And so, we reach the end of another week of drama in the Elon Musk show. But what really stands out about this one is how drearily banal it was.
Think of it reduced to a few headlines, just as the man himself reduces it to (so many, many) tweets.
Yes, there is a lot of detail here to get hung up on, from Musk’s pseudoscientific sample poll to the defense strategies of that pitiable gang known as the Twitter Inc. board of directors. Strip it away, though, and it is the most familiar of merger-and-acquisition stories.
Clearly, it doesn’t naturally follow that being a billionaire means you throw in your lot with the Republican Party. On the other hand, if you are a billionaire who tends to rail against and flout regulatory oversight — whether it’s to do with securities fraud, vehicle safety or public health measures — then it isn’t terribly surprising that you might lean toward a certain end of the political continuum. Coming just a few days after a massacre in Buffalo, New York, that was explicitly linked to a hateful, divisive “Replacement Theory” that is definitely embedded in that end of the political continuum, Musk’s claimed reasoning is also patently ridiculous.
As a bonus, the paranoid element also echoes the style of a certain ex-president who still looms over that certain end of the political continuum. Which segues into: Facing Mounting Criticism, Tycoon Claims Conspiracy.
Much like some financial and product guidance proffered by Tesla Inc., where Musk is the chief executive officer — the solar roof springs to mind — this one had a vague baseline, timescale and endpoint. Musk later tweeted about the danger of a “woke mind virus” destroying civilization, thereby ensuring we never make it to Mars. I find this interesting chiefly because it treats avoiding civilization’s collapse as a means to interplanetary travel rather than an end in itself. As for the woke-mind virus, Musk’s track record on virology is dubious. In any case, the path from taking criticism to denouncing a conspiracy is, to belabor the point, well-trodden.
Without being specific, Musk is denying the story that broke on Business Insider late Thursday about an alleged incident of sexual harassment against an attendant on his private jet in 2016. The same report says Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or Space X, settled a claim arising from this for $250,000 in 2018. For now, a news story and Musk’s rebuttal are all there is to go on, so there’s no way to determine the truth of the allegations. What’s more interesting is the timing, just after Musk’s sudden warnings about a conspiracy against him. Also, Musk’s making light of it in subsequent tweets which, whatever the motivation, is ill-considered.
These are all, in their own way, the sorts of stories we have seen about high finance, tycoons and celebrities countless times over the years. The most notable aspect in this instance is that they all occurred inside of a week and mostly originated with the subject himself via his account on his favorite medium-cum-buyout plaything.
For any other executive, just one of these stories would at least dim their aura somewhat. But Musk exists in a different reality; he did, after all, make up an entire deal on a whim forcing him to settle a securities-fraud case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission — and went on to become the richest person in the world. He has overpaid for questionable acquisitions in the past. He has thumbed his nose at road safety regulators. Musk’s impunity reflects society’s failure to apply laws and regulations equally, and he has turned it into a kind of superpower: Not only do these episodes not detract from his image, they seem to enhance it.
Still, with Tesla now having lost about $570 billion in value since its peak — including more than $100 billion this week alone — might the banality of a high-flying stock plunging cast Musk’s theatrics in a different light? Tesla’s ejection from a benchmark ESG (environmental, social and governance) index this week certainly adds to confusion around that investment style. But the S&P Dow Jones Indices’ stated rationale — that Tesla’s “E” credentials are let down by its failings in “S” and “G,” essentially — can’t be dismissed out of hand.
I don’t know. Taking the time to put up a meme on Twitter to explain how you’re barely participating in the $44 billion buyout of Twitter that you engineered and have tweeted about incessantly seems like a suboptimal rebuttal to the idea that you might be distracted by the whole Twitter thing. In any case, it’s notable that Musk felt the need to rebut it at all.
Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. A former investment banker, he was editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column and a reporter for the Financial Times’s Lex column.
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