You might have missed it amid all the talk about pussy-grabbing, but Donald Trump made a startling admission during Sunday night’s presidential debate: For years, he paid no federal income tax. The confession confirmed a recent New York Times report that Trump declared nearly a billion dollars in lost income in 1995—a loss so large it offset his earnings for years afterward, thus allowing him to stiff Uncle Sam. (The tax code is structured such that if you report a huge loss one year, you can apply it to subsequent tax filings and cancel out an equivalent in taxable income.)
Now the Democrats are trying to make him seem unpatriotic for doing so. The accusations started in the vice presidential debate, when Tim Kaine suggested Trump’s not paying taxes made him a bad citizen. That’s money the country could have used for schools and military spending, Kaine explained. Kaine even went as far to invoke 9/11, suggesting Trump’s unpaid taxes hurt homeland security. Hillary Clinton echoed Kaine on Sunday, saying Trump paid nothing toward our veterans, our military or our education system.
The Democrats aren’t questioning the legality of Trump’s tax returns. As far as we know, Trump didn’t do anything illegal; he just took advantage of a tax system built in his favor. Rather, the issue Democrats are putting forward is whether Trump’s not paying federal income tax constitutes a breach of civic duty. Democrats frame Trump as being a bad American for not paying his “fair share,” while Trump has defended it as shrewd business.
On one hand, not paying taxes associates Trump with the “47 percent” Mitt Romney denigrated in the last presidential election—the supposedly freeloading Americans who don’t pay into the federal government. On the other hand, capitalism is a bedrock American value, and legally exploiting tax loopholes is a sound business decision. For some, avoiding taxes is as American as apple pie.
But is how much you pay into the government’s coffers truly reflective of your patriotism? And does avoiding income tax somehow make Trump unfit for the office of president?
According to civics and ethics experts, the answer to the first question is a resounding “No.” The answer to the second? “Possibly.”
“It’s not unpatriotic to follow the rules, even if that means you don’t pay much in taxes,” says Peter Levine, associate dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, which educates students on how to be active, effective citizens. That said, it was dumb of Trump to insist he’s “smart” for not paying taxes. That arrogance only invites scrutiny and contempt, Levine explains.
Brad Badertscher, professor of accountancy at the University of Notre Dame, says Trump acted as anyone would have in his position. The only difference is Trump is a billionaire, so it’s hard for the average citizen to empathize with the magnitude of his income loss.
“The tax system is designed to help people in difficult times, and tax them when they’re doing well. [Trump] had a difficult time [in 1995] and took advantage of the tax code to help him survive for the next 20 years,” Badertscher says. “If you have a home, you take the mortgage deduction. You don’t say, ‘I’m not taking it this year because I need to pay more taxes.’ … I don’t know anyone who voluntarily pays more to the IRS than they have to.”
But the ethics surrounding Trump’s tax avoidance get murkier when accounting for his shady “charity” dealings.
“One of the things that’s at the core of being patriotic is contributing to the well-being of the nation, serving people beyond just serving yourself,” says Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in civic education. And by that metric, Trump is a less-than-ideal American citizen.
Trump’s eponymous charitable foundation has been embroiled in controversy since it was reported Trump gave away less than $10,000 of his own money over the course of seven years, and that many of the organization’s donations were free rounds of golf at Trump-owned courses. Trump also has used his foundation to make political donations and buy a $20,000, 6-foot tall self-portrait.
“There seems to be total proof that Trump, in no way, tries to serve the public good in any of his dealings, financial or otherwise,” Levinson says. “Given that, it may be right to call him unpatriotic.”
Indeed, while it might be ethical for Trump to have not paid income tax, it’s nonetheless strange for a man to brag about not paying into the federal government, and then try to convince us he’s qualified to run it.
“Patriotism is a scale,” Levine says. “Very patriotic people live lives that actively benefit the public good. They serve in the military, even though the pay is lousy and they put themselves in danger.
“The extreme opposite is you break the law in your self-interest. Trump is certainly not breaking the law, but he’s also not making choices that are putting a priority on the common good.”