Is America's infatuation with billionaires finally coming to an end?

Between Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Holmes, who still believes that money = brains?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 25, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

Trump advisor Steve Bannon (L) watches as US President Donald Trump greets Elon Musk, SpaceX and Tesla CEO, before a policy and strategy forum with executives in the State Dining Room of the White House February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Trump advisor Steve Bannon (L) watches as US President Donald Trump greets Elon Musk, SpaceX and Tesla CEO, before a policy and strategy forum with executives in the State Dining Room of the White House February 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

It has long been evident that Elon Musk is a moron, at least to those willing to see it. Well before the Tesla CEO overpaid for Twitter in the throes of a tantrum, there was a chorus of mostly-ignored people pointing out, repeatedly, that Musk's mental maturity appeared to have stagnated around the sixth grade. There was the time he rolled out a "ingenious" idea for tunnel-based transportation, only to have people point out that the subway has been around for over a century. Or the time he tried to push a useless and overly complicated plan to rescue a group of Thai children trapped in a cave. Or the time shortly after that when, still angry at being dismissed, he falsely accused the man who actually did save the children of being a pedophile. Or the time he acted like such an idiot on Joe Rogan's podcast that Tesla stock took a dive. Or the time he named his actual child X Æ A-12

There are infinitely more examples. (His childish feud with rapper Azealia Banks is a personal favorite.) Yet somehow, no matter how often Musk has shown his ass in public, the damage to his reputation was fleeting. The business and tech press would be startled at his dumb behavior, but within 48 to 72 hours, it was all forgotten and Musk went back to being covered as if he were a genius, if perhaps an eccentric one. 

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Such is the power of the American mythology of the billionaire. The infatuation with our richest capitalists is related to, but in many ways goes even beyond, the illusion that the U.S. is a meritocracy. The notion that to be very rich must also mean you're brilliant permeates our society, justifying both ridiculously low taxes on the wealthiest Americans and the undue influence they exert over our political system. It's a social fiction that dates back to the Gilded Age and has covered up the intellectual deficits of many famous Americans. (Henry Ford comes to mind.) But it's gotten a lot more juice in the past few decades, as the new class of tech billionaires, starting with Bill Gates of Microsoft and Steve Jobs of Apple, forged the image of the singular mastermind who, with little education and limited resources, remakes the world through the sheer power of their intelligence. 

This presumption that wealth equals brains has so permeated our society that it's sometimes hard to see how pervasive it is. But the past couple of years — and indeed, just the past couple of months — have really done a number on the belief that having a fat bank account somehow inoculates one from being a dumbass. Watching Musk lay waste to Twitter, for no discernible reason beyond his desire to impress the biggest losers on the internet, has been a wake-up call. It's hard to imagine there will be the same mass forgetting of who Musk really is that we saw after all his previous public face-plants. 

But it's not just Musk. The same process is unfolding for the single person who has benefited more than any other from the myth that money means you're smart: Donald Trump. 

For those of us who always thought Trump was a dingleberry, it may not seem readily apparent how much he's really gotten a boost from the widespread assumption that wealth comes attached to inherent smarts. Trump coasted on this for decades. The entire premise of his reality show, "The Apprentice," was that he was some kind of business savant. As with Musk, Trump's gross and idiotic behavior — such as pushing the "birther" conspiracy theory about Barack Obama — was largely shrugged off as quirkiness instead of idiocy. 

In 2016, a distressingly large number of people were able to tell themselves that it was OK to vote for Trump because his wealth must mean he's smarter than he seems. When I went to the Republican National Convention in 2016, one delegate after another insisted to me that there must be an ocean of intelligence under that dimwitted exterior, and pointed to his real estate empire as proof. Years later, it became clear that his wealth had been handed to him by others, and his principal accomplishment was to piss most of it away.

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That was on top of a record of public tomfoolery that reached its zenith when he publicly suggested that doctors had overlooked the possibility that injecting bleach into the human body might cure COVID-19. In true Dunning-Kruger fashion, Trump then congratulated himself on knowing more than the entire medical establishment, due to this insight.

Trump lost the 2020 election for a number of reasons, but we can't overlook the strong possibility that four years of his outbursts disabused some number of his 2016 voters of the claims about his supposedly superior mental acumen. Yet the notion that Trump is a political sage underneath the braying boob exterior continues to have a remarkable hold on the GOP imagination. The expectation that the 2022 midterms would be a "red tsunami" was based in large part on the confidence that the gallery of QAnoners, snake oil salesmen and bumbleheads endorsed by Trump had also been anointed with some secret sauce that only he, in his infinite wisdom, could perceive or understand. Those candidates ended up losing by an average of about five percentage points more than other Republicans not cursed with Trump's blessing. Now the GOP establishment is struggling with the same doubts creeping into the tech press around Musk: Is it possible this guy's success was more about luck and privilege than savvy?

(To be clear, I don't think Trump's a total imbecile. He's a skillful criminal with a certain low cunning. He's just bad at all the things his defenders wanted to believe he was good at: Business, governance, literacy.) 

Two examples, even as big as these, do not a trend make. But there's another big sign that the American faith in the galaxy-level intelligence of our wealthiest people is being rattled: the dawning realization that many people have exploited this mythology for the purposes of plain old fraud. 

Just this past couple of weeks, we've seen both former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years in prison and the total career implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried, former CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. In both cases, it should have been obvious that what they were selling to investors was pure nonsense. Holmes' alleged blood-test technology showed multiple signs of being a smoke-and-mirrors job, and numerous sensible people have been calling cryptocurrency a scam from the very beginning. However you slice it, a heavy dose of skepticism was warranted in both cases. 

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But both Holmes and Bankman-Fried managed to quash other people's doubts by leveraging the cult of the billionaire genius. Both expertly played to stereotypes to bamboozle investors. Holmes literally modeled her look and demeanor after Steve Jobs, which was such a weird thing to do that it only reinforced her image as a quirky brainiac. Bankman-Fried hyped himself as a relentless workaholic who slept at the office. Both images are meant to suggest a person too focused on changing the world to care about personal appearance. In reality, these personas were as carefully cultivated as Kim Kardashian's, and they were highly effective in convincing gullible people to part with their money.

Now that these two have been exposed, however, a lot more people are asking hard questions about whether the "grind culture" of Silicon Valley is a farce, akin to the illusion of Trump's business acuity built in the editing bay of "The Apprentice." Holmes and Bankman-Fried might have be written off as outliers a few years ago. But right now there's a growing sense that so much of self-congratulatory tech culture is just a digital version of the Wizard of Oz, especially as another crypto crash seems to happen every couple of weeks. Even Gates and Jobs, who were unquestionably brilliant at developing and marketing innovative computer technology, have lost a little of their luster. Jobs, of course, died of cancer after convincing himself that he knew better than doctors how to treat it. Gates, meanwhile, blew up his marriage by acting like a garden variety jackass. Even genuinely smart people can be stupid sometimes. More importantly, a bunch of people who have tricked everyone into thinking that they're geniuses are finally being revealed as the imposters they always were. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Analysis Billionaires Donald Trump Elizabeth Holmes Elon Musk Inequality Sam Bankman-fried Twitter