It all feels dishearteningly familiar. A leading figure on the national stage occupies a position where we have to take him seriously, and yet behaves in a way that makes it almost impossible. And all the while, that very dynamic—edgy provocateur versus indignant establishment—only serves to further elevate that figure in the eyes of his admirers.
Of course, Elon Musk and Donald Trump are not the same. For one thing, the Tesla CEO is a whole lot richer, commanding a fortune comparable to many national budgets. Musk seems to share much of the former president’s disdain for government, but seems disinterested in politics. Instead, he’s contenting himself with off-color jokes about Democratic senators impudent enough to demand he pull his weight in taxes—par for the course for a Twitter-happy meme lord who now happens to be the richest person on the planet.
If we do take Musk seriously—and maybe we shouldn’t—his preferred way of serving humanity is clearly his business. And his long-term plans for his enormous fortune are clear. Musk may be the Earth’s wealthiest man, but his ultimate ambitions are extraterrestrial: to “preserve the light of consciousness” by leaving Earth and colonizing other planets.
Setting aside what a line like that says about the self-importance of the man who keeps invoking it, there is something philanthropic there, if you want to call it that. However much Musk loves himself, he’ll have us believe that he loves humankind enough to want to save us from whatever unnamed disaster threatens to wipe out sentient life on Earth. But space colonization being a costly affair, Musk seems to think that the best way to achieve that goal, naturally, is to amass as much money as possible. Taxes, government regulation, even Earth-bound giving—distractions that mostly just get in the way.
The main problem with Elon Musk’s attitude toward philanthropy, and taxes for that matter, is that he seems to think he’s above it all. Unlike Bezos or Gates or Zuckerberg, Musk has been allowed to believe he’s a unique genius whose business ventures are truly saving the world. It’s a notion that many tech leaders once leaned on to justify their questionable actions, but over the years, public disenchantment and congressional hearings have forced them to abandon the persona. Except for Elon Musk. Having internalized that identity, enabled by a militant online fandom (not to mention on-the-nose cultural references and off-the-cuff remarks by fellow tycoons), Musk seems unlikely to drop his opposition to tax-related demands from meddlesome politicians anytime soon.
What’s less certain is how Musk’s giving will evolve, and whether he will ever actually take the endeavor seriously. For a person with nearly $300 billion to his name, Musk’s actual philanthropic record is insubstantial. His Musk Foundation has made grants in fields like education, environment and scientific research, but its comically sparse website seems almost like a deliberate dig on the elaborate thought leadership adorning big foundation websites. It also telegraphs something along the lines of “Elon doesn’t really care about this.”
And although Musk did roll out a $100 million carbon capture technology competition earlier this year, nothing much seems to be happening on that front. Compare that to the giving of Musk’s chief rival Amazon Executive Chairman Jeff Bezos, who’s formalizing his large-scale philanthropy at long last through vehicles like the Bezos Earth Fund and the Day One Fund.
Still, even as Bezos’ giving gets more organized, the charitable commitments of the world’s two richest men still feel rather reactive and arbitrary. Musk’s certainly read that way—like a $50 million donation to St. Jude associated with a SpaceX mission in September, no doubt meant to buy some good PR for that particular foray in the billionaire space race.
In philanthropy as in business, competitiveness seems to be Musk’s operative principle. Take his Twitter spat with World Food Programme Director David Beasley. That was likely more trolling from Musk, a way to score points against Beasley (because the internet) by ridiculing the WFP director’s claim that $6.6 billion from Musk would save 42 million people from starvation, which was misinterpreted along the way as “solving world hunger.” If some kind of gift does result from that interaction, unlikely as it seems, call it philanthropy by trolling.
Especially now that he’s offloading billions worth of Tesla stock, Musk’s future as a philanthropist is generating a lot of buzz. And although he may see charitable giving as a secondary concern, there’s little doubt we’ll see some kind of ramp-up in the months and years ahead.
The question is what form that giving will take, and to what degree these grade-school Twitter shenanigans will continue to influence it. Having ascended to a historic level of wealth in just a few years, Musk seems poised to join the ranks of the new “apex givers” who are dramatically reshaping the sector, disbursing vast amounts of cash in idiosyncratic and unorthodox ways. As more and more of these figures enter the scene—MacKenzie Scott, Jack Dorsey, even Bill Gates as an older example—philanthropy is getting a lot weirder. Musk being Musk, if he does get into big-time giving, it won’t look like anything we’ve seen before. Maybe we’ll even get philanthropy by Twitter poll.
His odd behavior makes it tempting to view Musk as the radical disruptor he no doubt believes he is. But scratch the surface, and it’s clear that he and his peers are playing a very old game. Much of the mythos around these new philanthropic titans is just that: mythologizing built on awe around the magnitude of their wealth. In Musk’s case, the mythos is so thick that it’s obscuring how conventional he really is.
While Musk may be engaged in some boundary-pushing work through Tesla and SpaceX, his politics and philanthropy (so far) aren’t really all that avant-garde. He’s a billionaire who opposes taxing the very rich: nothing new there. He’s still busy with business pursuits and philanthropic giving hasn’t been his main focus: also nothing new. And what giving he has done pales next to his expanding fortune, putting Musk in the company of most of his Forbes 400 peers who’ve engaged in minimal giving relative to their net worths. And his sparse philanthropic announcements often seem motivated by a need to respond to public backlash, which is perhaps the oldest story in the history of the philanthropy of the ultra-wealthy.
Even the whole bizarre WFP drama is just another example of that all-too-familiar dynamic: a donor asking a potential grantee to prove their worthiness. (The U.N. has since prepared a more detailed plan to satisfy Musk’s impromptu RFP.)
What does distinguish Elon Musk, aside from his loyal fan base itself, is the primary way he holds onto that fan base. That is, by broadcasting half-baked thoughts and bad jokes in real time for everyone to see. Those convinced of his genius take it as manna from heaven, but for the rest of us, there’s some schadenfreude in the fact that someone who could have easily set himself up as a transcendent, godlike figure spends so much of his time arguing with people online. One wonders what Rockefeller or Carnegie would think. Maybe they’d be tweeting themselves.