Those who watched Saturday Night Live this weekend and had never heard of a company called Amazon would be forgiven for assuming that its CEO, Jeff Bezos, was a benevolent champion of the working man, fighting the good fight against our president.
That would be nice if it were true! Unfortunately, it is not.
In a sketch during the November 17 episode, host Steve Carell wears a bald cap for Bezos cosplay and implies that his strategy for choosing Long Island City, Queens, and Crystal City, Virginia, for Amazon’s new headquarters was a direct troll of President Trump. The evidence? Trump grew up in Queens and currently lives in DC. That’s about it.
To the extent that the sketch works at all, it only does so because of the very public longstanding rift between Bezos and Trump. While it hinges on the assumption that Trump despises Bezos for being “literally 100 times richer than him,” the president has also accused Amazon of not paying taxes, misusing the US Postal Service, monopolistic practices, and using the Washington Post, which Bezos also owns, as a “lobbyist” for Amazon. As Vox’s Emily Stewart noted, many of these claims are dubious, and the idea of a president targeting a single company over a personal issue is disturbing.
But it also doesn’t mean that Amazon is in any way a victim here, even though viewers of SNL might have received a different message. During Weekend Update, Colin Jost dismissed valid criticisms against Amazon’s choice to build its new headquarters in New York City by claiming that New York “basically won the lottery” and that concerns about the effects on the city were equivalent to whining about more crowded subways. (It did not help that Amazon reportedly ran a holiday ad during the broadcast.)
And Jeff Bezos is certainly not the portrait of the #resistance that Saturday Night Live would like to paint him as. Bezos is the richest man in history. He has almost as much money as Bill Gates, the former richest man in history, and Warren Buffett, the former second-richest man in history, combined. He is so rich that there is a popular game in which your only job is to spend all of Jeff Bezos’s money, and the game is extremely difficult.
And unlike many other famous billionaires, Bezos does not give very much money to charities that desperately need it, or pay very much in taxes so that a fraction of that wealth could be put to use for the good of society. He also fought to repeal a tax that would have funded affordable housing and homelessness initiatives in Amazon’s home base of Seattle.
Bezos also does not seem to treat his own employees particularly decently. Workers at Amazon’s fancy Seattle headquarters have described a cutthroat office environment with grueling hours and expectations, whereas those in its many fulfillment centers have had to rely on food stamps and subsidized housing while also undergoing constant video surveillance and timed bathroom breaks.
starting to think this show sucks extreme amounts of shit pic.twitter.com/liMDK1hVcv— Chase Woodruff (@dcwoodruff) November 18, 2018
Still, SNL’s sketch presents Bezos as a capitalist folk hero for “standing up to Trump,” when the reality is that Bezos has said or done virtually nothing to oppose him; after the president’s harsh words for the company, the CEO said rather diplomatically that “I expect us to be scrutinized.” And Jost’s Weekend Update remarks trivialize New Yorkers’ problems, implying that they should be grateful they don’t work in a West Virginian coal mine — which ignores the very real economic effects that an Amazon headquarters will have on low-income workers in New York City. Crowded subways will be the least of their concerns.
The framing of Amazon’s new headquarters as having anything to do with Trump automatically leaves Bezos, bafflingly, as the protagonist. That’s how it works in the world of SNL, which saw massive success by going all-in on the president and now struggles to write a topical sketch that isn’t a lazy Trump joke. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff noted in 2017, “[SNL] treats Trump not as a dark portion of the American psyche that floated to the top, but rather as an aberration.”
Trump despising Jeff Bezos does not make Bezos a champion of the people. It is possible for two people to be bad. It is also possible for a 40-year-old sketch show to sometimes be bad.