One of the most heated exchanges in last night’s presidential debate concerned Donald Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public.
Releasing personal income tax returns from the past several years has become customary for major-party presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton suggested that Trump must be “hiding something” – perhaps that he hadn’t paid any federal tax at all.
“[T]he only years that anybody’s ever seen,” Clinton said, “were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.”
“That makes me smart,” Trump interjected.
“So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health,” Clinton went on, zeroing in on the issue from what should be the most effective angle – because yes, it is federal taxes that pay for the military, for schools, etc.
When she repeated a moment later, “And maybe because you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years,” Trump interjected again:
“It would be squandered, too, believe me.”
Trump’s attitude on avoiding paying income tax resonates with voters who pick up on it. First, it makes him “smart” – able to avoid paying taxes without (as far as we know) breaking the law. That’s a secret dream for many middle-class Americans.
Second, money he did pay in “would be squandered.” Isn’t that how so many of us feel? No doubt some of it would be wasted, on ill-conceived military adventures like the Iraq War, or on paying too much for medications because Congress won’t allow Medicare to bargain for better prices.
The fact is that Trump’s alleged ability to finagle his way around paying federal income tax doesn’t make him seem like a sleaze. Quite the opposite: It makes him a hero.
On a gut level, no one likes the income tax. American taxpayers, conservative or liberal, wish (secretly or otherwise) that they could either weasel their way out of it, or earmark their money for only the programs and policies they support. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s an honest one.
Trump’s revealing asides during the debate show that in this narrow but resonant sense, he’s just like the average American.
Why not release his tax returns, then? Well, Trump may still be worried that many voters would frown on a very rich man avoiding income tax while they, with their vastly more limited incomes, are unable to do so. Or, as Clinton hinted, he may be hiding something more damning.
We may never know; there’s no law requiring Trump to release his tax returns.
But either way, Democrats shouldn’t expect to score major political points by implying, or even showing, that Trump doesn’t pay his taxes. It just puts him in a place where we all, at least on some level, wish we could be.