It is worth pointing out that Elon Musk can do and say anything that he wants. I don’t mean this in an abstract way. The man has multiple rockets, an electric car and battery storage company, owns a private jet, has hordes of fans who hang on his every word, and, until recently, had lots of earned good will for his futuristic vision for humanity.
Unlike basically all of us, he can go anywhere and do anything, talk to anyone, at a moment’s notice. What he’s chosen to do with at least some of his time recently is to pick fights with journalists, people who challenge him, and, most recently, one of the hero divers who helped rescue a soccer team of boys from a flooded cave in Thailand. Without providing any evidence whatsoever, Musk called British diver Vernon Unsworth a “pedo,” then doubled down on the attack when called out on it.
If you’re reading this article, you probably know the background; Musk very publicly offered to build a miniature submarine to help rescue the children. The children were rescued without the help of Musk’s sub, and the rescue was, or should have been, one of those feel-good moments in which a team of very brave humans did something seemingly impossible. Instead, Musk’s submarine got lots of the headlines. Unsworth, in an interview over the weekend, said Musk’s submarine was a “PR stunt” that wouldn’t have worked.
With his unfounded “pedo” comment, it’s never been more clear that Musk is playing by a different set of rules than the rest of us. Musk has spent much of the last few months saying that journalists are peddling false stories about his companies, going as far as to say that he’d be setting up a service to vet the ethics and reliability of different journalists. Meanwhile, he publicly accused a rescue diver of being a pedophile to his 22 million followers without backing that up with anything at all, let alone backing it up with the type of evidence and vetting that’d be needed to make that claim as a journalist.
Unsworth has already indicated that he may sue Musk, but there is no defamation lawsuit that could tank Musk’s business enterprises, his personal brand, or his personal wealth in any meaningful fashion. While journalists around the world know that any misstep or false claim made about a powerful person or company could be an existential risk for their publications and their livelihoods, Musk says and does whatever the hell he wants, knowing that he’s insulated by personal wealth capable of settling any defamation lawsuit and by a fanbase that is still standing behind him.
Unlike Jeff Bezos, Musk has not destroyed local businesses in creating his SpaceX and Tesla. Unlike Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s various billionaires, Musk has not based his business on selling the personal details of people around the world. Musk’s companies built new, tangible things, not software, that felt inspired by science fiction—solar-powered battery storage, space ships, electric cars. It is easy to describe to my dad what Elon Musk does: He builds cars—the fastest cars in the world. They run on batteries. He builds spaceships. He sent a car in the general direction of Mars. The vast majority of people think this is insanely cool, which is why he remains popular even now.
His companies are inspiring and easy to explain. They cement American dominance in two industries that Americans have fallen behind in, at least narratively speaking. Most people want Elon Musk to succeed.
It’s disappointing that Musk has chosen his platform to incessantly beef precisely because he can do whatever he wants. He can continue to attack everyone who criticizes him, and his businesses might still succeed. He will remain a billionaire, and he will grow increasingly divisive. There is a model for this: It's Donald Trump, it's Sheldon Adelson, it's every other powerful person that uses their platform and their wealth to attack, belittle, and take advantage of everyone else. The only thing he has to do to be the most popular businessman in the world is to do literally anything besides what he’s doing right now.