Last year, hospitalized and bedridden for several months following a suicide attempt, Salina Marie Gomez turned on individual notifications for Elon Musk’s tweets. Her interest had been piqued in late 2016, after hearing about Musk at work. She looked him up and watched an interview — the one where he’s talking about SpaceX and the challenges it faces as a company. The one where he tears up a little. A few months later, while she was stuck in bed recovering, her admiration grew into something more.
“That was the only thing that was giving me hope, you know, to keep going,” she told me over the phone earlier this month. “I realized, like, ‘This is why I haven’t made a whole lot of progress with my own career, my own endeavors, because I haven’t been seeing the whole picture. I’ve just been seeing what humanity has been doing wrong, and not what we’ve been doing right.’”
Today, Gomez, a 39-year-old artist living in Westmont, Illinois, is working on Tweeting Me Softly, an illuminated book of Musk’s tweets. She considers herself more of a follower than a fan, explaining that fandom is for artists. “Not that I don’t consider him an artist,” she says. “I consider him one of the best artists. But I wouldn’t consider myself a fan because [the word] implies a kind of a blind obsession with a celebrity.” She is, however, a fan of what he’s doing. “Specifically getting us away from fossil fuels, getting us away from the addiction to oil,” she says. “[He has] a bigger, complete vision of where we’re going as a species, and is helping people remember that progress is good, and it doesn’t have to be this terrible thing.”
Gomez describes Musk fans as “woke” and unafraid of what’s wrong with the world. She believes Musk is making our planet a better place, and that his detractors are just consumers who “don’t want to be inconvenienced.” Journalists, she says, “cherry-pick” stories to piss him off. “They use them as weapons,” she says. “And it’s inappropriate, because what he’s doing is dire and essential for human survival … Sometimes media is there to really stop what he’s doing.” Gomez continues: “As a supporter of what he’s doing, [I’ve] become enraged because this is my future, too. And this is my planet, too.”
Gomez isn’t alone. She’s one member of a vast, global community of people who revere the 46-year-old entrepreneur with a passion better suited to a megachurch pastor than a tech mogul. With followers like her, Elon Musk — the South African-born multibillionaire known for high-profile, risky investments such as Tesla (electric cars), SpaceX (private space travel), the Boring Company (underground travel), and Neuralink (neurotechnology) — has reaped the benefits of a culture in which fandom dominates nearly everything. While his detractors see him as another out-of-touch, inexpert rich guy who either can’t or won’t acknowledge the damage he and his companies are doing, to his fans, Musk is a visionary out to save humanity from itself. They gravitate toward his charisma and his intoxicating brew of extreme wealth, a grand vision for society — articulated through his companies, which he has an odd habit of launching with tweets — and an internet-friendly playfulness that sets him apart from the stodgier members of his economic class. Among his more than 22 million followers, all of this inspires a level of righteous devotion rarely glimpsed outside of the replies to a Taylor Swift tweet.
The most vocal of those fans have an impact: they’re an army of irregulars waiting to be marshaled via a tweet and sent on the digital warpath against anything Musk decides he doesn’t like, the iron fist in Musk’s velvet glove. They’ve become known for haranguing people they believe have crossed him, journalists especially, with relentless fervor. The attacks are standard social media-era fare: free-for-all bombardment across social platforms by people who are not always vitriolic but who nevertheless barrage the perceived enemy with bad-faith questions.
The most vocal fans have an impact; they’re the iron fist in Musk’s velvet glove
As is often the case on these platforms, if you’re not a cis white man, the harassment scales proportionally based on how far you deviate from that perceived norm. The fans who do most of the harassing online are hidden behind anonymous Twitter accounts; they won’t talk to journalists or allow their real names to be appended to their online behavior because they don’t trust the media or because they know their behavior online is wrong. By definition, the worst of them would be hard, if not impossible, to get to know. But I did get to know some Musk fans, some typical and others not, and there’s a lot to learn from them.
Lately, as Tesla has faced a series of financial challenges and an increasingly skeptical press, the billionaire has taken to attacking those online who have pointed out some of the flaws in his corporate strategy, and his fans have followed suit. In March, Tesla’s stock dropped to its lowest point in a year, and Moody’s downgraded its credit rating after one of its self-driving cars crashed and the company failed to hit production targets. There were also reports that Tesla is facing $1 billion in looming bonds tied to its debt-fueled acquisition of SolarCity. Afterward, Musk logged onto Twitter to assail the media. His devotees continued to pummel those he singled out for days.
In the words of the fans I spoke to, the harassers are outliers in the Musk fandom. Every online community has its toxic faction, they maintain, and everyone should expect to be harassed occasionally as a consequence of being online. (The number of women saying Musk’s followers went after them might contradict that assertion, but it’s true that hostility can easily be masked or misunderstood on the internet. As I once overheard a publicist say: “One man’s pushback is another man’s harassment.”)
A fandom’s rabid fringe faction comes as a natural consequence of being in a group in the first place. While some CEOs maintain a Jobsian cult of personality and where celebrity fan attacks mostly consist of endless walls of snake emoji, Musk’s followers differ in their moral righteousness and emotional defensiveness. Musk’s fringe is different because the center is morally righteous, which means the outliers are even more fervent than other fandoms. (Musk is not known to take criticism particularly well, and sometimes his fans concern-troll him by pointing out when he should maybe stop replying to random people on the internet.) Beyoncé is a queen, and the Beyhive makes sure everyone knows it. Musk is delivering a future to humanity, and to his fans, there’s nothing more important.
Recently, 65-year-old musician and producer Jim Ocean commemorated the maiden voyage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket with a song called “The Future Smells Like Elon Musk.” He’s been hooked for five or six years now since he first came across the PayPal co-founder in “the science pages” (by which he means Phys.org, a science newswire). The song, co-written with friend Brian Whistler and uploaded to YouTube, is a hopeful odyssey that describes Musk’s ability to inspire people. “He can tell the future for me and you / He’s got a nose for knowin’ what to do,” Ocean sings. (He has also written songs about Timothy Ferris, the producer of the Voyager space probe’s Golden Record; John Dobson, the inventor of the Dobsonian telescope; and James Lovelock, the scientist who figured out that CFCs created the hole in the ozone layer and theorized the Gaia hypothesis.)
“I’m not a think he can do no wrong kind of guy, but you know, he reminds me of people from the pages of history like Ernest Shackleton,” Ocean explains, referring to the famed British explorer who led several expeditions to the Antarctic. “We need to have that exploratory spirit instilled in us, especially with young people, because the world feels very full,” Ocean says. “It’s like getting in a car … with too many passengers, and we need to look outward to feel a sense of release from a planet that feels full of people, you know?”
When I ask him about Musk fans in general, he admits, “I think he has got a bunch of rapacious fans, [people] just dying to see the human race do something constructive and inventive and adventurous.” While he does wish that Musk’s products were a little cheaper — “I wish he would come out with a Tesla for people who have not so much income” — he feels Musk’s spirit of exploration more than makes up for it. “I feel very, very, very serious [that] we need to have that exploratory spirit instilled in us.” The world is too full already.
Of course, not every Musk fan is as fervent an acolyte as Ocean and Gomez. “I would consider myself a follower, but I wouldn’t consider myself, like, a devout fan, in the sense of Oh, he can do no wrong,” says Corey Brundige, a 28-year-old IT specialist who lives just south of Madison, Wisconsin. Brundige was impressed by Musk’s first Tesla Powerwall, but it was that same 60 Minutes interview from 2012 that hooked Gomez that really got Brundige. The video shows Musk tearing up as he talks about the time Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, two of his heroes, testified to Congress against the privatization of space. “That’s kind of a devastating thing,” Brundige says. “I’ve been through that many times in my life … that passion [reminded me of] what I felt when I first saw Star Wars when I was, like, six.”
He’s heard of those “devout fans,” the people “who say that he can do no wrong and will attack anyone who says otherwise. That’s unhealthy for sure,” he says. In a world overflowing with information, he says, he can understand why it might be easier to blindly trust a singular “figurehead like Elon.”
But he’s different. People like Brundige “get excited about seeing [Elon’s] innovations” — SolarCity’s panels, Tesla’s batteries and cars — “come into their homes much sooner than what the traditional space program will allow.” Innovations produced by the traditional space program take longer to reach consumers than Musk’s products, which are explicitly produced for them. It doesn’t seem relevant that most of these products are so expensive that they’re entirely out of reach to the average consumer — the only shipping Tesla Model 3s cost nearly $50,000, and while SpaceX’s rockets may be cheaper than those of competitors, it still costs a cool $60 million to launch the Falcon 9 — or that all of Musk’s current business ventures are sustained via government subsidy rather than self-generated profit. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times attempted to sum the amount of money Tesla, the now-absorbed Solar City, and SpaceX took from the government; the total came to $4.9 billion. Over its 15-year lifetime, Tesla has never turned a profit.
Brundige admits that Musk’s critics have some valid points. He disagrees with the billionaire on the topic of “basic safety and human treatment,” referring to Musk’s treatment of his factory workers. But he’s still wary of the press that brought those offenses to light, especially when it comes to headlines about Tesla autopilot. “It gets frustrating,” says Brundige, who has worked at media companies like Cygnus Business Media, which publishes trade media. “I do know that sometimes the more extreme title … gets more clicks, gets more ad revenue, keeps you in business.” (Brundige is right that the business of journalism is often sustained through advertising. But historically, the editorial parts of the business are separated from the sales departments to preserve the publication’s integrity.) Most of the Musk fans Brundige talks to, he told me, are level-headed. He speaks to them mostly in person, citing a wariness about letting his “bias be introduced” to the wider digital conversation. “I find online discussions mostly pretty toxic,” he explains.
Most of the so-called Musketeers I spoke to came from Twitter, their central battleground, usually after they replied to one of Musk’s sulkier tweets. The others I found through their creative projects dedicated to him or because their friends thought they were big enough fans of Musk to warrant putting me in touch with them. The fans who agreed to speak to me were mostly middle-class millennials who describe themselves as political centrists. They were mostly white men and women who are spread across America, though mostly clustered in liberal enclaves. Like Gomez, they self-identify not as “fans,” but as “followers,” as level-headed acolytes deeply inspired by what Musk has accomplished. The way they talk about Musk suggests an overriding belief in the transformative power of consumption.
To some, the act of buying a Tesla is an investment in the world’s future. To environmentalists, though, the story isn’t so simple. Depending on where you live and how the energy there is generated, Teslas aren’t that much greener than their gas-powered compatriots. And if you consider at all how dirty it is to manufacture the lithium-ion batteries that power Musk’s cars, the story gets grimmer. According to The Guardian, an average gas-powered car costs 5.6 tons of CO2 to make, while an electric car takes 8.8 tons — half of which is used in producing the battery. The electric car, The Guardian writes, will still be responsible for 80 percent of the gas car over its lifetime.
The main thread that seems to unite Musk’s fans across demographics isn’t that they attack whatever they see as a threat to him. It’s that they claim to value a sanitized idea of logic and rationality above all else. They often don’t feel beholden to any ideology or faction at all, which is kind of signaling. Practicing logicians and philosophers, on the other hand, have been very into the limits of reason for decades. There are more than a few famous thought experiments that point out the limits of pure logic.
They don’t reject information from the media so much as instinctually distrust it
Gomez says she doesn’t “see a lot of news sources that are pro-logic and pro-reason” — unless you have access to massive amounts of data, she says, then you don’t have a place to go to find balanced news. “Real data is always neutral because it just... it just is. Everything is what it is,” she says. But after people touch it, “it’s not neutral anymore because everybody has a different preference.” I press her on this.
“It sounds like you believe in the existence of an objective truth, that there are things that are true. Right?”
“Yes,” she agrees.
“But if somebody handles data then it becomes biased?” I ask.
“Potentially,” she confirms.
“So if you don’t have access to the data, and you don’t believe that the people who are tasked with handling it are trustworthy,” I say, “then you believe the information is false?”
“Yeah,” Gomez says.
Gomez might be an extreme case of this kind of radical skepticism, but it’s present in lesser degrees among other Musk fans. They don’t reject information from the media so much as instinctually distrust it. This line of thinking becomes a problem in this post-truth era when the president actively attempts to discredit legitimate news-gathering organizations and facts are constantly being assailed by the powerful. In a time like this, insisting that you don’t need to subscribe to a belief system can be dangerous. The performance of neutrality cedes ground to those who would ignore logic entirely if it gave them more power.
Living between these contradictions — social beneficence versus performative capitalism, a belief in objective truth versus a mistrust of any legitimate sources of information, acknowledgment of Tesla’s performance as a company versus an almost religious belief in its potential — is the mark of a Musk fan in 2018. It’s also a reflection of America’s political reality. It’s an atmosphere that encourages saying one thing, believing another, and meaning a third that makes it nearly impossible to talk across any divide — be it political, social, or cultural. Fandom is useful, in part, because it can bridge those chasms.
Bonnie Norman is a 64-year-old former Intel executive who invested early in Tesla. “I’ve watched the fan base change over the last seven years, and there’s good and bad to that. But it’s definitely fun to watch,” she tells me over the phone. She says she bought a Roadster immediately after test-driving one. (She owned a Prius before, but “oh my God, what a boring car.”)
“I have never seen any company, before that or since then, where every single person at the company [had] bought into the CEO’s mission statement,” she says. “I’m used to having to fight CEOs on safety issues and stuff my entire career … But I know for a fact that when he was brought the information about the one seat belt in Europe that was missing a bolt, they did a subsequent recall and checked every single seat belt.”
When she lived in California, Norman used to throw a yearly party for Tesla owners. They came from all over, she says. At the first one, someone handed her a microphone and asked her to give a speech. “When I bought a Tesla, I was buying it for performance and the fun, just the fun of it,” she recalls herself saying. “I wasn’t buying it, you know, to be green,” she continued. “I didn’t realize I was buying into an entire community.” That group got together in person at parties like Norman’s, but they also congregate online on the Tesla Motor Club forums.
“There’s no, you know, nastiness going on,” she says of the Roadster subforum. But then she admits that the rest of the forum, where the newer owners gather, is more toxic. Even as a Tesla supporter, she has been hit with the same kind of harassment detailed in science journalist Erin Biba’s piece about being attacked by Elon Musk fans. (Norman says Biba’s coverage drew ire for being “negative.”) “I literally have two restraining orders in my purse and in my briefcase and a set in my car in my glove box, [on two men I met on the Tesla forum]. I am never without those two,” says Norman, who was a moderator on the forum for a number of years. “It’s not whether you’re for Tesla or against Tesla. It’s the fact you’re a woman, and you’re not in your lane.”
Not all of Elon Musk’s followers stay his fans. Martin Tripp was a fan once before he was fired from his job as a technician at Tesla’s Gigafactory battery plant and then sued by the company for alleged hacking and stealing company secrets. As The Washington Post reported, Tripp left his job with a medical device company and moved his family to Nevada to work for Tesla. “I looked up to Elon. I looked up to Tesla. I was always drooling about the Teslas and wanting to buy one,” he told the paper. “And I was living the mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” That changed after working for Musk. He told the Post that he was disillusioned after he saw firsthand the company’s waste, unsustainable business practices, and Musk’s misleading statements to investors. “I wanted to leave the world better for my son. And I felt I was doing everything but that,” Tripp said. Now, he believes Musk “only cares about himself.”
Andrew Sanders, a 30-year-old marketing writer from Massachusetts, went through a similar — though far less dramatic — transition. “Before the last month, I was a huge fan of Elon Musk. I own a functioning model replica of the Falcon 9, and I got my brother a Boring Company hat for Christmas,” he wrote to me in an email. “Depressingly, I think you’ll find that I’m typical of the Musk fans you might interview: white, relatively affluent, and an unironic nerd.”
‘Liking him nowadays is more of a self-own than it isn’t’
Sanders fell for Musk initially when he started naming his rocket landing infrastructure after ships from Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, one of Sanders’ favorite sci-fi series. “I learned more, of course. It was hard to ignore the amount of injuries in the Tesla factories, as well as the anti-union sentiments,” he wrote. But he rationalized: “Climate change has a way of pre-empting social justice arguments. If the world simultaneously burns and floods, no one’s going to care whether your workers had collective bargaining power.”
Now, he says, he’s done excusing all that. “When I first learned about him, he was building a future that I’d only ever read about. Now? He’s self-evidently a thin-skinned racist buffoon who’s high on his own farts. His behavior is such that not only do I no longer like him, I’m ashamed for ever having liked him in the first place,” Sanders wrote. When I called him on the phone, he added, “Liking him nowadays is more of a self-own than it isn’t.” I asked Sanders to clarify his buffoon comment.
“I’d say ‘thin-skinned’ due to the fact that he’s constantly namesearching himself and replying to everyone with even the most casual criticism of him, blocking people, and not appearing to care when his following starts to dogpile people,” he wrote back via email. “‘Racist,’ mainly because of the whole ‘Who do you think runs the media’ remark, although it’s possible that may have somehow been misconstrued?”
Sanders continued: “‘Buffoon’ because of tendencies that, when examined closely, seem more like those of a carnival huckster. Still waiting for your Model 3? Look over there, I made a flamethrower! Concerned about workplace accidents? Let’s focus on how I’m going to make bricks for some reason! etcetera.”
Among the fans I spoke to, one major thread emerged: a wariness of information and a sense that trying to find the truth is a quest that’s quixotic at best. Who can you really trust? they seemed to ask. That’s as good a question as any for America’s current political moment. In that light, Musk seems like a savior, a Christlike figure sent from on high to save the world. What it means, though, is that, for better or worse, he represents something missing from the larger contemporary discourse. His vast fan base is a symptom of a larger societal rot. The successful campaign of information warfare that’s been waged since the late 1990s, in large part by prominent conservative media organizations, has warped both the definition of news and shifted the boundaries of what people consider newsworthy. Who can forget the chilling quote later attributed to Karl Rove, then a senior adviser to the president, that spawned the phrase “reality-based community”?
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” Rove told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 2004. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Musk seems to his fans like the one guy you can trust
Twelve years later, the writer, Maria Bustillos, would build off Rove’s comments in an Awl essay exploring the concept of “dismediation,” which she elegantly describes as “a form of propaganda that seeks to undermine the medium by which it travels, like a computer virus that bricks the whole machine.” After years of onslaught, the reality machine has blue-screened under the weight of a decade of lies from politicians and variously interested parties. In its weird glow, Musk seems to his fans like the one guy you can trust. He’s smart and well-spoken, and he knows the way the game is played. After all, he’s been in the Valley for ages, and he knows how to get people to believe in his ideas.
But the rockets land, the cars drive, and the contracts to dig tunnels get signed. For the most part, Musk makes the things he says he’ll make. He mostly does what he sets out to do. It doesn’t matter if the cars don’t always do what they promise, if the rockets sometimes fail, or if the tunnels seem impossible to build for the proposed budgets. These things exist. They’re tangible. His fans are tangible, too, because they recognize how rare it is for a public figure to do what they say they’ll do. They recognize how difficult it is to do anything at all. Even if Tesla fails and the government contracts that fund SpaceX dry up, they will have still existed, and they will have made electric cars that were real to people and will have begun to humanize the stars. It will have existed, even if, like Ozymandias, only the legs of the companies he’s built remain.