There are bigger villains in the world than Elon Musk. While he has a long history of wrecking lives—from the Tesla whistleblower on whom he sicced the police to the janitorial staff whose contract he terminated before the holidays—he has not, like Vladimir Putin, invaded a country simply because he wants it. And there are larger fools too. Crypto-fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried lost an even greater portion of his net worth in 2022, all while convincing some ostensibly intelligent pundits that “effective altruism” was a thing distinct from “another means of plutocratic tax avoidance.” But Musk is the most titanic nimrod alive today, hands down.
That’s the inevitable conclusion after witnessing his acquisition of Twitter and the fecal mess he has made there ever since. He spent $44 billion of his own money to own the libs, but instead it looks, with each passing day, like he engineered his own duping. He’s saddled with a debt-ridden social media company that not many people use and which was already in steep decline before he got there. With neo-Nazis returning to the platform, advertisers are taking their leave. Musk has already lost a tidy amount of money since the deal, and there isn’t a logical way for the firm’s balance sheets to ever make sense again. His big new revenue-generating idea? Stop paying rent.
But this is only the latest evidence that Musk is not the genius that the mainstream press has long made him out to be. Quite the opposite. He is best known for being the public face of a car company that he neither founded nor provided the seed of inspiration for. He has a company that purportedly builds tunnels that looks more like a put-up job to kill high-speed rail developments. He has a space-faring concern that might regularly provide clapped-out oligarchs with the thrill of post-Laika-era orbital excursions. He wants to put some kind of microchip in people’s heads, an idea that, as a sci-fi convention, almost always spells disaster. This does not seem like a well-rounded portfolio or a stable master plan.
Instead, Musk is what desperation for attention looks like at a plutocratic scale. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel, responding to Musk’s tweet about how his “pronouns” were “prosecute/Fauci,” got it right: “Beyond its stark cruelty, this tweet is incredibly thirsty.” No one on this planet is as desperately in need of attention. He has taken that crown from Donald Trump. And like the former president, there are no depths to plumb here, no mystery to solve. Musk doesn’t contain multitudes of anything besides, perhaps, the combined personification of several Dril tweets.
Increasingly, the attention Musk craves is that of supposedly woke-drunk lefties, whom he attempts to trigger with a degree of wit that makes Ben Shapiro look clever. Trying to prove otherwise is a fool’s errand. Writing for The New York Times, in a journalistic exercise that only proved that it was possible to labor lengthily over a topic and somehow end up knowing less than you did when you began, Jeremy Peters attempted to offer “analysis” of Musk’s ideological leanings, only to ultimately conclude that they weren’t clear enough to say with any certainty that they were right-wing. Peters’s piece aged poorly in an astonishingly short period of time: A day later, Musk tweeted his Fauci-pronouns “joke,” leaving no doubt about his political worldview. As Warzel wrote, Musk’s political North Star was, rather obviously, pure and uncut right-wing crankery: “Whether or not he wants to admit it, Musk is actively aiding the far right’s political project. He is a right-wing activist.”
Warzel never quite arrives at the answer to why Musk is the way he is. But there’s a simple explanation: Musk isn’t cultivating an ideological worldview, he’s just responding to stimulus. His commitment to right-wing ideas is entirely due to the fact that the only people who are currently providing him with the attention he craves are right-wing shitposters. Ergo, he’s a right-wing guy now, who adopts their memes and tropes and their jokes about pronouns. By and large, the only reaction he’s getting from the left is mockery.
As Dave Karpf has noted, you can boil down the product Musk is selling to one commodity: fan service. His goal is to give Elon Musk stans more of what they want, in a mutually assured orgy of “feeling seen.” If you’re willing to be Very Online and Slavishly Devoted, Musk will keep providing you the goods. And for the low price of $8 per month, you can be a primo member of his cult of personality, the benefit being that he will rejigger the Twitter algorithm to boost the true believers and leave the haters and losers out of the larger conversation. (Which, by the way, seems fine to me! I don’t know how right-wing trolls will enjoy Twitter once the people they want to persecute disappear from view.)
Perhaps no one needs an online community of toadies more than Musk does now, because his recent interactions with nonbelievers have been awkward, to say the least. When he was invited onstage at a Dave Chappelle show, he was subjected to a long and lingering howl of disapproval that left him sheepish and shell-shocked (and which seemed to engender no small amount of resentment from Chappelle). Days later, Musk jumped into a Twitter Space hosted by Katie Notopoulos to explain why he’d suspended the accounts of several journalists. He fled the scene after experiencing mild pushback and apparently then disconnected Notopoulos’s ability to continue hosting the chat.
There’s a certain social desperation underlying all of this—his wavering and reckless acquisition of Twitter, his reinstatement of far-right scum, his banishment of journalists who don’t give him the wrong kind of attention he craves. Musk is creating his safe space: an alternate universe where those boos were barely noticeable, actually, and his jokes are always funny. Turning Twitter into a hermetically sealed chamber of constant Elon adulation is the only bona fide vision Musk has ever had as a businessman. Given the site’s rapid deterioration under his watch, we can only hope that one day it will be reduced to the minimum lines of code necessary for a sad uber-billionaire to live rent-free in his own head forever.