Multiple people have asked me to chime in on the Elon Musk and Donald Trump “partnership.” The requests have popped up for years … wait, no, it just feels like years because of the nonstop insanity we’ve been living through. I’ve also noticed a lot of commentary — on Twitter, here on CleanTechnica, and elsewhere — that implies Elon has turned evil or is sacrificing his morals by working with Trump.
It’s a tough topic. First of all, the world of politics was already like an alternative reality — before Don the Con came along. Al Gore routinely says that he’s a “recovering politician.” There’s certainly something challenging and demoralizing about working in a realm where, if your goal is to help your society or humanity as a whole, you have to compromise with people who are only working for the benefit of the super rich (even when the means death and suffering for millions of people).
What do you think Elon Musk would rather be doing with his time — working on the Tesla Model Y; advancing AI in a thoughtful, open-sourced, democratic way; designing a rocket to go to Mars; hobnobbing with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Rex Tillerson; or playing video games? It’s hard to know what Elon would most quickly jump to do, but I have a feeling the hobnobbing option would be last in ideal political circumstances.
I almost launched into an article a week or so ago about the tremendous risk to Tesla’s brand Elon is taking by working on Trump’s advisory team. The simple summary of that is:
Elon and Tesla have been hugely idolized in large part because of their purist, deeply moral stance — 100% electricity, 100% renewables at the Gigafactory (no natural gas connection even, so they are never tempted to use a tiny bit of natural gas), 100% do things simply because they are the right thing to do. Working with Don the Con, compromising with him, cooperating with him, advising him, being “on his team” — this is not the avenue of a 100% moral purist by many people’s standard. Thus, the whole thing could greatly taint Tesla’s brand.
A regular reader and commenter dropped the side note in a comment earlier today that, “I’ve heard about a handful of Model 3 reservers who have requested refunds, since they don’t like the relationship.”
Let’s be frank — to some degree or another, the Tesla brand is taking a hit from Elon’s work with Donald Trump.
It was finally some nudging from a top CleanTechnica supporter and then the following two tweets that got me to write this article.
Really don't want to get in politics. I just want to help invent and develop technologies that improve lives. Feels so bizarre.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2017
Well, it was really a series of tweets to Elon and his responses that pushed me to finally chime in on this topic.
There are plenty of side tangents I could delve into — Elon’s relative silence before the election (and clear but subtle support for Hillary in a few tweets), Elon’s decision to take an open-minded and supportive tone (slightly) on former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson becoming Secretary of State, Elon’s decision to do something similar in regard to Steve Bannon, etc. However, I think the key here is to try to understand Elon’s overall position and the world’s needs.
First of all, I would go back a bit to before Elon was on Trump’s advisory council to get some perspective. At the beginning of December, GM CEO Mary Barra was added to an exclusive 16-member economic and job creation board that included the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Boeing, Walt Disney, Walmart, and others. At least one insightful journalist at The New York Times quickly pointed out what is obvious to CleanTechnica regulars — if you want some insight on creating jobs, talk to Elon Musk. I almost wrote a piece along the same lines, but yeah, that was obvious enough to our community and I wasn’t super confident I’d have Trump’s or Bannon’s ear, so I didn’t see a great deal of value in such an appeal.
However, someone got the point across — either because of what Elon genuinely has to offer or simply because of how insanely popular and loved Elon is. The cynical take — which I definitely promoted in mid-December — is that Don the Con is just using Elon as a distraction, to siphon some Elon lovers to his camp, and basically as a tool or prop. It’s no secret that Trump isn’t fond of taking advice from people, even if they know much more about something than he does — in fact, his typical response to informed and respected people may well be the opposite due to his potential narcissistic personality disorder (which is hugely inconvenient and tormenting if it is something he suffers from).
Even when he trusts and loves someone, Trump is always the one who makes the call — and facts, science, and logic don’t seem to really matter in that regard. It’s all about hunches, Trump’s gut, conspiracies he heard from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, etc. So, why would he listen to Elon Musk about science, climate change, or anything else?
But look — we got what we asked for. Our “so-called president” did select Elon Musk to be on his top economy & jobs advisory team. Did we really want that or did we just want to complain — when he wasn’t yet in that group — that Elon was neglected from such a key position?
Furthermore, putting yourself in Elon’s shoes, what do you think would be the most responsible thing to do at this stage of the game? Completely crazy and corrupt Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. They are planning to gut environmental regulations to an insane extent — something their voters don’t support, Republicans in general don’t support, and hardly a single soul supports unless they are part of, bought by, or brainwashed by the pollution industry. Solar energy is a target. Wind energy is a target. Clean water is a target. Clean air is a target. Science is a target. And … wait, electric vehicles aren’t yet a target? Hmm…
Elon may get nowhere with Trump and his criminal implementers. I’m sure Elon is well aware of this. But he may also be our last hope for survival. He may be our last hope for cleantech support — electric car support, solar energy support, a carbon tax. Indeed, as Gizmodo noted on January 27, “A senior White House official told Bloomberg today that Musk ‘floated the idea of a carbon tax’ to ‘President Donald Trump and US business leaders at a White House meeting Monday… but got little or no support.'” Elon has mentioned on Twitter and elsewhere that he is still pushing for climate action and a carbon tax. He seems to be genuinely hopeful (somewhat) that Steve Bannon and Rex Tillerson are climate realists who will promote a carbon tax.
I know, you are laughing or smirking right now. But what if he’s right? What if Elon could convince these guys to tap into their deeply buried human morals and try to stabilize the climate before our whole society is destroyed? … Note also that severe climate change will lead to a real immigration crisis. Elon knows this, and he is likely playing any cards he can to get Trump, Bannon, Tillerson, and others to act somewhat responsibly. He’s not going to turn these guys into angels, but he could get them to do something good. Maybe. Hopefully. Let’s cross our freakin’ fingers.
Part of that work — as we should all know — is to not demonize these guys. Elon has to be their friends, has to support them, has to sweet talk them. Any of us can take a super cynical take on what Elon is doing and his own morals. But let’s be frank — antagonism is not going to work with Trump and his crew. “Friendship” might. Elon has hinted in recent days that he was ready to walk away from collaboration with Trump and his team if progress seemed doomed, and then he chimed in again to indicate he still had some hope and was still pushing climate morality.
In the end, though, even if he determines that he’s getting nowhere with these guys, I don’t think a theatrical or explicit opposition is how Elon Musk should proceed … not yet. I think it’s how common citizens should proceed for many deeper and longer-term reasons that I won’t dive into here, but I think Elon’s most useful approach (for all of us, for human society) is to remain as friendly as possible. As some of our commenters noted in a discussion on this recent article, the age-old advice is: “keep your friends near … keep your enemies closer.” Relinquishing any potential influence he has — whether that relates to items on the table this week or in 3 years — would be irresponsible, in my humble opinion.
I do think Elon should have been more vocal in the campaign season — but I feel the same about myself and millions of other people. Down the road, it may be advisable for Elon to very strongly and vocally combat Trump. But not today. Today, his best hope, and our best hope, is for at least one cleantech leader to become a Trump ally. And what better cleantech billionaire would that be than Elon Musk?
As one final comment, I’d like to remind people of Elon Musk’s historical “hero” status, and also his own love for epic stories (books, movies, and video games) and the moral quests of some of our most famous fictional and nonfictional heroes. Elon’s companies have all been on the brink of collapse. He has barely, barely, barely survived — both literally and figuratively — in the past. He knows well enough that it is sometimes that last effort, that final stretch, that point where you risk everything, that leads to success. In this case, we’re pretty freakin’ deep in shit — some days it feels like we’re on or headed to one of Dante’s lower realms of inferno. But that’s all the more reason to look for a slight shimmer of opportunity and start climbing back up. Elon could be our last hope yet again. He’s used to being in that position. So let’s give him a little breathing room to try to work some magic on the insane clown posse that is now running the “United States” of America.
After all, maybe what Trump really needs is just a little hope.
Then so be it. I'd rather do what I believe is right, than do what appears right simply to avoid criticism.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2017
Elon Musk & Kanye West photo source unknown,
Elon Musk in sunglasses photo by Steve Jurvetson (some rights reserved).
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