Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For much of the past two decades, journalists, politicians and investors have lauded Elon Musk for his creations: PayPal’s seamless financial transactions, Tesla’s stylish electronic cars, SpaceX’s space-related strides. And while “his creations” deserved an asterisk — his businesses emerged through absorption of other people’s technologies, ideas and start-ups — Musk entered the mid-2010s as a bright-eyed innovator pushing for new green technologies and for new extraterrestrial frontiers.
His reputation glowed: all that innovation, all that wealth, was going toward The Good. No wonder he became the model for Robert Downey, Jr.’s superhero character Tony Stark. In a world of super-wealthy supervillains, Musk chose a different path.
Then in 2022, Musk bought Twitter, and the other part of Musk, the one referred to by his former partner Grimes as “demon mode,” took center stage. Whatever his previous reputation, he now emerged as a force of destruction, stripping the social media site of its value, its reputation and then, ultimately, its name. In recent weeks, he has been using the rebranded “X” platform to attack the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that fights antisemitism and extremism. Musk has repeatedly been criticized for enabling and boosting antisemitic content on the platform.
In his new biography of the world’s richest man, “Elon Musk,” Walter Isaacson tries to square these two Musks. He rummages through Musk’s violent and chaotic childhood in South Africa (though, as Jill Lepore notes in The New Yorker, he focuses solely on the Musk family’s chaos: “There are no other people, and there are certainly no Black people….”). He dissects Musk’s many combative, combustible romantic relationships and the many children they produced, often in secret. He charts the ruptured business partnerships and dismissed employees and impossible deadlines that seemed tailor-made to increase human suffering. And Isaacson decides that this is the cost of innovation.
It is an old story, the backbone of American lore: the driven inventor, dismissive of human frailties like emotion, personal commitments and the need for sleep, whose seemingly superhuman drive is not a kind of villainy but rather vital to keep humanity driving forward. Isaacson, a biographer who has written about such innovators and geniuses as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, sees in Musk an affirmation of that story. Musk’s demon mode may be unpleasant, but it is the price of genius.
As Isaacson writes in the closing sentences of his 600-page tome, “Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.” Crazy, cruel, immature: these aren’t failings; they’re features of creative genius.
That is Isaacson’s thesis, anyway. But it relies on a narrow understanding of genius. Genius for Isaacson can be measured in patents and profits. Musk runs several companies and is the richest man in the world. His genius is a given. All the rest, no matter how harmful, must be understood as an essential ingredient of that genius.
That’s quite an impoverished view of genius, one that perpetuates the “great man” theory of history, in which the course of the world is shaped by a few brilliant men who thrive under the systems of their time. It overshadows genius generated through collaboration, which, though present throughout Musk’s career, takes a backseat to the force of his singular personality throughout Isaacson’s book. And it leaves little room for the transformative power of people such as racial justice and LGBTQ movement leaders who divined a new way of being in the world, which requires a sort of emotional and moral understanding absent from Musk’s career.
Musk’s apparent cruelty is at least in part an offshoot of the fact that his companies seem to be more real, more alive, to him than human beings. In Isaacson’s telling, when Musk is anxious that a company might collapse, he doesn’t warn that it might fail, he warns that it might die. (“We either do this or we die,” he tells Tesla executives concerned about the potential misuse of customer deposits; “I believed if we couldn’t do it in three, we deserved to die,” he tells Isaacson about his first three failed rocket launches for SpaceX.)
Yet when Tesla drivers using the car’s autopilot mode are killed when the technology fails, Musk appears more annoyed by the bad press than the dead customers. As Isaacson describes it, Musk “held a conference call with reporters in October 2016, and he got angry when the first questions were about the two deaths. If they wrote stories that dissuaded people from using autonomous driving systems, or regulators from approving them, ‘then you are killing people.’ He paused and then barked, ‘Next question.’”
As that incident suggests, having the skill to develop technologies is not the same as having the judgment to use them. This became clear in Musk’s deployment of the Starlink satellites. Musk owned the satellite communications network that Ukrainians relied on in their efforts to battle back a Russian invasion. Musk, believing he knew best how to prevent escalation, denied Ukrainians access to the network after discussions with senior Russian officials. Though he seems stunned by his involvement in the conflict — “How am I in this war?” he asks Isaacson — he involved himself, relying on his own judgment about how the war should be conducted (judgment that does not, to put it mildly, seem up to the task).
After the publication of excerpts from the book, Musk posted his own version of these events to X. Isaacson has since clarified in subsequent posts that “Musk did not enable it [Starlink], because he thought, probably correctly, that would cause a major war” and that he believed “mistakenly” after talking to Musk the version of events portrayed in the book. Musk responded, thanking Isaacson for the correction and elaborating that the “onus is meaningfully different if I refused to act upon a request from Ukraine vs. made a deliberate change to Starlink to thwart Ukraine.”
The book also problematically portrays Musk’s lack of empathy as a function of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness and neurodivergence. Isaacson makes clear in the text that Musk and his colleagues believe he has Asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. This, too, fits into an unexamined trope of the brilliant genius: that to seek medical and psychological support would blunt the brilliant mind and stymie innovation. Isaacson and Musk both buy into this — Isaacson concludes that “crazy” is what makes Musk innovate to try to change the world — apparently preferring the romantic and mystifying concept of “demon mode” to describe what could be better explained as a lack of treatment and restraint.
There were clearly better ways to approach a Musk biography than Isaacson’s fog-machine of demon mode and distant genius and man-child superhero. Musk is a product not only of apartheid South Africa but also of Silicon Valley, which has produced more than its share of innovators like Musk, who feel unconstrained by laws and regulations, who sell utopian visions that devolve into corporate money-machines with miserable employees and questionable contributions to society. Even Musk’s recent turn — minimizing the pandemic, ranting about the “woke mind virus,” promoting far-right conspiracies — keeps him in line with techno-compatriots like Peter Thiel.
A richer analysis of Musk would help make sense not only of his chaotic career but the culture and politics that made it possible. But that would require shattering myths, not perpetuating them. And that is a task neither Elon Musk the person nor “Elon Musk” the biography is interested in.