One of the dangers of demagogues is that they can tarnish good causes. Since last week, President Donald Trump has waged a political war against Amazon, which he accuses of taking advantage of the U.S. Postal Service and putting retail stores out of business:
Trump’s motives are almost certainly personal: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, which has been critical of the president. Vanity Fair reporter Gabriel Sherman reports that a source close to the White House said Trump “gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos. Trump is like, ‘How can I fuck with him?’”
Trump’s vendetta against Amazon presents a dilemma for progressives. He’s acting out of spite, and exhibiting an authoritarian desire to crush his critics, but there are legitimate grounds for believing Amazon is too powerful and that the government must do something about it. The company has been controversial from the start, since its business model initially relied on not having to collect sales tax, giving it a competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar retailers.
“In its pursuit of bigness, Amazon has left a trail of destruction—competitors undercut, suppliers squeezed—some of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome,” Franklin Foer wrote in The New Republic in 2014. “And in its confrontation with the publisher Hachette, it has entered a phase of heightened aggression unseen even when it tried to crush Zappos by offering a $5 rebate on all its shoes or when it gave employees phony business cards to avoid paying sales taxes in various states.”
The case against Amazon—like the company itself—has only grown since then, and largely comes from the burgeoning anti-monopoly movement on the political left, which also wants to rein in other tech giants like Facebook and Google. But Trump and his supporters are co-opting the movement’s language because it has broad trans-ideological appeal in this populist moment.
On CNN on Tuesday, Wolf Blitzer asked Republican Congressman Francis Rooney, “You don’t have a problem with the president going after Amazon by name almost on a daily basis?” Rooney responded: “I think the personality and related aspects of what you are saying are not good, okay, but I think the idea of antitrust enforcement is.”
Writing in The Week, the centrist pundit Damon Linker agreed with this logic. “Yes, Trump is awful. But that doesn’t mean he’s always, invariably wrong,” Linker argued. “On Amazon, he’s indisputably right.” For Linker, Amazon’s “rapacious business practices” made it an eminently deserving target.
Matt Stoller, a policy analyst at the Open Markets Institute and one of the leading intellectual advocates for the anti-monopolist cause, also found merit in Trump’s arguments:
But it’s a mistake for Amazon’s critics to give Trump a pass on his crusade against the company. The goal of the anti-monopoly movement should be to tame corporate leviathans through the rule of law, by introducing new regulations or using anti-trust laws to break them up. That’s the opposite of Trump’s approach, which is to subordinate Amazon not to the government but to his personal whims.
Trump’s actions are closer to an autocrat like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who likes to humiliate the oligarchs of his country, than they are to the classic American tradition of trust-busting exemplified by President Theodore Roosevelt. As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall argued on Sunday, “a President who routinely threatens prosecutorial or regulatory vengeance against private companies because they are not sufficiently politically subservient to him personally is entirely outside of our system of governance. At present, Donald Trump is an autocrat without an autocracy.... But systems change. And it’s clear that ours is already starting to change under his malign influence.”
The anti-monopoly movement’s dilemma resembles—and, admittedly, pales in comparison to—that of anti-communist liberals during the Cold War. These liberals had legitimate reasons for opposing America’s Communist Party, which was subservient to Stalin and included an espionage wing that worked with Russian intelligence. When right-wing demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy came into prominence, targeting not just communist spies but the broader progressive movement, some anti-communists with left-wing roots, like Max Eastman and James Burnham, joined the anti-Red crusade. But others, such as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., realized that McCarthyism was a menace both to freedom and to liberals’ own, more measured case against Stalinism.
Linker argued that liberals “respond to everything [Trump] says with instantaneous outrage and disgust,” but it’s not mindless to make a distinction between working with Trump through the democratic system (such as last month’s spending bill, which funded some key Democratic priorities) and opposing him when he breaks established norms (as he is doing in using the presidential bully pulpit to intimidate Amazon). “It is not contradictory,” Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler wrote on Monday, “to believe that while Amazon should be broken up as part of a broader programmatic rethinking of American antitrust law, it should not be broken up as part of Trump’s efforts to punish his perceived enemies and create a patronage economy. To the contrary, establishing a new antitrust regime that enjoys public legitimacy ... requires liberals to stand against Trump’s efforts to corrupt and destroy public faith” in such a regime.
Rather than opportunistically cheering on Trump for taking swipes at Amazon, anti-monopoly activists would be wiser to use the current strife to make a more sweeping critique of American politics. After all, Trump is able to co-opt anti-monopoly arguments because the Democrats have generally neglected the issue, creating a political vacuum. Further, Trump’s presidency shows that corporate oligarchies and autocratic politics go hand-in-hand in America no less than in Russia. If economic power is controlled by a few companies, it is much easier for a demagogic politician to gain sway over them. In other words, Trump isn’t an ally in the antitrust fight, but a convincing reason to fear a country ruled by monopolies.