Trump vs. Amazon and Jeff Bezos

May 13, 2016

I've mentioned before how troubling I find Donald Trump's use of the term "the Tiananmen Square riots," how I think it's indicative of an authoritarian mindset—or, at least, an authoritarian-curious mindset. Needless to say, then, I also found it disturbing that the presumptive Republican nominee would hint that he might use the power of the federal government to investigate and destroy businesses that displease him.

Here's Trump, talking to Sean Hannity last night:

Every hour we're getting calls from reporters from The Washington Post, asking ridiculous questions, and I will tell you this is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He's using The Washington Post for power, so the politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He's getting absolutely away -- he's worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody, it was in some article, where he thinks I would go after him for anti-trust, because he's got a huge anti-trust problem because he's controlling so much. [...]

And the book is going to be all false stuff, because the stories are so wrong and the reporters, I mean, one after another -- so what they're doing is he's using that as a political instrument to try and stop anti-trust, which he thinks I believe he's anti-trust, in other words what he's got is a monopoly. And he wants to make sure I don't get in.

So, there are two different things going on here. The first is Trump's insistence that Bezos is using the Washington Post* to convince government officials that Amazon should not be taxed. This is a very odd claim, given that Amazon has been lobbying since 2012 for websites to be forced to collect sales tax, in part because it actually helps Amazon. Here's Tim Carney, way back in 2012:

But this year, Amazon switched teams, joining Walmart on the pro-tax side -- not out of some newfound concern for "marketplace fairness," but because Amazon's business model is changing in such a way that now Amazon stands to benefit from this tax.

And Amazon is spending quite a bit of cash on lobbyists trying to ... implement a national sales tax that would simplify things for Amazon (and also everyone else):

Amazon nearly doubled its lobbying expenditures in 2015 versus the previous year, spending $9.4 million dollars trying to sway Congress and executive agencies. [...]

Amazon has long lobbied for the creation of a national standard for collecting state sales tax for online purchases, a change that would simplify their business practices.

In a recent town hall meeting with Washington Post employees, Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos -- who also owns The Post -- cited state sales taxes as the lobbying issue he has been personally most engaged on.

And, indeed, Amazon has been collecting sales tax for a while now; just Google "amazon begins collecting sales tax" and you'll see headlines across the country. I can't remember the last time I didn't pay sales tax on something from Amazon.

Anyway, that's a weird non-issue that Trump just kind of threw out there. The antitrust issue is slightly more complicated, but largely localized to digital book sales, as I understand it. And even that argument is on pretty shaky ground:

Whether they like it or not, one of the main benchmarks for whether an antitrust offense has taken place is whether consumers have been harmed—and all the available evidence shows that Amazon’s behavior in the e-book market in particular has helped consumers by keeping prices low.

And what about the argument that Amazon is just using prices to lure book-buyers into its ecosystem, at which point it will jack prices up and reap the benefits of its monopoly? That would be bad, if anyone could actually show that it was happening—but it isn’t, at least not in any sustained or obvious way.

So Trump is just kind of making stuff up with regard to Amazon. He's just wrong. But even if Trump were right about taxes and antitrust, his comments regarding Bezos and the Washington Post would be unacceptable and chilling. An elected official implicitly warning the press against writing about him because he will use the power of the federal government to shut them down is wrong. It is immoral, it is un-American.

It is, in the end, a frightening glimpse into the mind of a man who cannot be trusted with the power of the presidency.

*Full disclosure: I write for the Post once a week. Indeed, I have written about Donald Trump himself in the Post, comparing him to Batman villains and also wondering if we should blame Aaron Sorkin for his straight-talking, tough-guy shtick.