As a new Daily Beast contributor, I think it’s important to be as honest with you guys up front as I possibly can be, and so I begin my first column with a confession: I own a Tesla. Worse, I absolutely love it.
I’m sorry. I am so, so, sorry.
In fairness, I bought the car back in 2018, back in the days when it wasn’t yet abundantly clear that Elon Musk is a massive tool. My son, then a teenager, tried to warn that Musk was a “douche,” but I wouldn’t listen. And now I’m stuck driving around in the best damned car I’ve ever purchased. Mea culpa.
Musk is in the news again, this time for conducting the first clinical trial of his Neuralink implants into a human brain. The chip will (supposedly) allow those suffering from spinal injuries or other conditions to use their minds to manipulate objects.
Enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking.
Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs.
Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 30, 2024
It’s a laudable goal from a guy in need of some decent PR after a disastrous few years in which he managed to alienate nearly everybody outside of the incel groyper set.
From endorsing the Great Replacement Theory to briefly reinstating Kanye West on his social media site during the heyday of his antisemitic psychic break, to telling the head of Disney to “go fuck yourself” after the company pulled its advertising from the site formerly known as Twitter, to refusing to allow his satellite company, Starlink, to be used by the Ukrainian military, to his various anti-trans comments and puerile insults directed at various journalists and critics—Musk has proven himself to be as thin-skulled as he is thin-skinned.
For all of that, his worst offense is his seeming embrace of the new illiberalism sprouting around the world like so much poison ivy. It’s the politics of oligarchs, crooks, and tech billionaires who want to be able to segregate their wealth and power from the pesky reach of legislators and regulators. The best way to achieve this: make American democracy itself look flaccid.
Mock those who preach diversity. Censor those who criticize. Cozy up to the Putins of the world. Give refuge to those, like Alex Jones, who were shunned from other social media. Use the massive bully pulpit of the website formerly known as Twitter to elevate rightwing trolls and conspiracists. In short, make a mockery of the liberal values of the nation that welcomed him as an immigrant and gave him the infrastructure and resources to fashion himself into (at times) the world’s wealthiest man.
It is that title—“world’s wealthiest man”—which magnifies his every utterance from the ramblings of a stoner tech bro to the pronouncements of an oracle. Americans are, of course, enthralled with the rich. Too many of us equate the skill of acquiring money with the skill of critical thinking. As the tale of the MyPillow guy, Mike Lindell, demonstrates, the two are not necessarily related.
And yet the car is awesome. I’m so, so sorry.
There’s nothing to be done about Musk, of course. He’s a private citizen with unlimited financial resources who can say and do pretty much whatever shitty thing he so desires. And that’s as it should be. America is the land of shitty takes.
They are our birthright.
For years, the culture has been struggling with the “Can you separate the art from the artist?” question. As a celebrity industrialist, Musk has brought that question to bear onto the world of high finance in a novel way. CEOs used to be buttoned-up, circumspect. That’s not necessarily better than the brash, Shark Tank-style CEO we’ve got now, but at least Lee Iacocca wasn’t posting Pepe the Frog memes.
What’s irritating about Musk as we head into the 2024 election is that he could be an important voice. Not for Democrats, necessarily, but for the institutions of American democracy that made him possible. Musk could be using his platform to encourage moderation in political speech instead of broadcasting the least responsible and most hyperbolic voices. He could choose to wield his high-profile responsibly instead of chatting up antisemites and loons. There’s so much he could be doing to help his adopted nation as it struggles with divisiveness. Instead, he chooses to exploit those divisions. Why? Because clicks drive chicks, bro.
There used to be a saying about one of America’s most venerable companies. “What’s good for GM is good for America.” That may or may not have been true, but it at least supported the idea that corporations have a responsibility to their communities as much as nations have a responsibility to their corporate citizens. It’s an idea that tied together American industry with American prosperity, a recognition that we are all stronger when we work together.
Musk has chosen to invert that axiom. Because what’s good for Musk’s parasocial website is definitely not good for America. Nor is the man who runs it.
But the car is great. Sorry.