Elon Musk's Reputation of Genius Is Waning

Once thought to be the Messiah, he's now Silicon Valley's forbidden fruit.

For as long as he’s been CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk kept enjoying the boons of favorable coverage from tech outlets for having redefined the norms of the automobile–his company successfully turned electric cars into a status symbol for the green-minded, and in turn was able to carve out a portion of the market big enough, that the competing old guard had no choice but to adapt.

The story of Elon Musk however, is a bit more complex than his triumphs as an entrepreneur. The man formed around him a cult-like sphere that coddled his worst instincts in what became colloquially known as the “Musketeers”, and by virtue of being yesmanned through every questionable decision, he reached the only logical endpoint he could’ve–last night on Twitter, Musk urged his followers to take “the red pill”, forever shattering the illusion of genius he’s worked years to cultivate.

The emphasis on “illusion” is important here–the tech industry has a habit of assigning successful entrepreneurs “visionary” status without much merit. Musk’s closest analogue for the longest had been Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg–his entry to market with what soon became the quintessential social media network was similarly hailed as a sign of indisputable genius. Several years later, he’s charting a very similar path towards universal public disdain.

What sets Elon Musk a world apart from the rest of Silicon Valley however, is an insistence on being right even when the odds are firmly stacked against him. In July of 2018, Musk accused British diver Vernon Unsworth of pedophilia after he mocked an offer to use a Tesla-manufactured submarine to save the day in the now-infamous saga of the Tham Luang cave rescue. Not even a month later, Musk tweeted he’d take the company private at $420 a share, broadcasting in parallel to have secured the necessary funding to do so — prompting a securities fraud investigation by the SEC which the two parties eventually settled — only to have said funding by the Saudis fall through in the aftermath of the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

More recently, Musk’s beef has been with the coronavirus and how it slowed down the pace of automobile manufacturing significantly–instead of voicing his opinions as such, he cast doubt on the prevailing wisdom over the pandemic, going as far as to predict there would’ve been no new cases of the disease in the United States by the end of April, missing the mark by quite an immense margin. In a hail mary, he decided to open back up a Tesla factory in California, defying public health ordinances in a vacuous bid to make good on his “FREE AMERICA” tweets, risking arrest for the purported good of the company.

This has now become a pattern hinting that perhaps, Musk’s riches weren’t obtained through merit, and were rather the product of pure luck. What seemed then like calculated, is now appearing to be haphazard at best–despite all the internal issues that Tesla continues to face, no one could argue with the results of his doubling-down on the electric car market. But now that his company has no more stories to tell — and is in some regards lagging significantly behind which they once reproached — it is clear that Musk’s involvement with Tesla was only mental clog for his deep-seated beef with reality. If a version of which doesn’t treat Musk favorably, he’ll tweet through it like the uncontainable bundle of chaos he always was.

It’s all-the-more puzzling then that Musk asked for the red pill to be taken — implying he took it already — when it goes against what we’ve publicly known about the man for a few years now. His belief in a Matrix-like world is starting to seep into the subtext of the story he likes to tell himself about the world, forging himself a new reality out of the rubble of his erstwhile glory–if anything, Musk has been on a continuous dose of the blue pill to keep projecting an air of sanity, even when it’s clear he’s completely lost it.

This wouldn’t be much of a controversy if all were in agreement that Musk has flown off the handle, but given the amount of engagement on his tweet, and the subsequent co-signing by the First Daughter of the United States, it’s not so clear that everyone has come to the same conclusion. Conservatives view it as the long-awaited explicit confirmation of their ideals from a prominent tech entrepreneur, while co-creator of the Matrix Lilly Wachowski loathes the contemporary cultural association of the pills. It’s the perfect storm of what happens when an item of culture becomes completely divorced from its roots, and it’s why the red pill has come to signify right-wing ideology, and why Elon Musk is synonymous with genius even when he does little to justify the moniker.

When the Verge’s Sean O’Kane urged Tesla’s CEO to think twice before tweeting, he might’ve not considered an even more troubling alternative–Musk is very much on the path to becoming yet another Peter Thiel. Shielding away your worst instincts from social media doesn’t nullify their impact–if Musk is hell-bent on transitioning away from the common mainstream of socially-progressive but fiscally-conservative tech entrepreneurs, his devout base of support will be an important asset. Even with the criticism that figures like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet still endure, they at least keep a pretense of seeking the betterment of humanity–Musk on the other hand, views himself as a good-doer, even when the facts show that it’s empirically not the case.

More dangerous than Musk’s proclamations of spearheading the corporate liberation movement against the tyrannous hands of the state, is his insistence on being a net benefit to the global discourse, when the risk of his actions are starting to rival that of the Silicon Valley cabal he spent so long criticizing. Grasping at a semblance of heroism when you’re the antagonist of the story is cute, but it’s not the thing we need from Elon Musk right now when moral clarity should be of the utmost essence.