When Hillary Clinton pointed out in the first debate that Trump’s past available tax filings indicated he had paid no federal income tax, he declared, “That makes me smart.” Such a statement might not be politically endearing when so many Americans not only worry about the nation’s gross economic inequality but also severely feel its brunt in their everyday lives.
Moreover, that the wealthiest who benefit most from our economy aren’t paying their fair share to make it go—to fund the schools that educate our workers, to build the roads and sustain the infrastructure that make business possible, and so forth—will likely inflame outrage rather than inspire admiration for Trump’s self-proclaimed intelligence.
Nonetheless, the Trump campaign has chosen to double-down on this play. Surrogates Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani tout Trump as a “genius” whose avoiding paying federal income taxes underscores his knowledge of the tax code and his acumen as a businessman and economic expert, which, they claim, are what the country needs from its next leader.
Really? We need an underfunded public sphere s0 we cannot provide citizens with quality education, so our roads and bridges continue crumbling, so we cannot be assured clean drinking water? The wealthy benefit from these public services for which, presumably, we all pay, although it seems that not all of us are in fact paying their share. It is really no surprise our nation has a twenty trillion dollar deficit, a decaying infrastructure, and public education and healthcare systems that can at best be rated sub-par when compared with those of other industrialized nations.
Once upon a very prosperous time in our nation, as Bernie Sanders often reminded us, 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, especially the wealthy, characterized by social decay.
Beyond the fact that Trump isn’t “smart” to avoid paying federal income taxes, thus impacting negatively the health of system that made him wealthy, this delight in not contributing to American society makes him decidedly un-American.
The issue of Trump’s taxes is larger than Trump. The prospect of a Trump presidency registers the extent to which American society has become un-moored — and the distance it has drifted – from the founding principles that really did make America great.
Reviewing the American Republic’s founding in the late eighteenth century, we will remember the great challenge facing the new nation was figuring out how to make authority and liberty compatible. Authority was to be rooted in the people, not an authoritarian king. As American historian Gordon Wood details The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, the republic, in granting authority to the people, required a new kind of citizen. 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 restrain people by fear or force, this experiment of a polity committed to liberty required people place the public good before 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.”
The idea that he is ingenious for not contributing any of the wealth this nation gave him the conditions to create is not just obnoxious, it reveals a selfishness hostile to American freedom and democracy, not to mention being deeply at odds with the nation’s founding values. Trump and his gang turn these founding values on their head.
Remember, Trump, in the middle of a debate when he should have been speaking about how to improve Americans’ lives, promoted his new Washington D.C. hotel; and when speaking at his Scotland golf courses after the Brexit vote, celebrated that the pound’s devaluation would help business at his course. Far from submerging his “personal wants to the greater good of the whole,” Trump reveals more interest 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.
This election represents a crossroads in addressing our pressing problems. 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 demonstrates a desire to use the presidential office to serve his interests. He is a dinosaur rioting in a Gordon Gecko “greed is good” ethos from the 1980s, which devastated our country, particularly for the working class.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton tweets at three a.m. about expanding national service opportunities.
If making America great again means 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 that would have our founders turning in their graves.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.