Over the weekend, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to voice his frustrations about the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown in Alameda County, California. The billionaire entrepreneur threatened that he would take his auto factory to another state if it was not allowed to reopen immediately. On Monday, he announced that he would be resuming production at the facility in contravention of the lockdown. By Wednesday morning, the county had caved to Musk, announcing that his factory would be allowed to resume production under government supervision.
After Musk’s initial tweet threatening to leave the state, California Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez took to Twitter herself, saying succinctly, “F*ck Elon Musk.” She added: “So much of the clash our state is experiencing with the tech/Silicon Valley companies is of our own making. We let gig companies violate labor laws for over a decade. We subsidized Tesla as they operated with severe safety issues & actively union busted. They got used to it… It’s time that all companies, no matter how cool, abide by the same laws.”
On this week’s podcast, Gonzalez discusses the situation with Musk and Tesla. Then, tech and labor reporter Jack Crosbie joins Mehdi Hasan to give the backstory on the cultish billionaire.
Mehdi Hasan: If Elon Musk is listening to this, what message do you have for him personally apart from “F you”?
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez: I just would say: there are countless people that are working for him who are putting their families at risk so that he can become richer. And those people matter, too.
MH: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
As he re-opens his car factory against the advice of local officials in California, is Elon Musk — the man behind Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company — is he a tech genius, the real-life Tony Stark, a bold savior of humanity, or is he a bit of a fraud, a grifter, a danger to public health?
LG: Here’s this billionaire who’s saying: ‘I don’t like the rules, I’m not gonna play by them, or I’m gonna leave,’ and it’s just supremely irritating to see somebody show such privilege.
MH: I’ll speak to the California assemblywoman who went after Musk on Twitter, and a reporter who says the Tesla boss turned him into a socialist.
So, on today’s show, what is the deal with multi-billionaire Elon Musk?
I’ve never been a fan of Elon Musk. Never bought the schtick.
Newscaster: Elon Musk is a genius. A crazy genius, no doubt.
Newscaster: Is Elon Musk a genius?
Newscaster: Elon Musk is a genius.
Newscaster: President Trump calling Elon Musk a genius!
Newscaster: CEO Elon Musk is a true visionary.
Newscaster: Is he a true visionary?
Newscaster: He is an absolute visionary.
Newscaster: The Atlantic asking whether Musk is the greatest living inventor.
Lisa Simpson: Elon Musk is possibly the greatest living inventor!
Stephen Colbert: Are you sincerely trying to save the world?
Elon Musk: Well, I’m trying to do good things. Yeah.
SC: But you’re trying to do good things, and you’re a billionaire. [Audience laughs.]
SC: I mean, that seems a little bit like either superhero, or super villain. [Audience laughs.] You have to choose one.
MH: I’m team supervillain. I am!
Yeah, the cars are great, I’m not questioning his technology or products — though it’s worth pointing out that Musk only gets to call himself a co-founder of Tesla, even though he joined the year after the company was actually named and founded, because he settled out of court with one of the actual two co-founders of the company back in 2009 in order to claim that right.
But that’s by the by, and this is not a show about Tesla or its cars. I’m not here to question them but to question him: Musk, the man, the brand, the cult.
Yes, cult. Because there are a certain type of people — often young, male, anti-establishment, a bit libertarian — who hang on his every word. Especially online, where they defend their guru, their prophet, their hero — on social media, on YouTube — with all the intensity, and even viciousness, that you’d expect from cult members.
And, by the way, on the subject of cults and fanboys, even Donald Trump has heaped praise on Elon Musk.
President Donald J. Trump: He’s one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius. You know, we have to protect Thomas Edison and we have to protect all of these people who came up with, originally, the lightbulb, the wheel, and all of these things, and he is one of our very smart people, and we want to, we want to cherish those people. That’s very important. But he’s done a very good job.
MH: He’s a genius. He’s a contrarian. He goes against the conventional wisdom, takes risks, takes on power and authority. He’s the real life Iron Man.
The thing is: I’m old enough to remember when Musk, back in 2009, had to borrow nearly half a billion dollars from the Department of Energy just to keep Tesla afloat in the wake of the financial crash. He and his supporters like to brag about the fact that Tesla paid back that loan nearly 10 years early.
But the point is not that he paid it back, or even paid it back quick; the point is that he had to go to the government — the evil, dreaded, federal government — in the first place for a bailout, for help from Washington. In fact, an investigation by The LA Times in 2015 found that Musk’s various companies between them have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support and subsidies over the years.
And yet, this is a man who extols the virtues of capitalism and the free market, who has become one of the world’s richest men before the age of 50. A gazillionaire, who likes to call himself “somewhat libertarian,” but also likes to grab taxpayer money. Funny that!
Then again, he’s also, rather ridiculously, called himself a socialist. Which he’s not, of course. There’s nothing socialist about him. But like so many super-rich, self-styled intellectuals, he’s not very well read. Musk once claimed Marx was a capitalist because he said, and I kid you not, Marx wrote a book on capital. Yeah, “Das Kapital,” the book in which socialist Karl Marx outlines how capitalism will destroy itself.
But, look, Musk is a true BS merchant, and the ultimate attention seeker, whether on Twitter or in real life. Remember the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a cave in northern Thailand in the summer of 2018, about to drown?
Newscaster: The youth soccer team remains trapped in a Thai cave with no clear way out.
Newscaster: The danger grows for those Thai children trapped in a cave. Why a rescue might have to be attempted soon, ready or not.
MH: Musk saw that news and immediately turned up in Thailand with a miniature, “kid-sized” submarine that he said would help rescue them. The Thai authorities disagreed and said it wasn’t practical. So did the British diver Vernon Unsworth, who ended up actually saving the kids from the cave and, quite reasonably, called Musk’s proposal a PR stunt.
So what did Musk do? He called Unsworth a “pedo” and a “child rapist.” Unsworth, not surprisingly, sued the Tesla boss for defamation. But Musk won that case in court, because, of course, if there’s one thing the U.S. justice system is really good at, it’s looking after the interests of rich, white men.
Talking of race, by the way, Tesla under Musk has faced multiple lawsuits alleging the company is a toxic hotbed of racism and discrimination. Three employees claimed that the environment there was so bad as to be “straight from the Jim Crow era.” And when one former employee complained that the Tesla boss class were ignoring black workers’ complaints of rampant racism, Musk sent out an email telling his workers only to be more, and I quote, “thick skinned.” Thick skinned!
On a side note, Musk grew his own thick skin back in apartheid South Africa, where he had a lavish childhood because his dad owned an emerald mine.
But it’s not just allegations of racism; there’s the actual working conditions at Tesla. Forbes magazine last year found that that between 2014 and 2018, Tesla was the subject of 24 health and safety investigations, resulting in almost a quarter of a million dollars of fines for 54 violations — a much higher level of fines and violations than for other U.S. carmakers. In 2018, an investigation by Reveal News into injuries at the Tesla car plant in Northern California revealed how a safety professional at the company went to her boss to complain about the lack of yellow hazard lines and pedestrian markings on the factory floor, and she was told: “Elon does not like the color yellow.”
I mean, this guy is beyond parody.
But look, there’s a specific and very urgent reason we’re doing this show on Elon Musk, today, this week. And it’s to do with — what else? — the coronavirus.
Because Musk has been an absolute disaster, an embarrassment, even by his own standards, on the coronavirus. And a danger, too. A danger to public health.
First, there’s his downplaying of the risks. From the very beginning Musk has used his Twitter platform, where he has 34 million followers, to join with the right-wing, pro-Trump folks in minimizing the threat from the coronavirus. And he’s been utterly wrong.
At the end of January, he compared it to the flu. By the start of March, when it was clear that it was much deadlier than the flu, he said, “Coronavirus panic is dumb.” In mid-March, he claimed the “danger of panic still far exceeds danger of corona.” In fact, he also tweeted in March, and I quote, “Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in U.S. too by end of April.”
Well, we’re now in May and the number of confirmed U.S. cases stands at more than 1.4 million, and the death toll in the U.S. from Covid-19 is fast approaching 90,000.
Good job, Elon.
Second, having first tried to minimize the coronavirus threat, there was his attempt to try and make himself an American hero in the midst of this crisis. He was gonna save the day with ventilators for the state of California. Governor Gavin Newsom was ecstatic:
Governor Gavin Newsom: Elon Musk, how about this, I told you a few days ago, that he was likely to have 1,000 ventilators. This week, they arrived, they arrived in Los Angeles, and Elon Musk is already working with the hospital association and others to get those ventilators out in real time. It’s a heroic effort.
MH: Turns out, though, that they weren’t ventilators, they were CPAB and BPAP machines that are used to treat sleep apnea. According to the Financial Times, a real ventilator can cost up to $50,000, while the machines Musk supplied cost 800 bucks.
As I said earlier, he’s a BS merchant and a desperate attention-seeker. Always.
Third, and this is most crucial of all, Musk has been at the forefront of those public figures pushing for a so-called reopening of the U.S. economy and an end to lockdowns, regardless of the public health impact, completely oblivious to the impact on the rising U.S. death toll. And he’s been pushing for a reopening, not just of the economy, but of his own Tesla car plant in Fremont, California, using the same bogus arguments about ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ that the hardcore Trumpists make.
On April 29, for example, Musk tweeted in Trumpian all caps “FREE AMERICA.” Later that day, on a Tesla earnings call with reporters, he went off on a mad rant about the Bay Area’s stay at home orders:
Elon Musk: The extension of the shelter-in-place, or, frankly, what I would call it, forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights, that’s my opinion — and breaking people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong and not why people came to America or built this country. What the fuck. Excuse me….If somebody wants to stay in their house, that’s great. They should be allowed to stay in their house and they should not be compelled to leave. But to say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is a, this is a, this is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom.
MH: It’s fascist and un-American, apparently, to want to try and fight a pandemic using the best advice from public health professions and top epidemiologists.
This past week, on Monday, Musk announced he was reopening his company’s car factory in California in violation of a local shelter-in-place order, and said he’d be on the company’s production line himself, tweeting: “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”
Oh, come on! He tries to sound like he’s some sort of latter-day Mandela when, in reality, he’s just an avaricious capitalist, not content with the billions he already has. He’s now potentially risking his employees’ lives — but maybe he thinks they’ve got skin thick enough to resist the coronavirus, too.
And he’s not gonna get arrested. In fact, on Wednesday morning, Alameda County in California rolled over and dropped their opposition to Tesla re-opening, basically sending a message that this billionaire can do whatever he wants.
One politician in California who seems to have had enough of Musk, though, is State Assemblywoman and former labor leader and community organizer, Lorena Gonzalez.
“F*** Elon Musk,” she tweeted at the weekend, and she didn’t say “F***”, she said the whole word. (I’m fasting, so I’m not gonna say it!)
Her tweet instantly went viral. That same day, Musk announced he might up and move his company headquarters from California to Texas or Nevada if he didn’t get his way, which he now has.
So I asked Lorena Gonzalez to come on Deconstructed today and talk about why her spat with Musk matters so much — and she joins me now from San Diego.
MH: Assemblywoman, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
LG: Thanks for having me.
MH: I’ve got to start by asking—what prompted you to send out that tweet last weekend, “F you, Elon Musk”?
LG: I was reading — scrolling through Twitter. And I had read, of course, the piece that he was suggesting that he was just going to open up, or he would just leave California, pick up and take his marbles and go home. And it struck me that we have spent so much in public subsidies, tax breaks, different — different public dollars to keep him in California. We’ve had fights about the fact that we do that, given his record on worker safety, given his Record on union busting, this has come up time and time again.
It’s a great product — of course, we support electric vehicles in California. But you know, here’s this billionaire who’s saying, ‘I don’t like the rules, I’m not going to play by them, or I’m going to leave.’ And I think I just got really frustrated, not just for California taxpayers. peers who helped fund his companies, but also for his own workers, and it’s just supremely irritating to see somebody show such privilege.
LG: And so I think I just reacted in a way that was normal, probably with, like, the normal Lorena Gonzalez hat on, not the legislator Lorena Gonzalez hat on, and said what I thought.
MH: Just for the sake of our listeners across the country and around the world tuning in, explain how California the state government, the California taxpayer funds Elon Musk and some of his inventions.
LG: Elon Musk, as of 2015, his various companies in California had already received some $5 billion in public subsidies. And they come in a variety of forms, you know, they come by way of rebates for rooftop solar through Solar City, one of his companies. We of course, give rebates, or we did until just January for every electric vehicle sold in California, even the very expensive ones, thousands and thousands of dollars in order to encourage people to buy his Teslas. He gets money, training money, when, when he wants to train his employees, through our training bank. He got research and manufacturing tax credits.
So there’s a variety of funds that his companies access, as companies in California can and should access. But with that, I would hope, that there is a noted partnership. And when there’s a partnership, you don’t get to just make all the demands, take the money, and then decide, on your own, the, the public health and safety orders that are gonna apply to you.
MH: Well, you say “you don’t get” to do that, but he’s shown this week that you do get to do that if you’re a billionaire upon whom a lot of Californians depend for work, the California government depends for tax revenues. And he basically, you know, called the Alameda County officials’ bluff. They said, ‘Don’t open up yet until we’re confident that you have the public health protection measures in place.’ He said, ‘I’m opening, I’ve opened, we’re already making cars at the weekend, you can arrest me.’ And basically on Wednesday morning, they rolled over and said billionaire:1, Alameda County: 0.
LG: So, I think it’s indicative of California, and it’s one of our big weaknesses — it’s also our strength — the fact that we are enamored with kind of the Silicon Valley companies —
LG: — that operate here, and operate in a way that ,that, you know, as they say, moves fast and breaks things.
So we have allowed companies — large, mainly tech-related companies — to violate California law, right and left, as we look the other way. And this goes to our labor laws. It goes to, of course, these types of situations. And although we have some of the strongest, most progressive regulations when it comes to workers and worker safety, and worker pay, we somehow allow these companies to operate outside the law.
And because, you know, it’s cool, we gave them birth in a lot of ways, we’re the birthplace of all of this —
LG: We don’t apply the same laws that we expect, you know, some mom and pop on the corner to abide by.
MH: Do you believe Elon Musk is now putting lives at risk in his Tesla plant in Fremont, California by reopening against the original county guidelines?
You have anonymous workers, speaking off the record to The Washington Post this week saying they don’t see any social distancing happening on the plant floor. You mentioned already, he doesn’t have a great record when it comes to worker safety, worker conditions. Do you believe lives are being put at risk there?
LG: You know, I don’t know. That’s the whole point. I’m — I’m a legislator. And we have made a decision to rely on the orders of public health officers. I love that in California we actually believe in science, we believe in medicine, and we said we’re going to allow, county by county, these public health officers to make these determinations. So I got to believe they know best.
I know now things are kind of changing, and acquiescing, and there’s a plan in place. But they were allowed to reopen without that plan and that’s, that’s scary.
MH: How much of your anger about the coronavirus stems from the fact that you’re from Latino immigrant heritage yourself, Latino Americans are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans, especially in California?
LG: I am frustrated by the fact, you know, I represent — I represent a Latino district overwhelmingly, 70 percent, and they have been disproportionately burdened by this virus. In fact, over half the deaths in California have been Latinos.
And so it is frustrating for me to see people, and it’s not just Elon Musk, it’s, you know, the protesters who are demanding that they open up nail salons and hair salons and restaurants.
MH: You said you’re a legislator, right? And, at the weekend, when you said “Fuck you,” to Musk, and he was threatening to up and go to Nevada or Texas, and you had Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, tweeting about all the billions of dollars in taxes that Tesla would save if they shifted to Texas. Were you worried that if that happened, thousands of your constituents will be out of work, will be out of a job, that Musk does have that leverage over your state, as do other billionaires like him?
LG: You know, I guess — perhaps this comes from the fact that my background is I was a labor leader before I got elected, I’ve always been an advocate for workers — you hear these threats a lot. And if you believe them every time, if you really think, every time, ‘this is going to happen,’ then you quit advocating for the rights and the benefits of workers. And that I think is my job.
We have enough people whose entire legislative package, whose entire focus is to make businesses happy. My goal in my job is to protect as many workers as possible, empower as many workers to make good decisions for themselves and to be able to be paid enough to have a decent life and have some benefits.
MH: Talking of legislative packages, Musk supporters, many of whom are a bit cultish, have been tweeting about you, attacking you, pointing to your voting record online, suggesting you’re some sort of tool of the fossil fuel industry, saying that’s why you have it in for electric cars. Even Musk himself commented on how your record on all of that was, “Interesting.”
LG: Well, I thought that was hilarious, because they, I don’t know how, they pulled all the bills and they said, “She voted yes on all of these oil bills.” Well, anyone that knows California government should know oil bills in California are regulating the oil industry.
LG: I found that interesting. I’ve learned a lot about his loyal supporters and the efforts that they’ll go to —
MH: I’m intrigued, I’m intrigued as to what will happen to me once this show comes out. Um, I don’t know who you supported in the Democratic presidential primaries, but Senator Bernie Sanders, of course, went out of his way to slam billionaires during that campaign, even said billionaires should not exist as a class.
When you look at the behavior of the likes of Elon Musk, who’s worth nearly $40 billion, the way they throw their wealth and power around, throw tantrums, bully and brag, Senator Sanders has got a point, hasn’t he?
LG: He does — I supported the other billionaire basher, Elizabeth Warren.
MH: [Laughs.] Fair enough.
LG: But I loved them both. I think there is a point there, and we’re seeing it not just from Elon Musk in California. Like I said, we’re enamored with billionaires, we’re enamored with the fact that we’ve created more billionaires than anywhere else in the world. And we let them have a pass, we see it with, you know, the, the founders of Uber and Lyft. We see it with a gig — you know, all the gig companies and we let them violate the law for years as well. And this is an ongoing issue we have, where we’ve empowered them to act this way.
At the end of the day, if you’re a billionaire, but you share your wealth with the people who are making it for you, I’d have far less of a concern.
MH: Let me ask you this. If Elon Musk is listening to this, and he loves to talk about himself, listen, you know, he engages with people on Twitter. He engaged with you on Saturday. If he’s listening to this podcast, what message do you have for him personally, apart from “f you”?
LG: I just would say, look, nobody becomes a billionaire on their own merits, because they’re smarter than everybody, and work harder than everybody. There are countless people that are working for him who have families, who are putting their families at risk so that he can become richer. And those people matter, too. And I would hope that he realizes that his worth is directly tied to their work. And, as such, his number one priority should be keeping his workforce safe. And so whether it’s during this pandemic, or whether it’s, you know, when this, this, hopefully, we have a vaccine and we don’t have to worry about this as much — his workplace safety record is atrocious. Spending some money and allowing those workers to be empowered to keep themselves safe is important. And I hope he’d realize that. I hope the value of one human life would be enough.
MH: Assemblywoman, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
LG: Thank you.
MH: That was California Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, talking about her ongoing beef with Elon Musk.
But how did Tesla boss become this big name, this hero and icon to so many? How did he get so much fawning media coverage, both in the tech world and beyond? How did this cult of personality arise?
Jack Crosbie is a writer and journalist who has been reporting on, and covering, Elon Musk for several years now. He’s covered politics, tech, and labor issues for Splinter, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and many other publications Jack recently wrote a piece for the worker-run newsletter, Discourse Blog, headlined: “Elon Musk Made Me a Socialist.”
He joins me now from New York.
Jack, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
Jack Crosbie: Thanks for having me.
MH: How did Elon Musk make you a socialist?
JC: So at the time, this was sort of early on in my career as a journalist, I was working as a tech and transportation reporter, and this was in, sort of, 2016 and 2017, which, for the most part were really good years for Elon Musk. There was a huge amount of focus on electric vehicles and autonomous cars, and he was kind of on the forefront of both of those industries and had a lot of other really successful projects going on with SpaceX and things like that.
It was not, however, a great time for the digital media industry. And I think sort of a combination of covering Musk, for the most part, doing very sort of flattering, uncritical reporting on him, in order to, you know, because that was what was liked by Google’s algorithms and our Facebook fans and, you know, outlets were kind of doing whatever they could for traffic at the time, I think I sort of saw his predatory approach to his own workers that was going largely unremarked by the press. And I kind of saw that mirrored in my own kind of work environment at a digital media startup.
And I think that just sort of contributed, I think — of course, with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but all of these things, covering an industry that was very much sort of like an unrestrained —
JC: — level of capitalism kind of contributed to radicalizing my own personal politics.
MH: So I want to come back to the media coverage of Musk in a moment. Before we do that, just sticking with your piece — in your piece, you also compare Musk to Trump, to Donald Trump, you say that they’re both “billionaire snake-oil salesmen.” How so?
JC: So he is a very gifted CEO in a lot of ways.
The image that he presents to the world is as this sort of like, Tony Stark character —
JC: — is as a genius inventor, as someone who is going to save the world through science. And as, as I’m sure most people covering him will tell you, his genius isn’t particularly in engineering. He’s very good at hiring good engineers. SpaceX has had a mixed record of how their rockets will work. But in general, with the government contracts that they’ve fulfilled, they’ve been relatively consistent. Tesla vehicles are, for the most part, well-engineered and well-designed vehicles, How much of that is to do with Elon differs based on who you ask.
I sort of came to the opinion that his real genius is as a salesman.
JC: Similar to Donald Trump, he’s very, very good at projecting an image of himself and an image of the brand that he’s selling to his fans and convincing them, and that’s what they want to buy into. And that’s why you see such a strong reaction; both Musk and Trump have many, many people that are convinced that what they are offering the world is going to benefit them personally.
Musk has thousands and thousands and thousands of, primarily, I would say that his fans are primarily men, who are, you know, sort of curious, future-forward, maybe a little nerdy, kind of guys who are interested in these concepts of renewable energy, of electric vehicles, of space exploration, and things like that. And they’re convinced that Musk is the one that’s going to be able to deliver them — deliver that for them.
MH: And his fans adore him, don’t they, Jack? Especially online, in the comment section on YouTube and elsewhere?
JC: Yeah, he has a very similar following to Trump and what you see in a lot of, kind of, very passionate online communities, which is that any sort of criticism or attack on Musk is treated as both a personal attack and a sort of refutation of the things that Musk allegedly stands for.
So if you write an article that says Elon Musk isn’t treating his workers particularly well, and he’s been union-busting for years, that’s going to be perceived by his fans as you standing in the way of progress — as you are, you know, why are you trying to disparage the one man who is going to save us, who is working for a cleaner future for electric cars?
MH: Yes. They’re gonna love me after this show goes out.
JC: [Laughs.] Yeah.
MH: Let me ask you this: you mentioned the union issue. One very, he claims not to be very political, but one very political position he has taken is anti-union. He doesn’t like organized labor. He’s fought tooth and nail to prevent workers in his Bay Area Tesla plant from unionizing, hasn’t he?
JC: Yeah, he’s done this for years. There have been a couple of sort of notable points in this. There was a Tesla employee in 2017, named Jose Moran, who wrote a public Medium post detailing sort of the conditions in one of the Tesla facilities — I believe it was the Fremont facility — talking about mandatory overtime, workplace injuries, and things like this.
Musk’s response was basically to claim that this guy was a plant by the United Auto Workers that was trying to organize at Tesla. And there was this sort of whole mini news cycle at the time where he was railing on like, the UAW spies, and he he sent out a public email that sort of compared him in a David and Goliath analogy, where Tesla — which, at the time, was one of the highest valued automakers in the country — was David.
JC: You know, arrayed against — these forces arrayed against him.
MH: And he’s one of the richest men on the planet.
JC: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think his net worth at the time was, you know, not in the Gates or Bezos territory. But yeah he’s, he’s a billionaire.
MH: Is it true he once promised his employees a roller coaster if they agreed not to unionize?
JC: He did. Musk’s general strategy in dealing with adversity is to make outlandish promise and, and then sort of hope that everyone forgets about it by the time the new cycle has ended.
So, in public, that often comes with he’ll, he’ll make big promises about what his Tesla cars are going to do. When his employees were expressing some discontent, he sent out this email that was basically saying, ‘once Tesla becomes a profitable company, we’re going to be able to do all these things that I’ve wanted to do for age’ — one of which was free frozen yogurt at a lot of the facilities and another was something he referred to as a “Tesla pod roller coaster,” which, I think it’s safe to say, I have not seen anything about that actually happening. Um, I don’t, I don’t believe that Tesla currently has a pod roller coaster. If they do, I would be extremely surprised.
MH: Sounds very Trumpian, making these kinds of sweeping, these sweeping promises.
MH: No fact checks.
JC: Exactly. And that’s — and that a lot of these things have just kind of gone by the wayside. The big, the big thing in 2017, of course, was autonomous vehicles and Musk was one of the first people that was really at the forefront of promising you know, ‘our vehicles are going to have’ — there’s some technical details — ‘level four and level five automation’ and things, which basically means that they could drive in a variety of circumstances unassisted by a human driver. And Musk had a whole — you can’t really call it an ad campaign, but sort of a marketing blitz where he was promising that by the end of 2017 Tesla would be able to do a cross-country, coast-to-coast road trip in one of its vehicles, with no, you know, with no human input.
And as we’ve seen now, you know, that has not really happened. The limitations on autonomous cars are far, far more than the experts were predicting — well, than the inventors were predicting — back in 2017. And these things have not really gone forward as he said they would.
MH: And yet, he gets away with it, because the media lets him get away with it. You yourself, say you spent years writing “credulous” pieces about his business and technology achievements. Lots of people write puff pieces about him, those who don’t get, as you say, attacked by his supporters. How much is the media to blame for the cult of Elon Musk?
JC: So I think, an enormous amount, at that time. I will say that it does seem now to be changing. And of course there, you know, this is not to discount — there were reporters at national publications, I think I mentioned Ryan Mac earlier, at BuzzFeed News, and Mike Isaac at The Times was mostly covering Uber. Dana Hall, who now writes for Bloomberg, I think. These reporters were doing very good, fact-based ,responsible journalism about Musk.
And if you look at Dana Hall’s mentions on Twitter at any given time, she has hundreds of Musk fanboys — even though she’s one of the most sort of even-keeled reporters on him in the business — Musk fanboys attacking her all the time for being anti-Tesla.
But at the time, in this sort of digital media landscape, for a lot of different reasons, laudatory coverage of Musk was extremely widespread. And it wasn’t just him; this was a thing that we saw people doing for Facebook, people doing for Google. There were, there were whole outlets, you know, whose, whose ethos was in sort of positive press for the advancements of big technology. And Musk was one of the most interesting, and, sort of, engaging figures in that world. And so people got a lot of traffic off of posts that were, that were highlighting the crazy weird, ambitious things that he was, he was doing.
MH: You mentioned the crazy weird stuff. Prior to this week’s decision, which has gone in his favor, on reopening the Tesla plant, he seemed to be melting down quote-unquote. He was tweeting that “I’m willing to be arrested.” He was tweeting the other week that ‘my company’s share price is too high.’ Is that all an act, I wonder? Because when people like Musk and Trump and Boris Johnson, I sometimes wonder if the whole eccentric schtick is just that — schtick, a distraction, totally performative and fake. What do you think, having covered Musk for so many years?
JC: I think it’s a bit of both. Musk has always had a bombastic streak. He’s always leaned into this image of being an eccentric billionaire. I think, in recent years, he really has perhaps gone a little bit too far. I don’t know what has been going on with him personally.
JC: His, his personal life has certainly been chaotic and the decisions that he’s made appear to have gotten him in some real trouble. Most notably in the, in the defamation case and countersuit involving when he called the cave diver who criticized his plans to build a submarine to get the Thai soccer team out of a cave, he called this British cave diver a pedophile on Twitter.
MH: Yeah, but he won that case! Interesting. He got away with it!
MH: This is the classic thing with Musk. And this week, he’s gotten away with it again, having, you know, defied the law, reopened his plant. And now he’s got the county basically retroactively approving what he did. And it’s pretty dangerous, isn’t it? It’s not just the media that’s letting him, that’s letting him get away with stuff. Politicians, especially in California where he has a lot of clout, they’re basically saying this week: ‘Elon Musk can do whatever he wants.’
JC: Right. And I think he’s also been enabled by his own board of directors for a long time. Because, you know, we saw another bombastic, sort of hard-charging CEO, Travis Kalanick, who was at Uber in 2017, whose indiscretions eventually did end in him being sort of ousted from the company’s public-facing side.
That hasn’t happened to Musk, because, as you said, he does continue to get away with it. And he knows that he wields a tremendous amount of power over the communities that his, his companies and his facilities operate in. And, you know, so far there’s been no check to that.
MH: Well, let’s end the interview with the way we started, by talking about how he radicalized you and made you a socialist. I wonder if that’s going to continue to be the case with a lot of people who aren’t his fanboys, who do see the Bernie Sanders case, that billionaires should not exist, because when they do exist in the form of Elon Musk, they get to just do whatever they want, and they don’t follow the same rules as the rest of us.
Jack Crosbie, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
JC: Thanks so much for having me, Mehdi.
MH: That was Jack Crosbie of The Discourse Blog, talking about Elon Musk.
And that’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show, so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
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