Donald Trump is wearing America out, or wearing America down – and this seems to be working. The absurdities pile up and his poll numbers go up, perhaps because no one can keep up with it all, and this week ended with a flurry of absurdities, including this one:
Once again thumbing his nose at a time-honored tradition, Donald J. Trump said Friday that he does not believe voters have a right to see his tax returns, and he insisted it was “none of your business” when pressed on what tax rate he pays.
The remarks from Mr. Trump signal that he has little intention of disclosing verifiable details of his income or what fuels his wealth, a matter of endless speculation for a candidate who boasts of being a billionaire many times over despite his past brushes with bankruptcy and increasing reliance on celebrity-oriented income and licensing deals that use his name.
What you thought was normal was not:
While not required to release their tax returns, all the major party presidential nominees have done so for roughly the past four decades, including President Richard M. Nixon, who released them despite undergoing an Internal Revenue Service audit. Mr. Trump has cited continuing IRS audits of his taxes in refusing to release his returns.
When Mr. Trump was asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” whether he thought voters had a right to see his returns, he replied, “I don’t think they do.”
They’ll just have to trust that he’s a responsible businessman and an upright citizen, as he says he is, and if they don’t trust him, that’s their problem, not his, and that wasn’t all:
When asked by the interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, what effective tax rate he pays, Mr. Trump said, “It’s none of your business.” He added, “You’ll see it when I release, but I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”
Yeah, so what? That’s in spite of how these things usually work:
The release of tax returns bedeviled Republicans during the 2012 presidential election, when Mitt Romney delayed releasing his until September. His effective tax rate, which was below 20 percent, was used by President Obama’s team to lampoon him as a wealthy corporate raider who was out for himself and who could not understand how regular people lived. Mr. Trump has said that Mr. Romney erred in waiting so long to release his taxes and should have done so sooner.
But he’s not going to release his at all. Perhaps only little people, like Mitt Romney, have to do such things, and the conventional attacks began:
As the issue of Mr. Trump’s returns bubbled up over the past week, Democrats treaded relatively lightly on the matter, particularly since Hillary Clinton faces pressure to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs. But on Wednesday Mrs. Clinton seized on Mr. Trump’s reluctance to release his returns.
“So you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Why doesn’t he want to release them?'” Mrs. Clinton said on Wednesday. “Yeah, well, we’re going to find out.”
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent thinks that might be a miscalculation:
Trump’s claim that his tax rate is “none of your business” is generating buzz this morning. But the more important quote is his boast that he “fights very hard to pay as little tax as possible.” He deliberately repeated this, as if to make sure we would not miss it.
In one sense, this is dream fodder for Democratic ads, particularly since Dems are hoping to continue pressuring Trump to release his returns, and to portray his refusal to do so as evidence he’s trying to hide shady or immoral business practices, a line of attack that was probably effective against Mitt Romney in 2012.
But Trump plainly sees this as a positive for him, and that goes to the heart of his whole case for the presidency.
That goes like this:
In the interview, Trump said that he fights to keep his tax burden low because government “wastes” our tax dollars. Trump’s immediate goal is to undercut the potency of the attack on him over taxes: By openly boasting that he works to keep his tax burden low, he hopes to dispel the notion that he’s hiding something.
There’s more to this, though. With Dems likely to grow more aggressive in unearthing and targeting Trump’s business past, his pushback on whatever revelations pop up will basically be this: You’re damn right I’ve been a scummy businessman. Now I want to be a scummy businessman on your behalf and on America’s behalf.
It cannot be overstated how important this idea is to his candidacy, and indeed, to his entire self-created mystique. The idea is that, having long been a member of the elite that has milked the corrupt system for decades, he is very well positioned to end their scam – he knows how it works from the inside – and reform that corrupt system.
There is a method to this:
On the topic of campaign finance, Trump has said this explicitly, arguing that he knows how to deal with the problem of bought-and-paid-for politicians, since he has personally bought and paid for them himself. I strongly suspect that Trump will soon begin saying something like this about his taxes: Since I fight so hard to pay as little as possible, I get how the whole con works; I will fix things so people like me can’t get away with it anymore.
That, too, will be a scam, since his tax plan would actually deliver a huge windfall to the rich that is pure fantasy, fiscally speaking. But no matter. Scam can be layered on top of scam, and Trump is certain he will get away with all of it.
The crux of the matter here is that Trump is betting he’ll be perceived very differently from Mitt Romney. The latter was a venture capitalist with an aloof, patrician, plutocratic manner, while Trump brashly flaunts his wealth and invites all of us losers to have a cut of it.
So that leaves the Democrats this option:
While Romney was depicted as a heartless outsourcer and symbol of the cruelties of global capitalism, thus revealing his true governing priorities, Trump will be depicted as a sleazy fraud who is selling voters an economic bill of goods.
Trump hopes to elude that attack by wearing his ability to milk the system as a chintzy badge of honor. But at a certain point, general election voters will begin to decide how credible he is, and they may not be as easily fooled as GOP primary voters were – particularly since Democrats are likely to prosecute him far more mercilessly than his GOP rivals did.
That’s a plan, but Trump is good at suddenly changing the topic:
Donald Trump on Thursday night lashed out at Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, arguing that Bezos bought the Washington Post to gain political power and keep Trump from cracking down on Amazon as president.
“Every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from The Washington Post asking ridiculous questions and I will tell you, this is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed,” Trump said when Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked about a comment from Bob Woodward that the Post had assigned 20 reporters to cover Trump.
“He’s worried about me,” Trump added. “He thinks I would go after him for antitrust because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much.”
So all those items in the Post that question Trump’s judgment and temperament aren’t really about Trump’s judgment and temperament at all – something else is going on. The new owner is worried about a President Trump making him pay more in taxes, and everyone should pay their fair share, and this man must be stopped:
Trump said that Bezos bought the Washington Post “for practically nothing and he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people and I’ll tell you what, we can’t let him get away with it.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee said that Bezos wants to make sure that Trump doesn’t win office.
“The whole system is rigged,” Trump told Hannity. “He’s using The Washington Post, which is peanuts; he’s using that for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust.”
Otherwise, the Post would say nothing about Trump’s judgment and temperament, right? But Matthew Yglesias looks at the facts here:
Trump’s talking point that Amazon is seeking political influence in order to avoid paying taxes is badly outdated. For years, Amazon really did gain an edge over brick-and-mortar retailers by not collecting or paying sales tax. But state governments began to change their laws, and now 25 states covering 77 percent of the American population (and probably a higher share of e-commerce sales) make Amazon collect taxes, while three other states have no sales tax.
The biggest problem with Trump’s theory, however, is that Amazon is actually lobbying on the other side of the issue. It wants Congress to change the law to make it easier to force internet retailers to pay taxes, not harder. The reason is that Amazon is so big that most big states are already making it pay taxes, while smaller companies are still able to get away with nonpayment.
Yes, Trump got the facts backward, but few follow such things, and Yglesias points of that, in March, libertarian economist Tyler Cowen wrote about The Regulatory State and the Importance of a Non-Vindictive President:
I hope we always will have non-vindictive Presidents in this country. One reason is because the regulatory branch reports to the Executive. And if you own a large company, it is virtually impossible to be in accordance with all of the regulations all of the time. If there were a President who wished to pursue vendettas, the regulatory state would be the most direct and simplest way for him or her to do so. The usual presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” does not hold in many regulatory matters, nor are there always the usual protections of due process.
The Post writes articles about Trump that Trump doesn’t like. They should worry about him. One more unflattering picture of Trump’s hair and he could bring the whole weight of the government down on them, fair or not. There’d be no more Post and no more Amazon – so they’d better watch what they write now. Nixon had his Enemies List and the IRS in his back pocket, but he was an amateur at this stuff. The Post has been warned, and Yglesias adds this:
In conventional times we count not just on laws but on norms to protect the country from this kind of misconduct. But back in mid-March we had a few incidents where Trump supporters violently attacked anti-Trump demonstrators, seemingly with Trump’s encouragement and accompanied by Trump suggestions that he would pay the legal fees of the attackers.
That kind of norm-defying behavior didn’t stop Trump from winning the nomination (indeed, it may have helped), and so far he shows no inclination to stop.
The Post has been warned, but of course they didn’t get the memo:
Donald Trump abruptly hung up on Washington Post reporters when they asked him Friday afternoon about reports that he used to masquerade as his own publicist in interviews.
The Post’s Marc Fisher and Will Hobson reported that they were 44 minutes into a call with Trump about his finances when they asked if he ever employed a man named John Miller as his publicist. Trump immediately went silent, and then the line went dead, they wrote.
Fisher and Hobson wrote that when they called back, Trump’s secretary told them, “I heard you got disconnected. He can’t take the call now. I don’t know what happened.”
The cause of this was the Post doing some embarrassing actual reporting:
The inquiry came the same day the Post published audio of a 1991 interview in which a man by the name of John Miller, who sounded like Trump, recounting details of the real estate mogul’s love life to a reporter for People magazine.
Trump adamantly denied Friday that he was the person speaking with the People magazine reporter, saying “it doesn’t sound like me on the phone.”
“I have many, many people that are trying to imitate my voice,” he said in an interview on NBC’s “Today.” “And you can imagine that. And this sounds like one of these scams, one of the many scams, doesn’t sound like me.”
Yet, as the Post reported, Trump had admitted back in the ’90s that he made the call and said it was “a joke gone awry.”
It was him, pretending the he was someone else amazed at all the big Hollywood stars Donald Trump had slept with and how rich Donald Trump was and how intelligent he was, and handsome and sexy and whatnot, and amazed at what a nice guy he was too. Donald Trump is on record saying it was a joke that kind of got out of hand, if anyone believes that – but it must have been fun – and there was this:
Trump also testified in a 1990 court case that he occasionally used the names John Miller and John Baron in interviews with the media, according to the Associated Press.
Oops. But this may not matter much. In 1991 he had been a goofball and an egotistical jerk. So what? He doesn’t do that anymore, does he? Reporters are now checking all their recent sources. Was that guy on the phone last week lauding Trump actually The Donald himself?
The absurdities do pile up, along with this one:
All eyes have turned to Donald Trump’s former butler Anthony Senecal, the 74-year-old ex-employee of Trump’s Florida resort Mar-a-Lago who authored multiple private Facebook posts calling for President Barack Obama to be killed.
On Wednesday, Senecal, who worked for Trump for 17 years, called for Obama to be “taken out by our military and shot as an enemy agent in his first term,” Mother Jones first reported.
On Thursday, Senecal confirmed he wrote the post in an interview with CNN, but with one correction: “I think I said hung.”
“Either way, I don’t care. Hanging, shooting – I’d prefer he’d be hung from the portico of the White House, or as I call it, the white mosque,” Senecal told CNN. “Does it sound like I’m nuts? Because I’m not. I’ve just gotten fed up with him.”
Trump’s campaign disavowed Senecal’s “horrible” comments about the president in a statement Thursday… “Tony Senecal has not worked at Mar-a-Lago for years, but nevertheless we totally and completely disavow the horrible statements made by him regarding the President,” Hope Hicks, the Trump campaign’s spokesperson said.
Trump tossed the guy under the bus, which may anger many of Trump’s supporters who probably wonder if Trump is getting all “politically correct” on them – because they agree with the butler – but good help is hard to find these days. Hasn’t your butler embarrassed you? What, you don’t have one? Well, losers don’t have butlers, but Trump really does have a problem with the hired help:
First his campaign accidentally picked a white nationalist delegate in California, a decision that might be too late to take back; Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, whom Trump was previously pressured to disavow for his endorsement, offered to be his vice president this week, and now his former butler, a man who served him for 17 years, has repeatedly said he wants to see Obama dead.
Trump, however, has said his qualification for the presidency is mainly based on his ability to surround himself with “great” people and the “best” advisers, but then there’s the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin:
Trump selects the same sort of right-hand man over and over again – obnoxious, aggressive, tight with shady figures, and loyal. These are not “great” people; they are people who think Trump is great and who mimic Trump’s bully-boy style. The problem with being a narcissist is that you do not hire people smarter and more capable than yourself. That ultimately may be Trump’s undoing.
That ultimately may NOT be Trump’s undoing. He’s doing just fine. He’s just wearing America down with cascading absurdities that come so fast and furious that it’s hard to think each through before the next comes along – and then you completely forget the one before. He’s beating us into submission, unless, as Jonathan Chait maintains, it’s that certain people are really stupid:
Here’s the factor I think everybody missed: The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots – far more of them than anybody expected.
We should have seen this coming:
The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts a future in which Americans have grown progressively dumber, and eventually elect as president of the United States a professional wrestler, who caters demagogically to their nationalistic impulses and ignorance of science. Only because the film took place in an imaginary world was it possible to straightforwardly equate a political choice with a lack of intelligence. In the actual world, the bounds of taste and deference to (small-d) democratic outcomes make it gauche to do so. But the dynamic imagined in Idiocracy has obviously transpired, down to the election of a figure from pro wrestling.
Yes, Trump had been a wrestling promoter too, bur Chait is serious here:
I never believed party insiders could fully dictate the outcome of the nomination, but I did expect them to be able to block a wildly unacceptable candidate, and they proved surprisingly inept even in the face of extreme peril to their collective self-interest.
Then there are the voters, whose behavior provided the largest surprise. It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon. Everything about Trump is a joke. His orange makeup and ridiculous hair, his reality-television persona, his insult comedy and overt bragging – they are neon-bright signs that he is not (to use a widely employed term) “presidential.” Trump did not even seem to be an especially effective demagogue. He is not eloquent, not even in a homespun way. He stumbles on his phrases, repeats himself over and over, and his speeches consist of bragging and recitation of polling results so dull and digressive his audience often heads for the exits well before the conclusion. …
Most voters don’t follow politics and policy for a living, and it’s understandable that they would often fall for arguments based on faulty numbers or a misreading of history. But a figure like Trump is of a completely different cast than the usual political slickster. He is several orders of magnitude more clownish and uninformed than the dumbest major-party nominee I’ve ever seen before. (That would be George W. Bush.) As low as my estimation of the intelligence of the Republican electorate may be, I did not think enough of them would be dumb enough to buy his act. And, yes, I do believe that to watch Donald Trump and see a qualified and plausible president, you probably have some kind of mental shortcoming. As many fellow Republicans have pointed out, Donald Trump is a con man. What I failed to realize – and, I believe, what so many others failed to realize, though they have reasons not to say so – is just how easily so many Republicans are duped.
Perhaps so, but Salon’s Amanda Marcotte said Chait has is all wrong, as she makes this distinction:
The problem with calling people stupid is that it’s satisfying, but ultimately meaningless. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to measure it. It’s easy to dismiss Trump as a buffoon, but his likely retort to that is hard to argue: He did manage to score the nomination of a major political party and rally millions to his side, which is more than Chait has done with himself.
The problem is “intelligence” is hard to define, and therefore hard to measure. I, for instance, am good at a lot of things that require intelligence: Pithy jokes, analyzing politics, explicating movies and TV shows, Mario Kart, bar trivia. But put me in front of a computer and ask me to program in Python, and I would seem like a screaming moron.
This isn’t because I lack in native intelligence, but simply is a measure of where I chose to put my energies. That, in turn, is a measure of things that are far more meaningful than this abstract notion of intelligence: My priorities, beliefs, and desires.
All of which is to say that the reason Chait misread Trump voters is not that he overestimated their intelligence, but that he simply didn’t understand what their beliefs and desires are.
In fact, they are working in their self-interest, such as it is:
None of which is to defend people who voted for Trump. I have little doubt that most of them are small-minded, petty people who take special delight in his racism and misogyny. In fact, if you follow the online communities of Trump supporters, it’s impossible to conclude anything else. … But once you understand their values system, then voting for Trump makes perfect sense and isn’t really stupid at all.
The main clutch of Trump supporters are white men who openly enjoy the sense of superiority and various social privileges they get from being white men. (Surely Chait can understand that desire to feel superior to huge groups of people.) They like racist jokes and want to believe women were put here as a servant class just for them. They believe in “English only” and oppose immigration because it’s pleasing to be automatically privileged by something as arbitrary as where you were born.
(Female Trump supporters are fewer in number, but those that exist are not stupid, either. They just like Trump’s racism so much that they put up with his misogyny.)
It’s ugly, but it’s not particularly opaque. These folks wanted to stick it to the Republican establishment they believe isn’t doing enough to stand up for white and male dominance. Say what you will, but in nominating Trump, they successfully achieved what they set out to do.
Okay, they got what they wanted, but what about the rest of us? The plan seems to be to wear us down with one absurdity after another that come along so fast you forget the one before, as you’re stunned by the one at hand, but you also know that there will be another along in a minute or two – and then you just give up – and Trump wins the presidency because most of it was forgotten the next day. And damn, that may be working.