Elon Musk Isn’t Copying Trump — Trump Is Copying Musk

Stay-at-home orders be damned. Photo: Ringo H W Chiu/AP/Shutterstock

Elon Musk has not been shy about his opinion that America is taking the coronavirus too seriously. In early March, he infamously remarked on Twitter that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” The fact that more than 85,000 Americans have died since then has hardly chastened him. Rather, he has become even bolder. Last week, Musk went to battle against California authorities over whether he was allowed to reopen his Tesla plant — and won. In the latest edition of the Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway discussed the dangerous precedent his approach might set.

Kara Swisher: California has now let Elon Musk open back up his Tesla factory in Alameda County. Musk had threatened to move his company’s headquarters out of state and filed a lawsuit against the county. In his recent Tesla earnings, he called California’s shelter-in-place order fascist and has been on a tweetstorm rampage for days about it. President Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying, “California should let Tesla and Elon Musk open the plant now. It can be done fast and safely.” Musk thanked him in a tweet. Tesla’s reopening plan is quite long and very involved, and they’ve already reopened in China — so they do have experience, to be fair. What do you think of all this? Musk has become the Free America Now guy.

Scott Galloway: Yeah. I read your Times article on this, and I actually thought you were balanced to the point of being pretty easy on him.

Swisher: I agree. But his mother did not agree. His mother said I’m not nice.

Galloway: That’s what mothers do, right?

Swisher: And then I had all the Elon lovers on my butt.

Galloway: Whenever you’re talking about Elon or crypto, it’s like a whistle call for every weirdo. Regardless of what you think about if and when we should reopen and how we should do it, there is a really important question. Where does the line around the deaths of despair start to increase past the risk of relapse infection? I personally don’t feel we’ve crossed that point yet. I think the downside of opening too early is much greater than the upside of staying closed two weeks too long.

But regardless of what you think, that’s not the argument here. The argument is: Should unelected private citizens who are billionaires and have 35 million followers on Twitter — should they be shaping public-health policy? And I think it’s dangerous when they can not only shape public-health policy but — what we’ve seen in Alameda is basically a billionaire has overrun the government and he’s decided to open. And whether you think it’s a good or bad idea, if you directly point the middle finger at public officials and open a work facility in violation of local municipal orders, I believe you should be arrested. And then we can discuss whether or not that was a good idea or a bad idea.

Maybe he’s seen as a leader, maybe he’s seen as someone who made the right call. But basically Alameda, as far as I can tell, or the County of Alameda — the factory is actually in Fremont — has been intimidated and been run over by a billionaire. And I think that is very unhealthy and is a key attribute or a key signal of a step to tyranny.

Swisher: That was the simple point I made. At the end of the column I said, “Should companies and charismatic founders be able to override public health officials in the way he did it?” There’s lots of ways he could have done this. And, of course, the only way Elon can do it is rather dramatically, because he has this Trumpian strain. I think it was Elonian, actually. I think Trump is Elonian. Rather, Elon is not copying Trump — he’s been his way for a long time. And there are people who supported him. Gavin Newsom was sort of sitting on the fence between Alameda County and Elon. He was trying to play both sides, essentially. We had the mayor of Fremont, who was supportive of him, because of course the mayor of Fremont would be. It’s a lot of jobs there in Fremont.

You can’t make cogent decisions and have a good argument when someone just weighs in on Twitter. My issue is allowing these people to use these platforms to sort of bully people into what they want. I think that the Tesla plan looks pretty sound. I think they should have just waited a few days, get it approved, realize the fact that regulation exists and it’s for a good reason. It’s not just to screw with you.

I want you to take the pro-Elon side of wanting to open up. This idea of wanting to open up.


Twice weekly, Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher host Pivot, a New York Magazine podcast about business, technology, and politics.

Galloway: I thought it was a moment, quite frankly, for Governor Newsom to step in and say, “Look, Mr. Musk, we love you. We love the factory, but the culture here — there’s something about the University of California. There’s something about the weather. There’s something about the risk-taking mentality of people who are willing to endure scurvy to get here that makes California a unique place. And part of the cost of that tremendous culture and In-N-Out Burger and the most beautiful coastline in the world is that you have to abide by our laws, including local municipal laws. And we should have an open debate. It’s an interesting one. You have good points. But, boss, until Alameda officials say you have the all clear, stand the fuck down.”

Swisher: Right. You want to keep going and doing business.

Galloway: Like Sweden. It’s a good argument, and we should have a debate in the town square. But certain individuals shouldn’t get to decide this just because they’re richer than everybody else. It should be who the town square elects to make these decisions. Unfortunately — and this is a longer-term issue — the wealthiest country in the world has put 50 percent of its populace in such a vulnerable position, as we move toward a society of
3 million lords being served by 350 million serfs, that the serfs can’t go out of work for 30, 60, or 90 days without being food insecure. And food insecurity takes a toll on you. And the shame of not being able to look after your children results in high blood pressure, a tendency toward opioid addiction, and finding that gun you have the right to own and shooting yourself in the head.

So deaths of despair are going up, and there is a reason to get people back to work. That is a solid argument. And we have to measure that against the health risk. And Sweden has basically said, “Okay, we’re going to ask our vulnerable population to stay home. We’re going to ask people to distance.” There’s a cartoon of everyone on spring break in Sweden, and it’s not true at all. They have had a higher mortality rate — but there’s an honest and a worthwhile debate around, Was it worth it or not? Because keeping factories closed does also result in death. But the reason I’m cynical is that I don’t think Elon Musk’s heart is in the right place here. I don’t think he’s worried about his employees. I don’t think he’s worried about America getting online. I think he’s worried about Tesla stock and his payout. And I know you don’t believe he’s worried about money.

Swisher: I think he’s worried about building these cars. I think he’s quite religious about this. Remember when he was in that last period of manic-ness, he was like, “I just had to build the cars. I think our planet depends on these cars.” And I was like, “Okay.” If you saw it in person, it was really fascinating in terms of how he really does believe that the continued thriving of Tesla matters to our planet. And so I think it’s not about money. I don’t think it’s about shares. Listen, he hardly thinks about shares. He’s always tweeting something that affects them. And I don’t think he cares about shareholders or the board or anything else.

Galloway: Then he should do it the old-fashioned way. He should buy off every congressman, the majority of whom are whores, and get them to side with him. He shouldn’t be allowed to use Twitter in his reputation as an innovator to steamroll publicly elected officials. This is dangerous.

Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. It is also now on YouTube.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Elon Musk Isn’t Copying Trump — Trump Is Copying Musk