The Real Reason Jeff Bezos Grinds Trump's Gears
(Bloomberg View) -- As if he weren’t in enough trouble already, President Trump took to Twitter Wednesday to attack America’s most trusted brand: “Amazon is doing great damage to tax paying retailers. Towns, cities and states throughout the U.S. are being hurt - many jobs being lost!”
Why would a supposedly jobs-obsessed president denounce a company that’s in the midst of a giant hiring spree — with many of those jobs going to workers (and men!) without college degrees? If he wants to condemn a leading U.S. company, why not pick on Google, which is fast becoming a conservative symbol of politically correct intolerance? That at least would be popular with his base.
In fact, Trump’s irritation isn’t really with Amazon. Rather, he is obsessed with Jeff Bezos, whom he keeps denouncing by name. The guy clearly gets under his skin.
The obvious reason is that Bezos — not Amazon, Mr. President — owns the Washington Post. But Trump’s obsession seems a little too personal to be about the Post alone. After all, he regularly attacks the New York Times without mentioning the Ochs-Sulzberger family or Carlos Slim.
Rather, the very existence of Bezos seems to drive Trump crazy. Trump’s image, to himself and his fans, is that of alpha male — the dominant primate in the room. Simply by going about his business (and largely ignoring Trump), Bezos refutes that claim. He is a far more admired and influential businessman than Trump and, of course, immeasurably richer. (Bezos doesn’t have to hide his financial records to maintain the appearance of wealth.) Yet he’s the opposite of Trump in nearly every dimension. (Bezos and I have mutual friends and, although it’s been years, we’ve seen each other socially on rare occasions.)
Start with appearance. Trump, who likes his staff to have the right “look,” would never cast a wiry guy who doesn’t hide his lack of hair as a big-time businessman. How can someone only five-foot-nine intimidate people into submission? In Trumpworld, intimidation, not value-creation, is what business is all about.
Bezos also has a sense of humor, often at his own expense, and a famously raucous laugh. Trump is humorless. He certainly doesn’t laugh at himself.
Bezos speaks clearly and has amazing message discipline even by the standards of successful CEOs — something that struck me when I first interviewed him way back in 1996. Trump: not so much.
Trump grew up rich, went to private schools, and had an undistinguished college career. Bezos grew up middle-class, went to public schools, and knocked the top out of Princeton, graduating with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa in electrical engineering and computer science. One had a rich father; the other has brains.
And then there are their families. Bezos is famously close to his. “They are such a normal, close-knit family, it’s almost abnormal,” a friend told Vogue when the magazine profiled his novelist wife MacKenzie in 2013.
Theirs is to all appearances a love match of mutually admiring equals. “I think my wife is resourceful, smart, brainy, and hot, but I had the good fortune of having seen her résumé before I met her, so I knew exactly what her SATs were,” Bezos told Vogue, punctuating the remark with his famous laugh. By contrast, Trump treats his family, and above all his wife, as mere props for his personal glorification.
The biggest difference is that Bezos projects the self-confidence of someone with nothing to prove. “I don’t think he’s a showman,” Amazon board member Patty Stonesifer told Wired in a 1999 profile of Bezos, “but people are drawn to him because he seems unbelievably like a winner. And they want to help him win.”
Trump, by contrast, projects thin-skinned insecurity. And in his zero-sum world there can be only one winner. The question dogging Amazon’s stock price is how much damage the president might do to this American success story in order to serve his personal pique.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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