I’ve finally figured out why Donald Trump posed as his own spokesman, “John Miller.”
It’s because he says he gets only the best people, and Trump happens to be the best, most talented flack there is. No one approaches The Donald’s vertiginous spin-room virtuosity. He’s such a naturally gifted spin doctor that he could probably start his own medical school.
Throughout this campaign, Trump has managed to recast matters that would be considered liabilities in any other politician — any other human being, really — into enviable assets. Every vice is a virtue, every weakness a strength, every embarrassment a Trumpian triumph.
Take, for example, his tax returns. Or lack thereof.
Trump has offered many excuses for not releasing his returns, contra 40 years of norms for major-party presidential candidates. The rationale that he has returned to lately, however, is his supposed “continuous” audit.
With any other political candidate, being under “continuous” audit would arouse suspicion. It might raise questions about whether the taxpayer had done something wrong, or at least something aggressive enough to justify expending precious IRS resources on perpetually double-checking his tax-preparers’ work. (Just imagine, if you will, how the public might react to allegations that Hillary Clinton had been under “continuous” audit for 12 years.) And yet somehow Trump has fermented the usual sour grapes of an audit into a fine whine.
He alleges he’s being harassed by the IRS — maybe because he’s a “strong Christian,” he says. Both current and former IRS commissioners as well as countless tax experts have explained that this is not how audits work, that the IRS cannot target someone based on faith, and that even if he is under audit, such an action would not prevent him from releasing his tax returns. It would be especially irrelevant to older years of tax returns, for which the IRS’s statute of limitations has lapsed.
But no matter. Not only does Trump’s base give him a pass on his opacity, but he actually gets bonus points for being a beleaguered victim of the big bully IRS. He’s not a shady politician with a bombshell to hide; he’s an underdog fighting the system.
What might those tax returns show? Lots of potentially damaging details, including his tax rate (which some have surmised could be as low as zero percent, given how the tax code treats real estate depreciation).
Traditionally, a low tax rate paid by a very rich candidate is, again, a political liability.
You may recall that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney took a lot of heat for paying just 14 percent on his $22 million in earnings in 2010. No one alleged he was cheating on his taxes, and, per judge Learned Hand, there’s no patriotic duty to pay more than what one legally owes. But still, the optics were bad: Romney looked like just another plutocrat not paying his fair share.
Today Trump has turned that frown upside-down and put on a happy spin. Whatever his tax rate, he has been prepping the voting public to view shortchanging the taxman as an achievement.
“I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible,” Trump said recently on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” echoing previous comments that he has employed “every single thing in the book” to grind down his IRS bill.
To Trump and his many supporters, paying little in taxes is not an effort to shunt more of the federal tax burden onto less wealthy Americans, as was the perception for Romney. For Trump, and perhaps only Trump, this is instead a sign of business smarts, the same kind of smarts Trump would bring to the White House.
He has similarly transformed potentially stigmatizing experiences with the bankruptcy courts into evidence of his legal and fiscal acumen. He has “taken advantage of the laws of this country,” he says, a talent he promises to soon put to work for down-and-out Americans. And more broadly, he portrays his outsize greed — one of the seven deadly sins, mind you — as one of his greatest virtues, which he plans to channel in service of the American public.
Likewise, inconstancy and willingness to cede ground on supposedly core policy positions would be, in any other candidate, huge flaws. But Trump flaunts his flip-flops with style. With Trump, and in basically no other political context, unpredictability is considered desirable, by his own designation.
Even his incivility and insults are not somehow liabilities, but rather proof that he “tells it like it is” (despite all countervailing evidence from his pandering, overpromises and policy reversals).
Maybe Trump is right: He’s not a politician. He’s an alchemist.