What in the world is going on with Elon Musk?
At one point in time, no name generated quite as much enthusiasm and reverence in business or engineering as Elon Musk’s. The sharp-witted and eccentric founder and CEO of Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company was the rock star of Silicon Valley, a spark of excitement amid a wave of Harvard dropouts in matching gray hoodies. Musk’s promised innovations were straight out of the Isaac Asimov novels that he once quoted regularly. Self-driving, fully electric mass market cars! A vacuum-sealed pod train that could travel from New York City to Washington D.C. in under 30 minutes! Commercial spaceflight for the cost of a business class plane ride! A human settlement on Mars within our lifetimes! No other tech mogul could hope to compare in terms of forward thinking.
Buoyed by Tesla’s up the Dow Jones and the cult of personality rapidly growing around him, Musk could seemingly do no wrong. If you were to believe his most fervent admirers, he was Steve Jobs, Tony Stark and Rick Sanchez rolled into one. You don’t get to have a hagiographical episode of The Simpsons where you voice yourself and become Homer’s new best friend for nothing.
More astute observers might have seen Musk’s downfall coming for some time. The happy-go-lucky, mad-scientist persona Musk cultivated didn’t mesh well with his brutal crackdown of unionization attempts within Tesla, or his ‘news verification’ website that seemingly was founded to quash criticism of his management skills. For any readers planning on becoming Silicon Valley moguls, a piece of advice: Promising to build workers a roller coaster and give them hourly ice cream, as Musk did according to May 24 Reuters , will not defuse the want of labor to agitate for fair wages and reasonable hours. If anything, by offering them goodies instead of a raise, you’re just showing your contempt for them.
As his stature has grown, Musk has shown himself to have incredibly thin skin, shutting down any and all internal or external criticism regardless of validity. Arguably, this is his Achilles’ heel, a fatal flaw that threatens to wholly subsume his companies and his career.
A particularly embarrassing moment in this regard came when Musk spent most of the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on arguing with Existential Comics artist LinuxFreeOrDie over how Musk’s lionization of Ayn Rand clashed with Tesla’s heavy reliance on government subsidies. Billionaires should not spend the launch of their flagship program tweeting “No use arguing with you, chimp. You’re blocked,” at webcomic artists, especially if they are from South Africa and fully knows the loaded nature of the term “chimp.”
However, this misplaced Twitter slapfight over Ayn Rand’s awfulness was just a prelude to the disaster on the horizon. Musk’s annus horribilis began in earnest with his bizarre attempt to create a personal submarine for the Thai youth soccer team trapped underground, a move roundly considered to be a crass publicity stunt in a time of crisis. Rubbing salt in the wound, Musk responded to rescue diver Vern Unsworth’s criticism of the submarine by calling him a “pedo guy” on Twitter, as reported in a July 15 in the Guardian. Doubling down on the accusation, Musk emailed reporter Ryan Mac on Sept. 4 and told him to “stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole,” further alleging that Unsworth had moved to Thailand for “a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.” It’s not that Elon failed to realize what he was getting into by taunting the press in this manner. “As for this alleged threat of a lawsuit,” wrote Musk in the same email, “I fucking hope he sues me.” Musk simply could not comprehend someone beneath his stature daring to question his sincerity. What was meant as a goodwill-engendering stunt for SpaceX and the Boring Company had become an albatross around their necks.
Hot on the tails of a half-hearted apology to Unsworth, Musk sent out an surprise proclaiming “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” Even discounting the juvenile cannabis reference, which Musk claimed was the brainchild of his girlfriend Claire “Grimes” Boucher, this surprise announcement was a truly awful idea. With a mere nine words, Musk sent Wall Street and the future of his tenure at Tesla into chaos. First, Musk’s claim of “Funding secured” proved to be dubious at best, relying on a possible cash infusion by the Saudi royal family. Having a self-proclaimed “environmentalist” company like Tesla kowtow to the oil-loving Saudis would have been a terrible look, particularly after Musk was caught donating money to Republican Congressional campaigns. Furthermore, by falsely claiming that he had secured private funding, Musk was potentially defrauding his stockholders. Unsurprisingly, this drew the ire of the Securities and Exchanges Commission. According to an article, the agency has launched a formal investigation into Musk’s claims, a decision that could precede criminal charges.
Seeking to quash calls for his ouster and a bizarre accusation from rapper Azealia Banks that he sent out his pivotal funding tweet while tripping on LSD, Musk set out once more to the media circuit that had previously served him so well. So far, he has only managed to make things much worse. On Aug. 16, the New York Times’ Musk, capturing the executive on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Musk claimed to be working 120 hours a week for months on end, admitted to a dependence on Ambien as a sleep aid, and appeared to be on the verge of tears several times throughout the interview. Unfortunately for Musk, a worse interview was to come. During a scatterbrained appearance on comedian Joe Rogan’s Sept. 7 podcast, wherein Rogan and Musk incoherently rambled about living in the Matrix and played with samurai swords, the Tesla CEO happily took a hit of a blunt offered to him by Rogan. While marijuana is legal in California, Tesla’s code of conduct expressly prohibits cannabis use, and the FAA rules SpaceX is bound to prohibit drug use within 60 days of operations.
While Musk’s ongoing fall from grace has certainly provided endless schadenfreude for his critics, the real takeaway from his disastrous fall should be a close look at how he was able to generate so much goodwill in the first place. The warning signs were there all along, but Musk pulled the wool over the eyes of investors and media outlets. Instead of questioning his motives or trying to apply a critical lens to his outsized promises, the fourth estate took his claims at face value and allowed him to mask yet another Silicon Valley investment scheme as a benevolent futurist operation.