This is what Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns says about America. We are a nation that can’t think straight about wealth and class. And Trump knows better than to puncture our delusions.
The American psyche is hyper-attuned to the trinkets of the wealthy: the right car, the right brand of clothes, the right vacation spots. We flatter ourselves with our circumscribed access to these status goods – or perhaps we only dream of that access – but we fail to understand that they do not equate to real wealth.
The very rich are different from you and me. They have something we never will: the power of money. Their money is the kind that doesn’t go away with a divorce, an extended sickness, a dip in the markets or even the death of a high income earner. Theirs is the kind that owns politicians and the laws they make.
Real wealth, the multigenerational kind, is best hidden. And even though a tax return won’t reveal all there is to know, it will reveal enough.
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Trump told the Associated Press this week that nothing would be released until the government is through with its audit of him. The next day, Wednesday, he hedged a smidgeon to Fox News, saying he’d like to release the returns before the election. Don’t bet on that happening.
For one thing, if we were able to see how Trump’s fortune is structured and how much tax he pays on it, we would also be able to compute his liability under his proposed changes to the tax code. In other words, we would be able to approximate how much Trump stands to earn for himself and his heirs by pulling the strings of power. Is it any surprise he won’t go there?
Let’s take a closer look at the tax plan that he unveiled last fall. Plenty of experts have already done so.
As part of his populist appeal, Trump envisions simplifying the tax code and dismissing about 73 million households from paying any tax at all (most of those are already not paying). Those families will be able to submit a form to the IRS that says, “I win.” Yes, that is really his plan.
The cuts would lower taxes for people all income levels. But the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan but right-leaning watchdog group, noted “the biggest winners — in raw dollars and on a percentage basis — would be those in the top 10 percent of filers, particularly those in the top 1 percent.”
The top marginal rate for individuals would drop from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. The corporate rate would drop from 35 percent to 15 percent. He would do away with the estate tax. That adds up a lot of lost revenue — about $10 trillion over a decade, according to the Tax Foundation
Trump claims that the tax cuts would be made up for by closing some loopholes for the wealthy and corporations. But the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers and has deemed this to be wishful thinking. Severe cuts to spending would be necessary to avoid crushing growth in the national debt.
Wishful thinking is Trump’s stock in trade. Indeed, some speculate that another reason why he does not want the public to see his tax return is that his boasted wealth is squishier than he’d like to admit. Trump is notorious for overstating his attributes, and when it comes to his wealth he is especially touchy.
He sued former New York Times reporter Timothy O'Brien over the latter’s book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, which questioned Trump’s net worth. The book also explored if Trump convinced his siblings to borrow on his behalf from their trust funds to save him from financial ruin in the early 1990s. Trump’s lawsuit against O'Brien was dismissed.
Still, Trump is clearly rich to an extent most Americans cannot imagine. Oddly – and sadly – many tout this as an alluring quality. He’s so rich he can’t be bought, they say. This attitude reveals a pathetic inability to understand plutocracy, and its growing threat to our democracy. Americans continue to be suckered into unrealistic beliefs about their ability to upgrade their social class. Meanwhile, the policies and programs that are necessary to promote middle-class security are toppling one after another.
Donald Trump is not going to share his wealth with you, dear voter, or help you get rich on your own. He can’t. What worked for Trump will not work for you. His trick was the oldest one in the book: Have a rich daddy. And keep it in the family.
Reach Mary Sanchez is at firstname.lastname@example.org.