In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, young Lemuel Gulliver survives a shipwreck and washes up on the island of Lilliput. Despite standing a mere six inches high, the Lilliputians are a vain and self-important race. They are also clever, as Gulliver realizes when he awakens from a long slumber on the grass to find himself securely pinned down with “slender ligatures across my body, from my armpits to my thighs.” The Lilliputians call Gulliver the “Man-Mountain” and eventually offer him his freedom if he agrees to a number of strict edicts. For example, “the said Man-Mountain shall confine his walks to our principal high roads, and not offer to walk or lie down in a meadow or field of corn.” The Man-Mountain would be allowed to roam, in other words, but only under the strict regulatory gaze of the diminutive Lilliputian officials.
A year after his impulsive acquisition of Twitter, Elon Musk finds himself in a position not unlike that of Gulliver. As an entrepreneur, Musk is a Man-Mountain without equal. His start-ups Tesla and SpaceX have rewritten the rules of two global industries and made him—for a time, at least—the richest man on the planet. Some of his ventures in other fields (tunnel boring, brain interfaces) remain long shots. But his growing constellation of Starlink broadband-access satellites looks like another global game-changer, and, for better or worse, that company’s policies are already having a world-historical impact.
So what does Musk have to fear? Two things: The Lilliputians. And himself.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel treats the Lilliputians with gracious courtesy. That’s not Musk’s style. Every industry Musk works in—transportation, space, health, communications—exists within a dense web of regulatory oversight. A more cautious executive might try to slip below the regulatory radar. Musk is not wired that way. He can’t help antagonizing the very officials whose forbearance he requires to build his ventures. In both Europe and the U.S., those officials have lately begun stretching out their slender ligatures. Tesla, SpaceX, and X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) all now face a flurry of regulatory entanglements from government agencies.
For his new biography, Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson spent months shadowing the peripatetic executive. In the end, though, Musk remained a cipher to him, a man with “an aura that made him seem, at times, like an alien, as if his Mars mission were an aspiration to return home.” After a difficult childhood, Isaacson writes, Musk “developed a siege mentality that included an attraction, sometimes a craving, for storm and drama.” When I interviewed Musk, more than a decade ago, he didn’t strike me as a carefree daredevil so much as a man haunted by his pursuit of risky endeavors. “I feel fear quite strongly,” he told me. “I just proceed nonetheless.”
Isaacson describes Musk as a “man-child.” A former Tesla engineer I know called him “basically a big kid,” the kind of person who can’t resist poking a hornet’s nest just to see what happens. Musk’s childish and stubborn nature helped him launch extraordinary companies and bully his way through ever greater challenges and risks. In some ways, Musk resembles a high-altitude mountaineer; as soon as he escapes one near-death experience, he’s planning an even harder climb. But mountaineers operate in an environment where they and their rope mates are as far from society as a person can get. An executive engaged in global businesses must navigate complex social and political landscapes. Musk himself admits that he’s not cut out for delicate diplomacy. When he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2021, Musk described himself as having Asperger’s syndrome and noted that he often says things that upset people: “To anyone who’s been offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
Perhaps his unique neural wiring helps Musk hyper-focus while tuning out distractions and naysayers. It might also explain his habit of ignoring conventional business guardrails. “I think he has long been a regulatory disaster waiting to happen,” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle told me. Most executives in sensitive industries learn to tiptoe through china shops. Musk instead blusters and overpromises.
For years he implied that Tesla cars were on the verge of full self-driving capability when, in fact, they merely offered a highly evolved form of cruise control. Time and again he has invited scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission for his carnival-sideshow salesmanship. “His astronomical risk tolerance—combined with a talent for going all Tasmanian devil until somehow it all works out—has made him rich,” McArdle continued. “But naming your driver-assist ‘autopilot’ is an invitation to bankruptcy-level class-action suits, and buying Twitter on a hahaha-oops lark has eaten most of his financial margin for error, while giving him an entirely new scope to piss off a lot of government officials.”
Indeed. Rather than trying to finesse his way through his current travails, Musk seems determined to find new hornet’s nests to poke. Even before he bought the platform, he was taking to Twitter to express his heterodox ideas. In May 2022, Musk tweeted, “In the past I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party. But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.” A CEO shouldn’t have to worry that he’s taking his professional life in his hands if he expresses a political opinion. But that idea really applies only to liberals. For Musk, coming out of the closet was a daring, even reckless move. “Now, watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold,” he predicted. Hornet’s nest spotted—and poked.
Musk seems to take a special pleasure in tweaking progressive sensitivities. When Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We must demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share,” Musk shot back: “I keep forgetting that you’re still alive.” Last year, he managed to offend both Covid extremists and transgender advocates by tweeting, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci.” Since buying Twitter—sorry, X—Musk has taken to behaving almost like a political candidate. Last month he visited the border at Eagle Pass, Texas, to draw attention to illegal immigration. In a livestream, he said the “situation is beyond insane and growing fast.”
Musk’s pokes at the left are often funny. But his occasional dalliances with sketchy far-right, QAnon-adjacent, and sometimes anti-Semitic accounts have become alarming. His comments on Ukraine, for example, show a worrisome solicitude toward the invading country rather than the one being invaded. Accusations of anti-Semitism spiked in September when Musk blamed the Anti-Defamation League for a fall-off in advertising on the X platform. The ADL had earlier charged that Musk’s policy of relaxing moderation rules was allowing a surge of “virulent antisemitism” on the site. The ADL is “trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic,” Musk tweeted. As Seth Mandel wrote in the April 2022 COMMENTARY, today’s ADL is more devoted to its progressive allies than to defending Jews. Still, accusing any Jewish organization of pulling strings behind the scenes was not a good look for Musk. Since that brouhaha, X and the ADL have arrived at a truce, and the ADL again advertises on the platform.
It gets worse. During the Hamas assault on Israel, Musk recommended two X accounts as useful for “following the war in real-time.” One of them, @WarMonitors, is an openly anti-Semitic account that endlessly attacks “the Zionist regime.” Musk deleted the tweet, but the damage was done. The most charitable explanation is that he wanted users to see that X has up-to-the-minute coverage, but he failed to do even a cursory check to see whether the sites were reputable. I truly hope that’s the case. (In a chummy livestream discussion with Benjamin Netanyahu last month, Musk stressed his opposition to anti-Semitism.) But people are entitled to wonder why Musk keeps making these kinds of blunders. How much of his feed is made up of edgy extremists? At the very least, he is sloppy about the company he keeps.
Musk’s repeated flirtations with extremism—even if accidental—make him a dubious advocate for what remains a vital mission: making X a haven for free speech. Prior to Musk’s takeover, leftist activists, traditional media, and social media outlets worked in near lockstep when it came to suppressing topics they labeled “misinformation.” Remember how effectively they squelched the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, or questions about whether Covid-19 leaked from a lab? The liberalization of X’s speech restrictions brought a fresh blast of ideological diversity to online discourse (and, yes, too much ugly stuff as well). Then Musk opened the “Twitter Files” to Bari Weiss, Matt Taibbi, and other independent journalists. The documents revealed that the White House, the FBI, and other government agencies routinely strong-armed Twitter executives to suppress certain topics. Clearly, with Musk in charge, the government’s back-channel influence over the platform was finished.
Almost overnight, a host of federal agencies began taking a harder line on X and Musk’s other companies. According to a report from the House Judiciary Committee, in the months after Musk took over, the Federal Trade Commission began “attempting to harass Twitter and pry into the company’s decisions on matters outside of the FTC’s mandate.” The FTC demanded information about issues, including journalists working “to expose abuses by Big Tech and the federal government”; all of the company’s internal communications “relating to Elon Musk”; and the reasons why the firm terminated a former FBI official who worked at the company, along with hundreds of other demands.
The SEC began investigating Musk’s Twitter acquisition even before the deal closed. Musk provided the agency with documents and willingly testified, but then refused to appear at a follow-up deposition. “Enough is enough,” his attorney said. Now the SEC has filed suit against the mogul.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is eager to launch a second test flight of its revolutionary Starship from its space port at Boca Chica, Texas. But first it needs green lights from the FAA and, believe it or not, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and both are taking their sweet time issuing approvals. SpaceX is also being sued by the Department of Justice for “discriminating against asylees and refugees in hiring,” the department announced. SpaceX responds that, under national-security laws, it is not allowed to give non-U.S. citizens access to sensitive space technology. “This is yet another case of weaponization of the DOJ for political purposes,” Musk said in a tweet. Nor does Tesla get a pass, despite its key role in enticing Americans to buy electric cars, a top Biden priority. The Justice Department and the SEC are investigating whether the company provided excessive benefits to CEO Musk. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Tesla over alleged racial abuses at its Fremont, California, manufacturing plant.
The Lilliputians of our federal bureaucracies have been busy, in other words. Can they keep the Man-Mountain tied down? Musk has wriggled out of tight spots before. But this time, some of his biggest challenges are self-imposed. His repeated proximity to extremist views (even if accidental) undermines his high-minded claims about free speech. At the same time, his rash decision to buy Twitter has put him in a financial bind, which gives his regulatory antagonists more power over him. And while Musk loves being on social media (way too much), owning a social-media company doesn’t play to his strengths. He’s an engineer, not a sociological savant. Many of his decisions at X—including that ridiculous name—leave me scratching my head. Still, the work Musk does remains important. SpaceX might prove to be one of the most transformative companies in American history. And freeing our social-media platforms from censorship is vital. It would be a shame if Musk’s own character flaws brought it all crashing down.
I wish we lived in a country where top executives could express conservative ideas with the same freedom as liberals. I wish we lived in a country where bureaucrats carried out their duties with scrupulous disregard for politics. But we don’t live in that country. Our federal agencies have been weaponized against conservatives at least since Obama’s IRS tried to kneecap the Tea Party. That isn’t fair, but ignoring that fact isn’t smart. That’s why I wince every time Musk pokes another hornet’s nest. I hate it when he seems more interested in making enemies than in building cars and rockets. I hate it even more when he casually amplifies random extremists on X. Musk’s mercurial, intense personality has helped him build a high-tech empire. Maybe his next project should include working on himself.
Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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