The cult of Elon Musk: Why do some of us worship billionaires?

Billionaires like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are no different than other billionaires... except they have cults

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 29, 2022 4:02PM (EDT)

Tesla Founder Elon Musk (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)
Tesla Founder Elon Musk (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

Less than 24 hours after agreeing to purchase Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk may have already broken the deal which allowed him to perform a hostile takeover of the social media company. Although one of the terms is that he may only tweet about the acquisition "so long as such tweets do not disparage the Company or any of its Representatives," he posted two tweets on Tuesday which parroted right-wing talking points that attacked specific employees.

Normally there would not be many individuals applauding a wealthy CEO who purchased a company and then immediately attacked vulnerable employees, almost certainly knowing that doing so would instigate mass harassment against said employees (which is exactly what happened). In normal contexts, such a person would be classified as nothing more than a bully. Then again, when you are a billionaire with a cult of personality, there will always be people who applaud your actions.

How does a billionaire like Musk come to attract a horde of ardent fans? Psychologists say that many of us fantasize about being billionaires, meaning that when they root for Musk, they're really rooting for what they perceive as a version of themselves — namely, as masters of the universe, "winners" in every sense that mainstream society deems worthy. In the process, they also reveal their own deep feelings of inadequacy.

RELATED: Susan Collins encourages Elon Musk to let Trump back on Twitter

"Most people aspire to a lifestyle that they're not willing to work for or that they can't afford," explained Dr. Tara Bieber, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her interview with Salon, she emphasized that she was speaking from a strictly scientific perspective; this was not a question of any individual's political beliefs. It was, instead, a manifestation of the same trends that has caused past billionaire equivalents to amass cults of personality alongside their dollars: automotive entrepreneur Henry Ford, business magnate Howard Hughes, and more recently Apple founder Steve Jobs. Each of them possessed an undeniable charisma that drew people to them, and each carefully cultivated a public image consistent with the aspirational values of their time.

And, unsurprisingly, they also checked the right demographic boxes to benefit from various forms of societal privilege. For one thing, they are almost always white. For another, they are almost always male.

"Some of the psychopathic traits are being very charming, being very persuasive, being fearless and ruthless."

"One immediate commonality that I see is that all of these famed, admired, and perhaps infamous business leaders are male, and the stories we tell about them reflect an admiration for prototypical male qualities," Karen M. Landay, PhD, Assistant Professor of Management at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, told Salon by email. Yet it is not the maleness that allows them to develop a billionaire cult of personality; that is only their foot through the door.

The next step is having psychopathic traits.

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"I don't want to comment on whether [Musk] is one or not, because he's not my patient," Bieber told Salon. "But some of the psychopathic traits are being very charming, being very persuasive, being fearless and ruthless." All of these qualities were attributes to people like Ford, Hughes, Jobs and Musk, and each one can work to the benefit of society — if channeled correctly.

"Basically the difference between what we would call a psychopath and people that we admire — a surgeon or a killer, a judge or a gangster — they may have some of the same characteristics, but are either at a different intelligence level or they're doing things that are actually unacceptable to society," Bieber explained. As Landay added, psychopathic tendencies consist of three personality traits: boldness, "such as interpersonal dominance"; lack of empathy and a tendency toward being mean; and disinhibition, "such as impulsivity."

"Essentially, individuals with psychopathic tendencies have the potential to be a much worse than average jerk, yet because of those very qualities, it's plausible that they might find great success in business organizations," Landay told Salon. These can be used to benefit humankind — or only to glorify the billionaire's own ego. In the case of Musk taking over Twitter, the exhilaration from his supporters seems to stem both from a belief that he will help right-wing causes and from the sense that Musk can say or do whatever he wants without consequences. It is a dream come true for them, albeit lived out by another man.

"They're being fed the messages from society that you should be rich," Bieber told Salon. "You should have a nice car. You should have a beautiful girlfriend. And so they look at him and he's got those things and they want to be like him."

Nor is that the only fantasy Musk is living out for these admirers.

"They're being fed the messages from society that you should be rich," Bieber told Salon. "You should have a nice car. You should have a beautiful girlfriend. And so they look at him and he's got those things and they want to be like him." Since they cannot actually acquire those things — and, if they try to create a poor facsimile in their own lives, will almost certainly know on some level that it is fraudulent — they respond in toxic ways.

"Unfortunately, I think it gives some people permission to behave badly, to say mean things on social media, to treat their family members badly," Bieber explained. Even though they are not Musk and will never be Musk, "they'll take the aspects of his behavior and personality that they can play out and they'll do those in their real life."

If it seems like there is a macho subtext to all of this glorification, that isn't a coincidence.

"Interestingly, my own research on psychopathic tendencies revealed that when men and women engage in similar behaviors indicative of psychopathic tendencies, while men are rewarded, women are punished," Landay told Salon. "That is, men displaying these bold, mean, disinhibited behaviors are more likely to become leaders and be viewed as effective leaders, whereas women displaying those same behaviors are less likely than men to become leaders and more likely to be viewed as ineffective leaders."

Emma Haslett of The New Statesman used a similar lens to analyze Musk's behavior in a November article, one that assessed how Musk has leveraged his cult of personality into a volatile asset for his business brand.

The answer lies, at least in part, in Musk and his unfiltered personality. The New York Times described him as "at once a capitalist hero, a glossy magazine celebrity and a bomb-throwing troll". His communiques – like the "Tits university" and its "epic merch" – have given him cult-like status. He has smoked weed on a podcast, he tweets whatever he wants (including unsubstantiated accusations of paedophilia), and in 2018 he caused outrage (and a drop in shares) when he bemoaned analysts' "boring, bonehead" questions. Traditional investors see him as dangerously volatile – but his followers regard him as relatable and refreshingly down-to-earth.

At the end of the day, the cult of Elon Musk can best be understood using the same lens that Musk himself seems to apply to his day-to-day life: self-interest.

"Those who benefit from Musk's behavior will celebrate it, whereas those who don't (or perceive some loss due to his behavior) will decry it," Landay wrote to Salon. "In the case of Musk's purchase of Twitter, because of events such as the infamous ban of Donald Trump, based on Musk's prior comments, people on the right of the political spectrum are likely expecting a benefit in the form of loosening those restrictions and possibly a return of Trump's famously erratic Twitter behavior. For people on the left of the political spectrum, Trump's ban has been a welcome reprieve, so with Musk's ownership of Twitter, they're likely expecting to lose that reprieve."

For more Salon articles on Elon Musk:


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Billionaires Elon Musk Henry Ford Howard Hughes John Hancock Reporting Steve Jobs Tesla Twitter