musk said. “Obviously, SpaceX has provided internet service to Ukraine really since the beginning of the war, within a few days of the war starting. And the Ukrainian government said that Starlink was instrumental to the defense of Ukraine—they've said that really many times although the media forgets to mention that.”

Musk made news at the conference by claiming that he declined Ukraine’s request for Starlink support for its offensive into Crimea for three reasons: 1) Sanctions issued by the American government forbade such deployment. 2) He did not want his company to participate in what he saw as an escalation of the war. 3) He feared such an offensive would lead to massive Russian retaliation, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

As you may be aware, Musk has been roundly attacked for his decision and for his explanation by commentators who point out that it is supremely inappropriate for this notoriously impulsive billionaire to be making such military policy decisions. Rachel Maddow said Musk was “intervening to try to stop Ukraine from winning the war.” Jake Tapper, while questioning Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, said Musk “sabotaged a military operation by Ukraine, a U.S. ally.” David Frum said that Musk should lose his U.S. government contracts, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for a congressional investigation.

These attacks seem to ignore the fact that Musk did not ask to be put in the position to decide whether his company should provide support for such an invasion. He found himself in that position because he chose to provide Ukraine’s military with what has been its single most important weapon against the Russian invaders, at great expense.

It should be noted that when Tapper aggressively pressed him on the matter, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken essentially defended Space X. To Musk’s multitude of critics, this was evidence of a point that is made in Isaacson’s book, and is the central thesis of Farrow’s report, titled “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule: How the US government came to rely on the tech billionaire—and is now struggling to rein him in.”

The critics argue that, just as he has no right to dictate foreign policy, it is also deeply wrong that he has so much money and power.

A List of Remarkable Achievements

SpaceX produces the only reusable rocketships in the world, and is the only American entity capable of putting large satellites in orbit. Of the 8,000 or so satellites orbiting the Earth today, more than half are owned by Musk’s company.

Tesla is the most valuable automobile company in the world, and its Model Y is the best-selling car in the world as of this May—the first time an electric vehicle has topped global sales charts.

Musk is universally credited as being the individual who made electric cars feasible. This will, one hopes, lead to the eventual elimination of the gasoline-fueled car—the world’s number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions.

He’s built a nationwide network of EV-charging stations. Co-founded SolarCity, which dominated both residential and commercial solar-power installations. He’s now building NeuraLink, a brain-to-computer interface, and xAI, whose mission is to find “the true nature of the universe.”

Obviously, Musk’s list of accomplishments is way beyond impressive, and that’s probably why he was able to hold on to more than a shred of public affection or for a number of years, even after his increasing attacks on the likes of Anthony Fauci, Gavin Newsom, and the “woke mind virus.”

Finally, when he bought Twitter, whatever affection liberal Americans had for Elon vanished.

And I will say, as a journalist who has written many articles about Musk and his endeavors beginning with a cover story in Metro Silicon Valley 15 years ago this month, and frankly a longtime admirer, I now count myself among those who believe that Elon Musk has become dangerous.

While I would argue that the responses to Musk’s actions on the warfront in Ukraine miss the mark, they come as no surprise. Through his own outrageous and increasingly dangerous actions, the richest man in the world has made himself a lot of enemies.

Isaacson and Farrow both tell the story of how, over the past several years, Elon Musk has become unhinged. You may have already heard about his allegedly increasing reliance on weed and ketamine, but Isaacson finds something else in Musk that is deeper and more concerning. He reports that Musk’s former romantic partner, the artist known as Grimes, gave this shadow-version of Musk the name “demon mode.”

“He has numerous minds and many fairly distinct personalities,” Grimes told Isaacson, including one “when he goes dark and retreats inside the storm in his brain.”

The Tweet that Broke the Camel’s Back

Musk’s legion of critics believed from the outset that there was something fundamentally wrong with the fact that the richest man in the world, who was more and more drawn to heated controversy, should take control of what was then the most important communications platform in the world.

When he chose to re-platform Donald Trump and a slew of white supremacists, Musk proved that his critics’ worst fears were correct. As he continues to retweet wacko right-wing conspiracy theories and worse, it’s impossible not to feel thankful that he seems to be simultaneously destroying his own platform.

And yet, despite months, and really years, of this brazen display of toxic egomania, Musk retains an army of supporters. Thousands of them showed up at the All In Summit last weekend, where they cheered giddily when he bragged without evidence that he was making Twitter better by firing most of the workforce. It's easy to dismiss these cheering tech-bros and their affilates, but that just feeds the polarized paralysis that grips our state and world. 

Elon Musk has become one of the most frightening men on the planet, but even as he moves further and further into right-wing trolldom, I believe we should avoid demonizing him, even if he is demonizing himself.

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