Since taking office last year, Donald Trump has carried out sustained attacks on a number of American corporations ― Boeing, Ford and Nordstrom, to name a few. But none have quite endured the president’s focused attention like Amazon.
Last week, Trump escalated his war, launching a series of tweets that falsely claimed Amazon receives billions in subsidies from the U.S. Postal Service and avoids paying sales taxes. On Monday, Amazon’s stock plummeted 5 percent, destroying more than $36 billion of the company’s market value and causing the Dow to drop 459 points.
Attacking an American corporation as innovative and successful as Amazon seems a strange move for the so-called businessman president. But it’s perfectly in keeping with a presidency driven not by a coherent ideology ― or even a clear economic agenda, for that matter ― but rather by the incoherent ravings of a petty tyrant who is all too willing to jeopardize the nation’s economic strength for his own political gain.
Trump’s squabble with Amazon has nothing to do with the e-commerce powerhouse, of course. Instead, it’s all part of the president’s attempt to get at Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and owner who also owns The Washington Post. Trump is obsessed with that newspaper’s coverage of his presidency.
In Trump’s twisted reasoning, a plan to impose higher shipping costs on Amazon, kill the company’s multibillion-dollar contract with the Pentagon and encourage certain state attorneys general to investigate its business practices ― just some of the retributive options Trump is reportedly considering ― is perfectly justifiable if it weakens someone he perceives as a personal enemy. Second-wave feminists in the 1960s may have argued that the personal is political, but it took the Trump presidency to see that those words could be a warning as much as a rallying cry.
Like everything the president does, it is fueled by his sense of personal grievance and vindictiveness.
Certainly, prior presidents have felt free to criticize American industries or the nation’s economic system. But usually they avoided targeting individual companies. Teddy Roosevelt made his mark as the “trustbuster” president, yet he achieved the bulk of his regulatory reforms in cooperation with many large trusts. His distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt levied heavy regulations on corporate America, all the while making sure he never spoke ill of individual companies or business executives in public.
Other presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama offered broader critiques of American capitalism that were rooted in their larger political beliefs about how the economy should operate most fairly for all Americans. The one time President Obama did single out a specific company, he quickly learned his lesson. After he called out Staples for supposedly reducing its employees’ hours so that the office superstore could avoid health care costs associated with Obamacare, Staples responded that the “president appears not to have all the facts.” Obama never fingered Staples again.
Facts don’t matter for Trump, however. Despite ― or perhaps even because ― advisers have repeatedly told him that shipping packages for Amazon is a financial boon for the Postal Service, Trump has continued to make his false claims about the company. Corporations often have to push back against misrepresentations of their business practices ― that’s why they have large public relations offices, after all ― but an ongoing misinformation campaign led by the president of the United States is a chilling prospect for the future of all American business.
Trump’s beef with Amazon and the other individual companies he has attacked departs from the historical examples and has no basis in political philosophy, whatever that might be for him. Instead, like everything the president does, it is fueled by his sense of personal grievance and vindictiveness, by his unending desire to use the power of the presidency not to advance the nation’s interests but to assuage his own fragile ego.
It also marks a departure from yet another supposed orthodoxy of the Republican Party ― in this case, the GOP’s longstanding devotion to free-market absolutism. Had any prior president made just one of these attacks on an American business, he would have faced non-stop wrath from congressional Republicans and Fox News pundits alike. Yet those voices have remained remarkably silent as Trump has carried out his assault.
The president has been able to get away with it all because, just like his attacks on American democracy, the named targets are individual and personal, thus obscuring the actual systemic damage his abuse is wreaking. Republicans can rationalize Trump’s war on Amazon as merely a justifiable counterpunch against a liberal media outlet rather than acknowledging it for what it is: an outrageous intervention in the market.
Trump’s campaign against Amazon isn’t a harmless political flap, as his supporters would like to believe. It’s a full-fledged strike against the capitalist system they supposedly revere. If Republicans truly believe in the invisible hand of the market, they should do something about the tiny orange hands that are trying to strangle some of its most vibrant actors.
Neil J. Young is a historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”