With Elon Musk, does the good outweigh the bad?

What made Musk successful in business—chasing the most extreme ideas to solve a problem—can make him polarizing when addressing some of society’s most contentious topics, such as immigration and race. (File Photo: AFP)
What made Musk successful in business—chasing the most extreme ideas to solve a problem—can make him polarizing when addressing some of society’s most contentious topics, such as immigration and race. (File Photo: AFP)

Summary

Call it the duality of Musk: The actions of the billionaire entrepreneur both inspire and dismay.

On any given day, Elon Musk might be the hero or the villain.

Call it the duality of Musk—part of the reason he confounds both supporters and critics alike with achievements that amaze and comments that appall.

That duality has been on display again as he attempts—in his own way—to solve some of the hardest problems around: enabling people who are paralyzed and curbing illegal immigration.

First, the hero moment more than a week ago: Musk’s brain-computer company Neuralink gave a generation of disabled people new hope that they might one day walk, gain sight or live a more able life after the startup released details about its first test subject.

In a video, Neuralink showed a 29-year-old quadriplegic man who had received a brain implant this year using his thoughts to move a cursor around a screen to play chess.

“I can’t express enough how awesome all of y’all are and how much this is going to change the world," Noland Arbaugh, who was paralyzed in a diving accident, told employees at Neuralink in a separate video streamed March 22 on X.

When it comes to trying to solve paralysis or blindness, for Musk, it boils down to physics. “It’s just become really clear that our brain is really a computer…that corresponds to electrical signals," Musk said recently at a conference in San Francisco.

Arbaugh’s implant was an example of what makes Musk a hero to so many. At the core, Musk was offering hope by tackling one of the hardest problems around and showing some success.

That powerful emotion has been at the root of his businesses for years, fueling investor and customer enthusiasm for his ventures that once seemed both wildly idealistic and likely unsuccessful—whether it was electric cars at Tesla or reusable space rockets at SpaceX.

Yet, today, Tesla stands as the electric car company to beat, and SpaceX has become essential to the U.S. space program.

His record has made him a force in the recruiting wars for artificial intelligence talent with his startup xAI. Aravind Srinivas, the chief executive of Perplexity AI, lamented this in an interview with the Verge, describing conversations he has had with prospective recruits as they weigh competing offers. “You should consider us approximately in the same ballpark" as xAI’s valuation, he said he would tell them. “But then they say, ‘No, Elon Musk is different.’ "

A hallmark of Musk’s management style has been to eschew consensus with what he calls the first principles approach to solving problems. He wants his engineers to break down a problem to its basics and come up with solutions that are guided only by the laws of physics, not what was done before. With that approach, electric cars can be affordable; rockets can be reusable; brain computers can unlock the mysteries of thought.

When it comes to social issues, however, emotions replace physics and consensus can be key.

And what made him successful in business—chasing the most extreme ideas to solve a problem—can make him polarizing when addressing some of society’s most contentious topics, such as immigration and race.

In that setting, for some, he becomes the villain. He seems out-of-touch and, at times, cruel as he bullies people on his social-media platform X, indulges in ugly conspiracies and amplifies hate—intentionally or not. He isn’t offering hope; he sounds hopeless.

Musk has said he is exercising his free speech, speaking out without fear of those who would harm society by squashing dissenting views.

Longtime associate Chris Anderson, head of TED talk conferences, publicly pleaded with Musk to tone down his rhetoric, saying the entrepreneur had drifted toward opinions he would have himself once regarded as extreme and harmful.

“You won the admiration of countless millions around the world by opening up new possibilities for a genuinely exciting future," Anderson tweeted in February. “Many of those millions, I’m pretty certain, feel heartbroken and betrayed by your latest moves."

A popular bumper sticker on Etsy intended for Tesla cars reads: “I bought this before Elon went crazy."

Musk has long run his mouth on X. But now as the platform’s owner and with more than 178 million followers, his opinions carry more weight than they did two decades ago when he was a curious tech entrepreneur talking about electric sports cars and sending mice to Mars.

The extreme opinions have been on renewed display as he raises concerns about illegal immigration. Since November, Musk has tweeted “immigration" about 30 times. Roughly a third of those times occurred in March alone.

He isn’t alone in his worries. But Musk’s language around the matter has leaned toward inciting rather than inspiring, such as when he suggested unchecked immigration has the potential for allowing in migrants with “homicidal tendencies and cannibalism."

His bombast concerns immigration experts, such as Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “You can’t get a bigger megaphone than he has other than the White House," he said.

Amid his more inflammatory talk, Musk will often add that as an immigrant himself, he supports legal immigration. “As always, I say this as an immigrant who is proud to have become a citizen and who supports expanded and expedited *legal* immigration," he tweeted.

Still, he is being cheered on by dark parts of the internet, places that traffic in antisemitism and racism. It is the sort of disturbing stuff that Musk, citing the principles of free speech, says X should allow if it is lawful but not amplify—though sometimes he is doing just that himself.

On Thursday, after a Baltimore bridge collapsed when struck by a containership, Musk joined those criticizing the city’s mayor, who is Black and who finds himself defending against claims on X that he is a “DEI mayor," a reference to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that Musk has been vocal against.

“Maybe he should focus on fixing the bridge instead of scaring white dudes," Musk tweeted.

And with that, Musk ended the week as the villain.

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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