The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elon Musk breaks the billionaire mold — by acting like a big baby on the Internet

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin on Dec. 1. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

Elon Musk is breaking the big billionaire mold — by acting like a big baby on the Internet.

The Tesla CEO has been on especially bad behavior this month, though decorum has never been his middle name.

The recent parade of provocations began when he launched a Twitter poll asking his followers whether he should sell 10 percent of his shares in his electric vehicle company.

The move looked like democracy in action, but that may merely have been a head-fake from an inventor who is almost as much a busker as he is a mogul. Musk had to sell at least $10 billion of stock to pay a ticking time bomb of a tax bill due by summer. The plan, as filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission eventually revealed, was prearranged.

Next, the world’s wealthiest man pulled from his hat a vulgar insult about Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) profile picture after the legislator called for an income tax on the ultrarich. Go ahead and look it up, if you please — the tweeted gibe has over 98,000 likes — but suffice to say they won’t let me put it in the newspaper. Musk took high school humor down to elementary level by abbreviating the words “profile picture” to “pp.” The details don’t need spelling out.

Finally, Musk dragged Sen. Bernie Sanders, taking a relatively routine tweet from the Vermont senator as a personal challenge. “We must demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share. Period,” tweeted the 80-year-old independent. “I keep forgetting that you’re still alive,” responded Musk. Later: “Bernie is a taker, not a maker.”

Okay, except the only thing Musk is making here is trouble — for his targets, sure, but also for himself and potentially for his company, whose stock tumbled nearly 20 percent after the poll stunt. At least, until it started to rise again.

What gives? Musk has never been your average guy, but he’s not your average 21st-century technology tycoon, either. The rest of them don’t do this. Mark Zuckerberg creates controversy (and raises eyebrows) by wearing a comical amount of sunblock, or saying free speech is important. Jack Dorsey sets critics off by being super into biohacking. Jeff Bezos wears a cowboy hat on his return from space, or pioneers mass-management strategies that translate into alarming conditions for warehouse workers. (Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

These scandals and pseudo-scandals sometimes have to do with products or production. Sometimes, they have to do with the people in control of it all, but when that happens, the magnates are rarely encouraging the rumpus. Indeed, what they show of themselves they show carefully, as if an algorithm curated not only their platforms but their personalities, too. This approach is safer for business. And besides, there’s a certain cachet in untouchability. That’s how you prove you’re really elevated, by keeping your cool and not letting people get too close.

Musk, meanwhile, is practically begging to be touched — to have his ring kissed by adoring acolytes, yes, but also to have his hand slapped by regulators and investors.

Maybe this is as rogue-ishly ingenious as the rest of Musk’s moonshots. He’s selling shiny cars and wild adventures in the stars, but he’s also selling himself: not in the old, impeccably manicured manner, but in the new way of the Web where you throw the good, the bad and the ugly out there all at once so no one can say for sure which parts are pure and which are put-on. The audience is compelled, even obsessed, by the guessing game.

And if the mystery of Musk is what keeps those with money betting on him, his magnetism is what keeps his true believers believing. Maybe the general of this army of fanboys acts like a random Internet troll because his troops are cut from that cloth. Billionaires don’t make boorish mockery of lesser-known lawmakers, but Redditors and 4channers do. By acting as if he’s just like them, Musk encourages his flock to think they can be just like him — which further nurtures their devotion. So, of course, does tricking them into imagining his financial future depends on their votes transmitted via Twitter.

There’s always the possibility that this is not — or not only — about strategy but about loneliness — a desire to be in the fray rather than to float, by necessity of his success, above it. But the performance is both what sets him apart and will likely keep him there. Musk isn’t just like anyone else, and the proposition that he ever could be is so ridiculous that his pretending only renders his showmanship more obvious.

Musk will never look normal because he isn’t willing to be normal. Otherwise, he’d shut up and pay his taxes.