The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tesla owners love their cars. Elon Musk? Not as much.

Illustration showing a fork in the road with some teslas driving towards a road that "dislikes" Elon Musk, and others drive on a road that "likes" Elon Musk.
Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post illustration; Britta Pedersen/Getty Images
7 min

Earl and Lindsey Banning love, love, love their Tesla, a common sentiment among the Teslarati. Owners don’t tend to idle in neutral.

But when it comes to Tesla CEO, Space X commander, Twitter behemoth and wannabe overlord Elon Musk, the couple in Dayton, Ohio, diverges like a fork in the interstate.

“I find him deeply problematic,” says Lindsey, 46, a clinical psychologist. “He is an attention-seeking person.” Musk’s tweets, which seem to have revved into overdrive since he announced a $44 billion hostile takeover bid of Twitter in April, make her “uncomfortable and anxious.” If Musk succeeds in acquiring the social media platform, she says, “it’s going to be a less-safe space — not that it is now. Potentially, it’s going to get worse.”

Earl, also 46, an Air Force major and neuropsychologist who has been retweeted by Musk, is more accepting. “I see him as human, as a genius with flaws,” says Earl. “He’s lacking some empathy. He’s definitely chewed up some relationships along the way.”

The car is a marvel, owners rhapsodize. When it comes to the man, they have Muskgivings.

Tesla owners purchase the cars, and frequently the stock, because they care about the environment and adore the way they drive and look. But much of their passion has been complicated by Musk’s behavior and public musings.

Musk’s tweets and other commentary are so frequent and so absent a filter that to some of his nearly 96 million followers — though many may be bots — he has lost all ability to shock. Generating puerile and sexist tweets, offending the trans and nonbinary, deploying grossly inaccurate statements about the coronavirus. Trolling Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal with a poop emoji. Oh, and in 2018 engaging in securities fraud, resulting in Musk and Tesla each paying $20 million in penalties.

He exhausts patience and blots out the sun. He reigns over the Twittersphere once ruled by Trump, whom Musk has surpassed in followers. In April, Musk shared, and not for the first time, that half his tweets are created on the toilet. Musk did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

In the world of Tesla owners, Musk can be a constant source of conversation, in a way that few CEOs are. After all, how many can most of us name? “Elon Musk lives rent free in my husband’s head. All. The. Time,” says Colleen Shattuck, 66, a retired physician assistant and Tesla owner in Montana, of her husband, Paul, a retired mining engineer.

The argument that with every great genius comes greats flaws surfaces frequently. “Let Elon be Elon” his admirers say, uniformly addressing him by his first name. Genius has its privileges. Look, he gave us snazzy electric cars — provided you can afford the sticker price and tolerate delayed gratification, in some regions a delivery wait of more than six months. Last spring on “Saturday Night Live,” Musk announced that he has Asperger’s syndrome, part of the autism spectrum, which gained him sympathy among some followers while it was knocked by others as “self-serving and hollow” for implying that it explains his behavior.

“My experience is that geniuses are always messy,” says Sara Thorne, 63, an Episcopal deacon from D.C. and a Tesla X owner. “They may do society a lot of good. At the same time, they can cause a lot of problems.” To Thorne, Musk’s logorrheic commentary is beside the point: “I don’t have the bandwidth or the interest to pay attention. I don’t have to play in the sandbox with him.”

Still, she adds, “I would pray for the people who work for him because it can’t be easy.”

Disassociation abounds. Love the car, not the tweeter.

To many, Musk is akin to a fictional character, one who lives on Twitter. It’s as though he’s cosplaying at being the world’s richest dude, worth around $218.1 billion, depending on the day. Tesla drivers compare him to a wacky uncle, Albert Einstein, an undisciplined adolescent (albeit one who’s 50), Donald Trump, one of Reader’s Digest’s Most Unforgettable Characters, even George Constanza.

“I chose to view Elon Musk as this separate character aside from Tesla, a blessing and a curse,” says Andy Slye, 32, who works in information technology in Louisville and runs a tech YouTube channel with more than 270,000 subscribers. That said, “I’ve always admired how he can be himself, super-weird and super-polarizing.”

Robert Rosenbloom, 60, a Los Angeles emergency room physician and a co-host of the “Talking Tesla” podcast, views Musk’s social media salvos as a window into how the superior mind works. Imagine if Einstein or Edison had mused on Twitter? “We might see much of the same conversation,” Rosenbloom says. “If we put a filter on them, we would be back in the Stone Age. We wouldn’t have anyone putting their neck out. It’s a good thing we have geniuses that push the limits.”

There are his shifting politics. Some owners dislike Musk’s pronouncements in May that Democrats are the party of “division and hate,” he will vote Republican and, if successful in acquiring Twitter, he will reverse Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter, which he called a “morally bad decision, to be clear, and foolish in the extreme.” Two-thirds of electric and hybrid vehicle owners identified as or leaned Democratic, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. What CEO offends the vast majority of his potential consumer base?

Shattuck describes herself as “a recovering Republican,” the recovering due to Trump. She has been taken aback by Musk’s “outrageous, misogynist comments. Again, it’s that complete lack of filter. Does no one call him aside and say, ‘This is not appropriate in this day and age’?” To her, allowing Trump’s return to the social media platform would be a tweet too far: “I understand freedom of speech but you can’t let lies go unchecked. You can’t cry ‘fire’ in a crowded building.”

Ben Sullins, a data-science educator and electric vehicle YouTube reviewer, calls Teslas “basically the best cars on the planet. They changed the entire industry.” He is wholly disappointed in Musk.

“Twitter has not been his friend,” says Sullins, 40, of San Diego. “You’re not just any other man. You’re a leader of a movement, of just cases. I believe wholeheartedly in the mission. I see him making bad choices, being controversial.” The company, Sullins says, “doesn’t need him anymore. Go. Please leave Tesla alone. This company is too important for him to screw it up.”

Sean Mitchell, 41, a real estate broker in Denver and president of the local Tesla club, says, “I often feel conflicted about him.” Letting “Elon be Elon” doesn’t always triumph: “From my perspective, he’s his own worst enemy. There are things he can create awareness and goodness around. But using social media to disparage Democrats? I think that probably does more harm than good.”

Musk can creep into a marriage, like the Bannings. “It’s part of my intermittent discomfort of owning a Tesla," says Lindsey, the clinical psychologist. Her values don’t align with his professed ones.

"Given Elon’s position and his level of power, I think that comes with responsibility,” which he’s abrogated with his comments, she says.

But Earl, the neuropsychologist and Air Force major, says, “Elon is super-successful. He’s incredibly rich and famous. Like, who would handle that well?”

There are times when Lindsey tells Earl, “I think you have a blind spot when it comes to Elon.”

To which Earl says, “I do have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Elon.”

And yet, when they make the 3,800-mile journey to move from Ohio to Alaska this month, their gray Tesla X will be coming too, because they really cherish that car.