Trump’s rise to the presidency — based, in part, on the vividness of this illusion — ended up complicating his scheme. Since Trump’s losses have routinely outweighed his profits, he apparently paid no federal income taxes in most of the 15 years prior to his election. Disclosing this would undermine his business reputation and political standing. Because it is a norm, rather than a law, that presidents reveal their tax returns, Trump found the solution to be simple: Hide the returns and shred the norm.
Much of his tax information has now been obtained by the New York Times (from people, presumably, defending the norm). It reveals massive losses, crippling debt (more than $400 million, much of it due in the next few years) and many foreign sources of revenue. And it leaves the con at the heart of Trump’s political appeal fully exposed.
As a practical matter, Trump’s interests are constantly and dramatically conflicted. No wonder his presidential travel schedule is a running advertisement — and source of revenue — for his golf courses and other properties. No wonder foreign governments and domestic supplicants (including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) drop money at Trump properties. A president who never forgets a slight is unlikely to ever forget a gratuity.
Trump’s deception and corruption may not matter much at the hot center of his support. Those in rural communities flying a Trump campaign flag along with a Confederate flag (I have seen this repeatedly) are certain to dismiss the revelation of Trump’s fake reputation as fake news, and would discount the news even if they thought it true. If you regard American politics as an apocalyptical battle between cultural tribes for the future of the country, you aren’t likely to rank corruption as a top issue.
This points to one of Trump’s underestimated political achievements. In 2016, Americans chose a shady, debt-ridden businessman to lead a populist revolt against corrupt elites. The swamp creature was selected as swamp clearer. There is art in a swindle so bold. One of the dark political arts, of course. But extraordinary nonetheless.
There are, however, other Trump voters who were initially drawn to his business experience and pose as a reformer rather than his message of unrestricted cultural warfare. At the margins of Trump’s coalition — say, in a suburban home where the president is the subject of dinner-table controversy — the corruption issue may have more salience. The president, after all, does not merely stand accused of this or that act of financial deception. His entire persona — his face to the world — is a deception. He not only tells lies; he inhabits a lie. As a successful business leader and anti-corruption outsider, Trump is a complete fraud.
The president possesses none of the values and talents we normally associate with business success: good management, sound planning, visionary leadership. As president, Trump has cultivated chaos and mutual suspicion around him. He spurns deliberation and regularly makes impulsive decisions. He incites anger and resentment as a cruel and lazy substitute for setting unifying goals. For all of this — not to mention his increasingly unvarnished racism and the repeated, serious accusations of sexual assault against him — Trump would be fired as CEO by any responsible corporate board in America.
When a leader has poor character, the effects are not easily compartmentalized. Someone willing to use the American presidency to secure his financial interests would not balk at asking a foreign leader to secure his political interests (as we’ve seen). Both involve contempt for U.S. institutions and a bottomless selfishness. Which is the real Trump brand.
Many Americans feel helpless about our viciously polarized politics and may be discontented with their presidential options. But this much is clear: Reelecting Trump would further normalize corruption and deception at the highest levels of our government. It would reward the breaking of norms and the trashing of institutions.
A vote for Joe Biden would not.