The Provocations of Elon Musk
On May 11, Elon Musk announced that he would be defying Alameda County’s stay-at-home order and restarting production in Tesla’s Freemont factory. “I will be on the line with everyone else,” he tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” He also threatened to move Tesla out of California if he wasn’t allowed to reopen. Protestors, some of whom were Tesla workers, responded with a rally outside of the factory, arguing that Musk was not above the law, and should in fact be arrested.
But Musk has demonstrated over and over again that he believes that laws do not apply to him, and has faced minimal consequences for violations, which no doubt reinforces that perception. He has thumbed his nose at the Securities and Exchange Commission, manipulating Tesla’s stock price via tweet, an offense for which he had to pay a fine of $20 million, which is less than 0.1 percent of his wealth. He has illegally tried to sabotage union organizing efforts at the company, with no financial penalties whatsoever. And Alameda County ultimately caved to his demands that he be allowed to re-open the factory in Freemont while imposing no consequences for violating the initial order.
These are not isolated acts; they’re ideological. Following the SEC fine, Musk said in a 60 Minutes interview that he did not respect the SEC, a sentiment that was apparent to anyone paying attention well before the interview. The truth is, Musk doesn’t respect any agency or government body that would hold him accountable. He does not fundamentally believe any person or organization has the authority or right to constrain his behavior.
Some of this is a function of Musk’s personality. He’s notoriously mercurial, impulsive, and when asked to consider the needs of others, he considers them an inconvenience. Or worse, he considers the lives of others potential liabilities, or impediments to his own ambitions. He narcissistically imagines that the autonomous feelings and needs of other people are animated primarily by a need to make his life worse or more complicated, a tendency that’s horrifyingly apparent in an anecdote from Musk’s ex-wife Justine, who noted in an article about their relationship that after the death of their infant son from SIDS, “he didn’t understand why I grieved openly, which he regarded as ‘emotionally manipulative.’”
So it should come as no surprise that he particularly chafes at laws designed to protect people who are not Elon Musk. The lives of workers on the production line at Tesla factories, where social distancing is a near impossibility, are only important inasmuch they contribute to Musk’s bottom line. Pension funds subject to the vicissitudes of Musk’s toying with the Tesla stock price need to provide stable retirement funds for workers, but that’s not Musk’s concern. Union busting is entirely justified by Musk’s belief that what Tesla provides workers is perfectly adequate even when his own work force says it isn’t, and they’re being forced back to work in the middle of a pandemic, whether it endangers their lives or not.
And Musk is allowed to get away with all of these things because we have a two-tiered justice system that treats violations of the law by the wealthy as materially different than violations of the law by people who are not. Musk can tweet about his willingness to be arrested because he knows it would only happen with his consent. An army of high-paid lawyers would prevent it otherwise. His workers don’t have that luxury. The fines he got from the SEC—slaps on the wrist in the context of his overall resources—provide very little deterrent for bad behavior, either. For his purposes, they’re just the cost of doing business.
There are very few scenarios where any of Musk’s legal violations cost him anything that actually means something to him. The fines are so insignificant that they amount to a minor ego blow, and change nothing about the way Musk operates.
Contrast this with how ordinary people are treated by our justice system for even minor infractions. In a country where 57 percent of the population has less than $1000 in savings, fines for small civil offenses—parking tickets, expired licenses, etc.—can bankrupt people or prevent them from paying rent or being able to feed their families. Even an overnight stay in jail, justified or not, can result in job loss—and people are often incarcerated much longer while awaiting trial and presumed innocent, simply because they can’t afford bail. There is nothing our justice system can or will do to Musk that will exact the pain and disproportionate response that it does to poor people in this country. The cumulative effect of this is that the system telegraphs a perverse philosophy of justice that says a minor violation of the law by a poor person is a bigger crime than a major violation of the law by Elon Musk, or anyone with his level of wealth.
This is not an argument for tossing Musk into the penitentiary system so that he understands the consequences of his actions. Mass incarceration is a failure of justice, not an exemplar of it, and the financial destruction our system wreaks on the poor is inhumane and rooted less in any kind of justice than a deep-rooted contempt for the poor themselves. But it does expose the weakness of accountability mechanisms for the rich—securities laws that are mostly toothless in their enforcement, a willingness to allow the endangerment of the public’s health for profit, and weak worker protections that are easy and painless to violate. And conversely, it endorses overly harsh punishments for people without resources, effectively criminalizing poverty. No punishment is too harsh, or offense too small, if you’re poor.
Musk presents an opportunity to consider remedies. His law breaking is intentional, and escalating, and the less he faces any kind of real accountability, the more he will do it. He also enjoys the provocation, and provocations in general, and has no regard for who his antics harm. Even when they’re not illegal, they display the same ongoing contempt for the well-being of others and open acknowledgment that rules are for other people. He has pushed the idea that the coronavirus was a “dumb” panic, and compared social distancing protocols to imprisonment (with the glibness of someone who’s never been anywhere near a prison). He smoked pot on air while continuing to drug test Tesla workers for the same substance.
This weekend, his impulsiveness and desire to provoke manifested in a tweet that read “take the red pill” followed by a red rose emoji. The “red pill” is originally a reference to a line in the movie The Matrix, where the protagonist is offered a choice between two alternate versions of perceived reality. In recent years, the “red pill” reference has been largely co-opted by right wing “mens rights activists” (MRAs) to signify the acceptance of a misogynistic worldview that says women are inferior to men, that men are unfairly disenfranchised, and that women should be manipulated and stripped of their autonomy. Musk, who is an extremely online type himself, certainly knows the significance of the phrase, especially to his Reddit-heavy Silicon Valley fanbase. But the red rose, a symbol often deployed by the Democratic Socialists of America, in theory offers him some plausible deniability, but not really; Musk despises socialism. (This is not the first time Musk has said something appalling on social media with the built-in hedge that it could be misconstrued. He argued in court last December that when he referred to a British cave diving expert as a “pedo guy,” he meant it as a joke.) The ambiguity is meant to exculpate if necessary, but in the service of allowing Musk to do what he wants to do.
Tellingly, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr, themselves having narrowly avoided criminal indictment with the apparently bulletproof defense of being very, very rich, retweeted the red pill tweet—Ivanka, with the commentary, “Taken!” It’s doubtful that Ivanka would argue for the destruction of her own rights and autonomy, and she likely read it as an endorsement of “red” or Republican America, but there’s a symmetry there. Musk is simply being applauded by two people who believe exactly what he does: that rules don’t apply to them either, that corporate profits are more important than public health, that the welfare of others is inconvenient and irrelevant, and that accountability is something reserved exclusively for those who can’t afford immunity from it.
Elizabeth Spiers is the founder of The Insurrection, a digital strategy, messaging, and polling firm that works with progressive Democrats, and the former editor in chief of the New York Observer.
Co-published with GQ.