Henry Ford was the great manufacturing genius of the early 20th century.
In 1921, he was at the height of his fame, fortune, and power. He was hanging out with Thomas Edison. His every utterance was chronicled by an adoring media.
But things were about to take a turn. By the time he died in 1947, Ford had wrecked his historic reputation. General Motors under Alfred Sloan had bypassed the company. If schoolkids knew him at all, it was thanks to his coddling of Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II. He was a fierce anti-semite.
Elon Musk is now at roughly the same age Ford was then. He, too, is at the height of his wealth, fame, and power. But there is a lot to be disquieted about.
Racism is his anti-semitism. Musk grew up in apartheid South Africa, on the white side of it. Tesla lists just one black on its executive page, a former Walgreens executive who sits on the board. I’m certain he’d say there isn’t a racist bone in his body. Racists say that.
As he has risen to become the world’s richest man in 2021, Musk’s inner Henry Ford has come out. He moved to Texas specifically to avoid taxes. Those are for little people. His version of eugenics is his sexist attitude that women should produce more children “for the sake of civilization.”
While the self-interest of tech moves left, Musk moves further to the right, entirely in his own self-interest. Now that he has control over the electric car market, he wants to end its subsidies. With government paying billions for SpaceX launch services, he now attacks Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. He has called efforts to control the coronavirus “fascist,” comparing vaccines to the “red pill” in The Matrix. It’s a fascist dog whistle.
Meanwhile the media, which formerly gave Musk a pass on such questions, no longer does. Jill Lepore describes Muskism as “antiquarianism disguised as science fiction” and inherently plutocratic. “There’s a lot of feudalism in Muskism,” she says.
Musk has climbed the mountain and now wants to start an avalanche. In a creative economy that desperately needs more talent, he opposes efforts to create more if it will cost him any money. Ford ignored the excesses that created the Great Depression, then let his biases lead him to Hitler. Elon Musk is going down the same dark road.