Of course it was going to be Elon Musk. This week, the Tesla chief executive thrust himself to the forefront of America’s anti-lockdown movement by threatening to “immediately” relocate the electric car group’s California headquarters to Texas or Nevada; filing a lawsuit; and then restarting production at the company’s Fremont plant in defiance of authorities.
Mr Musk may be one of the world’s loudest clean energy advocates, having almost single-handedly jump-started the market for electric cars. But he has long displayed the same hatred of being told what to do that fuels the gun-toting protesters who stormed Michigan’s state house to protest anti-coronavirus measures.
Mr Musk has repeatedly tangled with US securities regulators about what he can and cannot tweet about his publicly traded company. His 2016 decision to have Tesla acquire a lossmaking solar energy company that he helped start was roundly criticised. And he embroiled himself in a defamation lawsuit with an online verbal assault on a British diver who had accused Mr Musk of grandstanding during the 2018 rescue of 12 boys trapped a Thailand cave. Mr Musk eventually prevailed in the case.
This time, Mr Musk’s stand-off with California bureaucrats, which included a taunt to arrest him if they so dared, was largely theatrical. By the time he threatened to leave the state, local officials had already said he could probably reopen the factory the following week, with new safety precautions in place. But it also won him new fans in America’s heartland and the White House. US president Donald Trump tweeted that “California should let Musk open the plant, NOW”. Alex Epstein, a critic of electric cars and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, says “Tesla now stands for freedom, versus just ‘green’”.
Mr Musk’s stand-off is a deliberate, brilliant marketing ploy, argues Mario Herger, an electric vehicle advocate and author. Tesla is looking for a production site for the Cybertruck, its Blade Runner-inspired answer to the Ford F-150, America’s best-selling vehicle for the past 38 years.
“With the cars he’s building now, and the Cybertruck, they aren’t aiming any more at the Silicon Valley freaks and geeks, they are aiming at the regular Joe, the red necks, the country boys, the contractors. Moving a factory to Texas brings them closer to this audience,” Mr Herger says.
Mr Musk may also have had sound financial reasons to act out. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel estimates that Tesla is foregoing upwards of $500m in revenues a week amid the shutdown, money that a company that has never had a profitable year can ill-afford to forego.
Scott Painter, founder of Fair, a car-subscription service, says Mr Musk’s approach has not changed. “There’s no politics behind it at all. This is pragmatism and survival,” he says, describing his friend of nearly two decades as a “very libertarian, free-market type” who has “never wavered on that stuff”.
The South African-born entrepreneur, aged 48, has been railing against the pandemic response for months, tweeting in early March, that “the coronavirus panic is dumb” and predicting that new cases in the US would fall to “close to zero” by late April. He also called shelter-in-place policies “fascist” on a Tesla earnings call in late April.
Mr Musk attended university in both Canada and the US before dropping out of graduate school at Stanford after only a few days. He made his first fortune as one of the founders of PayPal, the payments company, and then launched both SpaceX, his rocket company, and Tesla in the early 2000s. His other ventures include a high speed transport company, Hyperloop, and Neuralink, which seeks to integrate artificial intelligence with the human brain.
His dogged persistence, soaring visions and confrontational nature have won him legions of fans — and rabid detractors. “Often, in personalities this gifted, there is an offsetting, manifest, almost incomprehensible eccentricity and willingness to defy convention,” says Bob Lutz, a former GM executive who worked with him on a documentary. “Musk will fight anyone, or any institution, regardless of size or power, or political orientation, if he perceives a real threat to the company’s viability.”
Back in 2014, when SpaceX was being denied government contracts to launch military satellites, Mr Musk sued the US Air Force. “Nobody sues the Air Force if they’re trying to get them as a customer,” says Ashlee Vance, Mr Musk’s biographer. “But it actually worked . . . Now it flies tonnes of military satellites.”
Mr Musk flouts convention in almost every way. Divorced three times from two women, he now dates Canadian singer Grimes, 32, who recently gave birth to a baby boy. They say his name, X Æ A-12, combines “the unknown variable”, the elven spelling of artificial intelligence, and an aircraft commissioned by the CIA.
It is testimony to his extraordinary range that the lockdown feud may not even be the defining episode this month for the self-made billionaire. On May 27, two astronauts will board a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station — the first time a private company will send humans into orbit and the first time in almost a decade a crewed mission will depart from US soil.
It could be one of his most “heroic weeks”, says Mr Vance. “What is a more American dream than some South African immigrant coming here and picking up rockets mid-career and getting humans back into space for America?”