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A look at Elon Musk and what he represents

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Twitter has put what's known as a poison pill provision into place in order to block Elon Musk's potential takeover of the company. As a reminder, last week Musk offered to buy Twitter for $43 billion, saying he would promote more free speech on the platform. So who is Elon Musk? He's the richest person on the planet, the man behind Tesla, SpaceX and quite a bit of controversy. He's more than a celebrity. He's arguably the author and avatar of a new political economy. That is how Harvard historian Jill Lepore explains his significance in her podcast series, "The Evening Rocket." And she joins me now to talk about the billionaire CEO. Welcome.

JILL LEPORE: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

ESTRIN: So your podcast isn't only focused on Elon Musk, the man. You also look at what he represents, and you call it Muskism. So what is Muskism?

LEPORE: (Laughter) I think of it as sort of an extreme, extravagant form of capitalism - really, extraterrestrial capitalism. X is Musk's favorite letter of the alphabet, as it is of many science fiction fans. So X capitalism seems somehow also to fit.

ESTRIN: How do you define extreme capitalism?

LEPORE: I think it's a kind of unchecked capitalism that insists that the government really has no role in the regulation of economic activity at the practical level. I think at the cultural level, it really is engaged with selling the public on the idea of futurism as a way to impose economic conditions that come from the very deep past.

I think of Muskism and its vision for, you know, colonizing Mars as dating from the age of imperialism, when British imperialists were colonizing countries around the world and science fiction writers like H.G. Wells were indicting British imperialism by telling stories about space colonies and how wrong that would be to take other people's land and enslave the people there. And for Musk, somehow you can resurrect those stories in order to justify colonization. So Muskism always has within it - this extreme capitalism always has within it almost a kind of ironic twist. Like, you think this is bad. We're going to go back to when things were worse.

ESTRIN: Well, he is a big science fiction fan - you talk about that on your podcast - an early fascination with sci fi like "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy." So how does his love of sci fi translate into his vision of the future of technology?

LEPORE: As a historian, one of the things I find so fascinating about Musk and Muskism is how much of the sort of fantasy of invention, especially disruptive innovation - remember that buzzword from the '90s - boasts itself as part of a culture of futurism, right? Everything's forward-looking and an abandonment of the past - in fact, a disavowal of the past - right? - because you really have to sort of always be starting from scratch.

But so much of what the culture of Silicon Valley produces has its origins in science fiction, as I think a lot of those people would themselves recognize. But what they wouldn't see is that the origins in science fiction is actually an origins in dystopian science fiction. So what a lot of people like Musk and others celebrate as their great futurism is - for one thing, really has tremendously important origins in the past. And for another, what they celebrate as often utopian is - has origins in dystopianism.

ESTRIN: I mean, he's even been called a real-life Tony Stark, you know, from the Marvel Universe. I mean, does he see himself that way, as a kind of almost - like a real-life science fiction character? Does that impact the way he interacts with public life?

LEPORE: I think there was a period in his life when he was really into being Iron Man and being Tony Stark, and the press loved that. And he was on the cover of every magazine as, you know, the Elon Musk, the real-life Tony Stark. He appeared in one of the "Iron Man" movies with Robert Downey Jr. So he has a kind of celebrity iconic status. I mean, he's the guy who was on "SNL," right? And it's part of the boyishness that Musketeers really love about him. He can be very funny. He can be very witty online. He's an extremely smart guy. And there's a playfulness around that. One of the things that's distinctive about Musk, in the sense that he's the best at this, is depicting your product as saving humanity. So even the Twitter bid, in Musk's language, is somehow about saving civilization.

ESTRIN: Well, let's get to the Twitter bid in a second. But I just want to speak seriously for a second because he has this large group of passionate fans - the Musketeers, as you call them. I mean, in my own family, just this weekend, a relative of mine - we were speaking about models of leadership and what leaders we admire. And my cousin mentioned Elon Musk. And, you know, I have another cousin in Ukraine who, out of the blue, said to me, I thank Elon Musk for helping provide Starlink, you know, internet access in Ukraine during the war. So what is it about him that you think fascinates people so much and makes them buy into that vision of almost saving humanity?

LEPORE: Well, I think Musk presents himself that way. He presents himself as a messiah. I think that Musk especially appeals - at least to people who are really kind of geeking out in engineering - as someone who is daring and courageous, maybe a little reckless. And, you know, you can say, that's not rocket science, about a lot of things. But Elon Musk is doing rocket science, you know?

ESTRIN: Yeah.

LEPORE: His company is doing rocket science. The great good that Tesla is doing in terms of driving the revolution to move from fossil fuel-powered cars to electric vehicles you - know, this is a tangible, huge thing. So I think the Musketeers are quite forgiving of all the many ideas, broken promises, extraordinary hype, self-love, self-obsession. I think it's given a big pass by other people who have that desire to be on Twitter all the time. I mean, I think since Trump's removal from Twitter, Musk, who had been on Twitter for a long time with large numbers of followers, kind of really became that kind of love-hate Twitter account.

ESTRIN: So let's talk about Elon Musk on Twitter and wanting to own Twitter. He wants Twitter to be more like a public town square. He often tweets about his political views, but it's very hard to pinpoint where exactly he is politically. He's called COVID-19 lockdowns fascist, but he has also resigned from former President Trump's business councils after the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris climate accord. So what do you think? Based on what you've learned about him, what do you think he'd want to do with Twitter if he bought it?

LEPORE: So I think Musk's politics are elusive for a reason. To try to deduce what Musk is looking for and attempting to buy Twitter, you'd be well-advised to look for evidence of other public-spirited activity. I mean, what he would say and has said he needs to take over Twitter in order to save civilization, which is what all the science fiction heroes want to do.

But where is the evidence that Musk has ever really been interested in democratic discourse? He routinely trolls people online. He's had an often adversarial relationship to the free press. He doesn't think that someone as wealthy as he is should have to pay taxes. He goes after people who go after him. As you say, during the pandemic, you know, he tweeted, free America now, and described the lockdown and various shutdowns as fascist. There's just really not a whole lot of evidence that his big priority is healthy, democratic society.

ESTRIN: Perfect time to delve into Elon Musk in a podcast. Jill Lepore, thank you so much.

LEPORE: Thank you.

ESTRIN: Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian and host of the podcast "Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket."

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "I DANCE ALONE (LIGHT ON LIGHT MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.