Donald Trump's Taxes Say More About America Than They Do About Him

Trump's tax evasion is a reminder that rich people don't believe that they have an obligation to pay taxes and, instead, consider them an unacceptable burden.
Publish date:
October 3, 2016
politics, voting, class war, HIllary Clinton, Donald Trump

This weekend, some sainted individual in the depths of Trump Tower kindly wrote the next chapter in my ongoing but currently 22-segment Donald Trump RPF by leaking his 1995 tax return to the New York Times, which promptly printed it, because as we all know, the media are almost as mean as Secretary Hillary Clinton. The backstory alone on how that tax return made it to the front page reads like something out of a lurid detective novel, but suffice it to say it is legit enough that the Times claims the Trump campaign threatened to sue if it was released.

As the man of the hour would say, this is very bad. Terrible. Actually, that's not what he said at all; I'm just being a disgusting reporter and making things up. Here's what he actually said:

But, like, seriously. This is bad. For the three people in the known world who haven't clapped their eyes on these documents yet, they show a $916,000,000 loss in 1995, which would have allowed him to effectively avoid paying income taxes for almost two decades. That loss, it should be noted, comes from his casino investments, among other things, which many people are finding quite ironic. It's also significantly more than, say, 2014's median income of about $53,000.

Put it this way: Donald Trump lost more in 1995 than I, and, in fact, many Americans, will likely ever make in our entire lives. Unlike Donald Trump, I cope with my catastrophic failure at business by filing seemingly endless tax extensions and having long conversations with very polite IRS agents (who, incidentally, use aliases because they're so universally reviled).

But I do, in the end, pay my taxes, along with associated interest and penalties for being utterly incapable of paying them on time, largely because, like much of America, I make too little to hide my actual income, and, like the growing ranks of independent contractors across America, I have an artificially high tax bracket because I both pay income taxes and self-employment taxes. When I hang out with my rich friends during tax season, I frequently question what I did wrong. Then I liberate their mini soaps and toilet paper, because it's not like they go in the downstairs half guest bath anyway.

When it comes to the disparity in paying taxes, people are fond of bringing up the Warren-Buffett-and-his-secretary analogy (the billionaire can hide his income, his secretary cannot, ergo he pays a lower tax rate, even if he pays more in taxes, than his secretary does). In this case, though, many of us are literally, not just proportionally, paying more taxes than Donald Trump.

The Donald's taxes reveal an awkward tension: Padding out losses to lower your tax liability is indeed, as he told Secretary Clinton during the debate last week, "smart." Corporations want to reduce their tax liability because it increases profits, and in the case of publicly traded companies, they have an obligation to shareholders.

People who itemize their taxes, whether they make $51,000 or $51,000,000, all attempt to limit their tax liability, because very few people actually enjoy paying taxes. Very few Americans stoutly refuse to claim their standardized deduction/itemize or claim any relevant exemptions. Let's be real.

However, the revelation also looks really, really bad, in light of his ongoing dodging about publishing his tax records (Secretary Clinton kindly posted them on her website rather than using a cloak and dagger maneuver with the Times). It also doesn't look so great in light of the fact that he's repeatedly positioned himself as a good businessperson — the best.

Yes, the same Atlantic City that he laid ruin to.

So Donald Trump hates taxes and declared a massive loss to avoid paying them. Soooooo that loss is pretty massive, even for a "smart" businessperson trying to dodge tax liability, which makes him look more like a failed businessman than someone who's sharp with money. It makes him look, honestly, like the king of debt. And we can all have a good snark session over that.

But what it really reveals is something important, and deeper, about his position on taxes. We know that Trump claims he wants to lower taxes to promote business (because this has been on the Republican platform since 642 BCE), and he is of course gunning to eliminate the estate tax, because entrenching inherited wealth is an American value. He has also claimed that he will lower taxes for the middle class. In fact, analysis of his proposed tax policy indicates that he will raise the middle-class tax burden.

Secretary Clinton, by contrast, says she will keep base tax rates more or less the same, though she wants to add a 4 percent surcharge on taxes for those earning over $5 million — not the top 1 percent but the top 0.1 percent — and wants a minimum base tax rate of 30 percent for those making over $1 million.

Donald Trump's flagrant tax evasion shouldn't surprise anyone with a pulse in the United States. But it is a reminder that rich people don't believe that they have an obligation to pay taxes and, instead, consider them an unacceptable burden. Donald Trump is not alone in feeling put upon because he is expected to share in the cost of maintaining society, and the people who complain about taxes aren't just fiscal conservatives, or even conservatives in general. There are plenty of liberal rich people who engage in the same kinds of shenanigans.

The rest of us slobs, regardless as to our personal opinion on taxes (for the record, taxes are fine; I would prefer that they be spent more efficiently and that corporations and rich people actually pay them), don't have the money and resources to cleverly hide how much we earn. We also don't have income that's well suited to quietly concealing: When you earn money by working, as opposed to sitting around on piles of money and waiting for it to earn interest, the tax structure treats you differently.

Even Secretary Clinton's tax proposal, which Trump is waving about as though it's the end of the world, won't actually have much of an effect on rich people. Because they can always afford the attorneys and accountants they need to shuffle money around in a complicated shell game, ensuring that no one knows quite how much money they have, and that they're never actually obliged to pay much in the way of taxes. Certainly Secretary Clinton and her husband would have a slightly higher tax liability under her plan, but it wouldn't be much of one.

The thing we should be angry about here is not that Donald Trump doesn't pay taxes. It's that he doesn't pay taxes and wants to ensure a world where people like him never will. It's also that Secretary Clinton's plan doesn't really hold the super rich, or the corporations that make them rich, accountable — both candidates are upholding the status quo. Trump may be doing it more flagrantly with slashes to corporate tax rates and the like, but don't fool yourself: Secretary Clinton's tax plan may sound seductive from a distance, but it won't make much of a difference, even with the elimination of some key loopholes and steps to crack down on inversions.

And neither, for those rushing to their keyboards, would any proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders. Because it is wealth and power that dictate policy in this country, and people stay wealthy and powerful by not meeting their tax obligations.

Voter registration and absentee ballot request deadlines are looming, some as early as this weekend. So don't boo, vote. And remember to vote all the way down the ticket, because if you want meaningful change in America — no matter what that change looks like for you — we need the Congress, and state houses, and state officials, and local governments, to back it up.