His companies have faced allegations of sexual harassment and poor working conditions; in October, a federal jury ordered Tesla to pay $137 million to a Black employee who accused the automaker of ignoring racial abuse. The businesses have also been fined for numerous regulatory violations. The feds are probing Tesla’s Autopilot software, which has been involved in an alarming number of crashes with parked emergency vehicles, resulting in injuries and death. The company’s expansion in China required cozying up to its repressive autocrats.
The toll his hard-driving style takes on staff is legendary. Former associates have described Musk as petty, cruel and petulant, particularly when frustrated or challenged. He recently separated from the experimental musician Grimes, the mother of his seventh son. “He is a savant when it comes to business, but his gift is not empathy with people,” says his brother and business partner Kimbal Musk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s made statements downplaying the virus, broken local payday loans in Bridgeport health regulations to keep his factories running and amplified skepticism about vaccine safety. Musk tells TIME he and his eligible children are vaccinated and that “the science is unequivocal,” but that he opposes vaccine mandates: “You are taking a risk, but people do risky things all the time,” he says of the unvaccinated. “I believe we’ve got to watch out for the erosion of freedom in America.” The vast expanse of human misery can seem an afterthought to a man with his eyes on Mars.
Perhaps no one man should have all that power
Musk is easily cast as a hubristic supervillain, lumped in with the tech bros and space playboys, for whom money is scorekeeping and rockets are the ultimate toy. But he’s different: he’s a manufacturing magnate-moving metal, not bytes. His rockets, built from scratch on an autodidact’s mold-breaking vision, have saved taxpayers billions, reinvigorated America’s space dreams and are launching satellites to expand Internet access across the globe. If Tesla delivers on its pledges, it has the potential to strike a major blow against global warming. The man from the future where technology makes all things possible is a throwback to our glorious industrial past, before America stagnated and stopped producing anything but rules, restrictions, limits, obstacles and Facebook.
“He is a humanist-not in the sense of being a nice person, because he isn’t,” says Robert Zubrin, founder of the , when the young, newly minted dot-com millionaire sent a large unsolicited check to the organization. “He wants eternal glory for doing great deeds, and he is an asset to the human race because he defines a great deed as something that is great for humanity. He is greedy for glory. Money to him is a means, not an end. Who today evaluates Thomas Edison on the basis of which of his inventions turned a profit?”
For all his outlier qualities, Musk also embodies the zeitgeist of this liminal age
This was the year we emerged from the hundred-year plague only to find there was no normal to go back to, a year that felt like the cusp of a brave or terrifying new world, with nobody in charge and everything up for renegotiation-from how we work and travel to what we find meaning in and cherish. Musk is our avatar of infinite possibility, our usher to the remade world, where shopworn practices are cast aside and the unprecedented becomes logical, where Earth and humanity can still be saved. Perhaps this vision of the greater good comes with a human cost. But if many never voted or signed up for Musk’s wild zero-gravity ride, that is of no consequence to him.