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Is Dodging Taxes Ever a Winning American Protest?

The tax protest movement dons MAGA hats as Trump simps grapple with an election loss. Is it effective bargaining — or an empty threat?

A desperate, writhing mass of shameless society is descending upon America’s capitol today, ready to launch one final, wobbling Hail Mary as the rest of the nation awaits the congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral victory in November.

Consider it a mass funeral for the reign of Donald Trump — there’s no changing the inevitable, even if ghoulish extremists like House Rep. Louie Gohmert and Senator Tommy Tuberville want to throw a tantrum over it. The protesters can scream “Stop the Steal,” but they’ll mostly just be cozying up to Nazis and fascists in polo shirts while causing traffic jams.

What comes next for MAGA simps embroiled in denial, anger and bargaining? They can hardly tolerate the thought of living in a Biden-led country, and some have brainstormed a genius way to strike back at the heart of his administration: by not paying their federal taxes.

Withholding taxes as a form of political or moral protest has existed as long as taxation itself, with evidence that battles over taxation and refusals to pay played a role in destabilizing kingdoms as disparate as the Roman Empire and the Mayans. In more modern times, tax resistance has been defined by the moral cause of figures like Mahatma Gandhi, who rallied supporters to reject British taxation in India and led the Salt March in 1882, and the British suffragettes who formed the Women’s Tax Resistance League at the turn of the 20th century.

America saw its biggest mass tax resistance action during the Vietnam War, when a broad coalition of allies (including the Quakers, a gaggle of Nobel Laureates and the legendary folk singer Joan Baez) united in opposition to the invasion: some 20,000 Americans refusing to pay income tax, and another 500,000 rejecting a new telephone tax. Since the 1970s, however, no other cultural force has rallied the same energy around tax resistance. By the estimation of the advocacy group National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, there are only about 8,000 Americans who do so today.

Many of those people break the law over moral beliefs, as Gandhi and the Quakers did; others take it further and claim that U.S. tax law simply doesn’t apply to them, using a combination of perceived loopholes and “sovereign citizen” arguments to try and sidestep eligibility. (Wesley Snipes went to prison after trying this.) And more so than state or property taxes, the most popular target is the federal income tax — a tax that, for many, represents the tyranny of Big Guv’ment in a single form. You can opt to ignore your tax filing altogether, or file one with a letter or other statement of refusal to pay; many have instead shown evidence of a charitable contribution in the amount of taxes owed, not that this makes a legal difference to the IRS when they need to collect.

Whatever the method, leave it to Trump to be the catalyst for a new generation of people who want to dodge taxes. When he was first elected, a slew of disgusted progressives looked at his agenda to build a border wall, defund Planned Parenthood and escalate tensions with Iran, and basically decided they wanted nothing to do with giving money to his administration. Mia Farrow and Gloria Steinem were two major celebrities who captured headlines by pledging to withhold tax dollars from Trump, but ordinary Americans joined in, too.

“My tax money will be going toward putting up a wall on the Mexican border instead of helping sick people. It will contribute to the destruction of the environment and maybe more nuclear weapons. I think there will be a redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy elite and Trump’s campaign for the working man and woman was an absolute fraud. If you pay taxes, you are implicated in the system,” Andrew Newman, a professor of English and history at Stony Brook University on Long Island, declared to the Guardian in 2017.

Now, Trumpers in despair are claiming that they can’t live a conscientious life while Biden, uhhh, spends federal dollars on “antifa” (i.e., “fixing the vaccine rollout”) and “communism” (i.e., “struggling to get his climate plan off the ground”). And while it is true that the IRS fails to prosecute and collect from the vast majority who don’t pay their taxes correctly, the prospect of life-altering legal trouble hangs like a heavy fog over every person who resists taxation.

Ed Hedemann, the 75-year-old founder of the aforementioned National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, claims that he had to quit jobs constantly, close bank accounts and even ended up in federal court in 1998. The outcome was far worse for Massachusetts man Randy Kehler, who spent three months in a county jail and had his house seized by the feds after years of refusals to pay taxes as his protest against war. Then there are those who, with their backs against the wall, decided to escalate the fight literally. Edward and Elaine Brown, a middle-aged couple in New Hampshire, triggered a months-long armed standoff at their home after failing to pay taxes on their income ($1.3 million over five years). Their arrest in October 2007 led to a 12-year stint in prison for Elaine; meanwhile, Ed remains in a jail cell today.

Perhaps the most infamous of all is Andrew Joseph Stack III, the middle-aged man who flew his single-engine plane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas, as a form of suicidal revenge, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen others. Stack was being audited by the IRS for failure to report income, and his suicide note — a final manifesto, really — depicted an explicit distrust of the IRS, the American financial industry, corrupt politicians and the urgent need for direct action.

While such acts of violence are rare, experts have warned that tax protest is a gateway to much more politically extreme beliefs, especially given how the American tax protest movement attracts right-wing ideologues. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League note that because paying taxes is such a widely hated act, tax protest advocates can recruit from a very broad swath of people, anywhere in the country.

“Once involved with the tax protest movement, they become exposed to the beliefs and practices of other extremist movements. Many people begin their association with fringe groups by becoming tax protesters, then move on to the militia or sovereign citizen movements. They may also be exposed to Christian Identity or other racist or anti-Semitic ideologies as well,” the ADL concludes.

In that way, tax resistance in present-day America is influenced as much by the legacy of aggressive libertarianism — consider the Bundy family standoff — and right-wing notions of freedom as much as it is by the anti-war pacifism of the 1970s. And it’s no wonder why there are a lot of scam artists selling their proprietary formula for successful tax evasion under the guise of patriotic self-empowerment. Perhaps the biggest American figure in this racket is Irwin Schiff, the late tax protest icon who published several books and held endless seminars. Dozens of his followers have been convicted for tax evasion, and he himself died in prison at age 87.

Does the underlying purpose for tax resistance even justify a confrontation with the feds? The common edict of tax resisters is that with the right strength in numbers, Americans could bring elected officials and the government to their knees. But although some taxes are used expressly to, say, fund a war effort, for the most part, the federal budget has almost nothing to do with how much tax revenue is collected. The government creates and reallocates dollars seemingly out of the blue when it needs another nuclear submarine, after all; the wheel of American imperialism will continue to turn even if a hundred thousand people join forces to reject the income tax.

Frankly, it’s easier to imagine a general strike happening before a tax protest movement that gains a seat at the bargaining table. Especially in an economic crash, putting yourself at risk for huge, punishing debt to the government and jail time isn’t much of a sell. (Even Hedemann, the founder of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, recommends tax resisters maintain enough cash to pay if the IRS does come knocking).

Henry David Thoreau, Karl Marx, the father of anarcho-capitalism Murray Rothbard: The list of intelligent men who believed in tax protest is long and impressive, and the strategy just feels like a bold strike against the power of the state. Yet in 2021, the right-wing calls to withhold tax from Biden and Co. sound like hollow threats.

Buyer beware.