This excerpt is taken from a biography by Walter Isaacson.Elon Musk”, published this month. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.
“The coronavirus panic is stupid,” Musk tweeted. It was March 6, 2020, and COVID had just closed its new factory in Shanghai and was beginning to spread across the United States. That decimated Tesla’s stock price, but it wasn’t just the financial hit that angered Musk. The mandates imposed by the government in China and then in California ignited his anti-authority streak.
When California issued a lockdown later in March, just as the Fremont factory began producing the Model Y, he became defiant. The factory would remain open. In a company-wide email, he wrote, “I want to be very clear that you do not feel obligated to come to work if you feel even the slightest bit sick or even unwell,” but then added: “I will do that personally.” at work. I continue to believe that the damage from the coronavirus panic far exceeds the damage of the virus itself.”
After district officials threatened to force the plant to close, Musk filed a lawsuit challenging the orders. “If someone wants to stay in their house, that’s great,” Musk said. “But to say that they can’t leave their house or they will be arrested is fascist. That’s not democratic. That’s not freedom. Give the people their damn freedom back.” He kept the plant open and asked the county sheriff to make arrests. “I’ll be on the phone with everyone else,” he tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”
Musk prevailed. Local authorities agreed with Tesla to keep the Fremont factory open as long as certain mask-wearing and other safety protocols are followed. These were largely honored by the violation, but the dispute subsided, the assembly line churned out cars, and there was no serious COVID outbreak at the factory.
The controversy became a factor in his political development. He went from being a fanboy and fundraiser for Barack Obama to agitating against progressive Democrats. On a Sunday afternoon in May, in the midst of the controversy, he posted a cryptic four-word tweet: “Take the red pill.” It was a reference to the 1999 film “The Matrix,” in which a hacker finds out , that he has been living in a computer simulation (a concept that has always fascinated Musk) and is given the choice of taking a blue pill, which will allow him to forget everything and pleasantly return to his life, or one red pill that introduces him to the true truth of the Matrix. The phrase “Take the red pill” was adopted by many, including some men’s rights activists and conspiracy theorists, as a rallying cry that signaled a willingness to confront the truth about secretive elites. Ivanka Trump got the hint. She retweeted it with the comment “Taken!”
Another obscure tweet that reflected the shift in his politics came in December 2021: “Traceroute woke_mind_virus,” it read. “Traceroute” is a network command to determine the path of some information to the source server. Musk was on a mission to combat what he saw as the excesses of political correctness and the woke culture of progressive social justice activists . When I asked him why, he replied: “Unless the virus of the awakened mind, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit and anti-human in general, is stopped, civilization will never become multi-planetary.”
Musk’s reaction was prompted in part by the decision of his eldest child, Xavier, then sixteen, to transition. “Hey, I’m transgender and my name is now Jenna,” she texted Elon’s brother’s wife. “Don’t tell my father.” When Musk found out, he was generally confident, but then she became an ardent Marxist and rejected him. His disagreements with Jenna, he says, “became more intense when she moved beyond socialism, was a full-fledged communist, and thought that anyone who was rich was evil.”
The argument with Jenna, he says, has hurt him more than anything else in his life since the infant death of his first-born child, Nevada. “I made a lot of advances,” he says, “but she doesn’t want to spend any time with me.”
He blames, in part, what he calls the progressive “woke indoctrination” that permeated the Crossroads private school in Los Angeles that she attended. When his children were younger, he sent them to a school he founded for family and friends called Ad Astra. “They went there until they were about fourteen, but then I thought they should be introduced to the real world for high school,” he says. “What I should have done is extended Ad Astra through high school.”
“He feels like he has lost a son who has changed his first and last name and no longer speaks to him because of this woke mind virus,” says Jared Birchall, the manager of his personal office. “He is a first-hand witness, on a very personal level, to how damaging the indoctrination of this woke religion is.”
Jenna’s anger made Musk sensitive to the backlash against billionaires. He believed that there was nothing wrong with building successful companies and keeping the money invested in them. But in 2020, he felt that it was unproductive and unseemly to collect these riches and waste them on personal consumption.
Up until then he had lived quite well. His primary residence in the Bel Air district of Los Angeles, which he purchased for $17 million in 2012, was a sixteen-thousand-square-foot faux palace with seven bedrooms and a guest suite, eleven bathrooms, a gym, tennis court, pool, two-story library, Screening room and orchard. It was a place that his five children could feel like their castle. They stayed with him four days a week and had regular tennis lessons, martial arts and other activities in the house.
When actor Gene Wilder’s house across the street came up for sale, Musk bought it to preserve it. He then bought three nearby houses and considered demolishing some of them to build his own dream home. He also owned a $32 million, thirteen-bedroom, 47-acre Mediterranean-style estate in Silicon Valley.
In early 2020, Musk decided to dump them all. “I’m selling almost all physical possessions,” he tweeted three days before X’s birth. “Won’t own a house.” He explained to Joe Rogan the sentiment that led to this decision. “I think possessions kind of weigh you down and are a vector of attack,” he said. “In recent years, ‘billionaire’ has become derogatory, as if it were a bad thing. They’ll say, “Hey, billionaire, you got all this stuff.” Well, now I’m out of stuff, so what are you going to do?”
His politics also began to change at this time, partly in response to attacks on him by some Democrats. “Elizabeth Warren actually called me a freeloader who doesn’t pay taxes, even though I literally pay the most taxes of any person in history,” he says. He was particularly angry about an attack from progressive California Rep. Lorena Gonzalez. “F– Elon Musk,” she tweeted. This increased his frustration with California. “I came there when it was the land of opportunity,” he says. “Today it is the land of litigation, regulation and taxes.”
He had developed a deep contempt for Donald Trump, whom he considered a fraud, but Joe Biden did not impress him. “When he was vice president, I went to lunch with him in San Francisco, where he talked to himself for an hour and was incredibly boring, like one of those puppets that you pull on the string and say the same nonsensical phrases over and over again .” Still, he says he voted for Biden in 2020 but decided it was a waste of time to vote in California, where he was registered at the time, because it wasn’t a battleground state.
Walter Isaacson is the author of biographies of Elon Musk, Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. He teaches history at Tulane University and was editor of Time and CEO of CNN.