Opinion

What the Elon Musk backlash is really about

The response to the Tesla CEO's 'SNL' hosting gig is telling

Superbillionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk probably will be an awkward, even awful guest host of Saturday Night Live. The track record of non-performers in the role is dodgy, including some politicians (Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani) and athletes (Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps) who've been historically lame on the NBC sketch show. Many people will naturally be expecting (or even hoping) for another comedy catastrophe on May 8.

And there's good reason to think they'll get one, and not just because of precedent. Musk's sense of humor is perhaps best exemplified by SpaceX, his rocket company, launching a Tesla, his car company, into solar orbit with a space-suited dummy in the driver's seat. Then there was that tweet where he made a weed joke that led to an SEC lawsuit and a $20 million fine. So, yeah, the Musk wit is an acquired taste. Frankly, I'd rather see 90 minutes of Musk chatting with former SNL cast member Robert Downey Jr., who portrays his Marvel universe counterpart, Tony Stark.

Even worse: Several SNLers have expressed disdain at the notion of the world's second richest person getting the gig. On Instagram, rookie cast member Andrew Dismukes said, "Only CEO I wanna do sketch with is Cher-E Oteri" — referring to a former cast member. Aidy Bryant pointedly reposted a tweet from Sen. Bernie Sanders that read: "The 50 wealthiest people in America today own more wealth than the bottom half of our people. … That is a moral obscenity."

The issue here isn't just that Musk critics think he'll be unfunny or that they're turned off by the Big Bro Energy he emits when smoking dope with Joe Rogan or tweeting his fact-free pandemic forecasts. At least on social media, Musk often presents as an unserious person who fails to understand his position as a public figure or to use that influence in a thoughtful way. When Musk strays from his (admittedly wide) lane, it makes me think of a scene from the sci-fi TV series Devs: "He's not a f-ckin' genius," one character observes of the show's billionaire techie character. "He's an entrepreneur."

There's more to the story than Musk's persona, however. Most obviously, he's been Trump-curious. Although supposedly "super fired up" about President Biden and his environmental agenda, Musk also contemplated voting for Trump last year and has previously donated money to the GOP. While Silicon Valley is no hotbed of Trumpism, it's probably more tolerant than the left-wing Hollywood-New York entertainment nexus, although that's a low bar.

Musk's MAGA dabbling isn't the only problem. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos probably wouldn't be treated any better by SNL and its fandom, even though he and his company have been frequently attacked by Trump, and he once volunteered to launch Candidate Trump into space. Bryant's tweets, in particular, suggest sympathy with the left-wing position that "all billionaires other than Oprah are policy mistakes."

Yet unless you hold that sort of absolutist anti-wealth position, Musk seems like he should be viewed as the "good kind" of billionaire, even for populists on the left and right who are instinctively skeptical of vast riches and Wall Street. He's not a banker or hedge fund manager. He's not the scion of an old money family, like children of French fashion and perfume fortunes. He's not worth nearly $200 billion because he's using your data to serve you ads while also amplifying the online crazy.

Musk, who was Fortune's Businessperson of the Year in 2020, makes stuff that has the potential to not only be wildly profitable but also to help solve some big problems. Tesla's electric cars could help reduce carbon emissions and, if he gets the autonomous bit right, reduce pedestrian deaths. (One institutional investor tells The Economist that the $650 billion automaker has the same potential as the printing press.) Meanwhile, SpaceX, by reducing the cost of space flight, is helping create a space economy that could be worth trillions even if it only operates in Earth orbit rather than on Mars.

More deeply, Musk is offering an attractive techno-optimist vision of the future. It's one in stark contrast with that offered by anti-capitalists muttering about the need to abandon "fairy tales of eternal economic growth," as teen climate activist Greta Thunberg has put it. Unlike the dour, scarcity-driven philosophy of Thunbergism, Muskism posits that tech-powered capitalism can solve the problems it causes while creating a future of abundance where you can watch immersive video of SpaceX astronauts landing on Mars while traveling in your self-driving Tesla. As journalist Josh Barro neatly summed it up recently, "Environmentalism is supposed to be pain and sacrifice. Because Musk offers an environmental vision that is fun, futuristic and coded with all sorts of 'bro' aspects, he is deeply suspicious and must be stopped."

Stopped even, apparently, from hosting a comedy show. Meanwhile, Musk is running two companies that are doing some pretty valuable things, for both shareholders and the planet. I'm also guessing his SNL performance will make him look like Tom Hanks compared to Trump.

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