Death of the Postal Service Would Hurt Trump’s Base Most of All

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s no surprise that President Donald Trump wants to let the U. S. Postal Service die.

Remember in the spring of 2018, when Trump created a task force to “conduct a thorough evaluation of the operation and finances of the USPS?” His primary complaint then — and presumably now — was not so much that the Postal Service was losing billions every year but that it was aiding and abetting Amazon.com Inc., whose chief executive is Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, which Trump despises. 

According to Trump, the Postal Service was delivering Amazon packages at a discount, which was supposedly adding to its growing deficit. Needless to say, that was exactly the opposite of the truth. Indeed, the Postal Service’s package business was one of the few areas where it made a profit.

Now it appears as if Trump is hoping to use the coronavirus crisis to finish off the Postal Service. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien pointed out in an earlier column, Postmaster General Megan Brennan has said the Postal Service needs $89 billion in federal aid or it will run out of money by the end of the year. 

But when Congress tried to add money for the Postal Service in the $2.2 trillion bailout bill it passed late last month, the administration insisted that the aid be stripped out of the bill before Trump would sign it. The Postal Service is now saying it will run out of money by September.

In his column, O’Brien explains why the Postal Service remains a vital service for the U.S. — especially rural America — and that the way to fix its woes is to free it from congressional mandates that prevent it from taking cost-saving measures and seizing new revenue opportunities. I’d like to point out something else: the sheer idiocy of trying to cripple it — especially right now.

There is both a business and a political dynamic, neither of which works in Trump’s favor. First, the idea that damaging the Postal Service will somehow hurt Amazon is ludicrous. It is true that the Postal Service performs an important function for the online giant. It delivers millions of packages “the last mile,” especially in rural communities that private delivery companies don’t serve. 

Let’s suppose the Postal Service could no longer perform that service, either because it ran out of money or because it was forced to end its contract with Amazon. The Postal Service would be hurt because it would lose a profitable line of business. But Amazon? It might become more profitable.

It has already begun establishing its own delivery services to cut back on tens of millions of dollars it pays to FedEx and United Parcel Service. It has long talked about using drones to deliver packages. Amazon would almost certainly use the end of its relationship with the Postal Service to extend its own delivery network into every nook and cranny in America. There are few companies as customer-obsessed as Amazon. You can bet that, having heard the president’s threats, it already has a plan to fill the vacuum should it lose access to the Postal System. To everyone but the president, this seems pretty obvious.

As for the politics, consider who would be hurt the most if the Postal Service went broke. The elites in the big, blue cities? Hardly. They use email and texts and go online to read their favorite magazines or conduct financial transactions. It’s the people in rural America, who often have substandard WiFi and mobile phone service and still count on mail delivery for, say, their Social Security checks, who would be hurt the most. That is, Trump would be hurting his supporters far more than his detractors.

Then there is the timing. If the post office were to go broke in late September, that would leave only five weeks or so before the presidential election. One theory holds that Trump wants to damage the Postal Service before the election to prevent voting by mail, believing that depressing the turnout will help his re-election chances. The recent Wisconsin results would seem to suggest that’s a fool’s errand.

But also, just imagine if Americans stopped receiving mail in October. Imagine if there were a delay in all those Social Security checks. Millions of people — millions of voters, many of them Trump supporters — would be furious. And though Trump would undoubtedly attempt to blame others, those voters would most likely blame him. Presidents simply don’t let the Postal Service go bust.

Which, for those of us who can’t wait for Trump to be swept out of office, might be the best-case scenario. So go ahead, Mr. President, keep putting the hurt on the Postal Service. By the time you realize what an enormous mistake you’ve made, it’ll be too late. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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