Is America’s fascination with billionaires over?

It’s always been clear that Elon Musk is a moron, at least to those who want to see him. Before the Tesla CEO overpaid for Twitter in the midst of a tantrum, there was a group of mostly-ignored people pointing out, over and over, that Musk’s mental maturity seemed to stagnate by about sixth grade. There was a time when he came up with an “ingenious” idea for subway transportation, only to have people point out that the subway had been around for over a century. Or the time he tried to push through a futile and overly convoluted plan to rescue a group of Thai children trapped in a cave. or in the time shortly thereafter, when still angry at his dismissal, he falsely accused the man who had already saved the children of being a pedophile. Or the time he acted like such a fool on Joe Rogan’s podcast that Tesla stock dived. Or the time he named his actual child X Æ A-12.

There are an infinite number of examples. (His childish feud with rapper Azealia Banks is a personal favourite.) Yet somehow, no matter how many times Musk showed his butt in public, the damage to his reputation was fleeting. The business and tech press would be dumbfounded at his stupid behaviour, but within 48 to 72 hours it was all forgotten and Musk was back on the coverage as if he was a genius, maybe a geek.

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This is the power of billionaire American mythology. The fascination with our richest capitalists is related to the delusion that the United States is a meritocratic nation, but it goes beyond that in many ways. The notion that being very rich must also mean being brilliant permeates our society, justifying both the absurdly low taxes on wealthier Americans and the undue influence they wield over our political system. It is a social fiction that dates back to the Gilded Age and has covered the intellectual deficits of many famous Americans. (Henry Ford comes to mind.) But it has gained a lot of attention in the past few decades as the new class of tech billionaires, from Microsoft’s Bill Gates to Apple’s Steve Jobs, have molded an image of the lone mastermind who, with a bit of Education and limited resources, reshapes the world through the sheer power of their intelligence.

This assumption that wealth equals brains has permeated our society so much that it is sometimes hard to see how widespread it is. But the past two years — and in just the past two months — have really hit a number on the belief that having a fat bank account somehow inoculates a person from being stupid. Watching Musk growl on Twitter, for no apparent reason other than wanting to impress the internet’s biggest losers, was a wake-up call. It’s hard to imagine there will be the same mass forgetting who Musk really is that we’ve seen after all the previous public facials.

But it’s not just musk. The same process is unfolding for one person who has profited more than anyone from the myth that money means you’re smart: Donald Trump.

For those of us who always thought Trump was a dingleberry, it might not seem clear how much he actually got a boost from the widely held assumption that wealth is linked to inherent intelligence. Trump has been doing this for decades. The whole premise of the reality show, “The Apprentice,” was that he was some kind of stuntman. As with Musk, Trump’s gross behavior and stupidity — such as pushing a conspiracy theory about Barack Obama — has been largely dismissed as oddity rather than idiocy.

In 2016, a disturbingly large number were able to tell themselves it was okay to vote for Trump because his wealth means he’s smarter than he looks. When I went to the Republican National Convention in 2016, delegate after delegate insisted to me that there must be an ocean of intelligence beneath that drab exterior, and pointed to his real estate empire as proof. Years later, it became clear that his fortune had been handed over to him by others, his chief achievement being to squander most of it.

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This was on top of a record public bleaching business that came to a head when it was publicly suggested that doctors had overlooked the possibility that injecting bleach into the human body could cure COVID-19. In true Danning Kruger fashion, Trump then congratulated himself on knowing more than the entire medical establishment, for this insight.

Trump lost the 2020 election for a number of reasons, but we cannot overlook the strong possibility that four years of his outbursts deprived a number of his 2016 constituents of claims about his supposed mental acumen. Nevertheless, the notion that Trump is a political wisecrack under external plunder still notably dominates the GOP imagination. The expectation that the 2022 midterms would be a “red tsunami” was based in large part on the confidence that the Trump-sanctioned gallery of QAnoners, snake oil sellers and buzzheads have also been anointed with some secret sauce that is just him, in his infinite country. Wisdom can perceive or understand. These candidates ended up losing, on average, about five percentage points more than other Republicans who were not cursed with Trump’s blessing. Now the GOP establishment grapples with the same misgivings that creep into the tech press about Musk: Could this man’s success be more about luck and privilege than cunning?

(To be clear, I don’t think Trump is completely stupid. He’s a skilled criminal with a low-key cunning. He’s bad at all the things his defenders wanted you to believe he was good at: business, governance, literacy.)

Two examples, even as big as these two, are not trend-making. But there is another great sign that the American belief in the galactic-wide intelligence of our richest people is in jeopardy: the dawning realization that many people have exploited these myths for the purposes of plain old fraud.

In just the past two weeks, we have seen former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years in prison and the complete career collapse of Sam Bankman-Fred, former CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX. Either way, it should have been clear that what they were selling to investors was complete nonsense. Holmes’ alleged blood test technology showed multiple signs of being a smoke and mirrors job, and many sane people would have called cryptocurrency a scam from the start. However you slice it, a heavy dose of skepticism was warranted either way.

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But both Holmes and Bankman-Fred manage to dispel the suspicions of others by taking advantage of the billionaire’s cult of genius. Both have expertly used stereotypes to deceive investors. Holmes literally modeled her look and demeanor after Steve Jobs, which was such an odd thing that it cemented her image as a crooked-minded. Bankman-Fried had promoted himself as a relentless workaholic who slept in the office. Both images are intended to suggest someone who is so focused on changing the world that they care about personal appearance. In fact, these were carefully cultivated personalities like Kim Kardashian’s, and they were very effective at convincing gullible people to part with their money.

Now that these two things have been revealed, many people are asking tough questions as to whether “Grinding Culture” in Silicon Valley It is a farce akin to the delusion of Trump’s business prowess built into Liberation Bay in The Apprentice. Holmes and Bankman-Fried may have been written off as outliers a few years ago. But for now, there’s a growing sense that much of the self-congratulatory culture is just a digital version of The Wizard of Oz, especially since another cryptocurrency crash seems to happen every other week. Even Gates and Jobs, who were undoubtedly adept at developing and commercializing innovative computer technology, have lost a bit of their luster. Jobs died of cancer, of course, after convincing himself that he knew better than doctors how to treat it. Meanwhile, Gates blew up his marriage by acting like a garden variety ass. Even really smart people can be stupid sometimes. Most importantly, a group of people who fooled everyone into thinking they were geniuses were finally exposed as the frauds they always were.

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