Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime, Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: Erica Pandey/Axios

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In the 1980s, Walmart was the archvillain of capitalism: the ruthless killer of main streets and mom-and-pops, outrageously profitable and, by all appearances, unstoppable. Now, the 57-year-old retailer has a new role in American society: the anti-Amazon.

What's happening: Amid a decade-long era of heady corporate profits, vast numbers of workers feel untethered, distrustful and without a sense of belonging and dignity. Amazon, like the rest of Big Tech, is being swept up in this crisis of faith, villainized for its very bigness.

  • In many ways, Amazon is quickly becoming the new Walmart — demonized for killing malls, bookstores and toy shops, and feared by industry after industry for the off chance it may decide to swallow up yet another business.
  • In New York, as we reported yesterday, Amazon is the target of a massive campaign accusing it of greed for the $3 billion in breaks it has received to build a new headquarters employing some 25,000 high-paid workers.

Walmart — at least in rhetoric — is attempting to move into the breach. Out of sheer necessity to survive the Amazon juggernaut's retail onslaught, it is casting itself as the foil.

  • Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

The rebrand has its skeptics: Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell University, tells Axios: “I’m sure Walmart wants to position itself as a small-town business, but that’s just not true. Walmart is still a 500-pound gorilla.”

  • With $500 billion in revenue last year, Walmart remains by far the biggest company by sales in the U.S., and is no less ruthless than it ever was, Hyman said.
  • Its own e-commerce business is ballooning every quarter.

Yet Walmart's rebranding appears to have traction: With a network of some 4,700 stores that are within 10 miles of 90% of Americans, Walmart is perhaps better positioned than any government agency, think tank or company to take the economic pulse of the U.S. It is using that on-the-ground presence to position itself as a champion of distressed and alienated America.

On stage at a conference in Bentonville today, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon sat across from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who asked him the ultimate question: How will you stay relevant?

McMillon said: "There’s a strong and heavy dose of humanity in it. ... A differentiating characteristic of our company will be that we still care about people, and they know it."

  • Walmart, McMillon said, wants to be the most trusted company in the U.S.
  • When people walk into a Walmart, he wants them to feel, "I belong here."
  • His themes squarely attack weaknesses that economists have criticized in the current U.S. system: that Americans feel less and less a sense of esteem and belonging, whether it's to a job or community.

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