Trump Time Capsule #119: 'That Makes Me Smart' vs. 'They Don't Pay'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous dissent. Donald Trump begs to differ. (Wikimedia Commons)

After Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, he was asked on Fox News about his views on NATO and other American alliances. He gave his familiar “they’re freeloaders” answer:

The fact is we are protecting so many countries that are not paying for the protection. When a country isn’t paying us and these are countries in some cases in most cases that have the ability to pay, and they are not paying because nobody is asking….

We’re protecting all of these countries. They have an agreement to reimburse us and pay us and they are not doing it and if they are not going to do that. We have to seriously rethink at least those countries. It’s very unfair.

This has of course been a repeated theme in his speeches and interviews. Another example: after the Democratic convention, Trump told John Dickerson on Face the Nation, “I want these countries to pay for protection”—“these countries” being the usual range of U.S. allies.

On Monday night, in his debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump essentially acknowledged that he might not be paying any federal tax himself. Here was the remarkable passage:

CLINTON: Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

That makes me smart. Among the several hundred people watching the debate at the site where I saw it, there was an audible gasp at this line.

Everyone tries to minimize taxes. But not many “normal” people manage to avoid them altogether, or even contemplate doing so. Most Americans, regardless of politics, resent the rigged nature of our public systems and look for ways to corner-cut annoying obligations (“Yeah, yeah, juries are really important, but I’d just as soon not get picked”). But most still recognize some basic obligations we all bear—school taxes even if we don’t have children, paying for highways or emergency relief even in places where we don’t live—to keep the system going as a whole.

You might call this mutual burden-sharing part of Making America Great Again. You could call it “the price we pay for civilization,” if you were Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or “paying for protection,” if you were Donald Trump.

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I’m not sure Trump would recognize any tension between his own outraged demand that allies start paying their way, and his reflexive response that “it makes me smart” for him to avoid paying his own way. And I realize that his committed supporters might embrace both sentiments at the same time: Those foreigners are screwing us! And, at least one shrewd guy figured out how to keep the IRS from screwing him!

But I can imagine this staying on as a reminder of the gap between Donald Trump’s economic/civic role in society, and that of most of his supporters. It was one of several related moments in the debate—significantly, all of them coming in unprompted responses rather than the usual lines from his speeches:

  • After Clinton pointed out Trump’s long record of lawsuits from contractors he had not paid, or had underpaid, he said: “Maybe he didn’t do a good job and I was unsatisfied with his work.” That is, he viewed these transactions from the vantage point of the hard-to-please employer rather than the perhaps living paycheck-to-paycheck employee.
                                                                                                       
  • When asked by Clinton about his own start in life, he said, “My father gave me a very small loan in 1975.” No one can feel sorry for Hillary Clinton in her current economic circumstances. But she did put this “small” loan in perspective: “He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there.”
                                                                                                       
  • When asked about his pre-financial crash comment that he “sort of hoped” for a collapse of housing values, so he could buy up distressed properties, he said “That’s called business, by the way.” That’s a kind of business, but not necessarily the way we like to think of businesses.  It’s the business ethic of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life or Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. It’s not the way any of the country’s really richest people, from Warren Buffett to Bill and Melinda Gates to Michael Bloomberg, would talk—or, significantly, would want to be remembered.
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Will any of this matter? Of course I don’t know. Objectively, any one of these comments seems as potentially powerful as Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.” (As Thomas Friedman put it today in the NYT, “How do we put in the Oval Office a man who boasts that he tries to pay zero federal taxes but then complains that our airports and roads are falling apart and there is not enough money for our veterans?”) This year, all bets are off.

But think of this political calculation: the people who like Trump’s style and approach are already with him. But so far there don’t seem to be enough of them to produce 270 electoral votes. To win the election, Trump needs to attract new support from groups where he currently trails—notably women, Latinos, African Americans, young voters, and highly educated voters. Will these comments and this tone broaden Trump’s appeal among these groups? That’s the question for Trump and the country, with 40 days and a few hours to go.

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Related bonus reading:

Michael Gerson, former GW Bush speechwriter, in the WaPo:

Trump’s defenders will charge his critics with elitism. The great public, it is argued, gets Trump in a way that the commenting class does not. But this claim is now fully exposed. The expectation of rationality is not elitism. Coherence is not elitism. Knowledge is not elitism. Honoring character is not elitism. And those who claim this are debasing themselves, their party and their country.

Michiko Kakutani, in a remarkable and pointed NYT review of a new Hitler biography by Volker Ullrich. Illustrative sample:

Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”