Maybe it’s because of quarantine, but I’ve spent way too much time lately on Twitter. Which, in my world, means it’s been hard to ignore Elon Musk. In between tweets about his companies Tesla and SpaceX, you get tweets like “Take the red pill,” “Minecraft has amazing legs,” and “Cancel Cancel Culture!” More significantly, on May 11, he tweeted that he would defy the public health order that had closed his Tesla factory in Fremont, California.
As the battle between Musk and health officials has played out in public, it’s been predictably politicized. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for reopening the Fremont plant. On a phone call with investors, Musk called shelter-in-place orders fascist, which won him support from people who oppose the lockdowns.
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Kara Swisher—the founder of Recode, the co-host of the podcast Pivot, and basically the dean of technology journalism—about what makes Musk so willing to play chicken with public health authorities in the middle of a pandemic, and what that says about the tech industry’s unchecked power. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lizzie O’Leary: What’s going on in Elon Musk’s brain?
Kara Swisher: There are many Elons. There is the entrepreneur and the risk taker and the creator of things. Tesla, no matter what you feel about Elon Musk, that car is amazing. He’s moved the stasis of the car industry into electric vehicles all on his own, and they have followed him. Then there’s Elon the bad boy, which he likes to play to with his sort of loud dating, his loud tweeting, and everything else. And that’s part and parcel to his real focus, which is he’s almost religious about wanting to get these cars and saving the planet from climate change.
He really believes that?
That sounds grandiose, but he really does believe that we’re in an existential crisis around climate change. It’s one of the reasons for his interest in Mars. There are lots of levels of depth to this guy. And at the same time, there are lots of levels of superficiality that’s almost, like, indulgent and juvenile.
Tesla has this factory in Fremont, California. It’s Alameda County, which issued a shelter-in-place order in March. How would you describe Musk’s attitude toward all of that?
Well, look, this is hurting his business, right? When they initially put those in place, he was defying the orders, if you remember.
After keeping the Fremont plant open for a few more days, Musk eventually announced plans to suspend production, and he seemed to shift his focus to helping with the virus response. On May 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said, all right, fine, some factories can reopen. But the Alameda County officials said, Tesla, we want you to wait. Musk tweeted about it, and Tesla filed a lawsuit against the county. Why go to that point?
They were in his way. And nobody gets in his way. I think Jeff Bezos does it in a different way. He doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. Elon in some ways is being very transparent about his use of force—in this case, his Twitter force.
You’ve interviewed him before. You’ve covered him for a long time. What’s he thinking when he does that?
He’s a very passionate person. And so he gets easily tweaked. He gets easily irritated. He’s religious about what he’s doing, whether it’s space or whether it’s cars or climate change or whatever. He reminds me a lot—and I don’t mean this as an insult, but as a compliment—of Howard Hughes. Even though Hughes ended up in the hotel room by himself with the long nails, which was tragic, he was an amazing entrepreneur and visionary thinker. He changed the aviation industry. We forget that a lot of entrepreneurs have a religious element to their personality. They have to do it. They have to push.
Over the last few years—I’m looking at a list that you wrote—Musk has made bankruptcy jokes about the health of U.S. companies. He’s attacked journalists. He baited short-sellers, called a diver in the Thai cave crisis a “pedo.” Is there a method to all this? Does he get something from this, or is he unable to stop himself?
I think he can’t stop himself. He’s talked about it in interviews. He thinks Twitter is a bit of an addiction. He’s emotional and he lets you see it. And I think you’re not used to that.
The fight over reopening the Tesla plant has obviously become a political issue. You have Trump tweeting about it. You have watched them both very carefully. Is Musk courting the president and his supporters, or is he just being kind of trolly?
No, I just think he’s being Elon. I don’t think he’s courting Trump. I think he’s expressed disdain. He’s expressed some support. I think it’s complex for him. But this country’s in such a heightened, emotional partisan situation. Leaders should be very careful about what dog whistles they’re blowing.
Is there a business risk to all of this? If you look at Tesla customers, they have been left-leaning, environmentally conscious, wealthy people. Are they going to be put off by all of this?
Well, he’s done this before, right? It just hasn’t been during a pandemic.
I think a lot of people aren’t going to like it. My brother is a good example. I’d say he’s sort of center-left-leaning in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s a doctor. He’s been in the middle of this pandemic. He loves his Tesla. And I think he’s able to separate it from Elon. I think he thinks Elon is kind of a jerk. But, you know, some of the products you buy today are made by truly awful people. And you don’t think about it, right? It’s just that the product is so affiliated with him.
When all of this was coming to a head in early May, Elon threatened to take the factory to Nevada or Texas, and California seemed to move pretty quickly to give him what he wanted. Why?
I mean, they don’t want him to leave. It’s easy for us to say, if someone is threatening you to take away 10,000 jobs, you should just tell him to go. But I don’t think that’s really what a public official can do from a tax base point of view.
Do we know what the people who work in this Fremont factory think about all of this?
Well, I think like any workplace, there are varying opinions. Some people feel what they’re making is really important for the planet. Other people are like, What the heck? He’s putting me in harm’s way. There are no good answers in this crisis.
Right now, this all seems to be sort of breaking Elon Musk’s way. Alameda County approved Tesla’s safety plan for reopening. Tesla dropped the suit. Now, the Fremont plant is fully open for production again. I wonder if you think there are consequences when, as these things play out publicly, tech companies tend to triumph over government.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I said one of things that’s going to happen is these tech companies are going to be even more powerful. There’s going to be a reluctance to antagonize them because they’ve been so helpful during the pandemic. But in general, Silicon Valley has been an industry without consequence. Wall Street was slapped back during a lot of these financial crises, although they’re as powerful as ever. Chemical companies, cigarette companies, all the powerful companies of this country have eventually, once they’ve sort of abused their position, been slapped back. Tech has yet to be regulated in any significant way. In other parts of the world, more so. Here, not at all. If you live a life of extreme wealth—no one’s been this rich on the planet—there are no consequences. Why would you change your behavior until you’re made to, and then, who is going to make you?
We’re seeing Elon do his own thing. Are Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and others going to sort of feint that they’re listening to the government in this moment?
Elon doesn’t pretend. The others are much more deft at using lobbying and Oh, we’re so sorry, we’re here to help, especially Facebook, which is using this moment for redemption. These are governing bodies that are doing things that affect humanity without any accountability.
I tend to think Elon Musk is the least of our problems among tech companies. He wants to open his factory, builds cars, and is like, I’m going to yell until I get to do it, OK?