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Trump's Tax Problem
Lets make the NYT story a tale of a broken tax system, not just one broke tax cheat
The final stretch of every Presidential campaign is a ricocheting series of media cycles. The New York Times kicked off the next of these cycles on Sunday with a blockbuster story about Trump’s finances based on 18 years of tax return data.
The story paints a devastating portrait of Trump as a shitty businessman and tax scofflaw. According the New York Times:
As the president wages a re-election campaign that polls say he is in danger of losing, his finances are under stress, beset by losses and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt coming due that he has personally guaranteed. Also hanging over him is a decade-long audit battle with the Internal Revenue Service over the legitimacy of a $72.9 million tax refund that he claimed, and received, after declaring huge losses. An adverse ruling could cost him more than $100 million.
For more than five years, Democrats and the media have been salivating at the prospect of uncovering what exactly it is that Trump has gone to such unprecedented lengths to hide. It will probably be the biggest story in politics up until the moment Donald Trump and Joe Biden walk onto the debate stage on Tuesday night. In addition to confirming all our suspicions about Trump’s incompetence and corruption, the uncovering of Trump’s tax returns gives Democrats the opportunity to have the economic debate we have been craving since the campaign began.
Most of the early social media amplification of this story has been about dunking on Trump for being a terrible businessman. This is certainly understandable given the long-held, highly misplaced, deeply frustrating perception that Donald Trump’s career in business provides him special insight into the economy. The combination of Trump’s fake business career (thanks Jeff Zucker!) and the fact that he managed to not fuck up Barack Obama’s economy for 3.5 years have given Trump an aura of economic competence that still persists to this day. In a NBC/Marist poll released yesterday, 48 percent of Wisconsin voters believe Trump would be better at dealing with the economy compared to only 41 percent who believe Biden would be better. This result is stunning considering that the same poll found Biden leading Trump 52-44 in the horserace. It has been incredibly hard to break through with an economic message in a campaign occurring in the middle of a pandemic being massively mishandled by President who dominates the news with his own outrageous and absurd behavior. Hard to get a lot of coverage on an economic speech when a sitting President challenges his opponent to pee in a cup after falsely accusing him of using PEDs. But the opportunity to have that economic debate is before us — only if we can resist dunking on Trump long enough to drive a message that matters to persuadable voters.
Take the Story Bigger: It is absolutely critical that Democrats make this story about more than the finances of one corrupt, broke man. It needs to be a story about a corrupt and broken financial system that rewards the wealthy at the expense of the working and middle class. This is the system that Trump has taken advantage of and it’s a system that will only get worse if he gets reelected.
In Donald Trump’s America, millionaires can pay only $750 in Federal taxes and companies like Amazon can pay zero in taxes. For people like Donald Trump, tax rates have rarely been lower, but the cost of health care, retirement, food, and education are going up. There are two sets of rules in America — one for rich people like Trump and one for everyone else. Joe Biden wants take on this broken financial system, Trump wants preserve it so he can help himself and his rich friends.
The Biden campaign put out an excellent video that made this point by juxtaposing Trump’s meager tax bill with how much teachers and others pay in taxes. This video is a great asset for posting on social media and texting to your fence sitting friends and family members.
Plutocrat in Populist Clothing: There are never enough opportunities to remind voters that while Trump ran as a populist, he has governed as a plutocrat. In all of the polling I have seen, the most persuasive anti-Trump messages give voters specific, previously unknown information about how Trump’s policies help the wealthy and corporations. The conversation around Trump’s taxes are an opportunity to inform voters about how his economic plans help rich people like Trump and stick it to every one else.
Trump believes that the best way to help the economy is to keep taxes as low as possible for the wealthy and corporations. He believes that a millionaire paying $750 in taxes, while a teacher pays $7000 is an example of the system working. This is why one of Trump’s top priorities for a second term is to cut taxes for corporations and wealthy investors and paying for it by cutting Medicare and Social Security.
Trumps’ economic plans are so filled with so many sops to the wealthy that there are countless iterations of the above message that can be used. Here are some very useful factoids from the Biden-Harris Campaign website:
Trump wants to give the 10 richest billionaires – who have made a total of $196 billion this year amid the COVID-19 crisis – a combined $17.2 billion tax cut.
Trump wants to give the 50 richest billionaires – who have made $312 billion during the COVID-19 crisis – a combined $27.5 billion tax cut.
Trump wants to give the 100 richest billionaires – who have made $334 billion during the COVID-19 crisis, a combined $29 billion tax cut.
Under all scenarios, the goal is to use the conversation around Trump’s taxes to inform the public about his tax plan, not just his tax bill.
It’s All in the Details: In addition to the broad strokes, the report contains the sort of devastating details that have a long history of breaking through in American politics (i.e. John Edwards $400 haircut, Ronald Reagan’s $600 toilet seat, and Mitt Romney’s car elevator). The Venn diagram of people who read the New York Times story and subscribe to Message Box are most likely two completely overlapping circles. However, I pulled out the following details because I think are they are the ones most worth highlighting in conversations with voters.
Trump paid NO Federal income tax in 11 of the 18 years included in this report.
Trump’s tax bill the year he became President was a whopping $750.
Trump wrote off $70,000 worth of hair cuts as a business expense.
Ivanka Trump took a tax break on nearly a $100,000 worth of stylist bills.
Trump is the Problem, Biden is the Solution: Talking about why Trump is bad is enjoyable, but it is not enough. A big part of Trump’s economic advantage comes from a widespread lack of knowledge about Biden’s economic proposals. A long public conversation about taxes is an opportunity to change that. Every message about Trump and taxes need to be accompanied with specific information about how Biden would fix the broken financial system from which Trump benefits. Information on Biden’s economic plan can be found here. Some highlights:
$15 federal minimum wage
12 weeks paid family leave
Higher taxes on the wealthiest one percent and big corporations, while cutting taxes for the middle class
Free college for families making less than $125,000
Expanded rent subsidies for low-income families
Requiring the Federal Government to buy products made in America
Biden’s plans are popular and populist. People just need to know about them. The Biden campaign is doing their part by running ads in the battleground states. We can all do our part by turning the debate over Trump’s taxes into a bigger discussion about who can lead us out of the economic recession that Trump put us in. If Trump has his way, people like Trump will be fine no matter what, it’s everyone else that will be screwed.