President Donald Trump is supposedly a billionaire, but the $750 that he paid in income taxes in the first year of his term doesn’t begin to cover his fair share of society’s expenses—much less the cost of government lawyers defending his personal and political interests or the health-care bills from the coronavirus outbreak within his own White House. But what The New York Times revealed in its recent reporting on Trump’s tax returns was not just one man’s refusal of his fiscal obligations. Those returns, along with Trump’s whole approach to governing, are a concrete manifestation of a broader and more troubling phenomenon: an elite insurgency in which wealthy, well-connected people around the world stiff the societies that gave them success. Observing Trump’s open defiance of the law and rejection of accountability, many critics have attributed the pattern to the quirks of Trump’s individual psychology. But they have missed the larger picture: This president is an entirely ordinary member of a global elite whose members believe that rules are for chumps.
I have spent more than a dozen years studying the planet’s wealthiest people and the experts who create offshore trusts, foundations, and other entities on their behalf. The clearest window into this world remains the 2016 disclosure of more than 40 years’ worth of data from a law firm, based in Panama City, that helped clients stash wealth outside their home country. That story, known as the Panama Papers, exposed a sprawling web of tax evasion, money laundering, and other financial misdeeds by the global elite. Also exposed was a brazen contempt for the law by many officials—including heads of state and ministers of justice and finance—who were empowered to uphold it.