Last week, Elon Musk launched a rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. Within minutes of the launch, the tech billionaire was locked in a flame war with a philosophy webcomic’s Twitter account.
Existential Comics compared Musk to an Ayn Rand villain. Instead of tracking the rocket he just sent into space, Musk chafed at being dismissed as a government moocher.
The funniest thing about libertarians worshipping @elonmusk is that he's basically the villain from Atlas Shrugged. He makes all his money from government subsidies and contracts, and by wildly exaggerating production to pump up stock prices.
— Existential Comics (@existentialcoms) May 11, 2018
Not twenty minutes later, Musk tweeted back at Existential Comics that he’s less dependent on government than other companies.
Our giant auto co competitors have much greater access to incentives than Tesla, which means Tesla has prospered in spite of govt subsidies, not because of them. Tesla mkt cap has *risen* over time as EV incentives declined. How strange …
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 11, 2018
The argument continued until Musk called the webcomic creator “a chimp” and blocked him.
No use arguing with chimp. You’re blocked.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 11, 2018
Musk is worth about $20 billion thanks to numerous business ventures, including PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla. It seems absurd that he would get into a Twitter spat with an online cartoon worth pennies in comparison but, Musk is known for his reactionary relationship with his online fanbase. It’s one of the reasons he has so many devoted fans: Musk is, in a way, his own religion. The religion of tech, of science, of the future: don’t you get it, man? Because if you don’t get it, Musk will make sure you do.
As my editor put it, Musk is “Trump for nerds.” When his business tactics are questioned, he responds with anger and defensiveness.
I got on the phone with Existential Comics and we discussed Musk’s fan club as well as why he tweeted at the billionaire.
BTRtoday(BTR): So tell me about Existential Comics. When did you start getting more political?
Existential Comics(EC): It’s kinda like how Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal tells science jokes—there wasn’t really a philosophy comic so I made one. It wasn’t political at the beginning, but I started getting more [political] over time.
BTR: How much of your following do you think is “in” on the joke?
EC: I’m in a funny situation because my Facebook fans are almost always against me. I’ll post something political on Facebook and it’ll just be all these comments like ‘shut up,’ ‘you’re the worst.’ So that’s pretty weird. It’s a little more mixed on Twitter.
BTR:Is it mostly libertarians that get angry at you?
EC: Yeah pretty much. Probably mostly young, white libertarians.
BTR: So is that how this spat with Elon Musk happened?
EC: Yeah, I think he just gets overpraised by that crowd in general [libertarians]. But I had that tweet in my draft folder for months. I just casually tweeted it out. I wasn’t trying to start beef with Elon Musk because I just never thought he would read it.
BTR: You were surprised?
EC: Yeah, like why? You just never think he’ll respond to this.
BTR: You said you had the tweet draft for months — is this a pet issue of yours? The hypocrisy of his fan base?
EC: Yeah I definitely do have an issue against Elon Musk. He’s just as horrible as other billionaires but he’s treated totally differently by the young tech crowd. They just kind of worship him. They think he’s the savior of humanity because he’s hiring people to build electric cars and go into space.
BTR: So the disconnect is between the government money and the libertarians who praise him for creating jobs?
EC: That’s why I think it’s ironic. If you’ve read Atlas Shrugged, there’s a contrast between the good steel tycoon who doesn’t take government money and just makes all his money from selling steel and being a good guy, and the bad one takes all these government subsidies and throws cocktail parties with congressmen to get laws written. And that’s apparently what Elon Musk does. He throws like, keggers with congressmen and then they give him billions of dollars to build a factory. On Facebook, people were all like ‘he’s a genius, he’s saving us.’ But he didn’t do any of this stuff, he just hires people with our money.
BTR: How often do you reply?
EC: Almost never. I did a little bit on Facebook this time, and I reply on Twitter a few times a month.
BTR: Was this your first famous interaction?
EC: Yeah I rarely interact with anyone. Usually when you tag people like that, they’re not stupid enough to engage. In the past, I’ve tagged Richard Dawkins because I know he’s kinda dumb like that too and I was hoping he’d engage. But he never did. It was a similar joke [to EC’s about Musk]. I’ve also tagged Sam Harris. But they did not engage. Richard Dawkins in particular will fight with Twitter trolls. But Elon Musk is bigger than either of them.
BTR: It’s part of his cool guy image. That reminds me, what are your thoughts on Neil Degrasse Tyson?
EC: Yeah he’s more harmless but he’s pretty obnoxious. I don’t follow anyone I don’t like; I don’t hate follow and that’s what it would be if I followed him. It would be too tempting to make fun of his tweets all the time.
BTR: Is there a similarity with his audience and Musk’s?
EC: Yeah it’s a young crowd that thinks science is gonna solve all our problems. And [they think] these guys are the answer. Musk is a science guy. He dreams about these scientific futures.
BTR: So he can’t be corrupt.
EC: Yeah. People just think scientific progress is good and it’s gonna save us. But I don’t think Elon Musk is thinking about anybody else but himself.
The other thing that was funny about this is that he launched a rocket in the middle of the tweets. You look at the timeline, he was replying to me minutes before the rocket took off. It’s bizarre. There’s a video of him online celebrating the rocket and high-fiving people in the control room. This was minutes after he was mad that he wasn’t the good guy from Atlas Shrugged.
BTR:Did you feel important?
EC: Yeah it was just bizarre. He went back on Twitter after the rocket settled down, and was like ‘no I’ll tell you more about how the fossil fuel guys get more subsidies.’ Okaaay. He was probably still thinking about it as the rocket took off. That I said he wasn’t the good guy from Atlas Shrugged. Apparently he’s a huge fan. Like apparently he married his first wife on the basis that she had read Atlas Shrugged. Or something like that. [We were unable to find proof of this but Musk has repeatedly expressed his love for Rand’s work and was infatuated with Amber Heard in part for her love of Rand. There is also proof that he is a categorically terrible husband]
Also, because he replied, that tweet got like 1.5 million impressions. So did my screencap of it. Pretty stupid of him to reply.
BTR: I don’t know if you recall but a few months ago, Piers Morgan protested a cartoon of himself eating out Trump’s anus, by angrily retweeting the cartoon itself
EC: Yeah, what are you doing? And it got a million times more popular!
If I had been a little more prepared — I wasn’t ready to enter this debate. That said, not everybody knows this rule but the number one rule is if you’re a popular person, don’t engage in a comedy account because they’ll always win. All I do is compose jokes on Twitter, he runs businesses. I’m gonna be better at tweeting than him because that’s what I do.