Fifteen years or so ago, the sportswriter Bill Simmons coined the phrase “The Tyson Zone,” which refers to a rare situation in which you would believe absolutely anything someone told you about a person. (The stories about Mike Tyson are still horrifying and wild to read about.) It’s a high bar to clear because for someone to enter the Tyson Zone, you have to be willing to believe the sentence “Did you hear that he ___” no matter how the sentence ends. Charlie Sheen did a stint in the Tyson Zone during his “WINNING” era. Lindsay Lohan was there for a while. Dennis Rodman married himself and then went to North Korea and practically built a house in the Tyson Zone. Nilay Patel, The Verge’s editor-in-chief and my boss, flirts with the Tyson Zone on a daily basis.
Elon Musk is currently living large in the Tyson Zone. We should rename it the Elon Zone, honestly. Is there anything you wouldn’t believe he said or did? The man has more money than some countries, more Twitter followers than the Kardashians, and a 13-year-old boy’s sense of humor.
Which is how, I suppose, it came to pass that a bunch of people took Musk seriously when he tweeted he was planning to buy Manchester United, the controversial Premier League soccer club that you could fairly describe as “the New York Yankees of English football.” It became a news story! The club’s stock, which is publicly traded, jumped more than 10 percent! The team’s actual owners apparently said they’re willing to sell a minority stake in the company! And all this keeps going on, even after Musk literally said the words, “I’m not buying any sports teams.”
The best part of this story is that it’s just Musk recycling an old joke. He tweeted back in April that “Next I’m buying Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in” and has spent the months since telling anyone who will listen about how it’s the most-liked Twitter post of all time. (I can’t vouch for that fact, but 4.8 million likes is certainly a lot, and Musk does have the Twitter firehose, so I suppose he’d know.) The idea of restoring Manchester United to its former football glory isn’t as funny — only 855,000 likes on the tweet, sorry pal — but it fits. And it’s not like it’s an impossible idea, right? Buying Manchester United would probably cost Musk about $5 billion or so, which I suspect is less than the Twitter deal will end up costing him even if he gets to walk away. And given that all sufficiently rich men eventually decide they want to own a sports team, Musk buying the club wouldn’t even qualify as much of a surprise.
Musk deliberately cultivates the uncertainty and chaos that swirls around him
But there’s a critical way in which the Elon Zone is not like the Tyson Zone: Musk deliberately cultivates the uncertainty and chaos that swirls around him. As a result, there’s really only one way to respond to Musk’s antics in these cases. You should believe his legal filings — not his tweets — because Elon Musk is many things, but on Twitter, he’s mostly a shitposter.
So when it comes to his tweets, you should always look at what’s happening right before he tweeted because Musk is usually trying to redirect your attention. In this case, Musk even told us exactly what he’s trying to hide! His Man U tweet was actually a reply to a seemingly unrelated tweet from five minutes earlier. It said: “To be clear, I support the left half of the Republican Party and the right half of the Democratic Party!” So, if we apply the Rule of Musk Tweets, this one is pretty clearly a response to the leak that Musk had been glad-handing right-wingers at a party in Wyoming hosted by Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Even though Musk reportedly told everyone in attendance to deny that he was there, everyone promptly started taking selfies with Musk and pretty much ruined that.
The news that Musk is a Republican — or, at the very least, happy to act like one if it helps his companies — shouldn’t surprise anyone. Publicly, he continues to paint himself as, like, the reasonable guy in a country full of eccentrics, but privately, he seems to happily play whatever side suits him, which, at least recently, has been leaning ever harder toward the right. Musk knows better than anyone that if his audience is forced to choose between “Elon Musk hobnobs with the Republican elite” and “OMG, is he seriously buying a soccer team?” most people will focus on silly soccer shenanigans. Even the numbers prove it out: Musk’s “I’m a centrist!” tweet got less than half the engagement as the Man U reply, and the soccer joke sparked a much bigger news cycle (congrats, Reuters!).
Musk even gave it a little more fuel: a half-hour after acknowledging that it was a joke, he seemed to want to subtly imply he might actually be serious after all. “Although, if it were any team, it would be Man U. They were my fav team as a kid,” he tweeted in response to his “long-running joke” tweet.
Again, let’s be super clear here: Elon Musk is not buying Manchester United. I don’t think? See, this is the problem. I can’t really blame anybody who still thinks he might! Because it’s the kind of thing he does! Usually, he stretches the bounds of belief in much lower-stakes ways, like when he randomly decides to release a song called “Don’t Doubt Your Vibe” or sells “the world’s most boring hat.” Sometimes, what looks like whims — like when Musk created the hyperloop apparently in a move to defeat a movement for high-speed rail in California — are actually once again calculated redirections. Sometimes he actually tries to buy Twitter. And knowing what’s what can be damn near impossible in the moment.
Life in the Elon Zone has often been really good. Musk can say wild-sounding things about changing the car industry and building a city on Mars and the value of humanoid robots and have investors, governments, and fans believe him and fund him against all odds.
As scrutiny on Musk and his companies has grown, the “anything seems possible” effect is starting to work against him
But as scrutiny on Musk and his companies has grown, the “anything seems possible” effect is starting to work against him. Did Musk promise a woman a horse in exchange for sexual favors and sleep with Sergey Brin’s wife? He denied it, but it doesn’t seem impossible. Is Tesla a toxic company full of toxic people with “full self-driving” tech that is actually hugely dangerous? Seems on-brand! Will he actually go to trial with Twitter and risk $44 billion just out of pride and anger? Sounds like Elon!
One thing that has worked for Musk is that most of his promises are both so far out and so enticing that it’s often both hard and a buzzkill to try to prove him wrong. Plus, he’s a big and rich enough bully to win most fights. And maybe Musk can happily live his chaotic Elon Zone life as long as Tesla keeps making cars and he keeps making money. But a reality check is coming at least in one way: we’re almost exactly two months away from the Twitter / Musk trial in Delaware Chancery Court, and if you think you know what’s going to happen between now and then, I think you’re wrong. But I’d believe almost anything.