The Harpy

Elon Musk and the Cult of the Celebrity Savior

‘Musk’s gesture to help Flint suits his flair for showmanship; it typifies his attitude toward public action’


On Wednesday, Elon Musk — celebrity tech genius, aspiring space mogul, and Tesla chief — made a dramatic announcement: He was going to help the people of Flint, Michigan.

It was an unexpected development in an ongoing crisis; two and a half years have passed since the initial declaration of a state of emergency in Flint, in January of 2016. In April, Michigan ended a program distributing free bottled water to the city’s residents, though by the end of June, only 37 percent of the lead pipes in the city had been replaced.

Musk’s concrete plan remains unclear, though he added that he would organize a weekend in Flint to “add filters to those houses with issues.” The proposal rapidly rang up likes, and replies oozing with admiration, including one Twitter fan who expressed concern that Musk was letting his humanitarian impulses interfere with the work of creating very expensive electric cars. “You’re the most influential person on earth right now and you’re already working on some of the most challenging problems facing mankind. If you don’t stay focused, it will take you longer to achieve,” the fan remonstrated

Elon Musk’s adoring fans — who flock to his Tweets in the hundreds, laud his successes, and even write erotica about him — typify a deeply American idolization of the wealthy. His direct engagement of fans and foes alike gives him an outsize footprint online, even for a much-lauded Silicon Valley billionaire, and fans have responded in kind. Musk devotees savage his detractors, portraying him as a savior, someone on the verge of changing humanity’s future. An individual who has made good — even if the foundation for his fortune came from his father’s emerald mines in Zambia — can do little wrong. Musk’s fans (Muskrats? Elon Rangers?) seem to identify so strongly with him that they want to become him: In their ordinary lives, they are, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, merely temporarily embarrassed billionaires. 

Musk’s instincts as a showman help cultivate this slavish following. His announcement about Flint marked the second time in a week Musk had stepped in to a well-publicized crisis with the goal of playing savior. Five days ago, as the world fixed its eyes on twelve boys trapped in a cave complex in Thailand, Musk began ideating to his 22 million Twitter followers about ways he could contribute. “Maybe worth trying: insert a 1m diameter nylon tube (or shorter set of tubes for most difficult sections) through cave network & inflate with air like a bouncy castle,” he wrote on Twitter.

As rescue efforts got under way, Musk was working on a small submarine, designed for underwater rescue. On Twitter, he posted brief videos of a child-size, torpedo-like tube, dragged by divers through the crystal waters of a Los Angeles pool. Meanwhile, skilled divers from the Thai navy rescued all twelve boys. Perhaps it was a newly ignited messiah complex — or just a simple taunt — that led to Musk’s new overture to Flint residents. His initial pledge was in response to a simple challenge: “Hey @elonmusk I heard a bunch of people saying there’s NO WAY you could help get clean water to Flint, Michigan,” wrote twitter user @DylanSheaMusic. With his boy-size submarine marooned in Southeast Asian waters, the billionaire had found a new puzzle to solve, closer at hand.

It seems more fitting that Musk would be able to enact his desire to rescue desperate people in America. We’re a nation that perhaps uniquely relies on infusions of cash from strangers to meet our basic needs. Americans without health insurance, or health insurance inadequate to meet their medical expenses, routinely turn to crowdfunding sites to appeal for cash. Between 2010 and 2016, $930 million was raised on for medical campaigns — nearly half the entire amount raised on the site during that period. In the wealthiest country in the world, hundreds of thousands of citizens hope for haphazard, unpredictable public philanthropy to provide them with blood, breath, and water.

Others have appealed directly to celebrities to deal with financial troubles — including those who number among the 44 million Americans who hold a collective $1.4 trillion in student debt. The rapper Nicki Minaj has paid off thousands of dollars in student loans owed by fans who have appealed to her directly on Twitter. Taylor Swift sent a check for $1,989 to help pay off a fan’s student debt shortly after the release of her album 1989.

In this context, the concept of a big-hearted celebrity publicly stepping in where the government has failed seems almost ordinary. There’s a rich seam of tradition when it comes to the wealthy laundering their mixed reputations via good deeds in this country — from Andrew Carnegie papering over his bloody union-busting past with a spate of sponsored libraries, to prodigiously corrupt political operative Boss Tweed distracting New Yorkers by handing out extra coal and Thanksgiving turkeys. Musk’s gesture to help Flint suits his flair for spectacle; it typifies his attitude toward public action, providing a direct gift to both an adoring public and media outlets, who rushed to cover the statement. Jeff Bezos, the famously parsimonious founder of Amazon, tried out a more muted version of direct-to-consumer philanthropy when he asked for Twitter’s input last year in how to direct his vast fortune toward the public good. His request received nearly 60,000 comments, which boosted everything from tech education for women to voter-registration drives to multiple requests for universal healthcare.

But a society run on the benevolence of celebrities — or even the earnest helpfulness of strangers on the Internet — is a society in a state of permanent precariousness. The distribution of public goodwill is an economy not of labor but of attention. Personal fundraisers are ubiquitous on social — for rent, for debt, for hospital stays. A scroll through GoFundMe’s page for leukemia fundraisers is a heart-wrenching endeavor: hundreds of children in hospital gowns, women with shadowed eyes and patchy hair, men holding dogs and smiling wanly, seeking thousands of dollars from strangers. Of course, these are only a fraction of America’s cancer patients, but in a fractured and inadequate healthcare system — in which American cancer patients spend far more and have a higher mortality rate than their European counterparts — the rise of online medical appeals is striking.

Of the quarter-million medical campaigns on GoFundMe each year, which will raise hundreds of thousands, and which will raise none? In 2017, a diabetic artist named Shane Patrick Boyle died alone in Arkansas after coming up $50 short on a crowdfunding campaign for a month’s worth of insulin. In an attention economy, who will live and who will die is at least partly determined by how attractive or tragic they look in a single picture

I do not mean to denigrate the power of public philanthropy. The rush of goodwill on social media toward worthy causes can be phenomenally inspiring; it can transform the lives of cancer patients, desperate parents, and victims of violence. But crowdfunding medical expenses has real and obvious limits. Life and death, debt and homelessness are questions too big to be left to the curious, alchemical happenstance of going viral — or the lucky chance of catching a wealthy savior’s eye.

In a country which fails to meet its citizens’ basic needs, the public purse is afflicted with a perennial parsimony, opening swiftly to fund war, but hesitating over the alleviation of pain. The “American dream” is one of hard and unrelenting work to make good; its dark converse is the ubiquitous American idea that those who haven’t made good, who struggle, who suffer, who need, simply haven’t worked hard enough. Against all evidence, many Americans believe that hard work is all that’s required to attain stratospheric wealth, a fortune the size of Elon Musk’s.

It’s far too early to judge Musk’s efforts in Flint. They may achieve wild success in a single weekend where the government of Michigan has failed; they may be a flash in the pan, or an unrealized dream, like his plan for a Mars colony. At the outset, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to replace the remaining 63 percent of the city’s lead pipes, a complex, expensive, multi-year process, or to painstakingly rebuild residents’ trust in water that poisoned them for months before the government copped to its contamination. What seems certain is that it should not take the intervention of a billionaire for Americans to have clean water. It should not take deft Twitter skills or soft-focus photos to be able to pay for cancer surgery, or take until retirement to pay off the cost of a college education. It seems to me it is past time to create a political system that doesn’t leave our lives and deaths to luck. That is the potent, secret promise of sweeping social policies like Medicare for All, free public college, and a universal jobs guarantee: It doesn’t have to be this hard, this desperate. Perhaps it’s time for all of us “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and real millionaires, and billionaires, too — to see each other as worth investing permanently in.