Jeff Bezos Drew Angerer/Getty Images


  • Donald Trump is “obsessed” with Amazon, in the words of Axios.
  • He thinks the online retailer has unfair advantages and is putting traditional companies out of business.
  • Trump talks about Amazon like he talks about the foreign trade partners, and he may want to start a domestic version of a trade war.
  • But Amazon is the best-liked large company in America and will be a tough enemy.

The most obvious explanation for President Donald Trump’s antipathy for Amazon — and, I’m sure, one of the main contributing factors — is that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, which Trump hates.

But there must be more to it than that.

After all, Trump talks about Amazon and Bezos much more than he talks about Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecom billionaire who owns a large stake in The New York Times, which he also hates.

Axios reported this week that Trump is “obsessed” with Amazon, and it offers several reasons for his obsession that go far beyond a personal feud. Read the list, and Trump’s obsession with Amazon makes sense — because it dovetails with his populist, protectionist and nostalgic view of the broader economy.

Amazon is all about change, and not the kind of change Trump likes.

With Trump, look for the real-estate angle

“His real estate buddies tell him — and he agrees — that Amazon is killing shopping malls and brick-and-mortar retailers,” Axios reports.

This objection aligns with Trump’s views on trade: He’s more focused on protecting old industries than fostering new ones.

Trump is not moved by the idea that cheap imported steel is good for Americans who buy steel products, or for American companies that make products out of steel. He worries about the loss of steel mills that are, or were, job anchors in certain Rust Belt communities.

It doesn’t hurt that Trump has friends with relevant business interests that would benefit from the protection of the status quo, whether those are ownership stakes in steel mills or shopping malls.

There is also a community aspect to resistance to Amazon. In a time where people are less likely to go to church or participate in bowling leagues, Amazon is contributing to the loss of some of the remaining public spaces where Americans gather with their neighbors: malls.

Maybe Trump isn’t nostalgic for hanging out at the mall. But the nostalgic desire he’s expressing here, of wanting to keep communities the way they once were, with a steel mill to work in and a mall to shop at, clearly resonates with a slice of the electorate.

Trump is obsessed with who’s cheating

donald trump
Donald Trump Leah Millis/Reuters


There’s another echo of the tariffs fight: Trump is convinced that Amazon must be gaining its advantage in the retail sector by cheating.

Trump says Amazon is getting a free ride from the US Postal Service, even though this is no more true than his claim that Canada has a trade surplus with the US.

In fact, the post office makes a lot of money delivering Amazon’s packages — for now, at least, though we’ll see what happens as Amazon expands its in-house airline.

But again, as on trade, not all of Trump’s accusations are wrong. He says Amazon skirts state and local taxes, which is quite true: After years of resistance, Amazon collects sales tax on its own sales, but not necessarily on sales by marketplace sellers using their platform.

If I were Trump, I’d raise another form of cheating that he hasn’t publicly discussed yet. It’s called showrooming: when customers check out products in physical stores, where a brick and mortar retailer pays the bill to keep the lights on, and then they order online, where the price is lowest.

You can’t make money running a showroom, and as brick and mortar stores close, jobs and tax revenue are getting lost — and even Amazon customers are losing something, in the form of a convenient place to check out products.

Trump is scrambling usual left-right alignments on the economy

CNN President Jeff Zucker
CNN President Jeff Zucker Robert Marquardt/Getty Images


In some areas, especially tax policy, Trump has spoken populist rhetoric and then gone along with Republican policy orthodoxy.

But in other cases, he’s shown a willingness to break with Republicans and push a policy that aims to slow the pace of economic change, even over the objections of corporate interests.

The most obvious example of that is his tariff policy. But another example is his Justice Department’s choice to object to the AT&T-Time Warner merger, after Republicans have spent decades pushing for more lax antitrust enforcement.

As with Amazon, in the AT&T-Time Warner case it’s tough to tell where Trump’s personal vendettas end and his policy interests begin. Trump has complained bitterly about coverage from Time Warner subsidiary CNN.* But there is also a valid policy argument that companies that own both cable channels and cable wires have excessive power over pricing, and that blocking such a merger is a good use of anti-trust power — even if it’s an argument you’d usually hear from the left side of the aisle.

Trump isn’t the first person to raise concerns about online retail, but once again it’s unusual to hear them from a Republican. Usually, it’s people on the left who emphasize the need for metrics other than prices and profit margins when deciding whether economic changes like the ones Amazon drives are good.

(A liberal critic of Amazon would probably also raise concerns about pay and labor conditions at Amazon’s warehouses, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for Trump to discuss this.)

Trump will take on companies that bug him, but Amazon can bite back

If I were Trump I’d be afraid to go to war with Amazon, because Amazon is very popular.

Each year, the Harris Poll conducts its “Reputation Quotient” study, examining public opinion on the 100 most visible companies in America. In 2018, Harris found Amazon had the most positive public image out of all 100 companies.

AT&T was 70th, and Time Warner was 81st, probably because people still think Time Warner owns Time Warner Cable.

It’s not surprising Amazon is so popular. Amazon improves convenience, choice and value for consumers, offering them two-day delivery on an immense variety of well-priced products. People like that.

Lots of people talk a good game about supporting mom-and-pop retail and wanting their communities to stay the way they once were, but in practice, they’re busy and they like having products cheaply and reliably delivered to their door.

Trump’s nostalgia does not always align with the public’s

jeff bezos blue origin amazon founder sunglasses tough face GettyImages 813884326 2x1
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.Drew Angerer/Getty Images


There are some things for which people really are nostalgic. People have a sense that medium-skilled industrial jobs at big factories used to hold communities together, and that after those plants closed, communities hurt in ways both economic and social.

But are people really nostalgic for the old ways of retail? Do they miss the experience of having to leave home to shop, and do they feel the mostly low-paying jobs in those stores were the backbone of their communities?

Do they feel that nostalgia if none of their friends own commercial real estate?

People’s individual shopping behaviors say no, they do not. They like shopping at Amazon. And if the Harris Poll is to be believed, they like it a lot.

And since Trump is quite unpopular, he may not want an enemy as popular as Amazon.

As reported by Business Insider