To infinity and beyond.

Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Trump and Musk Are Birds of a Feather

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

Those who like Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk probably don't care for Donald Trump. The stylistic difference between them makes for great satire. And yet the two billionaires have a lot in common, and together, they define an American ideal of 2016.

Musk is a scientist and science enthusiast, a proponent of a clean, futuristic, high-tech style that characterizes Tesla cars. Trump is everything but scientific, and his tastes run to the gold-heavy Empire style. Musk seeks inspiration in the future (he'd like to die on Mars after it has been colonized). Trump evokes a past American greatness to get his audiences fired up. They are so outwardly different, in fact, that they could be compared to the Marvel comic book characters Iron Man Tony Stark, to whom Musk is often likened, and MODAAK, or "Mental Organism Designed as America's King," who closely resembles Trump. 

The two Wharton School of Business graduates have much in common, though.

Both are vain about their looks, and both like dressing stylishly (though their fashion sense isn't the  same -- perhaps understandably, as Trump is older).

Both are thin-skinned. Trump has routinely talked about his detractors in campaign speeches, and he always conveys a sense that criticism wounds him. Musk, too, appears to maintain a constant inner dialogue with his critics. The "master plan" for Tesla that Musk published this week even covered some of this ground:

Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people, implying that we felt there was a shortage of sports car companies or some other bizarre rationale. Unfortunately, the blog didn't stop countless attack articles on exactly these grounds, so it pretty much completely failed that objective.

Both Trump and Musk have been described as too emotional  and defensive in a crisis. Both are fierce polemicists, and both need to be thoroughly fact-checked, especially when they're using statistics. Trump's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention contained many stretches and hard-to-check claims. So did Musk's recent defense of Tesla's beta-stage autonomous driving technology after a driver died in an accident. Musk held that the technology was safer than human driving, but fact-checkers discovered that the statistics he cited were meaningless

Both are men of vision who fall back on the same platitudes when talking about the building blocks of their success. Here's Musk talking about working hard, never giving up and loving what you do, along with similar sentiments expressed by Trump. 

When it comes to articulating their grand plans, both Musk and Trump excel at describing an idyllic future, but not the means by which it will be reached. Musk's latest "master plan" talks about a world where the owners of self-driving Teslas cover their car payments by renting out their vehicles through mobility apps. There are lots of practical reasons why this may never work: for example, as my colleague Edward Niedermeyer pointed out, the typical driverless taxi of the future probably will be a much more utilitarian vehicle than a Tesla. Yet such details don't slow Musk when he's in his futuristic mode. 

Something similar is true of Trump. In the acceptance speech, he described an America that isn't just "great again" -- it's safe, it has "millions of new jobs and trillions in new wealth" and many fewer immigrants. He didn't dwell on what it would take to achieve this golden age.

Both Trump and Musk are idiosyncratic, risk-taking managers. One has done disastrous deals and used bankruptcy as a mundane business tool, the other has burned through money at alarming rates. Both have built personal brands based on showmanship as much as business achievement. 

Musk is no Trump fan. He has said he'd prefer it if the developer didn't get the Republican nomination, and he's tweeted that he doesn't support him. In that, the Tesla CEO doesn't deviate much from Silicon Valley orthodoxy, unlike fellow "Paypal mafia" member Peter Thiel, an open Trump backer who spoke at the convention. And yet both Trump and Musk belong to the same profoundly American type -- the showy, superbly confident, self-righteous, rule-disdaining, visionary and somewhat egocentric entrepreneur.

They are larger-than-life celebrity characters in a culture that looks up to such figures and rewards them with the benefit of the doubt. 

The heroization of courageous, risk-taking, overpromising business figures is probably as much of a reason for both men's success -- and for Trump's remarkable resilience despite a poorly-run campaign -- as Tesla's consumer qualities or the anger of middle-aged whites left behind by globalization. This is an integral part of America, and it won't go away if Trump loses or Tesla fails. New heroes will inevitably rise, and they'll be much like the old ones. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net