Not long ago, Elon Musk’s name was mud in the American heartland because his upstart Tesla brand upended our crucial auto industry with capable and exciting all-electric vehicles and with his particular ability to mesmerize investors, competitors and the media.
But Musk might actually have done a favor for the domestic Big Three automakers whose factories, jobs, research centers and philanthropic endeavors are the lifeblood not only of Michigan but also of many communities across flyover country. His singular success not only in showing that EVs could work but also in making them a sort of bauble on wheels essentially forced General Motors, Ford and others to pivot to an electrified future for their own product lines long before they would have otherwise. And because they’ve gotten into the game after being showed up by Musk, they have a chance to prosper in it.
More lately, Musk has earned actual affection in the heartland. First there was his decision to build a pickup truck in Texas, where GM as well as Toyota also build big vehicles — just not electric ones, yet. Musk now wears cowboy hats. He builds and tests rockets in the Lone Star State as well.
And he moved Tesla headquarters pretty much lock, stock and barrel to Texas after battling with peevish authorities in Alameda County, California, over Covid restrictions at the Tesla plant there, which he called “fascist.”
Also, there’s no denying Musk works as hard as anyone in the nation’s midsection. Not only is he flying all over the world goosing his enterprises, he was known to sleep at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California, for nights on end a few years ago as his team was trying to hammer out early product-quality problems in Teslas. Musk is like the football coach who starts watching tape of Sunday afternoon’s loss on Sunday evening and doesn’t leave the office until Monday morning with a game plan for the next week.
Now Musk is earning more affection in the heartland for his latest gambit: purchasing Twitter for $44 billion, carrying coastal elites kicking and screaming into a bold new era for the censorious social giant.
Yes, Musk is still “out there.” He has said he wants to die on Mars. He’s been married three times and shows no sign of settling down, demonstrating the same sort of peripatetic behavior toward significant others that he does with his many groundbreaking business endeavors. His seven children by various of these women have names like Exa Dark Siderael and XAE A-XII.
At the same time, this genius who spouts principle at least brushed with nepotism in Tesla’s $2.6-billion bailout of SolarCity, a solar installer that was founded by two of his cousins.
Often in the past, Musk has spoken and acted too much like the zealous greenies on the coasts who elevate what they hope will be climate-change mitigation above all other considerations of life in the here and now as well as in the future. Musk quit one of President Trump’s early councils of CEOs, for example, after the administration pulled out of the toothless Paris climate accords.
And while the risk-taking attitude of the world’s richest man may know no personal bounds, Musk has been irresponsible to the point of heedlessness in hyping the autonomous-driving capabilities of early Tesla systems, even after trusting such capabilities seemed to have cost at least a couple of drivers their lives.
So it’s true: Musk is not your sober bank president from Grand Forks or even capably multitasking daycare operator in Ann Arbor. But he’s starting to make the kind of sense that we’re used to in flyover country.
And compared with a few years ago, when even with the world’s largest kitty Musk seemed at risk of becoming yet another billionaire coopted by the coasts, he’s showing every sign of being comfortable as a denizen of the open spaces of the heartland.