A year ago, Elon Musk was Time magazine’s Person of the Year, glowingly described as “square-jawed and indomitable,” and lauded for the socialist virtues of not owning a house and “selling off his fortune.”
“He tosses satellites into orbit and harnesses the sun; he drives a car he created that uses no gas and barely needs a driver,” the accompanying article read. “With a flick of his finger, the stock market soars or swoons.”
Musk was, Time said, “finally in a position to put (haters) in their place.”
Musk’s star continued to rise through the spring, burnished by his support of Ukraine after Russia invaded. Even as he began buying shares of Twitter, becoming its largest shareholder by April, Musk was largely cheered by Americans appreciative of his entertainment value, if nothing else.
Now, however, Musk is being called the new Donald Trump because of his polarizing nature. He was booed recently at a Dave Chappelle comedy show. He’s been christened “Twitter’s chief jerk” by people who would ordinarily be championing free speech. Still others go further and say he is dangerous.
There’s no question the wind of change came about in part because of Musk’s increasing alignment with conservatives on a number of issues, including free speech. He also became friendly with some prominent conservative figures, among them Seth Dillon, CEO of the conservative comedy website The Babylon Bee, after a YouTube sitdown with the staff last December. And Musk consulted with Dillon about the Bee’s Twitter suspension before buying the social media platform.
For many of the liberals who populate (and apparently once controlled) Twitter, as 2022 unfolded it became clear Musk was not one of them, despite his efforts to combat climate change, his full-throated support for Ukraine and his decidedly un-conservative approach to family life. (He has 10 children with three women and isn’t married.)
His most recent sin was enraging elite liberals with a cheeky tweet that was simultaneously a dig at gender identity orthodoxy and COVID-19 policies:
And then there’s his tough-minded approach to business (ordering Twitter employees back to the office and laying off half its staff), which has won him few fans outside of corner offices. (“... one group is still in Mr. Musk’s corner: Bosses,” Kevin Roose wrote for The New York Times.)
Yet Musk’s fortunes (both real and figurative) have fallen in large part because, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “We are a puny and fickle folk.” We like celebrities to soar above us, just not too high, and we yank them back to Earth all the more quickly when their politics differ from ours. “Great men do not content us,” Emerson said in the same speech.
However, for many conservatives, Elon Musk is still Person of the Year, displaced by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Time’s actual Person of the Year for 2022) only on paper. While some of his tweets are disturbingly puerile, there is something refreshing about Musk’s eagerness to engage with rank-and-file Twitter users in a way that, say, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg do not. There is a childlike enthusiasm in his frequent Twitter polls, and in his admirable willingness to make mistakes and fix them.
Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 9, 2022
We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.
He straddles the line between eccentric and visionary, and there’s little question that he popularized the electric car, in large part on the strength of his own personality. While many conservatives are increasingly uncomfortable with the billions we are sending to Zelenskyy, they are fine with the private dollars going to support Ukraine, and Musk remains a key donor there. And of course, he has followed through with his promise to end unjust suspensions on Twitter, restoring not just the accounts of The Babylon Bee and Jordan Peterson, but also former President Donald Trump.
Musk’s greatest achievement this year may have been allowing the public a glimpse of what goes on behind the curtain at Twitter and likely other social media companies — partisan policing that has been long suspected but rarely proven.
What has become known as the “Twitter Files” showed “in detail how Twitter made key content moderation decisions that disadvantaged Trump, conservatives, and people who broke with the public health consensus on Covid-19,” according to Vox.
As Suzanne Bates noted for Deseret, these revelations resulted in a collective shrug from most mainstream news outlets although they would have been huge news had Democrat voices been squelched.
The revelations should be deeply concerning for all Americans, not because publicity about Hunter Biden’s laptop might have changed the outcome of the 2020 election as some charge, but because such collusion is antithetical to democracy and further erodes shaky trust in our institutions.
Time says it chooses the person (or persons) of the year based on “who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill.” The short list for 2022 was reported to include China’s Xi Jinping, the Supreme Court, Liz Cheney, MacKenzie Scott, Ron De Santis, Janet Yellen — and Musk.
The Person of the Year, by the magazine’s own criteria, should have been Vladimir Putin, for triggering the chain of events that thrust Zelenskyy into the spotlight and rocked the world’s economies. But that wouldn’t and shouldn’t happen for obvious reasons, just like Musk was not going to be chosen again in back-to-back years. Musk, however, remains one of the most interesting and influential people on the cultural landscape — and now the political one, too — and his star may be in decline primarily because of his unpopular beliefs on the very platform he owns. But that may endear him more with the people, since his problem is one many Americans know; about half of Americans self-censor for fear of the ridicule that Musk laughingly deflects.
Of course, only a quarter of Americans use Twitter, and fewer still can afford to buy a Tesla. Musk is about as far from heartland America as Trump. And yet, if his fortunes are to rise again, it will be because the American public knows the disdain heaped on Musk this year by cultural elites is largely unwarranted. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be Person of the Year again. But I think he deserves at least first runner-up.