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What a Twit

Elon Musk Is The New Republic’s 2023 Scoundrel of the Year

He proved this year that he’s not just evil, but deeply stupid, too.

Bloomberg/Getty Image

In one sense, Elon Musk has gotten exactly what he wanted. For all his talk about free speech, his primary motivation for sinking $44 billion into buying Twitter last year was clearly an unquenchable desire to be the center of attention. After Donald Trump’s defenestration in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, there was a main-character-size hole on the social network: Enter Musk and his infantile need for validation.

That Twitter—now renamed X, for reasons only Musk really understands—is now teetering on the brink of collapse and worth less than half what the world’s second-richest man paid for it is funny. It elicits deserved schadenfreude. Musk entered Twitter’s office carrying a sink—a terrible joke, and one of his better ones—last fall and has subsequently made countless decisions, big and small, all of which have made the platform significantly less viable and less worth spending any amount of time on. It is hard to think of a billionaire who has done more to damage their own reputation in such a short period of time.

Not so long ago, Musk was seen by many as a good tech billionaire, if not the good tech billionaire. While others like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg built digital trinkets that actively made the world a worse place, Musk was something different: a visionary intent on building real things, whether they be electric cars or rockets, that were aimed at accelerating a Jetsons-like vision of the future. While rivals at Google and Facebook—and, for that matter, Twitter—were hauled before Congress to testify about the deleterious effects of their creations, Musk remained relatively unscathed. Now it is clear that he is not just more villainous than all of them but that he is also a deeply stupid and unserious person.

Elon Musk is evil. While he has mostly made headlines for his incompetence, he has unleashed and legitimized truly heinous forces on Twitter: He has welcomed back some of the world’s most toxic people—Alex Jones, Donald Trump, innumerable Nazis and bigots—and has gone out of his way, again and again, to validate them. That Musk would endorse a heinous antisemitic conspiracy theory, as he did last month, is both unsurprising and reprehensible. It is, more than anything else, a reflection of who he is: He may be fantastically wealthy, but he is also deeply hateful, someone who has decided to devote his fortune and his time to attacking diversity and progress on nearly every front.

Musk has insisted again that he bought Twitter to save it from itself—that the platform had become too restrictive and that, to become a true “digital town square” where the best ideas rise to the top, it needed to welcome everyone. It is now abundantly clear that Musk’s real intention is and always has been to put his thumb on the scale: to elevate his own hateful views about, in no particular order: liberals; the media; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; trans people; and liberal Jews. He sees Twitter as a weapon, a way to not only push his agenda but to sic his army of loyalist losers on anyone he deems an enemy.

For all of the talk about Musk being a “real life Tony Stark,” he has always been a deeply uncool person’s idea of a cool person: He is, in many ways, a sentient m’lady Reddit post circa 2011. It’s hard to think of a more pathetic figure now: someone scraping the internet for conspiracy theories and “jokes” aimed at affirming his status and influence. He has, again and again, done the opposite: Far from showing himself as a swaggering, popular figure, he has revealed himself to be a venal, thin-skinned moron. He may very well be the most unfunny person alive, a fact reified dozens of times a day.

This was most apparent late last month, when Musk appeared at The New York Times’ glitzy annual DealBook conference and delivered a near-perfect encapsulation of the particularly toxic mixture of megalomania and neediness that has defined nearly everything he does. Asked by Andrew Ross Sorkin about a wave of advertiser defections in the wake of Musk’s embrace of an antisemitic conspiracy theory—via a post on X, of course—that suggested that Jews were secretly working to bring in troves of minorities to dilute America’s white population, Musk recoiled.

Bob Iger, the chairman of Disney—one of many companies to cease advertising on X in the wake of Musk’s comments—could “go fuck himself,” Musk said. It was clearly a pre-planned moment: an instant that Musk thought would bring him a wave of adulation and support that would force Disney back to his precious platform. Iger would be faced with the massive mistake he was making and come crawling back. Instead, there were a few awkward laughs and audible rustling. This was not a triumphant moment but a sign of a meltdown: a fabulously wealthy adult behaving like a toddler. Musk responded by telling Iger to go fuck himself again—as if it would somehow work this time. It hasn’t. Of course it hasn’t: Musk may have immense wealth, but his time at Twitter is a reminder that even that has its limits. Iger is also very rich; Disney is worth nearly 10 times what X is. Disney doesn’t need X. It certainly doesn’t need Elon Musk. X and Elon Musk need Disney.

Twitter, for all of its many flaws, was once a vital breaking news service. It is not that now. It’s not entirely clear what it is, beyond a toxic cesspool increasingly made in the twisted image of its deeply unwell owner. Changes to its verified user system, Musk’s decision to open the floodgates to bigots and trolls, and his own presence on the site have destroyed any utility it once had. It is now a source of endless misinformation and propaganda, a place where a pro-Putin conspiracy theorist can become a widely read source for information on the Israel-Hamas war, and where Alex Jones can spew lies about children murdered in schools. This is by design. Musk hates the media, but he also hates the truth and would rather live in a fantasy world in which his many enemies are destroying the world around him. It is, it practically goes without saying, actually Musk who is making the world worse in innumerable ways.

X is hanging on by a thread. After waves of layoffs, there is seemingly almost no one left minding the store. Musk dismantled Twitter’s Trust and Safety team almost immediately. As a result, hateful content often stays up for days, if not longer. The wave of advertiser defections means that the platform is also peppered with advertisements for ridiculous companies and scams. If Musk is still in charge of the platform in a year, it would be a shock. If it exists in a year at all, it would be a surprise.

X features heavily in Musk’s year in review, if only because he has successfully used it as a vehicle to make himself inescapable. But it is not his only venture, and it is not the only reminder that he is actually a deeply stupid and incompetent person. Tesla, his main business, just recalled nearly all of its vehicles because its much-hyped self-driving feature keeps causing cars to crash into people and things. Its much-hyped Cybertruck is unbelievably dumb-looking and pointless: It is bulletproof, for some reason—exactly the kind of silly detail on which Musk would fixate to look cool, even as his cars … keep killing people. The rockets from his rocket company, SpaceX, keep exploding. (Musk says this is a good thing.) Everywhere you look, there is more evidence that Elon Musk is an idiot.

Behind all of the bloviating and attention-seeking is a small man who is simply not very good at anything. Musk has long wanted to present himself as a world-historical genius—and was recently minted as such by world-historical genius-minter (and world-historical toady) Walter Isaacson—but the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Musk was able to parlay early wealth (via a disastrous tenure at PayPal) and, perhaps more importantly, fantastically low interest rates, into seed capital for lots of silly ideas. But the bill came due in 2023. Musk’s self-image is in tatters. What’s left is what we saw at the DealBook conference: a puffy, pathetic man increasingly untethered from reality. This is funny, in many ways. It is certainly funnier than anything Musk has ever tweeted.