The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Musk, Trump and “Self-Aggrandizement”

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Elon Musk © Marina Linchevska

July 18, 2018 00:30 EDT

From self-belief to self-aggrandizement, Musk, Trump and other billionaires in the news have set the tone and ushered in a new era.

Elon Musk made the news cycle again when he promised to play the techno superhero and intervene in the cliffhanger drama that had captured the world’s attention. As the clock ticked, he proposed to provide a miniature submarine to rescue, one by one, the Thai boys’ soccer team trapped in a submerged cave. In the end, as the water levels rose, a non-technological solution executed by human divers brought the children to safety.

In the aftermath, Verne Unsworth, one of the divers who “was instrumental in the boys’ rescue,” when asked about Musk’s offer disparaged it as simply a “PR stunt.” The magazine Fortune reports: “Though many saw the effort as good-hearted, some shared Unsworth’s cynicism, accusing Musk of egotism, overconfidence, and self-aggrandizement.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The principle operating principle for certain individuals who, having accumulated a personal fortune, seek to be seen by the public as selfless benefactors, indispensable for the future of humanity. Prime modern-day examples are Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Kanye West. 

Contextual note

As often in events involving Musk and other self-aggrandizers, the story doesn’t end with the first chapter. Musk couldn’t let the accusation of using a humanitarian pretext for the sake of PR pass, especially after Unsworth’s insulting jibe, “He can stick his submarine where it hurts.”

Musk missed his opportunity for glory, but tragedy was avoided without having recourse to his technology. The elegant thing would have been to congratulate all the participants for their success and humbly return to his daily activities, knowing that the course of action undertaken had at least avoided the risk of seeing his own solution failing and being held responsible for one or more tragic deaths.

So Musk responded not with a sarcastic quip, but with a gratuitous calumny. As The Huffington Post recounts, Musk tweeted (and subsequently deleted): “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.” This is the language of schoolyard bullies, worthy, it’s true, of the current president of the United States, but not of one of the architects of humanity’s future. In the same tweet, Musk threatened (without following up) to prove he was the top dog with more bullying bravado: “We will make one of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problemo.”

Historical note

In 1997, The New York Times published an article, “America’s Latest Fad: Modesty It’s Not.” The author describes a trend that had overtaken not just sports, politics and military combat, but also corporate America, which “has spawned many a braggart in the Donald Trump mold.” The article cites the discredited and later disbarred “downsizer” Albert J Dunlap, known as “the Chainsaw” for his prowess in laying off thousands of people. Dunlap called himself “a superstar in my field,” comparing himself to Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen.

In a follow-up letter to The New York Times piece, Lafayette University’s Howard G. Schneiderman reminded us that “braggadocio … should be viewed as a permanent part of the American character.” He continues, “In America, success often counts more than achievement.”

This is to say that fame and money offer certain personalities with a taste for self-aggrandizement, a level of privilege that they believe makes it legitimate for them to libel others freely, knowing that most of the time there will be no consequences and, at worst, it may cost them a small fraction of their accumulated fortune in lawyers’ and possibly settlement fees. Trump never stopped reminding voters that he was a multi-billionaire. Musk’s fortune, far more solid than Trump’s, is evaluated as upward of $20 billion.

The author of the 1997 New York Times article, who mocked the braggarts of his day for their futile bluster, undoubtedly couldn’t have imagined that Trump — cited as the iconic blowhard — would become president or that nerdy industrialists like Musk, not content with occasional self-applause, would lash out in public at those who question their infallible wisdom, while adopting the language of schoolyard bullies, all of this based on their belief in themselves as the self-appointed benefactors of humanity.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Marina Linchevska /

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