The 1 percent, whom Bernie Sanders has spent so much of his career railing against, have a message for the senator from Vermont: Welcome to the club.
Sanders, currently the front-runner among declared Democratic presidential candidates, has lately been bristling about the notice that is being given to the $1.7 million he has made since his first run for president in 2016.
According to 10 years of tax returns that Sanders finally released on Monday, he earned $566,000 last year and $1.15 million in 2017. Most of it — ironically enough — comes from the books he has written arguing for the merits of democratic socialism.
By comparison, in 2014, before his first presidential run, he and his wife, Jane, reported an income of about $206,000, the bulk of it from his Senate salary.
There’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money, though you might not know that from listening to Sanders’s many declarations that a proliferation of “millionaires and billionaires” is the scourge of working-class America.
Now, he says: “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
No one should be assigned a moral value based on where they happen to land on the income scale. Great riches do not necessarily prevent individuals from identifying with the downtrodden or from devoting their lives to bettering the circumstances of others. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it, though he was called a traitor to his class. Bill and Melinda Gates are turning out to be two of the greatest philanthropists the world has ever seen.
Still, the topic of his personal wealth is one on which Sanders seems uncharacteristically defensive.
He erupted when the website ThinkProgress posted a video noting how his rhetoric has shifted with his growing wealth — pointing out that he no longer trains his fire on millionaires, though he is still vilifying billionaires. In a letter, Sanders accused the website’s affiliated think tank, the Center for American Progress, and CAP President Neera Tanden of “simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.”
On Monday night, during a town hall on Fox News, Sanders dodged a bit when co-host Bret Baier asked whether the kind of financial success he has enjoyed is “the definition of capitalism, the American Dream?”
“What we want is a country where everybody has opportunity,” Sanders said. “You know, I have a college degree.”
Sanders is right that not everyone has the same advantages. But success is a finish line, not a starting gate. And if Sanders’s fortune, in part, reflects the kind of leg up afforded to some by this nation and not to others, so does his discomfort in discussing it.
As far back as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the love of wealth is “at the bottom of all that the Americans do.” Since then, our feelings have grown more complicated. Where we might revere people who earn great riches through skill and ingenuity, we are often suspicious — along with envious — of those who have their fortunes handed to them. Or those who, as Sanders did, cash in on sudden celebrity.
This ambivalence about inherited wealth is one reason President Trump has perpetuated the myth that he became a billionaire on his own, rather than through at least $413 million in gifts from his father and dubious tax schemes. On Monday, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in recognition of the mineshaft it sunk last year into the muddy foundations of Trump’s wealth.
People who seek office assume an additional responsibility where their finances are concerned: transparency.
We live in an era of oversharing on social media. We assume that technology has swept up every bit of data about us. Still, most people remain reluctant to tell even their closest friends how much money they make or where it comes from.
That, however, is not a privilege that should be extended to those who hold the public trust. The potential for corruption and hidden conflicts is simply too great.
So Sanders — who did not make multiple years of his tax returns public when he ran for president in 2016 — deserves credit for doing it now, however awkward it has proved to be. A half-dozen other Democratic contenders have, as well.
All of which makes one man more conspicuous in his refusal to do so. It leaves the American people wondering: What is Trump trying to hide?