Not Even The Patron Stooge Of Fawning Biographies Can Make Elon Musk Look Good
12:31 PM EDT on September 22, 2023
Elon Musk is not a nice person. How do we know this? Because the respected journalist Walter Isaacson has written a very moist, fawning, dumbstruck book about him. This portrait is really the best press Musk is likely to receive, the most even-handed and prestige-scented coverage he’s ever going to get, and what blows from its 600-odd pages is a great gale of nastiness. “If you were my employee, I would fire you,” Musk says to his first wife Justine. “I fired my cousins,” he tells a worker, “and I’ll fire you.” To another cowed underling, the richest man in the world asks, “Did you fucking do this? You’re an idiot. Get the hell out and don’t come back.” Musk’s favorite thing to say to anyone he considers beneath him (which is a lot of people) is a variation on the theme of “You don’t fucking know what you’re fucking talking about.” He mewls, he yells, he vomits, he lets his kids stand very close to flaming pits and heavy machinery, worries a bit about the future of human civilization, and then sticks pins into the mental voodoo doll of his father. As you traverse the yawning Sahara of cruelty and boredom that is Elon Musk the book and Elon Musk the man, you might hope that the boss of Tesla and SpaceX may at some point heed the thousands of people over the course of his 52 years on this earth who have told him that he really is an “asshole.” He does not. He yells some more.
We are often told that it is impossible to condense all the rough contradictions which jangle in a soul, to trap the entirety of a life in the neat rigors of a narrative. Musk’s life and personality, it turns out, is not so hard to contain. It is flat and shallow and open for all to read. The difficulty comes when Isaacson tries to impose some fabricated complexity on a not-very-complex man, and uses that illusion of knottiness as an excuse to paper over a much truer and more interesting story. Since chucking in jobs as editor of Time and chair of CNN and firming up his reputation as the principal ventriloquizing sage of elite opinion, Walter Isaacson has written a hefty shelf’s worth of biographies: Einstein, Da Vinci, Kissinger, Steve Jobs. By offering his tape recorder to Musk, Isaacson also offers his imprimatur to the belief that the King of All Nerds deserves to be elevated to this pantheon of Great Dudes.
Kitted out with his most reliable tools (bland prose, cheap pop-psychology), Isaacson believes he is unearthing the demons buried in Musk’s history. These demons, Isaacson writes, explain his success. “Great innovators,” he insists, “can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.” What he is actually doing is wading through the squalor and bile to rescue the Musk mythology from the man himself: the visionary persona, the globe-bestriding innovator and disruptor and all-round cool maverick cowboy; a Columbus, a Shackleton, an Armstrong for a new age. Musk has long been followed by a traveling chorus of toadying; Isaacson joins in here as lead vocalist. He croaks the loudest.
Certainly one of the most sensible things Elon Musk ever did was get out of South Africa as soon as he could. Born in Pretoria in 1971 to Maye and Errol Musk, Elon’s childhood was unusually violent. A dog tore a chunk out of his cheek. He wrestled in the street with his brother and cousins. Bullies broke his nose. His father was a bully too—a real old-fashioned stand-up bastard, still today a vicious racist—and would, Isaacson reports, barrage his son with insults for hours. It does not take much effort to guess that Elon’s own personal harshness was first learned in the family home.
Isaacson accepts this sad state of affairs as the inevitable product of his father’s corrupted personality. But—and this is his first fault of omission—is it possible that a nuclear-armed regime of white minority rule combusting in fits of extreme brutality also had something to do with it? As the beneficiaries and maintainers of a system built upon the banal and everyday meting out of savagery, the Musks were surely not immune from rebounds and ricochets. Build a state on the principle of absolute power, and that absolutism will in time turn up in the living room.
Isaacson isn’t much interested in any of that. Isn’t interested at all, in fact. He prefers to trace Elon’s retreat from his father’s domineering into the comfort of distant worlds: comic books, Asimov novels, video games set in space. Though the Musks were never poor, they weren’t exactly slap-up rich either. A jibe which has followed Elon for a while, that the Musk dynasty was made wealthy by ill-gotten blood diamonds, has never been true. Errol Musk was a failure at many things and the Zambian emerald mine with which he traded (but never owned) was kaput by the time Elon was a teenager. Still, as he fled for university in Canada, Musk didn’t mind giving the impression that his pockets jiggled with gems. Arriving in Silicon Valley at the cresting wave of the Dot-com boom, Musk and his brother Kimball built and sold Zip2, a city-mapping guide for newspaper advertisers, within four years for a crisp $307 million.
Elon collected $22 million and dumped a chunk of it into a new obsession: the letter X, which he thinks is the quintessence of cool. He’s named his kids X, his companies X, and since buying Twitter has tried to remodel it in the image of a business he started in 1999 called X.com. Everyone—friends, fellow bosses, focus groups—thought X.com sounded like a porn site, because it does. Musk wanted it to be an internet bank fused with a social network—“the place where all the money is.” It would have died a pauper’s death had Musk not merged it with the much friendlier-sounding PayPal.
Enter here, through a very wide door, the unhappy question of Elon Musk’s character. His colleagues thought he was cold, abrasive, intrusive, meddling, and unstable, and whenever he attained any degree of control over a company, his partners would attempt a coup d’état. His mentality was much the same at work and at home. At the Musée de Cluny in Paris, his first long-term partner Justine Wilson was moved by The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry; Musk called her interest “stupid.” As they slow-danced at their wedding, Musk whispered in Justine’s ear: “I am the alpha in this relationship.” Later, as the marriage fell apart, he called her a “moron” and an “idiot.”
Isaacson suggests Musk lacks an empathy gene, or might just be wired differently. At multiple points he implies Musk may be autistic. Musk himself has claimed that he has Asperger’s, though he hasn’t revealed whether a doctor told him this. (Asperger’s is an outdated diagnosis anyway, its characteristics since folded into the autism spectrum.) Again, Isaacson is asking the wrong question. It is not a trait or feature of the condition of autism to be cruel. Not all inventors are unpleasant to their core. There is evidence that when Musk wants something badly enough—a new business opportunity, say, or a new wife—he is capable of being sweet, charming, enthusiastic, and smart. “Flip a switch,” says J.B. Straubel, a longtime Tesla guy, “and suddenly be this incredibly effective, charismatic, high-emotional-intelligence business person, when he has to do it.” (My emphasis.)
This looks more like cheap and dirty cynicism. From his earliest success with Zip2 and PayPal, through SpaceX and Tesla up to the present, by driving himself to the point of exhaustion, by wielding the whip hand as a company boss, by cleaving a machete through safety rules and financial regulations, Musk gained fame and riches very quickly. Experience taught him that total control was viable, and the more money he accumulated, the more bloated with puffery his reputation became, the more he was able to get away with it. And how does Isaacson sum all this up? A “visionary who didn’t play well with others.”
Elon Musk, Isaacson writes, has “an enthusiastic but awkward attraction to publicity.” This, again, is putting it much too gently. A large part of Musk’s business ethos is to publicly promise extraordinary, magnificent, life-changing inventions, watch the stock price shimmy upwards, then abandon that promise to the dogs and the ruins of time. Who now remembers Robotaxis, the Hyperloop, or Pravduh? In the early days of Zip2, Musk cultivated an impression of size to investors by hiding a small computer inside the frame of a much bigger one. Hoping to build a battery plant in Nevada but lacking the cash, Musk hired a squadron of bulldozers to shuffle some dirt around near Reno, then invited a Panasonic executive to survey the scene and pretended as if the factory were actually being built. Almost every year since 2014, Musk has teased some kind of self-driving or autopilot mechanism in Tesla cars. It’s not happened yet; test models keep killing people, catching fire, and ramming into emergency vehicles. The 2016 video demonstration that was supposed to prove the cars’ self-driving capability was staged. The launch of his humanoid robot project Optimus was a woman in a white skin-suit dancing on a stage alone. At one point Isaacson catches Musk realizing that “you could build roads in 3-D by building tunnels under cities.” That’s a subway.
Isaacson lets this stuff slide, and his admiration for Musk, like his prose style, grows wet and hack-like and embarrassing as a result. He describes Musk as “a master of memes” even though his entire vocabulary is pinched wholesale from Monty Python. He reflexively compares Musk’s stature (a shade over 6-foot) to a bear. As a teen he was already sprouting a “bear-like frame.” Hunched gaunt under stark office lighting, Musk looks “coiled like a bear searching for prey.” On the production line at Tesla, he would “walk with the stride of a mission-driven bear.” That last phrase calls to mind Winnie the Pooh looking for hunny, but is undone by the fact that we’ve all seen those photographs: Musk gasping on the back deck of a yacht, in tugged-up soggy trunks, being playfully hosed by Ari Emanuel (impresario brother of Rahm), and looking for all the world like a clammy piglet. Less ursine, more porcine.
Isaacson isn’t the first writer to put up a brick of a metaphor. But at moments where it matters more, Isaacson can be misleading and even flat wrong. Sometimes these mistakes are funny. He describes Joe Rogan, for example, as “a knowledgeable and sharp-witted pundit.” Other inaccuracies are matters of pedantry. Case in point: He welcomes the return of a space race, not between rival superpowers, but between capitalists indulging in healthy competition “like that of the railway barons a century earlier.” This is fatuous in a familiar way, but also wrong: The American railway boom was 150 years ago, and brought about not by “competition” but continental-level corruption, kickbacks, bribes, and unfettered monopoly—all of it built on the backs of ruthlessly abused workers. (The injury rate at Tesla's Fremont, Calif. facility, per a report from 2017, was 31 percent higher than the rest of the industry.)
There is a morbid photograph which occasionally circulates online showing Elon Musk at a Vanity Fair party alongside the noted sex pest and child-trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell. Musk believes that he was “photobombed” by Maxwell. Isaacson has fealty enough not to question this line, and vehemently insists that Musk had “no connections with [Jeffrey] Epstein.” But he did: Musk went to his mansion on East 71st Street with his then-wife Talulah Riley after Epstein had served his (very short) time in jail on solicitation charges and after his reputation as a predatory deviant was well known. This may not be a substantial connection, but it isn’t “no connection.”
Even the release of Elon Musk was marred by one of Isaacson’s howlers. The biography was launched with a much-trumpeted “exclusive” published by CNN, Isaacson’s old haunt. The story, based on reporting in the book, detailed how Elon Musk personally ordered the Starlink internet service used by the Ukrainian army to be switched off as they prepared for a strike on a naval base in Russian-occupied Crimea. If you turned that upside down and tickled its tummy, it would still not resemble an exclusive. The details of the story had been reported six months prior by Oliver Carroll in the Economist, and were repeated by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker in late August along with the tidbit, missed by Isaacson, that Musk may have turned off Starlink after speaking to Vladimir Putin.
Isaacson subsequently issued a correction (on Twitter, of all places), clarifying that the Ukrainians “asked Musk to enable [Starlink] for their drone sub attack on the Russian fleet. Musk did not enable it.” Musk himself is now on to a third version of this event—it’s hard to parse, but he blames U.S. sanctions—but whatever was claimed in the biography is now, by its own author’s own admission, apparently untrue. On top of this, Musk gave Isaacson encrypted conversations between himself and Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov. Isaacson published the messages without Fedorov’s approval.
In 2008, Tesla’s veins were open. The company was hemorrhaging cash, struggling to produce cars, hurtling towards bankruptcy. To keep it afloat, Musk scrounged some money by raiding the deposits paid for Roadsters yet to be built. Then he went further. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, Musk played truant with the truth in order to fend off annihilation. He announced, in early 2009, that Tesla had been awarded a lifesaving loan from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program. But the DOE did not publicly announce Tesla’s successful application for another four months, and it would be another year before a deal was actually signed. The stock went up anyway.
How, then, did Musk prove to the DOE’s loan officers that Tesla was viable? The California Air Resources Board operated a regulatory credit scheme designed to encourage automakers to shift to electric vehicles. At least one percent of a manufacturer’s yearly sales had to be cars with zero emissions. If they failed to make this target, they would be fined. To avoid being fined, car companies could buy Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) credits from other companies that were meeting the requirements. Like Tesla. Musk set up an extremely profitable sideline trade in ZEV credits with the huge Detroit-based car makers, who found themselves liable for serious penalties in California. From 2009 until as late as 2016, Tesla was being propped up by hundreds of millions of dollars in ZEV credit trading; in pivotal quarters, when the share price decided the company’s existence or destruction, it was ZEV credits which made the difference. As Edward Niedermeyer put it in his (excellent) book Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, “none of Tesla’s recorded profits would have been possible without the ZEV program.” In short: no ZEVs, no Department of Energy loan; no DOE loan, no more Tesla.
Isaacson has read Ludicrous, where the story of the ZEV saga first appeared. He cites it in his references, and includes a short, snarky mention of Niedermeyer’s work in the narrative, calling it “a critical book.” He has, therefore, no excuse for not knowing how Tesla really functioned, and no excuse for not publishing some variation of the story in what is supposed to be a top-to-bottom tell-all. Instead, Isaacson actually sets up a misleading straw man to gallantly knock down on Musk’s behalf. “Over the years,” Isaacson tells us,
one criticism of Tesla has been that the company was ‘bailed out’ or ‘subsidized’ by the government in 2009. In fact, Tesla did not get money from…TARP, commonly known as ‘the bailout’…What Tesla did get in June 2009 was $465 million in interest-bearing loans from a Department of Energy program…The Energy Department’s loan to Tesla was not an immediate infusion of cash. Unlike the bailout money to GM and Chrysler, the loan money was tied to actual expenses…
Isaacson does not explain why a government subsidy would be worthy of criticism, nor does he provide a source for who was doing the criticizing. The point is that he included the banal details of the DOE loan and the red-herring of “government subsidy” as a means to dodge (or hide) the real, revealing story of how Musk propped up Tesla in those crucial crisis years.
When Elon Musk sold Zip2 and made his first millions, he bought a McLaren supercar and invited CNN to his house to film the delivery—a kind of unboxing video before that was a trend. Musk then immediately wrecked the car on a Palo Alto artery road. It’s a tale told often to illustrate how wild and zany and off-the-rails Musk is (“Watch this!”), yet it often leaves out who was sitting in the passenger seat during that crash: Peter Thiel, part of the PayPal gang now running the surveillance enterprise Palantir, who Isaacson hilariously and without irony describes as “a practicing libertarian.” The issue there is that Peter Thiel is not a libertarian but, as John Ganz has conclusively argued, a fascist. Anyone nervously digging up the roots of Musk’s recent turn to the hard right need look no further.
Indeed, Musk appears to have established a version of the Führerprinzip at his companies—though, like most of his products and ideas, it is a cut-rate version. He demands total obedience, tolerates no dissent, and twitches the trigger at whoever fails to dance to his relentless tune. Workers, no matter their grade, must prove themselves worthy of his lenience. By this process of fear and culling Musk has nurtured a workforce that reveres him and is frightened by him in equal measure. He appears, in the biography, to be a tyrant who has managed to get other people to believe that his tyranny is a good thing. As one employee sums it up: “You have to have fear and love for the leader. Both.” Fear and love for the leader. In this light, we dare not speculate as to the real reason he is blaming the Anti-Defamation League for collapsing ad sales on Twitter, or why he has lately been mumbling ominously about George Soros.
Musk’s imagination in the past decade has been overrun by dark thoughts of the end of days. Where once his dream to colonize Mars was an inspirational and outsized fantasy drawn from the pop-kapow comic books and science-fiction novels of his youth, it is now consumed and driven by an obsession with catastrophe. He fears another world war, an asteroid strike, climate change, thermonuclear cataclysm, and various other tart and zesty flavors of civilizational collapse. He warns that a singularity leading to a complete robot takeover “could happen sooner than we expected.” Looming apocalypse is his stated reason for fathering 10 children, though it does not explain why he’s given them such goofy names. “If I don’t make decisions,” Musk says, “we die.” A hint of messianism, wedded to a political vision of unbridled capitalist exploitation, backed by the largest single accumulation of wealth the world has ever seen. When weighed against each other, which is the more threatening future: a half-remembered gloss of the plot of the film Deep Impact, or an increasingly unhinged paranoiac billionaire with a rocket-making facility?
This is the ideology and achievement of the figure Isaacson expects us to venerate and idolize just as he does. This is the good we are being encouraged to swallow with the bad. To have the motivation to “change the world” has to be weighed against a prickly personality; it comes, Isaacson insists, with the territory. But those vices are piling up fast, and those virtues look less virtuous by the day. Isaacson spent more than two years within smelling distance of Musk, and his biography has been clouded by closeness to the target of his admiration. He has chosen to spare Elon’s shame by hiding more than he reveals, by bending his biography to Musk’s own narrative, by trying to save a dream from the self-destruction of the dreamer. Does Walter Isaacson own a Tesla? Of course he does.