'Only the Little People Pay Taxes'

The late New York real estate heiress and hotelier Leona Helmsley in 2003. She was famous for saying, before she went to prison, "only the little people pay taxes."  (Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Following installment #119 in the Trump Time Capsule series, which contrasted Donald Trump’s “they’re freeloaders!” complaint about NATO allies with his own “that makes me smart!” comment about not paying taxes himself, readers weigh in.

1) If this makes Trump “smart,” most people are forced to be dumb. Friend-of-the-site and Congressional veteran Mike Lofgren highlights an aspect I neglected to mention:

An important point that wasn’t emphasized is that among the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, not paying taxes isn’t even an option, regardless of how much they might want to chisel the IRS.

FICA taxes are automatically deducted, and the employer automatically files a W2. The option of setting up tax-exempt foundations, shell companies, and engaging in transfer pricing simply does not exist for these folks.

An ordinary person would resent someone who can get away with various tax dodges; maybe Trump’s supporters have such a masochistic identification with him that it doesn’t matter.  

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2. Only the little people pay. From a reader in California:

With his recent “That Makes Me Smart” comment at the debate, I am reminded of Leona Helmsley, famous for saying, as I’m sure you remember, “Only the little people pay taxes.” I haven’t seen anyone make the connection recently, perhaps I have missed it, but they have much in common.

I know she went to jail for a while and while refreshing my memory with Wikipedia and Google, I see that she had the same attitude towards not paying contractors and taxes as Trump does. Seems they were both friends and rivals as well. Billionaires with no empathy for the “little people” they mock and ruin. Too bad Trump is unlikely to meet the same fate Helmsley did, but it certainly would be fitting.

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3. Come back, Mitt; all is forgiven. A reader points out differences between the two most recent GOP nominees:

People have pointed out similarities between how Romney explained his low tax rate at his debate (“I pay all the taxes owed. And not a penny more. I don’t think we want someone running for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”) and Trump (“That [paying zero tax] makes me smart!”).

But there’s a difference: A possible explanation for Trump's refusal to release his returns is that Trump annually cheats on his taxes and puts the burden on the IRS to investigate and sue him to get paid. It’s just one facet of his selfish personality where he derives a minor benefit from majorly inconveniencing others. Romney revealed he’d been audited at least once and was found to be in compliance... has anyone asked Trump what the results were from his past audits?

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4. If he’s not paying taxes, why does he care about “takers”? A reader in Florida examines another logical paradox:

In context of the last 8 years (at least) of Republican claims about “makers and takers” and their whole Ayn Rand sensibility, doesn’t the expressed sentiment by their party leader—“I’m smart not to pay taxes”—reveal the glaring inconsistency—fraud, even—at the heart of the Republican ethos? If he’s already not paying taxes in this country—something that was also suspected of Mitt Romney (Mr. 47%)—how exactly are the so-called “takers” holding him back?

Does Trump’s statement not conflict with Trump’s tax plan, which would aim tax breaks toward the wealthy, but not so much for the “left behind middle class” he purports to represent?  Isn’t he exactly like Leona Helmsley (“taxes are for the little people”)?

And yet he’s not perceived as a completely selfish elitist.

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5) And while we’re talking about taxes. A reader suggests another angle:

After the debate Monday, I was thinking about Trump’s comments about forcing companies to pay a huge tax when importing from their international factories. Forget how he can actually implement that as president.

Would it apply to his own foreign investments? How is a Trump hotel in Rio or golf course in Scotland different from a Ford plant in Mexico or a TI plant in the Philippines?

I don't recall seeing this idea being explored anywhere, but after googling today, I did found this article that covers my thoughts pretty well. It’s over a year old ...

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39 days and a few hours until the election; early voting starting in some places now; tax returns (of course!) not forthcoming; GOP “leadership” still standing firm behind their guy.