Experts on robber barons agree: Elon Musk is something new

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Few business leaders have ever wielded as much power as Elon Musk.

Musk, who was already recognized by Bloomberg as the world’s richest man, will soon add one of the world’s most influential media platforms to his purview when he buys Twitter, adding to a business empire that already includes the leading private space company (SpaceX) and one of the leading electric car companies (Tesla).

It’s a combination that makes him one of the most significant figures in the history of technology, business and media.

“I think this is genuinely new,” Brad DeLong, an economic historian at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email.

“There were press lords in the past,” he said, citing William Randolph Hearst, whose fictionalized legend was immortalized in the film “Citizen Kane.”

“But never before to my recollection has a major entrepreneur in the high-tech of the day wanted this kind of influence — or, rather, Jobs and Gates wanted it, but they wooed news platforms, rather than buying them,” DeLong said, referring to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

History is filled with powerful industrialists, many of whom also wielded control of major media outlets. And in recent years, media properties have become a target for wealthy technocrats. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post; Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff owns Time magazine; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, is the founder of the Emerson Collective, which owns The Atlantic. In an earlier era, the Gates-led Microsoft co-founded MSNBC (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News and MSNBC).

Twitter, however, is an altogether different beast. Its platform counts 217 million daily active users and is considered by some to be the most important and influential platform in the world despite being smaller than some of its competitors.

Musk and Twitter have agreed to a deal worth $44 billion, with Musk as the lone owner so far, though he could add outside investors. That’s the equivalent of nearly a fifth of his vast wealth of $252 billion.

In historical terms, Musk has few comparisons. Richard White, a Stanford University historian and author of a 2017 book on the 19th century Gilded Age, “The Republic for Which It Stands,” said Musk is most similar to Hearst, who wielded power in public debates in the early 20th century through his control of a chain of popular newspapers. But Musk’s business interests are more sprawling than Hearst’s were.

And Musk has shown little interest in acquiring mansions and open land — a favorite pastime of tycoons from Cornelius Vanderbilt to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg — and instead leverages his stock to finance endeavors like Neuralink, a startup working on brain implants, or the acquisition of Twitter.

“To me, Elon Musk is really simple. He really likes attention. He really likes to be at the center of the discourse,” White said.

White said that’s a contrast with railroad barons who bought newspapers in the 19th century to serve narrow financial interests, often in secret. Musk’s move into social media doesn’t seem to serve a business purpose, and he’s not hiding his influence.

If anything, Musk seems to relish his role in the culture as much as his impact on industry. He’s hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” makes regular cameos on television and in films and inserts himself into global hot spots by offering help in places such as Ukraine and Thailand. He has dated pop star Grimes and has drawn analogies to a comic book superhero.

That attention combined with his businesses have resulted in an aggressive online army of fans and made him an idol among many in the tech community. Last year the Harvard historian Jill Lepore devoted a podcast series to Musk, saying he had established a new kind of capitalism rooted in science fiction. She called it “Muskism.”

Comparisons have become common between the original American Gilded Age, which began around 1870 and produced the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller fortunes, and the concentration of wealth now, as Big Tech fuels the fortunes of Musk, Bezos, Gates and others.

But there are some similarities worth noting, such as the extent to which Musk has built his fortune with the help of government support, said Boyd Cothran, a historian at York University in Toronto and editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

“The transcontinental railroad would not have been possible without massive subsidization by the federal government — same with electric cars and with SpaceX,” Cothran said.

And like Hearst a century ago, Musk has a particular talent for capturing people’s attention and mimicking the ideas of people who follow him, Cothran said.

“He’s a kind of populist, in that he seeks to whip up the opinions of the masses as opposed to courting the political parties,” he said.

Musk’s power has also made him the target of scrutiny from government regulators and business watchdogs. Like wealthy industrialists before him, Musk has used his corporate power to oppose the power of labor unions. Black workers have alleged unchecked racism at Tesla’s California plant, and Musk has tested the willingness of government regulators to enforce federal law. Musk has said he treats his employees well and has accused securities regulators of acting unfairly, while Tesla has said alleging racial discrimination “strains credibility.”

That has all spurred political opposition.

“Whether it’s buying up companies or raising prices while funneling more profits toward themselves, wealthy CEOs have too much power in this country,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement through his office when asked about Musk’s purchase of Twitter.

“Last year CEOs made 254 times more than the average worker. We need an economy that rewards work, not wealth,” Brown said.

Some doubt that Musk’s ownership of Twitter will make him much of a media player, and it’s not clear exactly what role Musk will have at the company. He has publicly stated that he plans to embrace free-speech standards similar to those of the U.S. government and also to push to make sure accounts are run by real people while eliminating bots (automated accounts).

David Huyssen, an economic historian at the University of York in the U.K., said that many more Americans get their news from the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group than from Twitter.

“Which ‘concentration of media power’ is more dangerous to democracy? Why are we talking about Musk rather than Sinclair?” Huyssen wrote in an email.

There’s also the possibility that Musk’s interest in owning Twitter could fade as suddenly as it appeared.

“Writing a large check does not make you a media mogul, and there are reasons to doubt the depth of Musk’s desire to become one, not least his wide range of other activities,” Huyssen wrote.