Does It Really Matter That Trump Won’t Release His Tax Returns?
Presidential candidates in the United States are not required by law to release their tax returns. It’s more of an unspoken courtesy — one that’s been observed by every single viable candidate since 1973.
But Donald Trump is not an ordinary Presidential candidate, as he goes to great lengths to remind us just about every day.
Not only has every “major party” Presidential candidate released their tax returns, but every potential nominee has, as well. We’re talking about perhaps the most public job in the world, so making this simple gesture of transparency would seem to behoove a person who hopes to cultivate the public’s trust.
But does it matter, really? And does this controversy reveal something uncomfortable about our nation’s skewed priorities?
Trump’s Claim to Fame
Keeping his tax returns under wraps seems like an unusual omission for a man like Trump, who’s spent his entire life building his reputation on nothing more than his ability to conjure wealth, as though from thin air.
Emotionally healthy individuals find other ways to distinguish themselves, like cultivating rewarding relationships, inventing things or curing diseases. But Trump is his wealth. On the day he descended on his escalator in Trump Tower to declare himself a Presidential candidate, he brandished a document that he claimed served as proof of his enormous fortune — some $10 billion, by his reckoning. (The document literally spelled it out in all capital letters.) In the interminable months that followed, Trump hasn’t wasted even a single opportunity to remind the country that he’s “really, really rich.”
But what else could a man as morally bankrupt as Trump really have to brag about? His Scrooge-like pile of wealth is the only high ground he has to stand on.
Consider: Trump’s wealth and (highly dubious) business acumen are literally his only qualifications. Ask any Trump supporter why they’re supporting him, and the first thing they’ll say is, “He tells it like it is.” That’s preposterous for hundreds of reasons, obviously, but it’s almost always followed by their second claim: “He’s a great businessman.”
That, too, is basically absurd, considering the frequency with which Trump has run his companies into the ground. The point, though, is why such a fabulously wealthy and talented businessman would suddenly balk at revealing proof of said wealth.
He says it’s because he’s being audited. So fellow billionaire Warren Buffet (who’s also being audited) decided to call his bluff.
Maybe the real reason is because he’s not nearly as wealthy as he claims. A lot of people think that may be the case.
Trump, the DNC and … Russia?!
An even more incredible theory has arisen recently amid the flurry of controversy surrounding the Democratic National Committee’s damning email leaks, courtesy of WikiLeaks. What we know is that the DNC wasn’t half as impartial during the primary as they claimed (and as their own rules require them to be). The DNC is required to treat all Democratic Presidential candidates fairly, but the emails that came to light reveal they actively worked to undermine Bernie Sanders, even going so far as to plant moles within his campaign and conspiring with the media to out him as an atheist, among other things.
All of that is despicable behavior, obviously. And whether because there’s a kernel of truth in it or because the DNC is now invoking Soviet-era distraction tactics, America is now breathing the words “Russian spies” and “sleeper agents” for the first time in a generation. And at the heart of it all is — you guessed it — Donald Trump.
The public record shows that Trump has had a relationship with Putin for many years, but in just the last few weeks, Trump has made a point to flatly deny it. (Denying reality is another of his few talents.) The prevailing opinion is that Russian hackers were behind the DNC’s email leaks, but tinfoil-hat types have gone one step further and suggested that Trump put them up to it in order to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
To begin with, Hillary Clinton doesn’t need any outside help in sabotaging her campaign. Her talent for tone-deafness nearly rivals Trump’s, as does the size of her easily bruised ego. If this weren’t the case, she wouldn’t have hired legions of keyboard jockeys to “correct the record” (read: censor dissenting opinions) on online message boards like Reddit and Facebook. She wouldn’t conspire with Twitter to censor hashtags that tarnish her very carefully manicured public image.
Yes, let’s loop Hillary Clinton into this conversation. She’s done the “proper thing” in releasing her tax returns, but we’ve pretended like the mere furnishing of these documents is some kind of panacea. Making her tax returns public has no more salvaged the public’s unprecedentedly low opinion of her than it would salvage Trump’s — not when there are so many unanswered questions about the Clinton Foundation’s likely money-laundering practices. Clinton only actively addresses the issues on which she appears palatable in comparison with Trump — and the media acquiesces. Americans forced into litigation against the Tax Department lose about 73 percent of the time. Our public servants, meanwhile, almost always get a free pass.
And that’s the point. None of this hullaballoo about tax returns matters. At all.
If any of the hundreds of xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, uninformed, abusive and insane comments Trump has made in broad daylight haven’t managed to dent his Presidential prospects by now, nothing will. Certainly not the release of his tax returns.
Sure, Trump might be hiding something. Even ties to Moscow. But whatever it is, there’s no conceivable way that it could lower a rational human being’s opinion of him any further than it already is. If there’s a “rock bottom” a politician can sink to, Donald Trump found it a long time ago.
Let’s return to the question posed earlier and add a second: has Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns hurt his candidacy even one iota? And if he did release them, and they contained something damning, would his followers even care?
Probably not. But why?
One potential explanation has to do with the cult of personality Trump has managed to enshrine himself within. The myth has become far greater than the man himself — it’s the reason why deeply conservative folks stopped listening after they heard the words “America” and “Great Again.” They have somehow convinced themselves that a man who embodies, with perfect accuracy, virtually every failed Republican economic policy implemented over the last 100 years will suddenly lead to some great windfall, some rising tide, that will lift all the ships. When it comes to economics, Trump is as Republican as they come.
Whatever else he might be, Trump appears to be at least peripherally aware that this terrifying strain of fanaticism has attached itself to him. At a campaign rally earlier this year, he bragged that he could “shoot somebody” and not lose any voters.
The crowd went wild. One gets the sense they were not applauding in the name of irony.
Allow me a brief aside — I promise it’s related. If you’ve ever delved into the “debate” (the term is used here extremely loosely) between Bill “The Science Guy” Nye and Creationist standard bearer Ken Ham, you’ve seen this sort of logic on display for all the world to see. Toward the end of the debate, Ham is asked if anything could ever change his mind about his beliefs. He makes a show of thinking about it briefly, and then answers: “No, nothing.”
I mention this in the context of American politics for a very simple reason: there’s a huge overlap between self-identifying evangelicals and Trump supporters. Trump himself has bragged about this, of course (“they really do get me!”), laying bare once again his sad need to be loved by every single demographic.
The point is this: Trump appeals predominantly to people for whom evidence means nothing. No amount of fact-checking will ever be enough to sway them. You likely have a Trump supporter in your own life who struggles to elucidate precisely what they see in the man, or to name even a single concrete policy proposal he’s brought forth.
Trump is a litmus test for the United States. How many of us are failing it?
A Sad Little Footnote in History
Like everything else about Donald Trump, his refusal to play by the (admittedly unspoken) rules of Presidential candidacy is juvenile, but not particularly worrying. Urban Dictionary may have adopted the word “Trumpism,” but Merriam Webster never, ever will. If the tax return debacle is an ultimately inconsequential footnote in an already grotesque campaign, then the campaign itself is destined to become an equally sad little footnote in this country’s history. Calling him the “next Hitler” actually gives the man far more credit than he deserves.
One last point:
It says a lot about our country that one of the ways we judge a Presidential candidate’s “fitness” is the size of their tax return. That a man (or, yes, a woman) is grotesquely wealthy should itself be a red flag about their candidacy. A person who hasn’t driven their own car in 25 years has no business leading a country peopled predominantly by working-class folks. Neither does a man who has his name emblazoned in larger-than-life golden letters on the side of buildings built by underpaid illegal immigrants.
If Trump’s tax returns were the smoking gun we’ve been waiting for, we’ve been truly unobservant indeed.