By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 2023
The transition of one of Elon Musk's eight sons to a transgender, Marxist woman who wanted nothing to do with her billionaire father is what, more than any other factor, made the Tesla CEO become so right-wing.
At least, that is the main impression given by the new biography of the world's richest person written by Walter Isaacson, the biographer who shot to fame with his book on the equally divisive Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Isaacson's Musk biography tells how the precocious, condescending schoolboy was bullied so badly as a child in apartheid-era South Africa that he ended up in hospital for a week. That was previously documented in Ashlee Vance's compelling biography of the controversial rocket engineer and electric car innovator. But whereas Vance struggled to extract information from Musk, particularly about his abusive father, Isaacson got full access to Musk's family, friends and employees. That provides at least some insights into why Musk is, as Isaacson puts it, "an asshole".
As a kid, Musk had looked at the biggest threats facing humanity and determined that the two he could try to solve were climate change and an asteroid strike. But his father, Errol - a fantasist with fluctuating fortunes - would hurl abuse at Musk and his brother Kimbal for hours on end, berating them as worthless idiots who would never amount to anything. Errol gleefully recalls to Isaacson that at veldskool, the summer camp where he sent his sons to make them tough, "two held you down while another pummeled your face with a log and so on". But, he adds, "their experiences with me would have made veldskool quite tame". Musk has recounted how his father, an engineer and gem trader, shot and killed Black house invaders. "He will plan evil. Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done."
Isaacson quotes former US president Barack Obama as saying every man is trying to "make up for his father’s mistakes”. It seems Musk, on the surface, has tried to do that. He was overcome with grief at the death of his first child, who died from sudden infant death syndrome. If nothing else, Musk seems to spend a lot of time with his 10 surviving children, who were born to three mothers.
That gives some insight as to why he was so affected when one of his eldest twin boys, Vivian, professed a hatred of the rich, turned Marxist, became a woman called Jenna, legally changed her surname to Wilson and cut off all contact with her father. Musk has always said if he wanted to be rich he would have invested in real estate. Professional investors bet against him all the time, predicting he would fail because his ventures in electric cars and space were so ridiculously risky.
Devastated by Jenna's rejection, he began selling all his houses so that his only visible trappings of wealth were his investments in his companies. But rather than having any empathy or understanding about the true nature of his child, he blamed the liberal politics in the education system. Musk concluded that when he made his kids attend more mainstream schools - after they had previously attended the exclusive private school he had set up - they were "infected" with what he calls the "woke-mind virus", which must be stopped. Like many privileged, white, heterosexual people, he has no concept that such politics may be trying to correct centuries of oppression.
That is one, but not the only, factor in Musk's conversion to the far right. Up until Covid-19, he had been a so-called political "moderate", donating to both the Democrats and Republicans to further his companies' interests. But he had publicly backed the Democrats and even waited in line for six hours to shake Obama's hand. However, as one observer memorably put it, "the only thing Elon Musk is interested in is the success of Elon Musk". So when Democrats imposed coronavirus lockdowns in his factories' home state of California, he was livid, and went to war with them. He was further enraged when Democratic President Joe Biden refused to even mention the fervently anti-union Tesla in his speeches about electric cars, instead praising unionised car companies that had sold only a tiny fraction of Tesla's output.
Musk's final lurch to the right came when Business Insider contacted him to say they were breaking a story on how he had allegedly exposed his erect penis to a flight attendant on his private jet and asked her for a hand job. Musk asked Business Insider for time to comment, then claimed the woman's friend who leaked the story was a far-left Democrat with a political grudge and tweeted that he was about to be smeared for his political beliefs. He followed that with a flurry of far-right tweets before the story broke. The woman's widely reported payout of $US250,000 from Tesla is mentioned but not explained in the book.
As an employer, Musk is literally repulsive. Not only does he make himself vomit from the self-imposed stress and manufactured crises he puts himself through, he also makes his employees puke. When one of his most loyal workers, Ross Nordeen, was faced with finding ways to sack a further 80 per cent of the workforce at Twitter, the social media company Musk had impulsively bought, Nordeen ran to the toilet and hurled. Musk often flips into what Grimes, the leftist musician mother of three of his children, calls "demon mode". This is when he spews insults and lies not only at perceived enemies but also at employees, friends, partners and family in a relentless barrage, much like his father. “When we hang out, I make sure I’m with the right Elon,” says Grimes, disturbingly. “There are guys in that head who don’t like me, and I don’t like them.”
All this is not to say Musk's goals are evil. The car industry's conversion to electric vehicles and the energy sector's limited embrace of renewables would arguably not have come as far as they have without Tesla. His mission to make humans multiplanetary in case Earth is hit by a catastrophic meteorite is logical, as is his fight against artificial intelligence, lest it kill us all.
But all come with downsides. The minerals for electric car batteries are mined in appalling conditions and are now being taken from the ocean's floors. Electric cars have to be driven for years before they become carbon neutral and the batteries then present a huge waste problem. Tesla's California factory is mired in racism. Musk's mission to colonise Mars does not treat the planet as a fragile nature reserve to be protected, but as a wasteland to be terraformed, heated up with nuclear bombs if necessary. His work to create a human-machine interface to fight artificial intelligence has involved grotesque animal testing.
Then there's his personality. In the book's closing pages, Isaacson asks: "Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behavior, his callousness, his recklessness? The times he’s an asshole? The answer is no, of course not."
Despite such caveats, Isaacson's book has been widely criticised as "more love letter than personal history", "plodding" and "dull". Airlines have recently been celebrating the fact that new weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic are cutting their fuel costs. It's ironic, then, that this weighty, 613-page brick of a book about a climate warrior has become an airport bestseller. It is a slog to get through, which is surprising because, despite Musk's politics, he is a fascinating person. But only fascinating in the way that you might be horrified when you see a car crash.