The words were an affront to the standards to which American citizens hold their elected leaders.
The words were uttered by the presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. No, they were not the lewd, obscene, repulsive words describing what he does to women on a video recording that became public last weekend amid national revulsion.
These Trump words—“that would make me smart” and “of course”—were innocuous compared to his vulgar bragging about sexually assaulting women, but they said as much about his fitness to be president as his crude boasts.
In the first presidential debate, Trump said it would be “smart” to avoid paying taxes. His “of course” in the second debate Sunday night in response to a question about avoiding federal taxes confirmed that he has gone for years without paying them.
Americans don’t think it’s smart to avoid taxes. They think it’s wrong.
Annual surveys have consistently shown that Americans believe they have a responsibility to support their federal government by paying taxes. When asked in polls whether it is “every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes,” more than 90% have answered yes year after year.
Trump’s long suspected tax avoidance was revealed when parts of his 1995 federal tax return surfaced. The documents showed he claimed a loss of $916 million in a real estate venture, allowing him to avoid paying federal taxes for as long as 18 years.
Trump and his defenders claim the use of a tax code loophole that allows some real estate losses to offset personal taxes for years after the loss occurred was legal. It may have been legal, but this should not be mistaken for a case of an unlucky entrepreneur getting a break on taxes after a business disaster. For Trump, finding ways to avoid paying taxes has been an ongoing wealth-building strategy carried out by teams of accountants and lawyers.
When those polls about tax-paying ask Americans what bothers them most about taxes, more than two-thirds say it’s wealthy people and corporations that are not paying their fair share.
Even though the tax-avoidance cat is out of the bag, Trump still refuses to make his current tax returns public. It is reasonable to assume this is because they would provide more evidence of his shirking the civic duty of paying taxes.
The hypocrisy of a presidential candidate who does not pay federal taxes calling for billions of dollars in increased military spending and billions more to be spent on political campaign bullet points ranging from airports to border walls while at the same time reducing the national debt is breathtaking.
Those burdens would be carried by Americans who are not “smart” enough to avoid paying taxes. That describes most Americans. The United States has one of the highest rates of tax compliance in the world, with 83% of the country’s total tax liability paid on time.
Many of those who pay taxes as a duty to their country are men and women who are working hard to stretch their incomes to support a decent life for their families. Stretching his income has not been a problem for the candidate who pays no federal taxes, except perhaps when, as the New York Times reported, banks took control of failing Trump casinos and as a condition for additional loans required him to live on a monthly allowance of $450,000 “for personal and household spending.”
One of the riddles of this presidential election is how a candidate who protects enormous wealth by avoiding taxes can retain the allegiance of the white men angry over their economic state who are said to be his core supporters. Does it bother them at all that the candidate whose one-month spending allowance was more than the the balances in most Americans’ 401(k) or pension accounts pays no federal taxes?
Vanessa Williamson, author of the book “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes,” summarized the data about Americans’ views on the civic responsibility to pay taxes like this: “When the wealthy avoid paying taxes, it does not impress average people, it offends them.”