Elon Musk is not the first visionary to come to Texas with a ready-made fortune and big plans for using it to accomplish as little of value as possible. But where Jerry Jones was content to micromanage the Dallas Cowboys into perennial mediocrity, Musk aims bigger. His stewardship of Twitter, which he renamed X, saw one of the world’s preeminent communications platforms go from a place where celebrities, government agencies, journalists, and world leaders (and a lot of the rest of us) shared ideas, information, and jokes to a nigh unusable cesspool where messages from any of the above will be bombarded with bigoted comments posted by the thousands of users who pay a monthly subscription fee to have their remarks elevated. It’s made tracking crucial information on the platform all but impossible. The outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October was perhaps the first urgent event of global importance to begin during the Musk era of the company, and Twitter—sorry, X—was overrun with misinformation, disinformation, Islamophobia, and antisemitism.
Was it working out for Musk, at least? After all, he turned Twitter into a $4 billion company! Which is impressive, until you realize that’s $40 billion less than he paid for it a little more than a year ago.
Musk is desperate to be seen as a Genghis Khan–like figure who’s conquering new realms, consolidating power, fighting for free speech, combating the “woke mind virus,” and seeding the planet with as much of his DNA as possible. But outside his circle of slavishly devoted fans, the number of admirers who still see him as a pioneer is ever shrinking. Twitter’s collapse is a symptom of the downright brutal year Musk has had, not the cause of it. He’s chosen to become one of the most famous individual purveyors of falsehoods in the world, spreading lies about everyone from Nancy Pelosi’s husband and members of NATO to a 22-year-old recent college graduate of Jewish descent whom he erroneously accused of being a neo-Nazi. (That last victim is suing Musk in Travis County.) It’s cost the company a number of major advertisers, including Apple, Disney, and Warner Bros Discovery.
This sort of mercurial decision-making has global consequences, as we learned when Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Musk revealed that he blocked Ukraine’s access to StarLink, a critical communication system operated by SpaceX, because he disagreed with the nation’s military strategy. He’s promised to send a rocket to Mars, but his spring test launch didn’t even make it far enough above South Texas to avoid the spread of debris all over Boca Chica Beach when it exploded. Be careful about believing his boasts, or you could be one of the more than seven hundred Tesla drivers whose cars have crashed when being operated in their Autopilot mode. And heaven help you if you’re one of the dozen or more monkeys to die after being implanted with a “brain-computer interface” developed by Musk’s Neuralink start-up at the University of California–Davis’s primate research center. (Musk insisted that these creatures were already doomed, as though he had gone to the UC facility and asked for a sackful of their sickest monkeys; veterinary records blame the implant.)
You might think that Musk would be better served by avoiding distractions and focusing on his many demanding businesses. But he can’t. He needs the attention too much. Recall his September trip to Eagle Pass, when he wore a large black cowboy hat and attempted to insert himself into the immigration debate. Or recall that rocket that rained debris over Cameron County; might it have benefited from more time on the launchpad? Perhaps, but Musk decided that it should take off on April 20, because he thought his fanboys might enjoy a “4/20” weed joke (the next attempt, in November, seemed to gain some advantage from the additional time, as it at least made it to space before it blew up). Or recall his choice to head over to Joe Rogan’s Austin studio to spread conspiracy theories about George Soros, needlessly alienating many of the sort of educated, affluent people who would otherwise happily buy his cars and provide his social media platform with high-quality content for free. If he could stop doing things like that, no one outside of a few activists in Brownsville and Bastrop concerned with the environmental impact of SpaceX and Tesla would have anything bad to say about the guy.
But Musk is determined to be the architect of his own buffoonery, at great expense to the rest of the world. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s a parallel Earth where he’s still one of the most admired human beings, where most people still talk about him as if he’s the real-life Tony Stark, where the most intriguing thing about him is whether he’ll successfully launch a rocket from Texas to Mars in this decade or the next. Elon Musk could have decided to live in that world. Instead he’s chosen to make ours worse.
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bum Steers of the Year.” Subscribe today.
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