How Elon Musk Went from Superhero to Supervillain

Douglas Adams wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” on a typewriter that had on its side a sticker that read “End Apartheid.” He wasn’t crafting an instruction manual for mega-rich luxury planet builders.

Biographers don’t generally have a will to power. Robert Caro is not Robert Moses and would seem to have very little in common with Lyndon the “B” is for “bastard” Johnson. Walter Isaacson is a gracious, generous, public-spirited man and a principled biographer. This year, he was presented with the National Humanities Medal. But, as a former editor of Time and a former C.E.O. of CNN and of the Aspen Institute, Isaacson also has an executive’s affinity for the C-suite, which would seem to make it a challenge to keep a certain distance from the world view of his subject. Isaacson shadowed Musk for two years and interviewed dozens of people, but they tend to have titles like C.E.O., C.F.O., president, V.P., and founder. The book upholds a core conviction of many executives: sometimes to get shit done you have to be a dick. He dreams of Mars as he bestrides Earth, square-jawed and indomitable. For the rest of us, Musk’s pettiness, arrogance, and swaggering viciousness are harder to take, and their necessity less clear.

Isaacson is interested in how innovation happens. In addition to biographies of Franklin, Einstein, Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci, he has also written about figures in the digital revolution and in gene editing. Isaacson puts innovation first: This man might be a monster, but look at what he built! Whereas Mary Shelley, for instance, put innovation second: The man who built this is a monster! The political theorist Judith Shklar once wrote an essay called “Putting Cruelty First.” Montaigne put cruelty first, identifying it as the worst thing people do; Machiavelli did not. As for “the usual excuse for our most unspeakable public acts,” the excuse “that they are necessary,” Shklar knew this to be nonsense. “Much of what passed under these names was merely princely wilfulness,” as Shklar put it. This is always the problem with princes.

Elon Musk started college at the University of Pretoria but left South Africa in 1989, at seventeen. He went first to Canada and, after two years at Queen’s University in Ontario, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied physics and economics, and wrote a senior paper titled “The Importance of Being Solar.” He had done internships in Silicon Valley and, after graduating, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in materials science at Stanford, but he deferred admission and never went. It was 1995, the year the Internet opened to commercial traffic. All around him, frogs were turning into princes. He wanted to start a startup. Musk and his brother Kimball, with money from their parents, launched Zip2, an early online Yellow Pages that sold its services to newspaper publishers. In 1999, during the dot-com boom, they sold it to Compaq for more than three hundred million dollars. Musk, with his share of the money, launched one of the earliest online banking companies. He called it “I think could absolutely be a multibillion-dollar bonanza,” he told CNN, but, meanwhile, “I’d like to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.” That would have to wait for a few years, but in 1999 Salon announced, “Elon Musk Is Poised to Become Silicon Valley’s Next Big Thing,” in a profile that advanced what was already a hackneyed set of journalistic conventions about the man-boy man-gods of Northern California: “The showiness, the chutzpah, the streak of self-promotion and the urge to create a dramatic public persona are major elements of what makes up the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. . . . Musk’s ego has gotten him in trouble before, and it may get him in trouble again, yet it is also part and parcel of what it means to be a hotshot entrepreneur.” Five months later, Musk married his college girlfriend, Justine Wilson. During their first dance at their wedding, he whispered in her ear, “I am the alpha in this relationship.”

Big Ego of Hotshot Entrepreneur Gets Him Into Trouble” is more or less the running headline of Musk’s life. In 2000, Peter Thiel’s company Confinity merged with, and Musk regretted that the new company was called PayPal, instead of X. (He later bought the domain, and for years he kept it as a kind of shrine, a blank white page with nothing but a tiny letter “x” on the screen.) In 2002, eBay paid $1.5 billion for the company, and Musk drew on his share of the sale to start SpaceX. Two years later, he invested around $6.5 million in Tesla; he became both its largest shareholder and its chairman. Around then, in his Marvel Iron Man phase, Musk left Northern California for Los Angeles, to swan with starlets. Courted by Ted Cruz during COVID, he moved to Texas, because he dislikes regulation, and because he objected to California’s lockdowns and mask mandates.

Musk’s accomplishments as the head of a series of pioneering engineering firms are unrivalled. Isaacson takes on each of Musk’s ventures, venture by venture, chapter by chapter, emphasizing the ferocity and the velocity and the effectiveness of Musk’s management style—“A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principles” is a workplace rule. “How the fuck can it take so long?” Musk asked an engineer working on SpaceX’s Merlin engines. “This is stupid. Cut it in half.” He pushed SpaceX through years of failures, crash after crash, with the confidence that success would come. “Until today, all electric cars sucked,” Musk said, launching Tesla’s Roadster, leaving every other electric car and most gas cars in the dust. No automotive company had broken into that industry in something like a century. Like SpaceX, Tesla went through very hard times. Musk steered it to triumph, a miracle amid fossil fuel’s stranglehold. “Fuck oil,” he said.

“Comradery is dangerous” is another of Musk’s workplace maxims. He was ousted as PayPal’s C.E.O. and ousted as Tesla’s chairman. He’s opposed to unions, pushed workers back to the Tesla plants at the height of the Covid pandemic—some four hundred and fifty reportedly got infected—and has thwarted workers’ rights at every turn.

Musk has run through companies and he has run through wives. In some families, domestic relations are just another kind of labor relations. He pushed his first wife, Justine, to dye her hair blonder. After they lost their firstborn son, Nevada, in infancy, Justine gave birth to twins (one of whom they named Xavier, in part for Professor Xavier, from “X-Men”) and then to triplets. When the couple fought, he told her, “If you were my employee, I would fire you.” He divorced her and soon proposed to Talulah Riley, a twenty-two-year-old British actress who had only just moved out of her parents’ house. She said her job was to stop Musk from going “king-crazy”: “People become king, and then they go crazy.” They married, divorced, married, and divorced. But “you’re my Mr. Rochester,” she told him. “And if Thornfield Hall burns down and you are blind, I’ll come and take care of you.” He dated Amber Heard, after her separation from Johnny Depp. Then he met Grimes. “I’m just a fool for love,” Musk tells Isaacson. “I am often a fool, but especially for love.”

He is also a fool for Twitter. His Twitter account first got him into real trouble in 2018, when he baselessly called a British diver, who helped rescue Thai children trapped in a flooded cave, a “pedo” and was sued for defamation. That same year, he tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420,” making a pot joke. “Funding secured.” (“I kill me,” he says about his sense of humor.) The S.E.C. charged him with fraud, and Tesla stock fell more than thirteen per cent. Tesla shareholders sued him, alleging that his tweets had caused their stock to lose value. On Joe Rogan’s podcast, he went king-crazy, lighting up a joint. He looked at his phone. “You getting text messages from chicks?” Rogan asked. “I’m getting text messages from friends saying, ‘What the hell are you doing smoking weed?’ ”

“Musk’s goofy mode is the flip side of his demon mode,” Isaacson writes. Musk likes this kind of cover. “I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship,” he said in his “S.N.L.” monologue, in 2021. “Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” In that monologue, he also said that he has Asperger’s. A writer in Newsweek applauded this announcement as a “milestone in the history of neurodiversity.” But, in Slate, Sara Luterman, who is autistic, was less impressed; she denounced Musk’s “coming out” as “self-serving and hollow, a poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire more concerned with cryptocurrency and rocket ships than the lives of others.” She put cruelty first.

Musk’s interest in acquiring Twitter dates to 2022. That year, he and Grimes had another child. His name is Techno Mechanicus Musk, but his parents call him Tau, for the irrational number. But Musk also lost a child. His twins with Justine turned eighteen in 2022 and one of them, who had apparently become a Marxist, told Musk, “I hate you and everything you stand for.” It was, to some degree, in an anguished attempt to heal this developing rift that, in 2020, Musk tweeted, “I am selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house.” That didn’t work. In 2022, his disaffected child petitioned a California court for a name change, to Vivian Jenna Wilson, citing, as the reason for the petition, “Gender Identity and the fact that I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape or form.” She refuses to see him. Musk told Isaacson he puts some of the blame for this on her progressive Los Angeles high school. Lamenting the “woke-mind virus,” he decided to buy Twitter. I just can’t sit around and do nothing.

Musk’s estrangement from his daughter is sad, but of far greater consequence is his seeming estrangement from humanity itself. When Musk decided to buy Twitter, he wrote a letter to its board. “I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” he explained, but “I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form.” This is flimflam. Twitter never has and never will be a vehicle for democratic expression. It is a privately held corporation that monetizes human expression and algorithmically maximizes its distribution for profit, and what turns out to be most profitable is sowing social, cultural, and political division. Its participants are a very tiny, skewed slice of humanity that has American journalism in a choke hold. Twitter does not operate on the principle of representation, which is the cornerstone of democratic governance. It has no concept of the “civil” in “civil society.” Nor has Elon Musk, at any point in his career, displayed any commitment to either democratic governance or the freedom of expression.

Musk gave Isaacson a different explanation for buying the company: “Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally antiscience, antimerit, and antihuman in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multiplanetary.” It’s as if Musk had come to believe the sorts of mission statements that the man-boy gods of Silicon Valley had long been peddling. “At first, I thought it didn’t fit into my primary large missions,” he told Isaacson, about Twitter. “But I’ve come to believe it can be part of the mission of preserving civilization, buying our society more time to become multiplanetary.”

Elon Musk plans to make the world safe for democracy, save civilization from itself, and bring the light of human consciousness to the stars in a ship he will call the Heart of Gold, for a spaceship fuelled by an Improbability Drive in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In case you’ve never read it, what actually happens in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” is that the Heart of Gold is stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is the President of the Galaxy, has two heads and three arms, is the inventor of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, has been named, by “the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6,” the “Biggest Bang Since the Big One,” and, according to his private brain-care specialist, Gag Halfrunt, “has personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts.” Person of the Year material, for sure. All the same, as a Vogon Fleet prepares to shoot down the Heart of Gold with Beeblebrox on board, Halfrunt muses that “it will be a pity to lose him,” but, “well, Zaphod’s just this guy, you know?” ♦

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