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Our Very American Hatred of Taxes

Making electoral hay out of Trump’s fishy accounting is harder than it looks

So. Meticulous reporting by journalists of the New York Times has thoroughly confirmed much of what we suspected of Donald Trump’s financial standing. The simplest takeaway is that the president’s empire — the hotels, golf courses and international real estate licensing — is a total fugazi. Behind the marketed image of an alpha dealmaker, Trump is actually hundreds of millions in debt, with properties losing comparable sums. 

As ever, the president’s expansive grifting overwhelms the reader with too many storylines to follow: The Times has helpfully condensed 18 major revelations in a separate article just to help you keep it all straight. But what will the Democrats focus on? The way his personal loans and entanglements leave him susceptible to foreign influence? The questionable “consulting fees” his company pays his daughter, Ivanka? His constant and catastrophic mistakes as a businessman? Or maybe Joe Biden will attack him with the galling number that leads the exposé — $750, the federal income tax Trump paid in both 2016 and 2017, after years in which he sometimes paid nothing.

The line that Trump is a tax cheat — comparisons to Al Capone were immediate on Twitter — is tempting in its clarity and promise of outrage. And the specific amount of $750 seems well-calibrated to stick in voters’ minds, not unlike Mitt Romney’s infamous disparagement of “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax. But compared to the rest of what we’ve learned from Trump’s returns, this likely worries the president’s team the least. In a 2016 debate, Hillary Clinton accused him of exactly these accounting shenanigans, and he owned it: “That makes me smart,” he bragged.

In a party that has hammered taxes as inherently bad and unjust for decades, this was a canny bet. His supporters loved that he stiffed the bean-counters. He was a “genius.”

Which brings us to the question of illegal versus unethical money maneuvers. You might be mad that you paid more than Trump, but it’s not against the law to exploit the tax code as it’s written; with lackeys working around the clock to nail down every last deduction, it’s feasible to zero out your payment — as Amazon did with global revenue of $232.9 billion in 2018. In this context, our villain is the greater expanse of capitalist institutions, not Trump, who is doing what one does with privilege and opportunity in this kind of system. Where a candidate like Sen. Bernie Sanders would be well-positioned to fold this into an argument about a rigged economy and the need to dismantle its very foundation, Biden sounds ready to hammer Trump as a unique scoundrel instead of blasting the IRS for declining to audit the rich as they ruthlessly target the poor and nonwhites. And wouldn’t that resonate with the Democratic base on a gut level?

Giving Trump room to dunk on the Internal Revenue Service (again) is dangerous because, well, it’s hard to root for the agency that takes a cut of your paycheck. Nor do we have any tradition of pride in paying taxes — except when it gives us the status to deny others support. (The writer Kaitlyn Greenidge recently pointed to a 2010 dialogue between Toni Morrison and Angela Davis in which Morrison knowingly comments that to self-identify as a “taxpayer” is to cast hateful judgment upon the homeless, recipients of welfare, et al.) Nobody says, on April 15th, “Gee, it’s so nice that I’m paying for schools and roads,” as the prevailing assumption is this money will always be misspent by a parasitic bureaucracy, probably on $14,000 toilet lids.

Therefore, it is almost patriotic to bend the rules. You’re supposed to lie and fudge the numbers, in keeping with the American history of schemes and scams — each man for himself and his piece of pie.

The U.S. was founded, in part, on the ideal of “no taxation without representation.” After decades of right-wing rhetoric condemning the mere idea of pooling resources for the collective good and public services, a slogan that we’re all taught in school as key to modern democracy, has been boiled down to “taxes bad.” There’s no shortage of extremists who consider the IRS a bastion of evil — 10 years ago, a guy flew a plane into their Austin, Texas, office in an act of suicidal terrorism — yet the hardcore libertarians waving the Gadsden flag worry only about what is taken from them, and not, say, withheld statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the citizens who pay their share but can’t elect voting members of Congress.

Where the presidential race is concerned, there may remain some undecideds — people who can still be swayed one way or another. Of the discoveries in Trump’s tax record, though, the $750 payment is the most unsurprising and the weakest avenue of persuasion for an apathetic, unengaged swing voter. Like so many limp assaults on Trump, it hinges on a sense of shame and hypocrisy that neither he nor his enablers possess. Besides, he hid these documents to conceal his failures, not his victory in screwing big government. And the evidence of his inability surrounds us anyway; we live his failure from week to week. The story matters, it is damning, and Biden should slug him with it. At the same time, he must be wary of the sympathies that attach to anyone resisting the taxman. In favorable light, they can even strike a heroic pose. 

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