I have rewritten the lede of this newsletter eleven times, trying to find the words to encapsulate an unavoidable truth: Elon Musk is dangerous to society.
As a result of our market-driven government and compliant media, Musk has caused (and will continue to cause) human suffering and actual death in his pursuit of fame, power, and capital. It is time to stop treating him as “just” an entrepreneur, investor, executive, or industry blowhard, and see him as a man who has used his incredible wealth and status to twist the world to his petty, ignorant, and selfish desires.
Last week it came out (as part of Walter Issacson’s biography of Musk) that Musk ordered his engineers to turn off Starlink’s satellite communications around the annexed region of Crimea, specifically to interrupt an attack by the Ukrainian military against the Russian navy (the article in question has a retraction from Walter Isaacson - one that makes absolutely no sense based on the original statements he made. Also, SpaceX has admitted to curbing drones on Starlink months ago). Musk claimed that he was trying to avoid a “mini-Pearl Harbor,” a decisive blow against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which, as I write this paragraph, is actively restricting the flow of grain from Ukraine to the rest of the world, particularly the Global South, in the process exacerbating food insecurity in some of the poorest countries on the face of the planet.
Musk claimed he feared such an attack would provoke the Russian military into using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, a neighboring country it was currently in the process of invading, and definitely had nothing to do with the fact that Musk spoke with Vladimir Putin, or that Tesla has bought aluminum from Russian companies for years.
It goes without saying that Musk has no experience in diplomacy, foreign policy, or intelligence and has no basis to believe this would be the case, other than a strongly-held hunch. Moreover, Putin and his acolytes (including former Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, who at one point was feted by Silicon Valley as a modernizer and a reformer, and Vladimir Solovyov, a Tucker Carlson-esque figure with a bizarre friendship with Steven Seagal) have threatened nuclear annihilation multiple times since the outbreak of the war, but never quite had the steel to press the big red button. These empty threats are so numerous, they have their own Wikipedia article cataloging the red line in the sand and the moment it was crossed — often with no consequences whatsoever.
Musk had, according to the historian and journalist Anne Applebaum, fallen for the same Kremlin propaganda that everyone else had learned to disregard. Applebaum also notes that the Ukrainian forces successfully attempted the same attack a month later — using a different, although unspecified, communications system — without triggering a nuclear escalation. Ukraine has continued to use remote-controlled sea drones to attack Russian naval and maritime assets, including the Kerch Bridge — the sole road and rail line between occupied Crimea and mainland Russia — and the Olenegorsky Gornyak, a 3,600-ton landing ship used to help supply Kremlin forces on the Crimean peninsula.
Even after these humiliations, the war has remained conventional. There are no mushroom clouds rising over Paris, or London, or Berlin, or Warsaw, or Washington D.C. I’ve previously criticized Musk for his propensity for embellishment, or more specifically, his willingness to over-promise and never deliver. Still, he’s nothing compared to Putin and the red-faced, sweat-drenched Kremlin mouthpieces that dominate Russian TV.
Many people dance around Musk, so I want to speak clearly: Elon Musk, a private American citizen, running a private enterprise, chose to turn off a vital communications tool during a war based on his personal beliefs.
While it’s tempting to interpret Musk’s decision to limit Starlink around Crimea in the most charitable light — a misguided action driven by credulity and fear — the reality is that his other interventions in Ukraine have aligned with Kremlin interests.
These include a widely-condemned “peace plan” that would require Ukraine to cede Crimea — a territory where 54.9% of voters voted for membership in an independent Ukraine in 1991 — and agree to hold referendums in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson. These plebiscites would be neither free nor fair, and given the depopulation of long-term residents and their replacement with Russian emigres, would likely be in Putin’s favor. In addition to ceding territory, Ukraine would also have to commit to neutrality, ensuring no defense against a future invasion.
Unsurprisingly, this plan was met with approval from the Kremlin. It ticked every item on its revanchist wish list.
Putting aside my feelings about Ukraine (in that Russia invaded and needs to get the fuck out), it is important to realize with complete clarity that Musk makes electric cars that are sold around the world, and sells rockets to NASA. He runs Twitter, one of the largest communication networks in the world, and, of course, Starlink, the satellite ISP used throughout the world that is specifically marketed to places that are otherwise inaccessible to traditional broadband. This is not just a goofy Redditor posting epic memes and saying “exactly” anymore — Elon Musk has chosen to, and will continue to choose to, use his influence over these networks to interfere with global events, and because the media and the government have been so utterly tepid in their approach to him, he has accumulated such power and influence that he is, on some level, unstoppable.
This is a man who hates trans people, who blames a Jewish non-profit for ruining his company, who gives tens of thousands of dollars to bigots and racists, whose open-air beta test of self-driving vehicles has harmed and killed people, who has exposed himself to women and created a culture of sexism and racism, and who has now shown that when he feels like it, he’s fully willing to use his companies both as vehicles to lend himself money and as political weapons.
While one can fob off these concerns as one-time things, the reality is there’s a pattern of malicious or capricious acts, all one after another, again and again, done in broad daylight for all to see. Musk has shown he will push whatever envelope he sees fit, and as Ronan Farrow’s New York Magazine piece shows, there are very few people willing or able to get in the way, because he’s so unbelievably rich, well-connected, and powerful.
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The Consequences of Capital
What happens if Musk decides that he doesn’t agree with NASA’s path to space? What happens if Musk decides that certain parts of certain countries should or should not have Starlink access depending on whether they’re voting that day, or who polls suggest they’ll be voting for? What happens if Musk succeeds in bringing payments to Twitter, and then decides whether certain people’s transactions will and will not go through? What happens if Musk decides to take his campaign against certain news outlets up a level and outright bans links to certain outlets on Twitter, much as he did with Substack earlier this year? What if Musk decides to start favoring certain destinations on Teslas, prioritizing those who pay him to advertise on Tesla’s version of Google Maps? What if Musk decides — as he is fully allowed to — to simply not allow certain political entities to post on Twitter during an election cycle? What if Neuralink actually happens, and Musk suddenly has chips in the heads of real people?
One might call me an alarmist, but many of these are things that Musk could decide to do today and implement tomorrow. Musk cannot “lose money” in a way that will actually harm him, unless, of course, Tesla’s stock crashes, an unlikely event as said stock has become a meme stock with a vile following of wealthy freaks propping it up.
We are not “on the verge” of Musk doing anything. He has already started to do things that make him less of an entrepreneur and more of an extremely annoying James Bond villain. He’s inelegant, inarticulate, oafish, callous, and capricious, lacking any grace or humility, which makes it easy to dismiss him as a dumbass. The problem is that Musk, while not as smart as he believes, is smart enough to have created an insulation field around him, and he’s begun to realize the robustness of his cult of personality.
Musk regularly tests the boundaries of what society will allow him to do in exactly the same way that every conservative in America has since Trump ran for President, seeing how many taboos or norms he can violate and remain unscathed. He, like Trump, is alluring to men with fragile egos and a lack of responsibility, saying the “things they wish they could say,” which loosely translates as “give voice to bigoted justifications for his own personal failings.” The ADL didn’t cause Twitter to lose $22 billion in market capitalization — Musk did by ripping out the trust and safety team and empowering the worst people to walk this Earth. He plays the eternal victim, yet he is the ultimate victimizer, and knows that anyone who truly tries to fight him will ultimately lose, because he can lose more money in a legal fight than they will make in a lifetime.
While I do blame some of the media for fueling Musk’s rise to power, the reality is that Musk is a truly unique creature, a monster that only the digital age could create. He quickly realized that the media would simply write about anything he did and used that to flood the tech press with endless crap, some of it true, some of it embellishment, and some of it utterly false. The speed at which digital media works is such that there is very little followup on a story that’s run, and as a result many will simply take a big company’s word for it — and Musk used this to his advantage to build the false persona of the man who invented Tesla, SpaceX’s rockets and Starlink’s satellites.
Musk is the modern-day P.T. Barnum, except he is capable of creating 100 news stories with a single tweet, manipulating financial markets and world events in the process. He doesn’t need a media department because he doesn’t need to provide any service to the media — they will always cover him because they believe they have to, even if they oftentimes don’t.
Musk can do what he wants. He cannot be banned from one of the largest social networks in the world, where he can control hundreds of millions of eyeballs. He can choose to whom — consumer, company or country — he gives access to the internet, and he can choose for whom a car will drive. He has enough money to back almost any cause, and he can promise said cause publicity both by association and by tweets. He has an army of psychopathic ghouls, equally hollow and petty little contrarian men who want to blame their own failures and misfortunes on others. He is unable to experience shame without immediately retaliating with explosive, well-funded, and highly-visible wrath, a modern-day tyrant kleptocrat that can promise humiliation and annihilation with an audience of millions.
The Kleptocrat Emperor
This is the consequence of media personalities like Kara Swisher who spent years propping up Musk, giving him softball interviews until he turned on her, taking America’s Billionaire Apologist from steady acolyte to scorned hater in the space of eight months, despite years of evidence that Musk was a scumbag. To be (briefly) fair to Swisher, this is a problem that affects almost every outlet and reporter that covers billionaires — the assumption is always that they will act with empathy, patience and grace, three things that Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg and their ilk lack. Failing that, one would suppose they’d act like a normal person — a losing proposition if you’ve ever read Jeff Bezos’ texts.
Except Musk is more dangerous than all of them, other than perhaps Jeff Bezos, who controls 7.6% of America’s consumer retail spending, a national newspaper, and a rival space company paid for with the labor of Amazon’s 1.6 million workers. Not to mention AWS, which is essentially the cornerstone of the modern Internet, proving the infrastructure behind an unknowable number of websites and applications, in the process becoming the OPEC of cloud computing — with all the leverage and power that entails.
Musk’s desperation for attention and adulation means that he can be pulled in any direction that feels like it scorns his critics, and when his critics are “pretty much anyone who isn’t a right-wing lunatic,” it almost guarantees he will continue to pal around with authoritarian regimes that will influence his remarkably malleable brain.
The problem with Musk is that there aren’t any quick or obvious solutions to the second richest man in the world having the capricious nature and fragile ego of a 16-year-old on Xbox Live. The government could potentially yank SpaceX contracts, or begin to fight back against Musk’s Boring Company outright ghosting cities, but even that would be little more than a papercut in the grand scheme of things. Nationalization — treating SpaceX and Starlink as companies essential to both national and global security, and thus too sensitive to remain in the hands of a mean-spirited edgelord that’s drifting ever closer into Putin’s orbit — is another option, although for obvious reasons, highly unlikely
The actual solution would be to treat Musk as what he is: a dangerous entity with a higher GDP than Ukraine and an ego that rivals their invaders’ president. It’s time that anyone writing about Musk — myself included — starts treating him as an intentionally harmful actor that makes decisions based only on what he believes will benefit or amuse him. He is the Wish.com version of Ernst Stavro Blofeld — an offensive, charmless and boorish monster that has successfully bought his way into the elite, and found that no matter what he does, their patience is unlimited and their scruples are few.
Tim Cook, Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the world’s billionaires feel no need to correct this behavior, to interfere, or even chide Musk for his disgraceful acts, because doing so would potentially make their actions and wealth more conspicuous, which is far more important to protect than free speech or human lives.
Musk is not a goofy weirdo or the real-life Tony Stark. He’s a fragile, mean-hearted ogre, one hell-bent on seeing his whims brought to life at any cost. The only way to write about this man — the only fair coverage of Elon Musk — is to frame him as a villain, a bigot, a bully, and a crook.
But what do you do about the man who has everything?