How Elon Musk Became the Internet’s New Main Character

Even so, Foster allows that there’s something primally train-wreck-y—or inspiring—about a powerful man with apparently zero filter. “He seems to be pure id and says whatever he wants, and no one can apparently stop him,” Foster added. “Don’t we all look at that a little bit and think, What if I can do that?”

As fun of a parlor game as Musk Tweet Analysis is, it’s arguably the most accessible lens most of us have for understanding the world’s richest man, who’s objectively quite likely to also be the guy who figures out the electric-vehicles revolution, life on Mars, and guardrails against the incoming A.I. apocalypse for the rest of us. After all, this is the man who, at least at one point in time, was revered as a real-life Iron Man around the world (to the point where he made a cameo alongside Robert Downey Jr. in 2010) and accrued enough cultural buy-in to attend the Met Gala and host Saturday Night Live. The tension between Elon the Tweeter and Elon the Mogul lays bare the inherent contradictions of a proven success record and visionary ideals against a chaotic Twitter presence that behaves, as Foster put it, “like an incredibly depressed, unemployed 22-year-old.” How do you square the blatant COVID misinformation and cozy toke sesh with Joe Rogan with the fact that he’s also getting the Walter Isaacson biography treatment as we speak?

Isaacson, who counts Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein amongst his biography subjects, told me over the phone that what appeals to him about Musk is his unusually tangible record of innovation. “Musk is doing something that few others have done in the past, which is building factories and physical products, from batteries to cars to rocketships,” he explained. “I think that’s important, to show that innovation can still happen in complex physical things.” I asked what he thought of Musk’s erratic tweeting; surely, there’s something contradictory about rolling out 420 jokes alongside reams of Teslas. “There’s a goofy and giddy side to him,” Isaacson allowed diplomatically.

The sense that there’s been an inflection point—that is, when Elon Musk’s personality began overshadowing his accomplishments—is shared amongst some of those I spoke with, though no one can agree on the exact time stamp. Broderick pointed to Musk’s onstage interview at the 2016 Recode Code Conference, when the billionaire casually mentioned how likely it is that we’re all living in a simulation. “I feel like Elon Musk learned a new trick with that news cycle, like, Oh, if I just talk like a Star Trek character, people will trust that I know what I’m talking about,” Broderick explained.

It could also be the whole Securities and Exchange Commission securities-fraud-charge debacle from 2018, when Musk tweeted about having the funding to take Tesla private (at $420 a share, of course); his resulting settlement with the SEC ended with Musk stepping down as Tesla’s chairman, paying half of the $40 million fine himself, subjecting his future tweets to pre-approval by a Tesla attorney (last month, Musk appealed an April court ruling that upheld the settlement), but not much else. As Newton put it, “He was able to commit light securities fraud, and it didn’t matter.… There’s this kind of untethering from the laws of gravity until someone or something is able to successfully challenge him. I imagine he’ll just get further and further out there.”

My colleague Nick Bilton, who wrote about 2020 as the banner year of Musk’s career, described how Tesla and SpaceX insiders referred to that fateful “funding secured” tweet as “the Summer of 420,” which was preceded by Musk’s bizarre insertion of himself into the Thai-cave-rescue narrative (also known as the “pedo guy” tweet) just a month before. Bilton’s own theory is that 2018 was simply the point where Musk gave up on faking his way into conventional CEO persona-ship. “I think he just lost it,” Bilton explained. “He tried for years and years to be the normal CEO who, like, posed for the cover of Wired…. I think he started to put the real Elon out there, and he just couldn’t stop.” It helps to think of Musk almost like a comedian, tossing out bombs of varying force to see what lands: “Some instances, it’s funny, and in some, it’s dangerous, and he doesn’t necessarily care or know the difference.”

Matt Levine, the Bloomberg columnist who’s been described to me as “The Maggie Haberman of Musk,” acknowledged the bizarre dichotomy without pinpointing any pivotal moments: “He’s always been a guy who does nonsense on Twitter and who actually runs a bunch of companies that do real things,” he said. “You could tell a story where he’s, like, regretfully but strategically being unhinged online in order to help finance his businesses that he thinks will change the world…or you could tell a story where he is a guy who spends a lot of time working on those businesses and who blows off steam by shitposting online, which I think is more accurate.”

In the business of narrative-making, these competing dimensions of Elon Musk quite naturally force the mind into overdrive in an attempt to solve the dissonance: On one hand, he’s the rare public figure putting his money where his mouth is—including, but not limited to, apparently, his concerns about underpopulation, or keeping the internet running in Ukraine with SpaceX’s Starlink terminals during Russia’s invasion, or advocating for his personal reading of free speech via buying, say, Twitter. On the other hand, there’s the Elon Musk whose company fired employees for exercising a little free speech in the workplace, and who is “leaning” politically toward MAGA 2.0 darling Ron DeSantis for 2024. (And that Starlink service, it turns out, was paid for not only by the warm Muskian fuzzies, but also with support from the U.S. government). Whether you see him as savior or villain is likely more revealing of our own tastes and frameworks than any actual understanding of Musk as an erratic and confounding person of power.

“I would just go back to the notion that Elon’s strength comes from having accomplished really difficult things that he said he was going to accomplish,” Patel concluded, highlighting the 2019 Falcon Heavy launch, when the company successfully shot three rockets into space and landed them all on the same day, as an extremely visible example of SpaceX’s success. “At a very fundamental level, that earns him more trust than almost any politician in our country.” The baseline trust permeates from the way Musk uses Twitter; as Newton put it, “Joe Biden and Kamala are not mixing it up in the comments. Elon sort of does.” In that vein, we can understand Musk as a continuing lesson in how a lot of traditional power and a little internet savvy make for a potent combination at a time when little else feels reliable. “People are constantly talking about Elon in the context of Trump…this notion that, like, you can get away with things because you’ve created your own power structure that comes from an online fan base and your own tweeting,” Levine explained.

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