The Descent of Elon Musk

Edward Zitron 16 min read

Money can't buy happiness, but it can get you pretty damn close. As the second richest man alive,  Elon Musk should be rolling electric coal down Rodeo Drive in a cybertruck, smugly aware of the fact that, despite what the haters say, he's kind of won. He took Twitter private, turning it into his own private narcissism hole — an increasingly-fetid swamp full of credulous goons where he's driving out most of the people who hate him. 

Every day tens of thousands of people hear everything he has to say, lavishing him with attention, applause, and support for his causes. He has more money than any human being will ever need, and could effectively stop working entirely and automate his existence, allowing him to spend time with his seven children anywhere in the world.

This would, to most people, seem like the ideal situation.  Musk is, on paper, the most successful man in the world. He’s  a social media star, a multi-billionaire with his own social network, and he owns a 20.5 percent stake in the world’s most valuable car company by market cap. He knows — or can easily get in touch with — almost anybody in the world, and has the means to start or incubate any venture under the sun.

Yet with the world at his fingertips, Musk seems joyless, marinating in misery, surrounded by an air of existential bleakness.

In Mid-March, he canceled the X-based launch of disgraced former CNN host Don Lemon's talk show a few hours after recording an in-person interview for its first episode. Musk originally pitched the show to Lemon via a tweet in May 2023, and Lemon added in an interview with Mediate that once Linda Yaccarino became CEO of X, the company spent several months trying to woo him. Lemon's new show was meant to be part of Twitter becoming "a video-first platform," joining conservative dimwits like Tucker Carlson, Jim Rome, and Tulsi Gabbard in launching videos on a platform best-known for its text-based posts.

Lemon's interview is fascinating for many reasons, chief of which is that Elon Musk sounds really, really stupid. The supposed real-life Tony Stark is ineloquent, stumbling through his answers with the verbal agility  of somebody that just woke up, his dialogue a buffet of "uhs" and "ums," with even his answers to softball questions feeling like he's making the answers up in real time. Within five minutes, he effectively admitted to not watching Don Lemon's show, claiming Don (and CNN) were "center-left," yet not appearing to have a clear answer as to why.

And that's what made this interview so special. It was the first time I've ever seen a tech CEO given anything approximating a grilling. Unlike anybody who has ever interviewed Musk, Lemon actually listened to his answers and asked follow-up questions, consistently infuriating Elon by asking things like "why do you say that?" and "why did you say this?" At one point, Musk becomes agitated that Lemon won't simply accept "replies to my posts" as proof that women and minority pilots are less intelligent and skilled than white male pilots.

At one point, in one of his only semi-cogent answers, Musk goes on a tirade about how the census includes illegal immigrants, and that the number of representatives that a state is given in the House is dictated by those numbers, and thus that illegal immigrants are giving democrats "approximately 20 seats in the house." 

I asked Dave Weigel, the National Politics Reporter at Semafor, to explain what Musk got wrong and how non-citizens actually help conservatives hold power in red states like Texas and Florida (something backed up by Pew's study from July 2020):

Elon isn’t actually wrong on the basics; the census doesn’t exclude non-citizens, and congressional redistricting relies on the census, so if you found a way to take non-citizens out of the count you’d reshape a lot of seats. But the “net loss of 20 seats” from blue states stuff? No, a lot of non-citizens live in Texas and Florida. As of 2020, when Trump tried it, it would have maybe cost California 2 seats.

Having trained over a hundred different startup founders of varying ages and stages, I have never seen somebody so ineloquent. Musk doesn't just seem incapable of dealing with criticism — he seems incapable of cogent, in-depth responses, leaning on a brittle, surface-level understanding of almost everything he talks about. When asked to explain what "the woke mind virus" actually means, Musk takes nearly a minute of rambling to get to a flimsy belief that taking gender and race into consideration is "fundamentally racist...sexist...and evil."

Elon Musk, a man with unimaginable money and power, has the elegance and eloquence of a nervous teenager. His delivery is stilted, convoluted yet specious, echoing a lack of research or real understanding of anything he's talking about beyond what he might have glanced at in between posting stolen memes and begging people to use his website. He seemed uncomfortable, and professionally-speaking, these aren't the actions of an introverted or shy personality, but somebody who hasn't had to answer a real question in decades. It's remarkable that we've never seen an interview like this with a tech founder, let alone Elon Musk, made more-so by how much even the lightest brush with criticism aggravated and frustrated him.

In many ways, this interview is a damning indictment of anyone who has interviewed Musk in the past and an example of how remarkably insulated the powerful have become. Musk's ideologies are paper-thin and collapse at the slightest touch, leaving him stammering trying to explain a belief he's considered for a couple of seconds before welding it to his personality.

Yet the most damning part of this interview was how utterly unremarkable Elon Musk really is. Putting aside his fragile ego and empty ideologies, Musk seems culturally hollow, lacking any real beliefs, passions, or positions beyond "woke bad" and "X is good." 

This is not somebody with a deep adoration or excitement about his companies or the world around him, but one of a million boorish conservative men grinding their axes about the problems they've created. Musk feels bereft of passion and purpose, a man so utterly flappable and deeply bothered by any insinuation that he's made a single mistake that I am genuinely astonished he's made it this far.

Fundamentally, he seems miserable.  He looks tired, not the kind of tired you get from doing something you love, but from the exhaustion one gets when you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And it's likely because the Cult of Elon Musk is beginning to collapse.

Sidebar: Hi there! Do you like podcasts? Why not try the latest episode of my weekly tech show Better Offline? This week's is about rich idiots killing the media to please the tech industry. You can find it on Apple Podcasts here, and all other services here.

The Broke Mind Virus

Over the last few months, Musk's character arc has shifted from fucking around to finding out. In late January, a Delaware judge ruled that the $50+ billion compensation package given to Musk by Tesla's board was "an unfathomable sum" that was unfair to shareholders, arguing that the board of directors was beholden to Elon, with the Wall Street Journal reporting a few days later that directors felt "pressured" to do drugs with a man who controls numerous government contracts and the backbone of America's electric vehicle infrastructure.

Musk's pay package was split into twelve tranches tied to 304 million stock "options," giving Musk the opportunity to buy each one at around $23 a share, as opposed to the $178 price of a Tesla share as of writing. Judge McCormick wrote in her opinion that Musk's board repeatedly rigged the dice to approve Musk's compensation package, failing to justify why awarding Musk 1% of the company for every $50 billion in market capitalization was necessary, or why said package didn't mandate how much time he'd spend at the company. McCormick was ruthless, calling the board "beholden" to Musk, suggesting that "neither the Compensation Committee nor the Board acted in the best interests of the Company when negotiating Musk’s compensation plan," and "in fact, there [was] barely any evidence of negotiations at all."

The consequences of this ruling are an existential threat to Musk. While he's yet to exercise his options from the package, the majority of Musk's wealth is tied up in $77 billion (411 million shares) of Tesla stock and — formerly — $50+ billion (304 million shares) in stock options (that would take $7 billion to exercise), as well as his stake in SpaceX (worth $71 billion, though as a private company he can't easily liquidate them). 

As of last year, Musk has pledged 238 million of his Tesla shares to secure personal loans, and in April 2023, Tesla's board changed its policy to cap the amount of money that Musk could borrow by pledging his shares as either 25% of their value or $3.5 billion. Musk had to borrow a billion dollars from SpaceX (that he paid back) during the time he was buying Twitter backed by his SpaceX stock, heavily suggesting that he's running low (by his standards) on liquid capital. 

Though it's unclear how much money Musk has borrowed, he's leveraged over $40 billion of stock, and last year's board move to lower how much he can borrow heavily suggests it's enough to worry them. Musk has sold nearly $40 billion of shares since November 2021, and while he could theoretically pay off his existing loans by selling more, this runs the risk of spooking investors concerned about, well, the fact that the CEO (sorry, "TechnoKing") of the company has leveraged just under 10% of the company's market capitalization in shares.

Musk desperately needs to keep Tesla as a growth-at-all-costs meme stock just as its growth begins to slow. CNN reports that Tesla's stock is the worst-performing stock in the S&P 500, shedding 32% of its value since January, and a few weeks ago, Wells Fargo's Automotive and Mobility Analyst Colin Langan called Tesla a "growth company with no growth" in a note to clients. Langan noted that Tesla's sales increased only 3% in the second half of 2023 as Tesla cut prices 5% both in America and abroad, and he believes that Tesla's revenue will plateau in 2024 and decline in 2025. In an interview with CNBC, Langan added that Tesla's price cuts are no longer swaying the street, and that Tesla's ability to cut further is severely limited. 

A Bloomberg report from last week revealed that Tesla's growth has slowed so much in China that it had to reduce production of their popular Model 3 and Y vehicles, dropping production at its Shanghai plant to 5 days a week (versus 6.5 days a week). Tesla has sold "almost" 100 of its $250,000+ electric Semi trucks according to their VP of Vehicle engineering, and it's unclear how many the company is able to actually build, let alone sell. Tesla's Cybertruck has been widely-panned, with usually-positive Youtuber Marques Brownlee saying that the panel gaps on his truck are "the worst he's ever seen," with Electrek calling the Cybertruck's body defects "ridiculous" and owners reporting that their $100,000+ trucks are rusting.

Musk is out of tricks to buoy Tesla's already-bloated valuation as the markets and media grow increasingly incredulous when faced with his bloviating, partly due to the raw numbers turning against him and partly because he's really, really annoying. 

Twitter has become a public referendum on Musk, both as a person and an executive. As its owner, Musk has destroyed somewhere between 71% and 90% of its value in just over a year, and NBC reported last week that Twitter's global daily active users had fallen 15% year-over-year, and 18% year-over-year in America, its largest market, with growth flat or declining every single month since 2022. While Musk claimed that bots were rife on the platform before he acquired it, the problem is now unquestionably worse, with spammy and scammy ads flooding the platform, and seemingly every post getting a response from either a cryptocurrency or pornography bot.

And while Twitter Blue might not make Musk any money, it's making scammers millions by impersonating a brand and buying a "verified" checkmark for $8.

Musk's destruction of Twitter's Trust and Safety team has led to a massive increase in hate speech on the platform, and yesterday a federal judge dismissed Musk's lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, who published a scathing report about Twitter's failure to deal with 99% of Twitter Blue users' hate speech, referring to the suit as having some of "the most vapid extensions of law" that judge Breyer had ever seen.

And it's getting difficult for even the most ardent capitalists to avoid how gruesome Musk has become. Racist slurs have soared since Musk bought the website, and he's repeatedly endorsed the racist "Great Replacement Theory" despite telling Don Lemon he "doesn't subscribe" to it, posting a vile video warning about a "flood" of illegal immigrants entering America to "replace" white people. 

Musk retweets right wing psuedo-science, said that a post claiming that jewish people "push hatred against whites" was "the actual truth" before apologizing and telling advertisers to go fuck themselves, and suggested that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion would lead to plane crashes. His most recent posts include reposting a cringeworthy right wing comedian's song about racism, an endorsement of a Joe Rogan segment alleging that squatters can steal people's houses, a complaint about America's "uncontrolled immigration," and a post outraged at democrats for voting against a bill that would allow state authorities to enforce federal immigration law while defunding "sanctuary cities" that protect illegal immigrants.

Musk is a right wing demagogue and a pathetic, narrow-minded racist, one that endorses causes that suppress the marginalized and champion white supremacy. He is not a "free speech absolutist." He's a fascist-enabling cretin facing a class action lawsuit from 6000 black Tesla workers that described Tesla's factory production floor as a "hotbed of racist behavior." The only force destroying Twitter is Elon Musk, both through his disgusting, narrow-minded attention-seeking and his inability to run a company.

Even if you can somehow put aside his disgusting personality, Elon Musk is also a woefully ineffective executive. Twitter has gone from the world's town square to the red light district of social media, with every popular post flooded with "verified" users making nonsense posts in the hope that they'll get a cut from Twitter's "creator program" that indiscriminately and arbitrarily pays money to users, including rigging the system to pay Mr. Beast $250,000 for posting one video. It's not hyperbole to say that almost every post I make on the platform gets someone saying "nudes in bio" or attempting to recruit me into some sort of cryptocurrency grift, and by choosing to no longer verify accounts based on anything other than them having eight dollars, Musk has created a hotbed for scams, with some of them leading to dark and dangerous places.

It's the ignominious, needless collapse of a vital internet institution just as the rest of the web begins to decay, one caused by a man unable to admit fault and incapable of growth or meaningful introspection.

Yet that's exactly why Twitter is destroying Elon's life.

The Dunning Kruger Lifestyle

Billionaires are, by and large, fairly private. While Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta or Sundar Pichai of Google might occasionally pop up to talk about layoffs or run damage control on a major company screwup, they tend to avoid social media entirely. While Mark Zuckerberg occasionally shares his strange proclivities like farming wagyu beef on his private ranch or fighting men for sport, he otherwise stays relatively quiet, posting once every few days on Threads about some new feature.

Neither Larry Page nor Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, appear to have social media profiles. Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft, posts the least-threatening things imaginable, like joining comedian Dax Shepard on a trip to India to talk about global health progress and AI (?) or how future energy transitions will come out of Silicon Valley (which they likely won't). Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle, hasn't posted since 2023, and his post before that was from 2012. In fact, I can't find a single major tech founder, let alone a tech billionaire, who posts much more than statements championing their companies in the most neutral way possible. Even OpenAI's Sam Altman, arguably one of the more active founders on Twitter, posts in a relatively neutral, philosophical tone, occasionally lightly shitposting but carefully avoiding anything controversial.

There's a fairly obvious reason: nobody worth a billion dollars actually wants that much attention. Being a billionaire means building byzantine empires of shell companies, nonprofits, and tax-dodges, all while running a company that very likely does everything it can to maximize returns at the bleeding edges of regulation. What one doesn't want at that level is scrutiny. In their ideal world, only a few people would know that these billionaires existed, making the reasons to hate them — tax dodges and monopolies, for example — too complex or obtuse for the average person to get really angry about.

Conversely, Elon Musk demands attention, and always has. For over a decade, Musk has been lavished with praise and coverage in the press and on social media, lorded over by world leaders, becoming a pop culture icon that gets cameos in Marvel movies and referenced in Star Trek. Before he acquired Twitter, this was a relatively manageable persona — the ultra-rich nerd building electric cars and rockets, with ambitions to go to Mars. This inoffensiveness meant that he  inevitably avoided scrutiny when announcing bold (and unfeasible)  plans that Tesla was maybe going to build something one day, or that he would replace the incumbent system of long-distance mass transportation (read: trains and buses) with a series of country-spanning vacuum tubes. He could say anything and people would just accept it — or, more accurately, accept that it was maybe within the realms of possibility. He was, after all, Elon Musk.

That allure has faded over time, and virtually disappeared in the year following Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.

Twitter gave Musk an instant dopamine rush — a guaranteed way to get lavished with attention and media coverage with a single post. Attention is equal parts addictive and dangerous, with its darkest paths beginning with the idea that being popular means that you're smart, likable or, worse still, cool. As horrible as they are, men like Bezos, Zuckerberg and Pichai aren't particularly concerned if you think they're cool or intelligent. They have billions of dollars, lavish multi-million dollar compounds, famous friends, and the ability to go anywhere and do anything if they see fit. Someone bashing them online is like a fly on the side of a 747. These people have bigger fish to fry, like lobbying congress to sustain their monopolies or talking to the President of the United States of America about why artificial intelligence is important.

Musk, on the other hand, has always been deeply self-conscious, lashing out at the slightest hint of criticism, sending his angry followers after reporters that dare to disagree with him, or personally attempting to ruin the life of a whistleblower that leaked a story about how inefficiencies in Tesla's Nevada-based Gigafactory had cost the company $150 million. These aren't the acts of somebody confident, or secure, or unaware of their failings, but those of a thin-skinned D-list poster that finds that people like him less the more that they learn about him.

And that's the real problem. We don't really know Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, or Larry Page. On the other hand, we have thousands of posts to tell us who Elon Musk is — a deeply boring and petty xenophobe that can't run a social network properly.

The Blue Albatross

Though it's unlikely that Musk ever goes broke, his current situation is deeply, deeply unstable. Sam Bankman-Fried's empire collapsed — other than the fact that he was a giant fraudster — in part because he  leveraged funds that he could never sell, and Musk's reliance on Tesla's eternal growth engine as a means of funding his expensive lifestyle is deeply rickety.

Tesla's growth is slowing — along with the wider EV market — and an independent board of directors will likely scrutinize Musk working part-time at three different companies and conclude that it isn’t healthy or tenable. While Musk might describe Tesla as an AI and robotics company, an independent board will likely notice that Tesla makes electric vehicles, and that its CEO spends hours a day posting about "woke culture" and attacking the corporate media. Musk has become a liability at precisely the time that Tesla needs to project growth and stability, as the car manufacturer has little good news to share.

Tesla's entirely-theoretical $25,000 Model 2 won't start production until 2027 according to analysts at investment bank Evercore, despite Musk promising — as he always does — that it would start manufacturing them by 2023. These tricks were cute when the stock kept jumping, when Musk's word was trustworthy, when the name "Elon Musk" wasn't associated with running a beloved website into the ground and responding "concerning" to a conservative conspiracy theory. Tesla has little sizzle left to sell, few tricks left in its bag other than trying to hype up its at-times-deadly "autopilot" system. While the Model 3 was a runaway success, making a new, affordable electric vehicle is no longer novel, and Tesla's growth-at-all-costs mindset has burdened the company with consistent quality issues.

And, fundamentally, why would you be excited about where Tesla is today? There are better vehicles from better brands, Chinese (and Warren Buffett-backed) battery and electric vehicle company BYD is eating Tesla's lunch overseas, and as I've mentioned before, Tesla can't afford to discount its cars much further than it already has. While Tesla has blamed some of its losses on "investing in AI" and "commissioning one of the world's largest supercomputers," these are the kind of things that an independent board will see and ask "when will it actually make us money?" Tesla's self-driving software previously made it a few billion dollars a year, but that was before it had to recall 2 million vehicles as the result of a two-year-long investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Now Musk has mandated that every new Tesla delivery will have a demo of its $12,000 (or $200-a-month) Full Self-Driving software, which has yet to leave beta.

SpaceX is an entirely different beast — a crucial government contractor where Musk operates as CEO in name only. While there've been rumors for over a year about a potential spinoff of SpaceX's satellite internet firm Starlink, SpaceX President and COO (and effective CEO) Gwynne Shotwell recently made it clear that the company is "not focused on an IPO" for Starlink. SpaceX's IPO has been rumored for years, but is unlikely to happen quickly or without significant government oversight.

What we don't know is Musk's actual financial condition, or how much liquid capital he has on hand. He needed a billion-dollar loan from SpaceX to buy Twitter, heavily suggesting he has only a few billion dollars of actual, real money to play with. This wouldn't be much of a threat if he hadn't leveraged tens of billions of dollars of Tesla stock and purchased a social network that he once claimed burned $4 million a day — a problem he tried to solve by making the product markedly worse and demolishing its advertising revenue.

He can leverage some of his remaining Tesla stock, but as noted above, he can't get that much money — at least by his standards. 

Musk has plunged hundreds of millions of dollars into creating a competitor to ChatGPT at a time when generative AI is yet to prove any meaningful use case, and I can't imagine when or how xAI actually makes any profit. In February, Jessica Mathews of Fortune published an incredible story about Musk's tunnel-digging "Boring Company" and how its horrifying safety standards left workers with chemical burns and permanent scars.

Elon Musk's fortune was built on the Elon Musk brand, a brand that was built off of the vagueness of his legend and his assumed intelligence. That legend is collapsing under the weight of Musk's need for attention and inability to retreat at exactly the time where Tesla needs a stable, reliable and consistent executive.

And as things begin to fall apart, Musk will become more deranged, more bigoted, more cruel and more chaotic. Twitter has maybe a year left before it fully buckles under the weight of his terrible decision-making, and outside of a miracle growth-spurt, Musk's reign at Tesla is coming to a close.

Though much of what I've written here is deeply depressing, I do want to leave you with some good news:

Elon Musk is absolutely miserable, and there's little good news in his future.


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