Over the last week, the president of the United States has tweeted no less then five attacks on Amazon and its owner, Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. He has called the Post a "lobbyist" for Amazon, and arguing that the online retailer is exploiting the U.S. postal service and doing harm to American businesses. "You have retailers all over the United States that are going out of business," Trump said Tuesday. "If you look at the cost that we're subsidizing, we're giving a subsidy to Amazon."
The answer to the question of whether Amazon receives a subsidy is no, not really, and even if Amazon's packages are priced in a way that is advantageous to the company, it is not exactly a subsidy for Amazon to ship packages through the mail at the price the mail service chooses to charge.
But the question of whether Amazon is subsidized or not is largely irrelevant. Trump is almost certainly attacking Amazon because of its connection to Bezos, a self-made billionaire whose business acumen is widely admired, and The Washington Post, which frequently publishes accurate but unflattering reports about the dysfunctional inner workings of the White House.
A little more than a year into Trump's presidency, it is clear that he has no particular ideological outlook: He's not a hardline conservative, or a secret New York liberal, or even much of a true-believing populist, despite the presence of a rolling cast of advisers who might more accurately fit these labels.
Instead, Trump governs through muddled instinct, unconstrained by legal precedent or policy advice, always seeking attention, conflict, and personal dominance. Trump isn't an ideologue, but a petty authoritarian whose main pursuit is brutish self-aggrandizement. And while his authoritarian impulses have not born out the worst fears of his critics, they are far from harmless.
In the case of the vendetta against The Washington Post, we can be confident about Trump's motivation because his administration is not proposing any particular policy change to address the alleged postal subsidy, and because his repeated criticisms of Bezos, Amazon, and the Post long predate his current complaints about mail subsidies. Trump has been attacking the trio as a single unit since at least 2015. On the campaign trail, he directly tied his criticisms of Bezos and Amazon to his irritation with reporting by the Post. "Every hour we're getting calls from reporters from The Washington Post asking ridiculous questions," Trump said in May 2016, before complaining that the Post was a "toy" that Bezos used to maintain power in the nation's capital. (Disclosure: My wife works for The Washington Post.)
Trump may not be proposing any direct action against the company at this point, but his attacks aren't a sideshow. Amazon lost more than $50 billion in market value earlier this week following one of Trump's tweets, helping to send stock indexes spiraling. Trump is unlikely to win his battle with Amazon, but either way, the rest of us are already losing.
Presidents rarely have as much control over the economy as they take credit for, but in this case, Trump appears to have directly impacted the fortune of both a specific American business that is responsible for tens of thousands of jobs as well as the general performance of the stock market—all in service of pursuing a pointless personal vendetta.
Trump's simmering trade war with China, meanwhile, is another presidential project that only makes sense as a display of jungle dominance. "Trade wars are good, and easy to win," he declared last month. This is a view shared by essentially no reputable expert on the subject: That free trade is broadly beneficial and trade wars harm the economy is one of the most widely held belief amongst economists. But that doesn't matter, because Trump isn't really pursuing anything that resembles a policy agenda in the traditional sense. Instead, as with Bezos, Amazon, and the Post, he views China as a rival, but on the national scale. And rivals must always be dealt with via the performance of aggression.
As with Trump's war on Amazon, the trade standoff is another battle he is likely to eventually lose. In the meantime, the cost to ordinary Americans is already apparent.
The stock market took a dive yesterday as China and the U.S. announced tit-for-tat tariffs, and China's response appears to deliberately target Trump's own voters. The price of everything from automobiles to beer is certain to rise. Moody's Analytics yesterday projected that Trump's trade policies could cost 190,000 American jobs. To serve his own insecurities, Trump is waging a bellicose war on Americans who work, buy, and invest.
The same sort of petty authoritarian instincts can be seen, in various ways, in Trump's repeated expressions of crude anti-immigrant sentiments, in his demands to deploy National Guard troops to the border in what looks like a mostly symbolic show of force, in his appointment of Jeff Sessions to run the Department of Justice, and the DOJ's moves to empower federal prosecutors to go after pot businesses in states where marijuana is legal. It is apparent in his Twitter feuds and his rambling speeches, in the endless stream of reports about White House chaos, in his every word and deed.
With any luck, Trump's authoritarian impulses will be checked, at least somewhat, by both the American system and his own shiftlessness.
In the meantime, however, he has succeeded in one way, by making himself and his federal office the focus of so much attention. The presidency has long played a starring role in modern life, but in Trump's America, there is no escaping the notion that it is all Trump's America, no avoiding the centrality of Trump and the presidency to our cultural conversation, our national neuroses. Since Trump's election, Americans increasingly think about politics in ways that resemble an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To the extent that anything Trump does is the result of an intentional plan, this is by design. The goal of so many of Trump's actions is not to pursue a any particular policy or ideological agenda or public good, but to put himself at the center of the story, to bask in the spotlight, even if the glare is largely negative.