Read: When Elon Musk switches on ‘insane mode’
Twitter is Musk’s main mode of communication with the public, including his fans. During other moments of Muskian controversy—the tweet that led to fraud charges and cost him his Tesla chairmanship, or the time he got sued for calling a rescue diver a “pedo guy”—you could count on finding a chorus of support in the replies to Musk’s tweets, his admirers unwilling to consider any criticism of their hero.
But now, for the first time, Musk appears to have alienated even some of his most devout supporters. Fans are voicing their discomfort, and even dissent, directly to Musk on Twitter, knowing that he might see it. Last month, the top tweet beneath Musk’s demand to “FREE AMERICA NOW” and let workers return to their businesses was a bite-size study in cognitive dissonance: “my first disagreement with my Idol. :/”
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The acerbic persona that once made Musk a cool renegade seems to have sharpened into something more alarming in this global crisis. Surviving a pandemic is rocket science only in the figurative sense, and some fans wish that Musk would let the experts handle it. The cracks in the cult of Elon are starting to show.
I reached out to some of these fans. They were mostly men, ranging from 20-somethings to 70-somethings. They included those who drive Teslas and those who wish they did, those who describe Musk as their idol and those who just think he makes a great car. They all prefaced their remarks with praise of Musk’s brilliance, vision, and ability to do things that others had sworn were impossible. And besides, they said, nobody’s perfect. But. What the hell is he doing?
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“Sometimes it just seems like the smarter people are, the more vulnerable they are to overestimating how much they know about something outside of their specialty,” Ben Hallert, a longtime SpaceX fan and a Tesla stockholder, told me. “If I’m an expert in X, then why wouldn’t I be an expert in Y?”
Hallert loves talking about rockets. He talked about them all the way from Oregon to Texas last spring, when he took his wife and teenage sons to visit the place where SpaceX is building its biggest rocket yet, just off the Gulf of Mexico. Hallert’s grandparents worked on the Apollo program, and he has his pilot’s license. He can’t wait to see the SpaceX spaceship get off the ground, but he wishes that the man behind it would stop tweeting.
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Musk’s early takes on the coronavirus were mild, if ill-advised, fans told me. In early March, for example, Musk declared that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” Fans believed that Musk was only poking fun at the hoarding of toilet paper and Clorox wipes, not the dangers of a sickness that was cropping up everywhere. But as Musk’s rhetoric escalated, some of his fans tried to reason gently with him that research showed social-distancing measures could slow the spread of the virus. They resurfaced a quote Musk tweeted in 2017, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey—“If one day, my words are against science, choose science”—in an apparent attempt to remind him of his better impulses. Such is the understanding nature of Musk fans, who still want to help their hero see the error of his ways.