A Victim to His Own Celebrity
Elon Musk is amidst a personal and professional crisis, and it is embarrassingly obvious
by Susan Dunham
Picture this: a wealthy, eccentric entrepreneur turned 21st-century media darling. He is a man on the edge. He is loathed by the employees of his own company and untrusted by his fellow executives; he has alienated most of his romantic partners and crudely taunted public figures via social media. He is being accused of fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission and, according to his biographer, “once grilled an employee who missed a company event to attend the birth of his child.” Picture Elon Musk.
Despite the circus of calamity that surrounds him, Musk is adored by all besides the people who actually know him. In the last decade the hard-line, libertarian-utopianist rocket man has managed to construct a cult of personality that would make Stalin blush. He has successfully transformed himself from a balding PayPal dweeb to a full-fledged Martian-man-about-town, puffing j’s with Joe Rogan and slamming down spicy Tweets like there is no tomorrow. His life, beyond that of an inventor-tycoon, is one of pure, decadent, playboy celebrity – totalling F1 Sports Cars and sword fighting dwarves dressed as Darth Vader. As a result, his public image as a reckless billionaire bad boy has thrived to the point where his name has become worth more than the service he actually provides. This is his downfall, for once the spectacle of Musk supersedes the man himself, he is left bare and open to attack.
At the epicentre of the Musk complex is a desire for control, both in his public and private life. His first wife, Justine, detailed in a 2010 Marie Claire article the extent to which this need for control played a part in their marriage. She details how Musk, during their first dance, told her “I am the alpha in this relationship”. This would prove true later in the relationship where often his judgement would supersede hers. When she told him, “I am your wife, not your employee”, he would respond, “If you were my employee, I would fire you.” The will to compete and dominate that made him so successful in business did not cease at home.
However, often one must separate an individual’s private life from their professional endeavours. So we turn to his work, specifically Tesla, of which he is CEO. In a 2018 article with the New York Post unnamed factory employees criticised how Musk runs his “shit-show” business, explaining, “Elon talks about being a socialist and doing good for mankind — unless you work for them.” This article came just after a Wall Street Journal exposé about the divide between Musk’s press-release promises and what his own engineers claimed would be possible for Tesla. In the last nine months, at least 14 high-level employees, including chief engineers and accounting officers at Tesla have resigned and there have been two fatal Tesla crashes. Meanwhile, SpaceX aims for Mars but has faced setbacks from serious production delays on their Dragon spacecraft project. Musk’s expectations of his staff are unreasonable and, as a result, his behaviour in the boardroom isn’t that far afield from the infamous Trump cabinet meetings, complete with mid-conference breakdowns, Yes Men and sporadic outbursts of ‘fake news'.
Not only is he killing his company from the inside, but he is also destroying its PR image too. He recently accused British diver Vernon Unsworth of being a ‘pedo’ after Unsworth criticised Musk’s attempts at headline-grabbing by promoting the use of his looney tunes-esque submarine during the Thai cave flooding earlier this year. Since then, Unsworth has sought damages for up to $75,000 and Musk is left looking a thin-skinned man-baby in the midst of a mid-life crisis. From one court case to another, Musk is also in hot water after misleading tweets suggested that Tesla was considering going private, pushing Tesla stock up, which has been determined as a potential act of fraud according to the SEC. In addition to these more serious PR blunders, Musk recently appeared to smoke marijuana on a podcast and spoke about his regular use of Ambien to get to sleep.
Collectively, these actions would be enough to get a man removed from his position at the helm of a multi-billion dollar company such as Tesla, but once again it is his cult of personality that saves him. He is no longer the eccentric inventor but Elon Musk, the brand and in all his erratic, irresponsible and puerile acts, the board of directors can’t touch him. Musk’s media image, consciously or not, has become more of a priority to him than his professional career. While he dreams of living out his retirement on a Galt’s Gulch Martian colony, on this trajectory he is more likely to end up as a washed up recluse in a penthouse somewhere on the Vegas strip.