When Hillary Clinton pointed out in the first presidential debate that Donald Trump’s tax filings may indicate he had paid no federal income tax, he declared, “That makes me smart.” In the current context in which so many Americans are not only worried about gross economic inequality but also severely feeling the brunt of it in their everyday lives, such a statement might not be politically endearing.
On top of that, the very possibility that the wealthiest – those who have benefited most from our economic system – aren’t paying their fair share to fund schools, build roads, and sustain infrastructure (all of which make business possible), will more likely inflame outrage rather than inspire admiration for Trump’s self-proclaimed intelligence.
Nonetheless, the Trump campaign has chosen to double-down on this “smart” play, as evidenced by surrogates Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani touting Trump as a “genius” whose ability to avoid paying federal income taxes underscores his knowledge of the tax code and his acumen as a businessman and economic expert. They claim these skills are exactly what the country needs from its next leader.
Really? We need an underfunded public sphere in which we cannot afford to provide our citizens with quality education, in which our roads and bridges are crumbling, in which we cannot be assured clean drinking water?
The rich ride for free on public services
The wealthy benefit from these public services for which we all pay, but if you’re “smart” and rich, you get them without paying your fair share. It is really no surprise our nation has a $20 trillion deficit, a decaying infrastructure, and public education and health care systems that can at best be rated sub-par when compared with those of other industrialized nations.
Once upon a time, as Bernie Sanders liked to point out, in one of the most prosperous decades in this nation’s history, the top marginal tax rate was 90 percent, compared with 39 percent today. It should be easy to see why we have a government starving for revenues and a public sphere, on which all depend, characterized by social decay.
But beyond that, it doesn’t make Donald Trump’s avoidance of federal income taxes doesn’t make him “smart” or ingenious. Actually, this wily delight in his own smartness at not contributing to American society makes him decidedly un-American.
The issue of Trump’s taxes is far larger than Trump. Indeed, the prospect of a Trump presidency registers the extent to which American society has become unmoored – and the distance it has drifted – from the founding principles that really did make America great.
Personal wants versus greater good
During the formation of the American Republic, one of the great challenges facing the new nation, as it threw off monarchic rule, was that of figuring out how to make authority and liberty compatible. Authority was to be rooted in the people, not an authoritarian king.
As renowned American historian Gordon S. Wood persuasively details in his work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, the republic, in granting authority to the people, required a new kind of citizen, a new kind of person. If there was going to be “such a change in the nature of authority and magistracy,” according to Wood, “The people themselves must change as well.”
Since no authoritarian rule would exist to restrain people by fear or force, this great experiment of creating a polity committed to the liberty of its people required that the people take responsibility for themselves and act in such a way that they place the public good before their narrow private interests.
In a republic, Wood explains, “each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community – such patriotism or love of country the eighteenth century termed ‘public virtue.’ A republic was such a delicate polity precisely because it demanded an extraordinary moral character in the people. Every state in which the people participated needed a degree of virtue; but a republic which rested solely on the people absolutely required it.”
Self-government not selfishness
The idea espoused by Trump and his surrogates that he is smart, indeed a genius, for not contributing any of the wealth this nation gave him the opportunity and conditions to create is not just obnoxious and in poor taste. It reveals a selfishness deeply hostile to American freedom and democracy, not to mention deeply at odds with the nation’s founding values. Trump and his gang of thugs have in fact turned these founding values on their head.
We have to remember this is a man who in the middle of a presidential debate said, “That’s business,” when it came to making money from the foreclosure crisis. When he should have apologized for the deeply racist “birther movement,” he instead promoted his new Washington D.C. hotel. Speaking in Scotland at one of his golf courses after the Brexit vote, he celebrated that the fall in the pound following the vote would help business at his course.
Far from submerging his “personal wants to the greater good of the whole,” Trump has shown himself to be far more interested in using government to serve his private interests. He doesn’t ask what he can do for his country; he asks what our country can do for him.
As a nation, this election puts us at a crossroads as we seek solutions to the pressing problems facing Americans. As Wood reminds us, “In 1776, the solution to the problems of American politics seemed to rest not so much in emphasizing the private rights of individuals against the general will as it did in stressing the public rights of the collective people against the supposed privileged interests of their rulers.”
Trump, in seeking to rule, has revealed a desire to use the power of the presidential office to protect his privileged interests. He is a dinosaur still living in the glow of a Gordon Gecko “greed is good” ethos from the 1980s — an ethos we have seen devastate our country, particularly for the working class.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is tweeting at three a.m. about the need to expand opportunities for national service.
If making America great again means restoring and re-asserting public virtue as our central governing value, the choice should be clear.
The issue isn’t whether or not Trump is smart. The issue is that he wants to take America in a decidedly dangerous and un-American direction.