The longer they influence their chosen fields, the more difficult it is to ignore the obvious: Donald Trump and Elon Musk are two peas in a unique pod. Or at least they inhabit the same rarefied plane. One is just about all anybody can talk about in politics, and the other dominates the global conversation about business whenever he wants to—as in Wednesday’s conference call about Tesla.
Egomaniacal, strangely charismatic, uncommonly certain of their own rectitude, totally dismissive of critics, and weirdly devoted to Twitter as their main communications medium, both the U.S. president and the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX are driven by extraordinary goals—Musk of reinventing the auto industry on earth and then colonizing Mars, and Trump of making America “great again” and recasting our position in the world in his image.
But are these delusions of grandeur or just visions of the achievable? Each man has made more progress toward accomplishing his stated objectives than anyone would have thought possible when they started. Besides these similarities, there are other ways Musk and Trump are two sides of the same coin:
They are sui generis: There’s never been a president like Trump or even an accomplished American politician who approaches his eccentric behavior. And has there ever been an industrialist with the combination of the vision, passion, capability and radically disparate commercial pursuits of Musk?
They revel in dishing out verbal abuse: By now there’s no shock in Trump’s Oval Office name-calling of his enemies and of those he perceives as having gone Benedict Arnold on him. And as the difficulties of Tesla have mounted, Musk hasn’t been far behind in belittling those who would disagree with him. His most outrageous such instance was recklessly using the term “pedo” to describe a British diver involved in the Thailand cave rescue who happened to disagree that Musk and the technology he controls could be of any help in the situation.
“Neither Donald Trump nor Elon Musk enjoys anything more than hearing most people tell them they can’t pull it off.”
They seem to enjoy chaos, especially when they’ve caused it: Musk warned long ago that production of the Tesla Model 3 vehicle, initially envisioned as an affordable all-electric car with game-changing range at a mainstream price, was “production hell.” But for some reason recently he gave all sorts of journalists unprecedented access to him and his plant in Fremont, California, where they could painstakingly chronicle the chaos. For his part, President Trump likes to keep everyone off balance with zig-zagging tactics that remind everyone from Mitch McConnell to Kim Jong-Un that everything for him is about perceived leverage and a negotiating process.
They teeter on the brink of hubris: It could easily go terribly wrong for each man, and maybe even at the same time. If the House of Representatives goes Democratic in the mid-term elections, President Trump could be facing impeachment proceedings in early 2019, just about the time that Musk could be having to eat crow about his dreams for an EV that could just as easily be bringing up the rear at that point as leading the pack.
They want you to bet against them: And the mention of hubris brings us to this point: Neither Donald Trump nor Elon Musk enjoys anything more than hearing most people tell them they can’t pull it off. Musk built the most successful automotive startup in a half-century and figured out how to land reusable rockets on a dime after re-entry from space; Trump rose from a caricature candidate to the presidency. Whose odds were worse? Call it a draw.
They always pull their supporters back from the ledge. Three months ago, Musk blew up a Wall Street convention by not only getting cranky under intense questioning but by calling some analysts boneheads in a quarterly conference call. But in this week’s call, not only was Musk civil, but he also apologized to the analysts—and then gave investors material reason for hope that Tesla has finally turned the corner on that profitability thing. Succored or suckered, in any event his backers immediately boosted the stock skyward. As for Trump—he lives on the ledge, but his diehard supporters will never push him off.